No Ordinary Man

Father Hugh Purcell, who has died, started his working career as a technician in the Edinburgh Blood Transfusion Centre. It was an apposite position, because, when he later  became a priest, he would provide life saving transfusions of Faith for many who were in danger of losing their beliefs.

I first became aware of Hugh when he formed part of the  parish team at St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh alongside his best pal, Fr Davie Gemmell.

Anyone who came across this pair, whether Catholic or atheist, would attest to their dynamism and love for their fellow men. Each was also an excellent foil for the other, though both came from strong mining communities.

Davie was impassioned and inclined to be idealistic about the human condition, Hugh, who had come through some rough periods in his own life, was perhaps more realistic about people and their frailties.

Either way, they personified the open and welcoming nature of true Christianity – and I always thought that Hugh was in his element at the Christmas Midnight Mass.

He would be well aware, as were we all, that a good proportion of the congregation would not be regular church goers, some may not have had any Faith at all, and a number would have arrived well refreshed from Christmas Eve celebrations.

It was what entertainers would call a ‘difficult audience’ – but Hugh engaged with them because, to an extent, they were his people. He knew, and had lived, that sense of disengagement, not belonging, feeling outside of something. He had taken on that battle and, despite hard times, he had won it.

The microphone would be taken up and he would leave the altar and rush down the aisle through the people, wandering up and down as he spoke, a cabaret styled bringer of the Good News. A small man, Hugh gave the impression of rushing whenever he moved, a sense of urgency, even perhaps some impatience to get things done. I guess only when engaged in his beloved fly fishing, or contemplating the Scriptures, was he  ever truly still.

Behind him on the altar, the clergy would watch – the Cardinal somewhat nervously, wondering how challenging Hugh’s sermon would be, Davie Gemmell eagerly, looking forward to his pal’s words of encouragement and enlightenment.

The rest of us would settle in our seats, heads up and alert – Bisto kids anticipating a rare spiritual feast.

What would follow would be idiosyncratic, thought provoking, frequently funny, often sorrowful but always challenging. I always thought that Hugh used his  own earlier struggles with alcoholism to empathise with those who felt marginalised by the formal Church – the disaffected, the agnostic, the divorced, the gay, the poor and the confused. And he recognised utterly that Christ’s message was one of welcome not rejection. God knows, literally, how many folk on listening to Hugh, found a Faith they thought was long gone from them or barred to them.

There are those for whom Catholicism, or any form of Faith, is based on a rule book, and they see their mission in life as to call out all who they suspect are ‘breaking the rules’ – a bizarre perversion of Christ’s actual message of ‘Come to me’.

For Hugh and Davie, the role model was Christ and his treatment of Mary Magdalene, and they followed to the letter the founding precept of Christianity ‘Judge not lest ye be judged!’

But neither priest was anywhere near ‘Father Trendy’ with some kind of ‘hippy translation’ of Catholicism. Part of the strength of Hugh’s message was that he was a highly qualified Canon Lawyer, having studied in Rome, and when right wing Catholics challenged him on sermons or views he may have pronounced,  or ‘reported him to Rome’, he was more than able to prove them wrong, and like Christ with the money lenders in the Temple, often capable of showing real anger at their lack of real Christian compassion for those less fortunate than themselves.

Both priests lived the definition of the Aramaic phrase ‘Maranatha’ – “ Come, O Lord!” in that they believed that people needed to be open to Faith and that it would find them if they let it.

I read a tribute to Davie Gemmell in which the writer confessed she had once said to him that she had doubts: “Sometimes I’m not sure if God is there, Father!”  The Oakley born priest had taken her hands in his and replied: “Don’t worry, darlin’, He knows you’re there!”

And that is how Hugh Purcell made you feel, as well – a living  definition of Faith which blew away the confusion and put people, love and compassion at the centre of the message.  Having been in the pit himself, he knew well how to help other folk out of it, and he could never patronise or pull clerical rank. He never preached at you, he took you along with him, a fellow traveller on a rocky road with a certain destination.

Many years ago, when we tragically lost a member of the Senior School for whom I was responsible as Depute Head, it was Hugh I called upon to try and comfort staff and students alike. It was perhaps an unfair burden to place upon him, but I knew of nobody more able to catch the moment, the pupils’ feelings and the need for some  kind of desperate hope, after their heartbreak.

The Mass he said, the words he used, the Faith he inspired, the love and peace of which he spoke, were all invaluable in our grieving process – he just knew what was in our hearts and without  any cant or false promise, he soothed our fears and bewilderment.

He had the knack of bringing great Faith into everyday life, he bore his scholarship lightly, and was a good listener, if occasionally impatient with those he felt were missing the point. He may have misheard the injunction ‘Blessed are the meek’ for ‘Blessed are the cheeky’ for there was always a glint in his eye and a willingness to challenge authority – any authority – if he felt they were not acting in the best interests of the common man.

Faith should not be a box in which people are incarcerated and restricted, but an opportunity for them to fly and enrich their lives – and Hugh provided that opportunity – in love, compassion, laughter and devilment. If one part of a priest’s remit is to bring you closer to Christ, then he fulfilled that requirement in so many rewarding ways.

He was not in the best of health these past few years but we were pleased that his move to the Borders meant he was in excellent fishing country, and, on a visit to his church  for Easter Mass, it was heartwarming to see the love of his parishioners, and how he connected with both the local Laird and the rest of hs flock in exactly the same manner.

As well as fishing and music, his other great love was Celtic FC, but, when stationed at St Ninian’s, Restalrig, he carried out his role as ‘Parish Priest’ to Hibernian FC with great commitment and regular attendance at Easter Rd as well.

Outside the Cathedral in his time there hung the banner with the quotation from Micah: ‘

Act Justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly with your God.’ If ever a man embodied those aspirations, it was Hugh Purcell – though, I have to say, I cannot budge the vision in my head today of Hugh bustling through the Heavenly Gates, his finger wagging at some perceived injustice, while Davie Gemmell puts a restraining arm round his shoulder, muttering, “Not now, Hugh.

When thinking of Hugh, it’s tempting to  quote the Christy Moore  lyric: “Just an Ordinary Man, nothing special, nothing grand” – and that was certainly how he saw himself, but he was very special to those of us who loved him.

Thank you and go well, Hugh, and God love you, the way you loved Him.

Published by seánmcp

Former deputy headteacher; Edinburgh born Leitrim man; family man; writer, photographer and sports fan: cricket, football, GAA, athletics. Education & Welfare Officer at Hibernian FC; follow Hibs, Southport FC, Leitrim GAA, Dunedin Connollys GAA, Drumkeerin GAA, Cricket Scotland and Scottish Wildcats.

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