Farewell to Tom

While we were in Ireland, we said farewell to Canon Tom McGonigle who died aged 91. Tom was a contemporary of my parents in Trinity College, Dublin. Ordained before I was born, he and Doreen came to be part of our congregation in Seagoe on his retirement in 1988 and we greatly enjoyed their friendship. Tom’s long journey in faithful ministry included two separate spells as Rector of Magherafelt and a period as Rector of the large parish of St Mark’s, Portadown.

Tom was born in Donegal. After we left Seagoe, we continued to see them in Donegal. Gradually there grew up the tradition of an annual lunch in Donegal – the menu was unvarying because it was Tom’s favourite of salmon followed by apple pie. On the day he died, it happened that we had lunch with friends who knew him well and, by coincidence, the menu was ….

Tom embodied most of what was important in the tradition of clergy pastoral ministry in the Church of Ireland. He had great wisdom wrapped up in even greater compassion. He trained curates by the dozen. I have no idea how many but I can hear him in his generosity saying that ‘there was never a bad one’. And throughout it all Doreen was faithfully and supportively by his side.

One of those curates said to me that Tom’s advice was, ‘Whatever else you do, do 30 visits a week’
That’s the tradition of ministry in which I was raised – in a large parish, it’s a hard slog because the ministry of the priest is the ministry of the parish. I don’t think I would have passed muster as one of Tom’s curates. I doubt if I ever managed more than 20.

That pattern of ministry also expressed what now seems like a far-off confidence in the solidity and durability of the church. Everybody belonged somewhere and that belonging was expressed in all sorts of ways – spiritual, cultural, social. It’s a long way from where we are now – when we expect clergy to be prayerful pastors but also missional leaders, teachers and trainers with an entrepreneurial gleam in the eye.

What I most admired in Tom was the fact that his generosity could make the stretch between his times and mine. In more fluid and difficult times, he could see that we were striving to find new patterns of ministry for new times. I was always grateful for his support and for the fact that he understood ….

On the cover of the Order of Service, below his name was the word ‘priest’ and we gave thanks together for him. As always in these moments, these words floated into my mind:

‘There stands he at no earthly altar
Clothed in white raiment on that golden floor
Where love is perfect and no foot can falter
God’s priest for evermore’


  1. 30 visits a week or even 20 would currently make a very difficult demand on a parish priest. Mine has to do 2 jobs – 50% parish (14000 or so in middle class urban area)
    and DDO 50%. I pray he doesn’t read what you have written – it would make him even more stressed. (Also a new baby pending and two older children in situ!!)

    1. I never managed it or anything like it. Tho’ I do remember being in Bangor, Co Down, in a community of countless lonely elderly people. I used to try and visit three an hour.

      But the reality is that I only ever did parish life – which I really loved – by doing lots of other things outside the parish!

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