02 November 2006

IN THE shade of Croghan mountain in South Wicklow sits the little church of Kilpipe. Here Noel Willoughby first experienced the worship of the Church of Ireland, attending with his hard-working parents and brothers and sisters. A loving Rector, the Revd Harry Warburton, nurtured his faith.
From County Wicklow he travelled, immaculately turned out in a herringbone fine-tweed suit, to the Tate school in Wexford town. From his boarding school, he walked each Sunday to St Iberius's, where he came under the influence of Canon John Eldon Hazley, and where he was confirmed in 1941.
After a poor school report, Noel pulled his socks up, and was elected a scholar of Trinity College, Dublin. He later gained a distinguished moderatorship with a gold medal in mental and moral science. But he rarely drew attention to his academic success, and always gave the impression that he was a simple man.
Noel was the first Church of Ireland bishop to be a freeman of Wexford. When he retired in 1997, he found a lovely house in that town, where he had spent eight happy years with his beloved wife Valerie. They had first met when he was a curate in Dungannon.
Curacies in Dublin had followed. I first met him there when we were playing hockey on opposite sides in a junior interprovincial. He was captain of Leinster that day. He was an outstanding centre half.
As a divinity student, I often spent holiday times with him in Bray, where he was a colleague of Canon Ernest Campbell. Noel loved pastoral visiting, and instilled in me a sense of its importance. He was the natural choice to become Rector of nearby Delgany, and afterwards Rector of Glenageary, Canon of St Patrick's Cathedral, and Archdeacon of Dublin. His star was rising.
When names were being kicked about for the vacant bishopric of Cashel, Waterford, Lismore, Ossory, Ferns & Leighlin, I was present in a robing room when Archbishop McAdoo interjected: "Don't forget our Noel!" - prophetic words.
For the new Bishop, in 1980, it was a homecoming to his native diocese, and he exercised an outstanding pastoral ministry of 17 years.
I attended several retreats that he took, and he led us up a mountain of transfiguration. There was also time for golf on those and other occasions, often accompanied by some good Irish whiskey, which we both enjoyed. His great sense of humour would always lead to some laughter on these occasions.
Bishop Noel loved the Church of Ireland with deep devotion. He would be upset if it was harshly criticised, or when he saw its priests fall by the wayside. He continually reached out to those priests in the far country. Yet, while he appeared to be a gentle giant, he believed in discipline and order.
Every day was an ecumenical experience, and his love reached across all barriers. He was as happy at a Gaelic Athletic Association dinner as an ecclesiastical function. He was delighted to see his son-in-law Dermot play at Croke Park.
His last official engagement was to attend the golden jubilee of Bishop Forristal, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Ossory. Bishop Forristal was one of the last visitors to his bedside: a close friendship had been built. With another friend, Bishop Comiskey of Ferns, joint services of baptism and marriage for inter-Church couples were devised.
One morning, close to death, Noel told me that he felt happy, as he had seen angels. It is, I believe, the peak of religious experience to see and hear the angels singing.
He died on 6 February, aged 80 and was laid to rest near the main door of St Canice's Cathedral, Kilkenny, close to his former confidant, Henry McAdoo.
His wife Valerie and their three children, who were blessed to have such a loving father, survive him.

Job of the Week


Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read five articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)