A correspondent writes:
THE Revd Iris Thomas, who died on 24 June, aged 94, was the first
woman to be made a deacon in any of the cathedrals in Wales. In
1997, she became a priest.
She spent almost all her life in the Rhondda Valley, devoting
herself to the Church and the community there, and particularly to
Maerdy, where she was born; it lies at the northernmost tip of the
Her family for many years had few advantages. They lived in one
of the hundreds of small terraced houses of which the village is
almost entirely composed. Her father died when she was six. Maerdy
endured not one but two periods of depression in mining in the
years between the wars. As a result, there was great industrial
militancy (Iris spent her last decade within yards of houses called
Horner Row after the famous communist).
Nevertheless, it is not generally known that, by way of
opposition, church life, allowing for the poverty suffered by most
church families, was vigorous and imaginative.
Never physically strong, Iris was in weak health during early
childhood, but excelled in school. In the equivalent to the
11-plus, she was first in the Rhondda, and so was able to attend
Porth County School. It was not easy for her or her mother
financially, but she continued to progress, and gained a place at
the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, to read French.
There she needed to arrange a period of residence in France to
make the most of her studies, but this was out of the question
until an event that she remembered with gratitude all her life. She
was awarded a scholarship by the mining industry, and lived with
the family of an academic at La Baule in Brittany.
Back in Britain, she became a teacher at Ely in East Anglia, but
was soon able to move back to Wales to a post in the western
valleys. She then taught French for many years in Porth, in the
County School and the Grammar School, and eventually, at the time
of educational reorganisation, in Ferndale Comprehensive
During these times she married, had two children, and began
correspondence courses of Christian study with the Mothers' Union
in London, working in the Mothers' Union group in Maerdy, and
forming a young wives' group.
She often said that teaching was a particularly suitable way for
a professional woman to work and see to her family, but she joined
much voluntary activity to this as well. Eventually, as obligations
in Maerdy permitted, she was able to serve as a diocesan
vice-president, and on some of the central bodies of the Mothers'
Union in London.
These formal attainments, however, give an incomplete picture of
her influence. She was a shy child, but then her personality became
decidedly extrovert and demonstrative, so that she instinctively
plunged into any issue raised by anyone in conversation.
By such interventions, and, it must be said, by some
argumentativeness on her part, people of all sorts learned much,
and got new perspectives on many questions. Her own love of travel
was not just a personal hobby. She took people with her: school
parties, relatives, colleagues, and friends.
After serving as a Reader, she was encouraged to think of
ordination, at a time when the diocese of Llandaff contained more
than the average number of opponents to the whole idea. On the day
when she was to be made a deacon, it was known that there would be
a protest in the service. Three protesters walked the length of the
nave in a dignified way and stated their objections clearly and
calmly. The Bishop's Registrar, in gown and wig, rose, and stated
that the ordination was now legal in the Church in Wales. All the
parties bowed respectfully to one another, and the protesters
walked back as they had come.
Iris worked at first in the parish of Tylorstown, mostly at the
beautiful St Mary Magdalene's, Pontygwaith, where she enabled a
church hall to be built. Later, she worked in Aberdare and Maerdy
itself, especially as there were vacancies between incumbents.
Her husband, Ieuan, also from Maerdy, died 44 years ago. They
had a daughter, Eleri, and a son, Edward.