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The Revd Iris Thomas

17 August 2012

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 valley.

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 School.

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.

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