Obituary: Canon Maurice Samuel Simmons

by
05 January 2018

A “Pioneer Minister” of his day: Canon Maurice Simmons

A “Pioneer Minister” of his day: Canon Maurice Simmons

Canon Rosalind Brown writes:

CANON Maurice Simmons, who died on 27 November, aged 90, offered all 65 years of his ordained ministry to the diocese of Durham. He was at heart an utterly faithful parish priest in St Hilda’s, South Shields (1952-58), St Bartholomew’s, Croxdale (1958-81), and St Mary the Virgin, Norton (1981-92), where he also served as Rural Dean of Stockton (1985-92). He always combined parish ministry with wider service in the diocese, being, in his own day, every inch today’s Pioneer Minister.

Born in West Sussex, his family moved frequently, and he vowed his own children would experience the rootedness that he never had. After completing National Service in the RAF as a radar technician — he served in the 1948 Berlin airlift, and became a qualified glider pilot and an avid plane-spotter — his plans to be an industrial chemist changed, and, in 1948, he came to St Chad’s College, Durham, to train for ordination.

He married Sheila, a doctor, just before his ordination in 1952. They had three children, Kate, Hilary, and John; John’s death in a freak accident in 1979 was a cause of deep sorrow, described by Maurice as the “for worse” part of marriage.

As Diocesan Youth Chaplain from 1956 to 1960, Maurice organised school leavers’ conferences, building careful relationships within regional industries, especially the National Coal Board. His diocesan youth pilgrimage to Holy Island is still remembered by many people as a significant moment in their own discipleship.

He then launched himself into what has been described as a trail-blazing ministry of theologically inspired engagement in training and industry in the period that spanned the de-industrialisation of the north-east. A man of vision, entrepreneurial and negotiating skills, and a wide range of contacts, he was sure-footed with senior management and unions.

He developed a programme in which 40-50 ecumenical clergy and ministers trained alongside Coal Board apprentices; offered managers and apprentices a life-skills programme in the training centres, including discussion on faith and ethics; and persuaded the NCB to sponsor trips for trainees to the Pyrenees and gliding sessions in North Yorkshire. This led to developing industrial chaplaincies, served by local clergy, in several pits, led by his own example of frequent pit visits. One person cannot forget inching behind Maurice, lying squashed to the ground, helmet scraping the rock above, along the 100-yard face of the 18-inch Victoria Seam at Bearpark near Durham. Back at home, his daughters recall the endless washing of his industrial clothing.

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Maurice also made first contacts for the Church with shipyards on the south bank of the Tyne, and established industrial chaplaincies at Consett Steel Works and the Caterpillar Tractor Company at Birtley. With his counterpart in Newcastle diocese, he helped to found the Northumbria Industrial Mission, which still works in the changed industrial landscape of the region. People recall that his stubborn determination made him a not always easy colleague, but his contribution to the industrial mission of this era has been described as incalculable.

Maurice’s diocesan work included seven years as secretary of the Board for Mission and Unity, following five years as secretary of the Social Responsibility Group, when he famously told his parishioners at Croxdale that he was responsible for all the unmarried mothers in the area. For many years, he had the God-slot on Radio Durham, assisted by Kathryn Adie, now better known as Kate.

Maurice always had a twinkle in his eye, and a good, even wicked, sense of humour. He had a great sense of rhythm: he once played drums in a swing band. With Sheila, he scared parishioners at Croxdale off the dance floor when they started to foxtrot.

Maurice was appointed an Hon. Canon of Durham Cathedral in 1971, and, being grandfathered out of retirement, never stepped down, retaining an exemplary record of attendance at College of Canons meetings. He served until quite recently as a voluntary cathedral chaplain, developing a pastoral ministry among the Wednesday volunteers, as well as visitors. His love of all things French, including wine and caravan holidays, equipped him to greet French visitors in their own language.

One person he helped described him as a very special person, quiet, gentle, of great kindness, warmth, and of compassion and humility. He remained in e-mail contact with two students now back in China, whom he introduced to the Christian faith when they came to see him, Wednesday by Wednesday, resulting in their baptism.

Maurice and Sheila, whose death in 2016 was a source of deep grief, enjoyed 64 years of marriage. Maurice attended evensong daily, until a week or so before he died. He told his daughter that Durham Cathedral was where he felt at home.

In his last months, he spoke of being ready to die. We miss seeing him sitting in familiar places in church, as well as his occasionally jaunty parking, which was legendary among cathedral staff who came to the rescue. He was a faithful servant of God and the diocese of Durham.

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