Fr Anthony Michael Donaghue (1948-2017)

This is the text of the homily I preached at the Funeral Mass for the late Fr Anthony Donaghue at Our Lady & St Columba’s Church, Wallsend on Monday 18 September 2017 (Fr Campion):

Anthony was the first child of Bill and Winkle Donaghue. Bill was a native of Barnsley and Winkle originated from Surrey. Bill had flown Spitfires for the Royal Air Force during the Second World War and been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. After the War, he joined the National Coal Board and was stationed at Nuthall, Nottingham where Anthony was born in 1948, and where his sister, Christine, and brother, Peter, were born also. The family later moved to Peterlee after Bill was appointed Manager first of the Colliery in Shotton and, finally, the Colliery at Seaham. Anthony’s other siblings – Christopher, Judith and David – were born here before the family eventually moved to live in Easington Village.

In 1960, not quite 12 years old, Anthony left home to study for the priesthood at the Junior Seminary at Ushaw College in Durham. By all accounts, he was an energetic and willing pupil, and an enthusiastic participant in all aspects of College life, including sports and drama. He then graduated to the Senior College where he spent six years before being ordained at Peterlee in 1974.

For those of us who did not know Anthony then, it may come as a surprise to learn that this gentle, sensitive and polite man had a variety of summer jobs away from Ushaw that included working in a crisp factory, a coke works and labouring on building sites.

From ordination Anthony went on to serve the Church here in the North East for 43 years. He was a curate at St Aidan’s, Ashington, St Cuthbert’s, Hartlepool and the Cathedral in Newcastle. Then, as parish priest, he went to St Joseph’s, Gateshead and, finally, here to Our Lady and St Columba’s where he served for the past fourteen years.

Two years after his ordination and just one after my own, Anthony and I became fellow ‘curates’ in two different parishes in Hartlepool. We first met at a lunch which his parish priest at St Cuthbert’s hosted for the town’s Catholic clergy. (There were 10 priests in Hartlepool then and there are just three now). Back in those days – 40 years ago – clergy lunches usually featured foods that – shall we say? – were unhealthy by today’s standards. However, on this occasion a magnificent display of flowers decorated the otherwise dull presbytery and a variety of beautifully presented healthy foods were provided. All had been prepared and arranged by Anthony.

This was Anthony in microcosm and as he would become known to many people – colourful, flamboyant even, imaginative, creative, and a born entertainer who loved hosting lunches or dinner parties. In subsequent years no matter how obscure the saint or insignificant the occasion, Anthony would find a reason to invite people to celebrate. He loved serving people – both as a priest in public and in his social life. So he’ll long be remembered for his wonderful hospitality and the warm fellowship around his table.

Although he set high standards in everything he undertook, Anthony would never belittle the efforts of others that did not match his own. Deep down he was a humble and considerate man who appreciated what others did for him.   In all the years I knew Anthony, I never, ever, heard him speak a bad word about anyone, even about a fellow priest or a bishop. He always spoke positively of others and would not run them down. For a Christian, such behaviour is admirable; for a priest, it is well-nigh incredible.

When he left Hartlepool in 1985, Anthony went to St Mary’s Cathedral as an assistant to Canon – now Bishop – Cunningham. Here was an environment in which he could thrive as a priest and put his talents to the best possible use. As I discovered from my own time at the Cathedral, Anthony had the great skill of identifying talented people and gently persuading them to offer their gifts in the service of the Church. Some of his ‘recruits’ are still serving the Cathedral community to this very day.

Anthony became a parish priest for the first time in 1990. He served at St Joseph’s in Gateshead for 13 years before moving to Our Lady and St Columba’s in 2003. In both parishes he was blessed with appreciative and generous parishioners who understood him and responded to his gentleness and the gifts and skills he brought to parish life.

While it was not part of Anthony’s nature to be intentionally rude or hurtful, he could be difficult, as family and friends knew only too well. We all know how he struggled at times and how problems got the better of him. Fortunately, he was blessed with understanding, patient and supportive parishioners and blessed, too, with an incredibly supportive family and close friends. Anthony knows now how heroic his brothers, sisters and friends were in their efforts to help him.

Perhaps it was because of his own struggles – which were less private than our own – that Anthony was sensitive to the struggles and suffering of others, and able to reach out a helping hand when required. He was a good listener whom parishioners and friends found to be discreet and trustworthy.

Away from parish life, a major feature of Anthony’s life was his love of sport – cross country running, road jogging, tennis, swimming, golf and skiing.  In recent years, meeting fellow priests for golf on Mondays was important to him, as was his trips for golf abroad with his good friend Fr Chris Fallon.  For many years Anthony was a member of our Diocesan Clergy Team that took part in the annual National Clergy Golf Championships.

Anthony’s other interests included art, history, classical music, dance and interior design. He used these interests and talents to serve on the Diocesan Art and Architecture Committee and the Ongoing Formation Team for Clergy. He also played a significant part in welcoming and supporting the Daughters of St Paul when they first came to St Mary’s Cathedral to establish the Pauline Books & Media Centre, now such an essential component of our diocese.

On 22 August, when he was gravely ill in hospital, I was asked to visit Anthony and offer him the Sacrament of the Sick. He was due to have surgery and knew that the chances of success were very slim. Knowing his struggles, I asked Anthony at the end of the visit if he had peace. He responded with a slow and thoughtful ‘Yes’. This has meant much to his family and it’s why they chose that short but ever so powerful Gospel text for his Funeral Mass:

Peace I bequeath to you, my own peace I give to you,
a peace the world cannot give, this is my gift to you. (John 14:27)

Following surgery, Anthony was on life support for eleven days. When he regained consciousness for just over a week, he was able to chat and pray with family, friends, fellow priests and Bishop Cunningham. Throughout this time, and in spite of his discomfort, he never stopped being polite, considerate, witty and grateful for all that was being done for him. Finally, on the evening of Saturday 9 September, surrounded by the love and support of his family and friends, Anthony entered peacefully into the fullness of life eternal. He had what older generations of Catholics would call a ‘happy death’ – and if not the ‘quiet night’ then certainly it was the ‘perfect end’ he would have prayed for in Compline (Night Prayer) at the end of each day.

So today, and here in the church where he presided so often at funerals for others, it is Anthony’s turn to be honoured with Christian burial. As we commend his soul into the hands of God, we give thanks for his colourful life and ministry of love, compassion and gentleness. We ask God’s blessing for Christine, Peter, Christopher, Judith, David, their families and Anthony’s close friends, that they may be comforted and sustained in the faith that dear Anthony, in the words of the First Reading, is now in the hands of God, that no torment shall ever touch him again, and that God’s grace and mercy await him.

Requiem aeterna dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei.

Michael Campion
18 September 2017