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Obituary – Brother Wilfrid SSF

From the sermon preached at his funeral by Damian SSF

Brother Wilfrid has been a significant part of SSF for nigh on 70 years.  I was two when Fred Simpson (that’s Wilfrid’s secular name) was made an oblate by Father Algy in 1943 at the age of 27.  Fred was born the second child of Robert and Emma in Ramsgreave near Blackburn in Lancashire, growing up on Stoops Farm with his elder sister, Marion.  His mother died tragically when he was only eleven, and in the same year Fred contracted meningitis which robbed him of his sight.  He has been registered blind ever since, with only very limited sight, just shadows and a little vision out of the corner of one eye.

The loss of his mother brought ill consequences to his Dad, his sister taking over the running of house and farm, and to Fred himself.  He was first sent away to a school for blind children and then to a workshop where he learnt basket making, which he hated.  But he later discovered what was to become one of his life’s preoccupations as a gardener, being invited by the Revd Glynn Jackson to tend his vicarage garden at St Martin’s, Witton.  Fr Glynn knew Fr Algy and the Franciscan connection was made.  He joined the mystical line of Algy’s oblates, following Ronald and Matthew and Peter.  Given the name of Wilfrid, after St Wilfrid of Ripon, he was professed in the First Order by Algy in 1952.  Again he met the basket industry here at Hilfield, and it must have been to his relief that he was chosen to be part of the team to begin a new friary in the North East in 1961 in the village of Alnmouth.  Bliss, for there were extensive gardens and a greenhouse and clocks.  He had acquired his own Braille edition of the 150 psalms, all of which he learned by heart, making it possible for him to join in the seven-fold Office, which we then recited from the Book of Common Prayer.

Of course, blindness has been a continuous trial for Wilfrid, but it seemed the community would always have novices to work with him, to be his eyes, and to really progress his horticultural ambitions and domestic needs.  But his expectation of these helpers began to exceed even the sacrificial aspirations of those novices assigned to him and I fear that for many, the relationship tended to wear thin.  Finally Br Edward hit on the idea of a guide dog who might provide Wilfrid with a clearer measure of independence.  Enter, Sister Olga!  The first in a long line of four-legged angels who became ‘man’s best friend’ to our Brother: Olga, Tara, Uffa, Ranger, and his last, the beloved Ella who died in 2007.

But we should return to Alnmouth for some of the endearing stories about this unique Brother in SSF.  In his insistence to deal only with the person at the top, he made a life-long friend of Ellis Wood, the rose grower, and the gardens slowly converted into what seemed like a whole field of roses everywhere, and one bed entirely set aside for the variety Ellis had specially cultivated and named after him, the rose Brother Wilfrid.  I see Wilfrid’s fingers rubbing the leaves of different plants to smell their identity, or stooping to catch the scent.  He found God most fully in the fruits of the soil as he also found God in the beauty of the round of the Coverdale psalms or the hymn sung from the English Hymnal (he did have a soft alto voice), for music was the other great love of his life, which yielded to his Catholic tastes.

Precision was built into his character, and clocks had grown to become his hobby, dare I say, obsession.  His speaking watch had to be timed to the pips of the radio Greenwich Mean Time. Each evening at Alnmouth, the brothers sitting in chapel for Evening Prayer would hear from upstairs, first the pips from the radio, then the chime of the Grandfather clock at the top of the marble stairs, followed by the master’s footsteps down the staircase as the clock in the chapel commenced chiming, with its sixth stroke sounding just as Wilfrid arrived at his stall in choir.  Evensong could now begin.

With the passing of seasons, it was thought best that Wilfrid move in 1978 to a school in the York area with a view to combining chaplaincy with his garden talents; but to learn a whole new routine was too much to ask, so he moved again to a quite unsuitable home in York where they were not geared up to the quantity of house plants that moved in with him.  Our Protector at the time, Bishop John Eastaugh, came to the rescue and made all the arrangements for Wilfrid to join the staff of the newly opened College for the Blind at Hereford, with a small flat of his own where he lived for 20 years.  These provided perhaps some of the happiest times of his life, a fully working, warm greenhouse at the College, and access to the Cathedral which he attended daily for Evensong.  His colleagues at College and the devoted attention of their kitchen staff, coupled with a genuine welcome from the then Dean, Robert Willis, and the attention of the Cathedral Organist, Roy Massey gave our Brother a place to truly belong.  Sadly, while at prayer in the Cathedral, his mischievous guide dog Uffa chewed up a kneeler and mistaking the medieval pew ends for a bone, gnawed away what had survived the Reformation and two world wars!

My last picture of our Brother was back at Alnmouth at the end of a disastrous morning in the garden when he bent down to pull up some offending weed.  His right eye caught a protruding stake in the ground; and there he was on the step, shielding the eye, waiting to be taken to casualty, fearful of the loss of that tiny remnant speck of sight he had left.

How does any one of us know how we would follow Christ without our eyes to see, or be content to hear repeatedly the story of Jesus’ restoring the sight of the blind; but not our own?  Wilfrid’s courage enabled him to endure many consequential hardships, sometimes admittedly with driven determination and without understanding or regard for his brothers or sisters, but nevertheless he has borne his cross and persevered to the end.  For Wilfrid, God was real, and alive in the world of his acute hearing; the music of Bach and the Cathedral choirs thrilled him.  God was also alive in the world of beauty in nature, and of that world which required continuous trust, those countless friendships and companions on the way that brought to him the riches of true fraternity.

This leads me to John Tasker’s home in Malvern Avenue, Hull, the friend to whom we, as a Society, owe a very great deal for caring for Wilfrid, over the last eleven years of Wilfrid’s life.  John has been the Brother who has befriended, nursed, fed, cared for, worried over, supported, and shown infinite patience towards him.  We thank him, for he has seen Wilfrid to heaven’s gate and prepared him for the world to come.

So as we are gathered to commend our Brother to God’s merciful and unfailing love, we give thanks for his life, his vocation, his faithfulness; we pray that in Christ he will know the fullness of life and peace at the last.  Amen.  f