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RIP – Harry SSF

Brother Harry SSF died on 13 January 2000 and his funeral mass was at Alnmouth Parish Church. He was aged seventy-one and in the twenty-seventh year of his profession in vows.

The sermon preached at the requiem mass was by Brother Damian SSF.

‘Mine is the silver and mine the gold’, says the Lord of hosts, ‘and the glory of this latter house shall surpass the glory of the former; and in this place I will grant prosperity and peace.’ (Haggai 2.8-9) Brother Harry had planned today to be in London for another meeting relating to the Religious Communities Fund which he served as Treasurer on behalf of the Anglican Religious Communities. He had been managing this Fund through some stormy waters with unaffected precision and poise, and had talked with me late last year with open concern for his duties. It turned out to be the last conversation we had. Also in London today, Harry would have planned to continue his investigation into his family tree, a subject that has been his hobby and interest over several years. His task may have been simpler than for many for he had no living family when he died only thirteen days into this new Millennium. As a bursar, he most certainly earned a silver medal; as a Brother in this Franciscan family, he was gold.

Allow me to trace back some of Harry’s own life. He was born on 28 September 1928 in Ashton-under-Lyne, the second child of Albert and Lena Marshall. His sister, Lily, was seven when Harry came along. Those depression years, felt so keenly in the North of England, meant that Harry’s growing-up opportunities were quite limited and he left Ashton Secondary Modern School in the midst of the Second World War. But in 1946, aged eighteen, he joined the RAF at Cosford, doing six years, first at home, training as an airframe mechanic, and then he went on to Ceylon thoroughly to enjoy himself with those flying-boat transport planes: perhaps these were among the happiest days of his life.

These were also formative days where the Spirit of God touched his life distinctly. He was confirmed in the RAF and built up a determination to study and read, so that when he returned to civilian life in 1952 and had become an insurance agent, he also signed on for correspondence courses and evening classes to attain four ‘O’ Levels and an ‘A’ in Religious Knowledge. This gave him access to be trained as a Lay Reader in the Manchester Diocese, where he was admitted as a Reader in 1957. He had already become a server at his local Church and sat on the Diocesan Committee of the Church of England Men’s Society.
Harry Marshall was instinctively part of the Church. Though it was not his family’s tradition in that post-war era of recovery and concern for secular stability, Harry sparkled within his local community. We might imagine him full of that sense of fun and adventure, youth-hostelling, cycling, joining in and, as a Churchman, introducing that love of the Lord that landed him finally, after his career with British Rail as a clerical officer, towards a vocation as a Franciscan.

Harry had been a Brother since 1970 – nearly 30 years. We love him not simply because he made us laugh, but also because he was completely himself! The reason we are all here today to show our regard and respect for a truly humble friar is because, I suspect, you knew where you were with him. He really did think very little of himself and he never quite understood how much he was valued and loved. People were immensely fond of this entirely non-threatening, self-effacing gentle Brother. Visitors to Alnmouth Friary would enquire immediately, “How’s Harry?” He was always there, available, interested; and folk met him as an entirely reliable person. At meetings of the local Council of Churches, he was always there. With Companions and Tertiaries he was conscientious and affirming. And he was so easy to tease . . .

Evidently, because of the somewhat inadequate wall-partitioning up on the top floor of the Friary, it is inevitable that we overhear some of the more personal conversations next door! Out of the sleepy greater silence kept by the brothers in the early light of day was heard the voice of our Brother as he rose to open his curtain, “Good morning, pigeon; good morning, seagull!” There would be a moment’s silence, then again, “Now, Marshall,” he’d say to himself, “Where did you put yer teeth.” The morning ablutions completed, he would arrive just in time at the chapel door before the Angelus was rung. His was a formal, confident entry into chapel, and checking his appearance and removing that imaginary bit of fluff from his capuce in quick successive brushes of the hand, he introduced the morning office: ‘The Lord almighty grant us a quiet night and a perfect end.’

One of Harry’s great joys was a glass of cider – but a glass and a half one famous lunch time down here in the village proved imprudent as he hit the bracing fresh air off the North Sea. The memory of him, fast asleep in the Friary hall, legs thrown over the arm of the chair, and massive brown boots hanging down and looking as if they belonged to somebody else!

How happy, the Gospel declares are the poor in spirit, the gentle, the pure in heart: they shall see God (Matt 5). I asked Brother Daniel how long Harry might have to spend in purgatory. “Only until 3rd October when St Francis would collect him at the Gate of Heaven”! And he added, remembering Harry’s employment with British Rail, “and if he misses that connection, he would be able to meet up with Father Algy on 23rd November”! Yes, the glory of the latter house shall surpass the glory of the former. And we rise today from our sadness and grief to an awareness of the true treasures of life – that through the merits of Jesus the Christ, and from our devotion and loving service offered through him, we trust God will take us on in our journey of faith and show us, as St John’s epistle states, how we are to become like him and to see him as he really is (1 John 1).
One last story about Harry when he appeared on a television programme with Gary Rhodes. Harry, this time in the rôle of bread-maker, was given the task of being a busy brother, kneading the dough on the kitchen table, making up the daily tally of loaves, while Brother Peter Douglas and Gary were creating some delectable dish on the same work table around the Aga cooker. The action was meant to be with Gary and Peter, but as the camera followed the ingredients, so Harry shuffled round, following the eye of the camera to stay in focus, edging his way round the table and throwing the dough with masterly thrusts of energy, to stay in the picture!

Harry, that’s just how it was. You were always there, busy with your responsibilities, painstakingly working for the common good – with the dough, with the silver, with the concerns of your heart for the best for everyone. So just as St Peter spoke at the Beautiful Gate beside the Temple in Jerusalem, we, your brothers and like you also, have no silver or gold of our own; yet, what we have we give to you, our thanks, our love, our prayers, that you may walk now towards your reward in heaven, for in that place will be granted you prosperity and peace. f