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Tom Wright - The people's Vicar 1931-2010

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Rev'd Tom Wright 1931-2010

He was larger than life - in every sense. Once met, wearing cut down green wellies and a slightly creased surplice, never forgotten. And even villagers new to the area could not fail to ‘know’ the Falstaffian man of God after hearing how he hoisted different coloured knickers up a church tower to celebrate the birth of twins, or used a stuffed hawk to ward off pigeons in Denston church. Tom Wright was unique; a one-off. Following his death last month, we reproduce below the eulogy delivered by DAVID GREGORY at his memorial service together with a contribution from JULIAN GARDNER outlining Tom’s key role in helping to save Denston church.

WHEN I came to live in Suffolk, a mutual friend had suggested I look him up as he’d been to the same school as me in Worcester. Little did I realise when I first met our Priest and friend the Reverend Tom Wright, over 35 years ago, that this would lead to a warm friendship spanning all those years.

So, I was very pleased and privileged to have been asked by Ronald and Caroline to say a few words about their father, in remembrance and celebration of his life. How is this best done?

Perhaps if I outline some of the many of Tom’s character traits, distilled (oh, should I have used that word?) and clearly outlined by you in my research over the last few days, and then link those traits to his work amongst us as an Anglican priest. But that would only describe but a fraction of the man we knew, so I must include just a few of the many vignettes and stories which you clearly remembered when we discussed Tom together earlier in the week.

Thomas Stephen Wright, born near Birmingham in 1931 into a middle class family associated with specialised brass founding in that great city, was a bright boy educated as a day pupil at The King’s School Worcester. From there he went to Fitzwilliam College Cambridge, reading Law, obtaining his masters in 1958. Tom did his theological training at Bishops College, Cheshunt and his first curacy at St Michaels Bishop Stortford from 1957-61.

Coming to Suffolk in 1961, he was appointed Chaplain to Bishop Lesley Brown at St Edmundsbury Cathedral and in ‘64 came to live on the green in Hartest as Rector. This may have been his career zenith, when his responsibilities included Boxted, Somerton and being Rural Dean in Sudbury and Chaplain to the Royal Air Force as well as being heavily involved with the English Speaking Union.

But I believe his major contributions came when he was Priest in Charge of Stansfield and latterly Vicar of Denston, with Stradishall and Stansfield. He retired in 1998 and lived in Bury St Edmunds and latterly in Ixworth.

What were those attributes that so adhered us all to Tom?

You said; An amazing pastor; great with people; a truly good man; always in the know; a rascally sense of humour, an infuriating friend; a self publicist; an amazing facilitator; a loving nature, late onset as a family man, his stubborn streak; his infuriating habits etc; he was, a very good person; a misunderstood character.

He was a scholar with a wide and extensive knowledge of the Christian faith, biblical facts with an interest in the Eastern Orthodox church and English history. Tom loved cooking, collecting things, and animals, he also enjoyed a social drink - don’t we all!

Of animals, hospitality and food.

Both Caroline in New Zealand and Penelope in Richmond remind us that Tom was a good cook and loved animals. Penelope remembers the kitchen at Hartest Rectory often frequented by dogs and peacocks where vast vats of coq-au-vin were prepared for visiting dignitaries including the Bishop and members of Synod. Excited peacocks do what excited peacocks do, but a flavoursome meal was served and no one the worse for wear! Similarly meals at Cornerstones were dominated by the Doberman. Caroline remembers helping Tom serve up choice morsels for a dinner party, the dog managed to lick round several plates, Tom quickly rearranged things, poured sauce over and thrust the plates into her hands. There was no word of people becoming ill. She wonders if those guests are here today?

Hartest Days

Penelope told me of the time she moved into Hartest. Even before their car had entered the drive it was either Tom, representing God, or Mark Osborne, representing his wonderful shop and off licence, welcoming them to the village. At that time Tom lived with his mother Olive, at the Rectory. What didn’t help their case was The Crown being next door. Many a story relates to incidents in the stream that divided the two properties.

Tom let the Rectory flat to Barret and David, there seem to be stories relating to the Mini, the ditch and something to do with breezeblocks, you’ll have to ask them later on!

Flags in Hartest

Hopefully Ronnie and Caroline won’t mind me just mentioning the story of the case of the coloured knickers. Of course it was blue for a boy and pink for a girl hoisted high on All Saints' Hartest church tower to celebrate their births to Tom and Toni! Well reported in many of the daily papers of the time.

A Rock in times of sadness

Tom had a network of informants, seemingly providing him with soft information; his little chats enabled him to be “in the know” almost before the event, making him that truly wonderful pastor. David Winch reminded me of his great kindness when James had his horrific car accident in Africa. Tom was on hand immediately to stay with Marjorie as long as she needed. In the same way he would be on hand to comfort many of his flock at times of need, we all have our memories.

A case of mistaken identity?

In 1994 our school celebrated the 450th Anniversary of the refoundation between the Cathedral and the School. I was involved in the organisation and asked Tom if he would preach at the service, his name went forward and he was accepted. I always feel that the choice of Tom to preach at the Old Boy weekend was a wonderful case of mistaken identity. There is another Tom Wright, the Rt Rev Dr Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham, and a truly great theologian. I believe the Dean and Chapter were more than surprised to meet Tom in his full Falstaffian self, with his slightly creased surplice and classic cut down green wellies!

But he preached a good sermon on The Proof of Faith and didn't let us down! I seem to remember that it took all of The Nicene Creed to usher him out of the pulpit and back to his seat. You can imagine much huffing and puffing!

Weddings and time keeping

The task of Warden or Verger is never that easy especially at highly charged emotional times, like weddings, and was not helped by Tom’s time keeping. David Lee reminds me of his wedding to Karen. Tom who’d not only forgotten his glasses, but his stole an important item in the blessing of the married couple. Little did they realise they were blessed by Tom using the bookmark from the large lectern bible. I wonder if Karen and David were given an old boot blacked bible … but that’s another story.

Tom the facilitator

Sara Dennis reminded me of the support he gave her in applying to the Diocesan Music Society for grants to improve her playing the church organ. This talent repaid many times over, as Sara is playing for Tom today and also played for Olive and more recently for Toni.

Tom and major restoration projects

Over 30 years ago All Saints Stansfield' was in need of major refurbishment (nothing changes!) David Winch was chairman of the fundraising committee and Tom made contact with great and good, we were fortunate to have been given a Piper print, and spurred on by Tom, Jim Lapsley had this copied and signed and raised thousands of pounds. Eventually by 1985 the committee was wound down it had raised almost £100,000, equivalent to almost £300k in today’s money - and All Saints' was saved for another day.

Tom was appointed Vicar of Denston in 1991 and again he was thrust into fund raising. Harry Mainwaring working closely with Karen Rabbett formed the "Friends of St Nicholas'" where they raised another £300,000. As Harry said, if it wasn’t for Tom we wouldn’t have a Church in Denston today, Harry added that Tom was a "one off" and the best clergyman he ever knew!,

That seems a rather fitting point to conclude. Tom Wright will be well remembered for so many reasons. Thank you Tom. DG

TOM became priest in charge of Denston, Stansfield and Stradishall in the early 1980s. Denston was in an appalling state of dereliction and there was a feeling that it should be made redundant. At that time, Mrs Leader and Harry Mainwaring were churchwardens.

Conscious of the building’s underlying beauty and quality, Harry and Tom were determined to save it for the community. They appeared a most unlikely contribution. Harry’s strong faith was joined to great determination and meticulous attention to detail. Tom was not organised, personally or financially, but had an outgoing sociability coupled to a very good brain and an encyclopaedic knowledge of Suffolk history and people. They worked brilliantly together.

Soon there was a great team of supporters, from far and wide. At the same time, Tom built community spirit in the village, not just from churchgoers. He had a great talent for flower arranging and producing events in church. He was backed by a team of helpers, usually led by the indefatigable and efficient Karen Rabbett (later Lee). The present state of the church shows what they achieved.

Tom’s build and full beard always made a striking impression. He was never self conscious about his personal appearance. No one who saw him in his garden in Giffords Lane will ever forget the sight of him dressed only in shorts and wellies. In church it was different. Karen took it upon himself to ensure that he appeared in church with a clean surplice and some adequate footwear, even if they were wellingtons. Nobody should have the idea that he lacked dignity or that he would allow any disrespect for his position. Seeing Tom’s bulk descending slowly into the small pulpit was memorable. Imagine trying to get a goose egg into a normal egg cup.

He was an endearing human and well liked for it. He could be very open yet, at the same time, private, with great personal charm and integrity. If people told him their secrets, they remained secret. He was firm and kind.

Harry Mainwaring, who probably knew him best, says that he was almost the ideal parish priest. If anyone in the village was in trouble, he was the first it know it and, probably, the first to take action. He was always generous with any money he had. His first thought was to give it away. Harry despaired of getting him to claim even the minimal amount of expenses.

The last three or four years of his life were spend in care homes, with decreasing mobility. Being fairly isolated was sad for someone who liked people so much and was so caring for them. In spite of this, he remained incredibly uncomplaining and interested in what was going on outside. Only in the last month or so, when he was often in pain, did he seem to turn inwards. JG

Story by Richard Evans. Used with permission, from the "Village And Church News" of Stansfield, Denston and Stradishall, No.214 July 2010.

Last Modified Saturday 09 June 2012