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August 2nd, 2016

A Priest of the Old School

I have forgotten  the Christian name of one of the most outstanding priests I have come across in the course of my 79 years. Canon Power, PP of Bovey Tracey in the Plymouth diocese from 1953   to 1967 was a Liverpool Irishman, a gifted composer of liturgical music, a competent  violinist, a cricketing enthusiast and an excellent raconteur. When you served his early morning Mass, if you were lucky and not in a hurry, he might tell you about his experiences  as a young PP in the slum parish of Devonport during the 1930s. One tale I recall was particularly tragic.

An Irish  family in his charge, though otherwise good Catholics were inclined to quarrel violently among themselves. One night just after tea the teenage daughter of the house, having been rebuked by her mother for some misdemeanour, seized hold of the tablecloth, pulled it violently towards her,  scattering and shattering  the delft over the kitchen floor. A little later her father and brother arrived  from the pub, arguing furiously over I know not what.  They ignored the chaos in the kitchen and continued shouting at each other. Eventually they came to blows.

The father struck the son, who fell heavily on his back on to the broken crockery. A shard from one of the plates pierced an artery, and the young man bled to death. Canon Power was called in to give extreme unction and minister to the family.

The move to Bovey Tracey on the edge of Dartmoor must have been a welcome contrast. Many of the congregation were elderly, some quite wealthy including Mr Dahl, a retired Norwegian businessman who had built the Church, and Miss de Saumarez who usually wore a splendid black fur coat to Mass. She was descended from an admiral from the Channel Islands who distinguished himself during the Napoleonic wars.

Canon Power was an enthusiastic supporter of the village cricket team, and hated to miss any of the action during the Saturday afternoon matches.  (The cricket field was only 100 yards or so from the church.) He dutifully heard confessions from 3 until 4 o’clock, but if there were no penitents  he would  sneak out, binoculars in hand, and  stand just outside the porch. If anyone appeared  he would scuttle back to the confessional.

Though a conscientious confessor, the canon could be somewhat impatient. One old lady told him she would need some while to explain her sins, as she was inclined to be scrupulous. “I’ll give you two minutes, the same as everyone else” was the reply. I suspect he felt the laundry list approach was the best way of dealing with her, and he was probably right.

It is much to be regretted that very few people now know any of the liturgical music  composed by Canon Power. I can still recall the small choir of three ladies and one old man singing his very tuneful Gloria Laus on Palm Sunday. Monsignor O’Neill, a parish priest in Plymouth, once told me the canon’s  version of Ecce Sacerdos  Magnus was the finest he had heard, bar none. I wonder if it is saved somewhere.

Probably there are still a few people old enough to remember Canon Power playing his violin at the Bovey village pantomime, accompanied on the piano by the local chemist Mr Weekes. The canon always dressed up for the occasion wearing  his cassock with purple piping. Truly a man of parts.

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