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fr Geoffrey Preston, O.P. (1936 - 1977)

Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Geoffrey Preston was was born in Winsford, Cheshire, where his grandmother lived, on 24 February 1936. He grew up in Beeston Castle where his father was the local blacksmith, as his grandfather had also been before him, and he was steeped in the Methodist tradition of his forebears. As Aidan Nichols OP, who was one of his novices, has written: "To this element in his upbringing belong his sense of the transcendence of God and his feeling for the local congregation as fully the church in its own place, as well as his love for the Bible and his extraordinary inwardness in getting beneath the skin of the scriptural text." He is also remembered for his love of Wesleyan hymns "though his rendering of them resembled a cow roaring"!

After attendance at the local grammar school and two years of national service with the Royal Air Force, he went up to read History at Durham University where he was active in various societies, a prize-winning debater, and "most improbably for a man of his physical proportions, the Tennis Club." Geoffrey was a voracious reader with "a delight in information on matters common and out-of-the-way alike" and his cell was crammed full of books on every conceivable subject, many "rescued" from second hand bookshops, and from his books he gleaned a collection of quotations which he used in his preaching and writing. It is said that "he never read without a pencil beside him, even in works of fiction". Eventually his treasury of books would became the nucleus of the Geoffrey Preston Library of the Catholic Chaplaincy at Leicester University, for he had been prior of Holy Cross, Leicester from 1976 until his premature death.

Nichols recounts how Geoffrey's encounter with Anglo-Catholicism confirmed his "horror of the demonstrative in religion though he saw good ritual as avoiding just such inauthentic over-statement". And so, Geoffrey converted to Catholicism via the Church of England in 1958. He spent a year teaching history in Blackpool before joining the Order where his desire "to get as deeply as possible into a living and articulate theological culture" was fed and in the Order his "zest for knowledge and a call to communicate to others" was fulfilled. He made profession on 28 September 1962 and was ordained priest on 15 July 1967.

Geoffrey lived as a religious in a time of great change for the Church and the question 'Where is God to be found?' would shape his response. According to Nichols, Geoffrey realised that "the clues to [God's] presence could only be uncovered in some rapport with the liturgical, spiritual and theological tradition which linked the church now with the time of Jesus and his disciples". Nevertheless, the process of finding God in a time when old certainties were called into question, and a traditional form of religious life was being re-evaluated, was one of interior suffering for Fr Geoffrey. From this suffering "issued a striking ministry of teaching and preaching and pastoral care. His gifts as a liturgist, a man of ritual, were out of the ordinary. He had a facility for combining the intimate with the solemn which made it thankfully impossible to claim him as either a progressive or a traditionalist" and this was a great gift indeed in a time of considerable polarisation. Thus, he was a pastor able to carry the burdens of God's people, whether they were impatient for change or distressed by it. These were certainly useful skills for someone who was appointed Master of Novices in 1970 and again in 1974 but he eventually resigned the position, though not without pain.

Fr Geoffrey's "theological and spiritual balance" which his novices appreciated seems to have had deep roots in a constant rumination of the Scriptures. According to one enclosed Carmelite, "one could feel that here was a man speaking of what he knew, and what he knew not 'through flesh and blood or through the will of man' but through the grace of the Father".

Preparing for a summer preaching tour of South Africa and on the eve of submitting a collection of writings to a publisher (edited posthumously for publication by Aidan Nichols OP), Geoffrey collapsed in Hawkesyard Priory, Staffordshire (where he is buried), and was diagnosed with gall-bladder problems but the surgeons could not operate immediately because of his size. As Nichols remembers, Geoffrey took communion to the sick "by bicycle... daily and perilously, for his girth had by now reached Falstaffian dimensions." He subsequently died, aged 41, of a heart attack with his brethren by his bedside; a death which might be regarded "not so much tragic as the plucking of ripened fruit."

How might we remember this "enormous, bovine, cheerful, inquisitive and childlike man"? Perhaps we can judge for ourselves from the three books which were published after his death. So many of his brethren and friends remember him with fondness and deep affection as a "generous and compassionate" pastor and Fr Nichols' biographical sketch exudes a certain devotion towards his former Novice Master. Indeed, the Province's obituary notices says that he was "foremost a preacher whose life and words he let be shaped by God and speak of God", a phrase used of our holy father Dominic himself. But the most memorable image we have is one offered by one of the brethren who remembers Geoffrey Preston as "that great mass of a man in a slightly grubby cream serge Dominican habit, occupying an armchair with the air of a beached whale, a rosary in his fingers and the Authorised Version of the Bible on his tummy."

May he thus repose eternally in the bosom of the Lord whom he loved and served so well.

Lawrence Lew OP


Anthony Hegarty commented on 17-Jan-2017 11:49 AM
Going through some old papers and photographs from my school and student days I came across a type written yellowed document written I am sure by Geoffrey when he was a history teacher at St. Joseph's College, Blackpool. He had been asked by the 6th Form students to become president of the Literary and Arts Society and submitted the paper at his inaugural meeting with us. The title of the paper is "Myth and Symbol". I think it was probably given in 1960. If anyone would like it I can post it to you. Though it was quite advanced for 17 yr olds in secondary school at the time it is perhaps more memorabilia than anything else. It influenced me at the time very greatly however.

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