Thursday 18 January 2018

Obituary: Abbot Patrick Barry

Gifted headmaster of Ampleforth who later, as Abbot, led the monastic community with genial calm

Acute judgement: Patrick Barry as a young headmaster at Ampleforth, with Giles Gilbert Scott’s Abbey Church in the background
Acute judgement: Patrick Barry as a young headmaster at Ampleforth, with Giles Gilbert Scott’s Abbey Church in the background Newsdesk Newsdesk

Abbot Patrick Barry, the headmaster of Ampleforth College for 15 years, who died last Sunday, aged 98, was regarded as one of the outstanding headmasters of the 20th Century.

He was the first Roman Catholic to be elected chairman of the British Headmasters' Conference and soon after retiring he undertook for another dozen years the heavy task of leading the largest monastic community in Britain.

Noel Barry (he took the name of Patrick on becoming a monk) was born in Liverpool, the son of an Irish doctor, on December 6, 1917. Originally destined for schooling at another Benedictine school, he was eventually sent to Ampleforth because his mother refused to go to the expense of buying two black suits as school uniforms.

He entered the monastic community in 1935, read Greats at St Benet's Hall, Oxford, and was ordained a priest in 1945.

It was a permanent sadness to him that the war denied him the opportunity of the training in Roman Catholic theology available at that time only at a continental university. His intellectual formation remained deeply English, with Cardinal Newman his great mentor and guide.

In his early years as a monk, he played an important part (with Sir Sydney Cockerell) in the revival of italic script. He was devoted in teaching less gifted students, schooling generations of boys into producing a distinguished script which beguiled examiners into overestimating their intellects.

Meticulous about visual presentation, he was also a fine carver of lettering upon stone and an enthusiastic printer, hobbies to which he intended to devote his retirement. The same exactitude was expressed in his delight in skating endless figures-of-eight whenever the lake in the school grounds froze over.

The close relationship he developed with the architect, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, played an important part in bringing the great Abbey Church to completion in 1961.

After serving as librarian and head of classics, Barry was appointed housemaster, combining this office with those of second master and director of studies, so that it came as no surprise when in 1964 he was appointed headmaster.

In this office he presided over important developments, not only in the academic sphere, assembling a strong body of lay teachers, but also in the traditions of rugby (though he was himself no gamester) and music (he was an indifferent horn player).

In recognition of his contribution, in 1975 he was elected as the first Catholic chairman of the HMC.

As headmaster he was to the students, and even to parents, a scary figure, for he combined a certain shyness and lack of small talk with a frightening penetration and power of analysis, which led him straight to the heart of a problem without the usual polite preliminaries.

To many he remained a daunting figure, unsparing in his refusal to suffer fools gladly. It was perhaps this aloofness which denied him election as Abbot in 1976.

Retiring from the headship in 1979, Barry spent three years working in a parish in Cardiff (narrowly, it was rumoured, escaping appointment to the vacant archbishopric), and then, as the English Benedictines' adviser on adult education, was appointed to the new pastoral centre in East Dulwich.

Within months, however, he was recalled to his monastery as Abbot. In this role, with considerable personal effort, he largely shed his previous daunting sharpness, guiding the varied life of the community with a genial calm which encouraged the personal development of each individual.

He was particularly loved by the junior members of the community, each of whom felt his bond of fatherly affection.

Constricted by increasing deafness, in 1997 he insisted on retiring halfway through his second eight-year term as Abbot, whereupon he moved to St Louis Abbey in United States, a daughter-house of Ampleforth, in whose founding he had played an important part.

Here he enjoyed a supremely happy evening of his life, treasured by the community as a senior counsellor and friend.

Free from the inhibitions of responsibility, he became increasingly light-hearted and joyful, keeping in touch by email well into his nineties with a host of friends on both sides of the Atlantic. He took a special interest in the lay Manquehue Apostolic Movement in Chile, publishing on it in 2005 his first major book, A Cloister in the World, at the age of 88.

Returning to Ampleforth after an absence of 12 years, he became once more an important member of the community, a source not only of exact information about the past but of spiritual advice, acute judgement and warm friendship.

Confined to an electric wheelchair, he remained faithful to the community prayer in choir till a few days before his death.

Alert to any development in electronic media, Patrick Barry continued to teach and write into his late nineties, his latest article being published in the current number of the Ampleforth Journal.

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