Obituary: Remembering former head of St Joseph's College, David Hennessy
PUBLISHED: 09:32 20 March 2019
Teacher inspired many of his pupils, including Steve Coogan, who gave credit to the former priest in his autobiography
David Hennessy was headmaster of St Joseph’s College in Ipswich from 1987 until 1995. Later, between 2010 and 2014, he was the parish priest at St Felix, Felixstowe.
Before he came to Suffolk, David was in Manchester. Steve Coogan – now famous for playing Alan Partridge and for films such as Alpha Papa and Oscar-nominated Philomena – was taught there by the then “Brother David”.
In his 2015 autobiography Easily Distracted, Steve tells how he admired this teacher of religion and history.
“He was an intellectual who had come down from Oxford… I could tell he was punching below his weight. He was about twenty-six, super-smart, provocative and prematurely greying. Looking back at my reports, I can see that I must have driven Hennessy to distraction.”
When not tired or distracted, he says, Brother David would talk about the Church in Latin America aligning itself with Marxists to combat dictatorship. “He wanted us to discuss the moral issues of the Church engaging in armed resistance and he seemed genuinely interested in my thoughts. I was more used to conservative Catholics…”
Brother David “was a breath of fresh air… He had a sense of humour, and he talked to me as an equal. He talked to all of us as adults. He seemed at ease with himself and I looked up to him. I wanted to be like him when I was older: smart, laconic and charismatic”.
When David was approaching his final days, one of his brothers contacted Steve Coogan through his agent and asked if the ex-pupil might send a message. Steve, the family reports, said he wanted to come in person.
Unfortunately, David was very poorly leading up to the date set, and the visit was cancelled. But Steve did send a message of support.
David’s early life
David was born on October 17, 1951. He was the third of what would become a family of seven children. (At one stage his mother was looking after four youngsters under the age of four.)
He grew up in south-east London and went to St Peter’s Roman Catholic Primary School in Woolwich.
There was no history of family members going into religious orders, but sister Mary Durack (14 months younger) says their mother was a devout Catholic.
Hailing from Bolton, she’d been orphaned at the age of five and sent to Ireland to be raised by grandparents. “She did debate going into a convent at the age of 16, with a friend of hers, but decided it wasn’t for her.”
Her son, though, was drawn to a belief-led life. “I think I was probably seven and David was eight, and I remember him making up a pretend altar in the bedroom,” says Mary.
“I can ‘hear’ him now, going up the stairs, singing Gloria in excelsis Deo, or something like that. He was an altar boy at St Peter’s in Woolwich for many years.”
David spent a year at a De La Salle school in Blackheath. Then, as a 14-year-old in the mid-1960s, he went to the order’s St Cassian’s centre in Berkshire. In 1969 he moved on to a college in Hampshire. In 1971, he entered the order as Brother David.
Brothers weren’t ordained priests. The movement was founded in France by John Baptist de La Salle in 1679. Its focus was on providing young people with high-quality education, underpinned by a Christian ethos.
David’s own formal education was far from over. He studied modern history at Oxford from 1971 to 1974, followed by a year in Liverpool to gain a postgraduate certificate in education. Then he started teaching at the De La Salle Brothers’ Cardinal Langley Roman Catholic High School in Middleton, Manchester.
There was a year in America in the mid-1980s, earning an MA from the University of Chicago, too.
And then Suffolk appeared on the radar.
‘Not the world’s most patient man’
The De La Salle order ran a number of independent schools, including St Joseph’s College in Ipswich.
Friend Dr Martin Phillips says that in the mid-1980s there was an acute shortage of De La Salle brothers. David by that time had been head of history, head of religious education and acting deputy headmaster at Cardinal Langley school. When Brother Damien retired from St Joseph’s, David was dispatched from Manchester as the new headmaster.
An article in the EADT in June, 1987, during his flying visit to the town, described him as “straight-talking”. The boys’ college – soon to celebrate its 50th birthday – was launching an expansion plan to build a new craft, design and technology block.
David spoke of his hopes to expand the cultural life of the school, too, with better facilities for music and theatre.
“We have got to move with the times, but that is not to say I will follow any educational fashion,” he said. He also admitted: “I am not the world’s most patient man. I like to get things done.”
He promised more attention on links with the community, and – as a keen sportsman – hoped to raise the school’s reputation on the cricket field.
The prep school buildings would be sold and the junior section moved to the main site at Birkfield, so boys had access to the same facilities from the age of five to 18.
Less than three months before he officially took over as headmaster, David offered a wry smile as he said: “At 35 years old I am not coming here to give anything the kiss of death.”
Mary says: “He didn’t particularly want to go down to Ipswich at the time, because he loved Manchester, but once he was there he thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Martin Phillips, who had a son at St Joseph’s, says David was “an inspiring headmaster”.
But life wasn’t without upheaval…
According to Dr Martin Phillips, a De La Salle brother might expect to stay at one of the order’s schools for five years before moving to another, but David was summoned back north after only two years in Ipswich. Because of the shortage of brothers, the order had decided to install a lay headmaster at St Joseph’s.
“David objected and made the monumental decision to seek dispensation from his vows… and leave the De La Salle order. He announced that once he had left the order, he would reapply for his post as headmaster as a layman!”
And he did – buying a house, car and a complete wardrobe of clothes, as he would no longer wear the robe of a brother.
It was, Mary agrees, an incredible thing to do. “I’m sure he said he spent many months deliberating over it – seeing people, talking to people, going on a retreat to discuss things. I think he just loved the college. He was a fiercely independent man – right to the end.”
At least one ex-pupil has written about how impressive life was at St Joseph’s during the Hennessy era. Another change was afoot, though.
“After a very short period, it was clear to me that David was missing the disciplined, spiritual and community life enjoyed by the brothers, and finally he decided that he would enter the priesthood,” says Martin.
David approached the Bishop of East Anglia and was accepted for a Catholic seminary near Guildford. He left St Joseph’s, went to Surrey in 1995, and graduated with a degree in theology in 1998.
“He found the conditions Spartan at best and, as a mature student, quite lonely,” remembers Martin. “I visited him often and we would sneak off to a nearby pub for lunch and a beer before I dropped him off to write yet another essay on theology!”
David was ordained in the chapel at St Joseph’s College on December 5, 1998 – which happened to be sister Mary’s birthday. Family members came for the occasion.
Now Father David, his first “posting” was to Peterborough, as a curate. In 2000 he moved to Sawston, south of Cambridge, as parish priest. “David was happy during his time in Sawston, and during his tenure he tried to raise sufficient funds for a new church,” says Martin.
Then: more change…
“Much to his disappointment, David at the age of 59 was moved again. In March 2010, (Father John McNally) the 65-year-old priest at the Church of St Felix, Felixstowe, had collapsed and died during a funeral service in the church and David was appointed his successor.”
He might not have wanted to leave Sawston, but Mary says: “He loved Felixstowe too.”
David was also chaplain to the Convent of Jesus and Mary in the town. “He looked after their spiritual needs and they provided him with excellent Sunday roast lunches!” says Martin, who first met David when he was being introduced to parents by the retiring headmaster of St Joseph’s. “He visited us in Cyprus every year since we moved here in 2004, until his illness really took hold in 2016.”
Martin explains: “Even in 2015, David was aware that his cancer was terminal but he still acted as an assistant priest in the Ipswich area until, eventually, he could no longer even undertake these duties.
“When it became obvious that David’s health had deteriorated to the extent that he needed full-time nursing care, the generous nuns at the Convent of Jesus and Mary in Felixstowe offered to look after him during his final days and provide the necessary palliative care. His sister, Mary, travelled from London to be with him during this time.”
David had said Mass at the convent on January 2, says Mary. He moved in in the middle of the month. In early February a little altar had been set up in the hall and he said Mass there on the Feast of St Claudine, the founder of the Jesus and Mary order.
David died peacefully on March 9. He was 67.
Mary says her brother had a tremendous sense of humour, right until the end, and had been devoted to helping people – pupils and parishioners.
“He said to us ‘I’ve had an amazing life. I’ve met many amazing people, and I’ve loved everything I’ve done’.”
David’s funeral is at 11.30am on April 10. It’s at St Mary’s Catholic Church, 322 Woodbridge Road, Ipswich, IP4 4BD. A later cremation service is for family and close friends only.
Donations can be made to Prostate Cancer UK, via Farthing Funeral Service, 126 High Road West, Felixstowe, IP11 9AL.
Steve Coogan’s 2015 autobiography is published by Century.