'The people's priest' - remembering Father Francis Leeder

Father Francis Leeder of St Pancras Church, Ipswich, has passed away aged 82.

Father Francis Leeder of St Pancras Church, Ipswich, has passed away aged 82. - Credit: Archant

A priest who served Ipswich for more than four decades has been remembered as a "beacon" of his community by family and parishioners.

Father Francis Leeder served as the parish priest at St Pancras Catholic Church in Ipswich since 1981. He was, say his niece and nephew, a fun uncle with a wicked sense of humour, who will be greatly missed. 

Francis Anthony Leeder was a man who went by many names.

To some, he was simply known as Father Leeder. To others, he was affectionately nicknamed Sam, in a nod to his love of the river, making him ‘Sailor Sam.’  

A photograph from the archives showing Fr Francis Leeder (standing) as a young man.

A photograph from the archives showing Fr Francis Leeder (standing) as a young man. - Credit: St Pancras Church

Hordes of former boy scouts of Ipswich knew him as ‘Rev.’  

But, to his family, he was always Uncle Tony.  

“It was because his dad’s name was Francis as well, so the family called him Tony,” explains Father Leeder’s nephew, Chris Leeder. 

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“I don’t think it was until we were in our mid-teens that we realised his name wasn’t Tony. Anthony was his middle name.” 

The young Francis was born in Bedfordshire, near Luton, in 1939, the elder of two brothers. Francis senior and his wife, Maria, were staunch Catholics, and the family had Italian roots. 

The family remained in Luton throughout World War Two. While younger brother John went to study at university, Francis followed where his faith led him and trained for the priesthood at Seminary School. 

He arrived in Suffolk, freshly ordained, in 1963, and took up the position of curate at St Pancras Church in Ipswich. He remained here for seven years before moving to St Johns in Norwich, then to Woodbridge, before returning to St Pancras as parish priest in 1981. 

Father Leader on his retirement, aged 80

Father Leader on his retirement, aged 80 - Credit: Stephen Donaghy

There he would stay for more than forty years.

In Ipswich, Francis became an integral part of community life, and friends recall how he could hardly walk down the street without being absorbed into conversations with his many parishioners. 

“Think of the church and the parishioners as his family,” says Chris. “If we were visiting him, we would only get part of him, because he had a family that were with him all the time.” 

His sister, Jennifer Edwards, agrees. “This was his life, and you had to slot in with him if you visited.” 

However, neither Jennifer nor Chris minded this, and say it was simply the life that their Uncle Tony had chosen.  

They enjoyed a close relationship with their uncle, who was always an active, outdoorsy kind of uncle with a mischievous side. 

“When we’d visit, often we’d get the opportunity to be taken out on his boat, Shelduck,” remembers Chris. “We’d go sailing up and down the River Deben. He was heavily involved with the Waldringfield Sailing Club and all their events. 

“He spent a lot of time in his boat, and we did, too, trying not to get emptied out of the boat and into the river.” 

Father Leeder giving St Judes Brewery, in Ipswich, a Latin Blessing with Father Michael Ryan.

Father Leeder giving St Judes Brewery, in Ipswich, a Latin Blessing with Father Michael Ryan in 2007. - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

“He only sold his boat in 2018, just before he turned 80,” adds Jennifer. 

“We used to get snippets of time from him,” says Chris. “One of his great loves was drinking Adnams Southwold bitter, and we would always get some really good quality time with him if we could get to a pub in the evening. 

“I was always amused by how he had an ability to fall asleep upright in a chair pretty much anywhere. But, if you tried to dislodge his drink from his hand, he’d wake up and tell you off. He was always in a position to protect his pint from mischievous nephews.” 

When Chris had children himself, he says, Francis enjoyed being a great-uncle. 

“We brought my children to see Uncle Tony regularly. He was very fond of them, and they managed to get out on the boat on occasion too, so it went right down to my children.” 

Father Sam Leeder performs the blessing at the graveside

Father Leeder performs the blessing at the graveside, during the service of Polish fighter pilot Jan Rogowski, at Ipswich. - Credit: Archant

Francis finally retired after 56 years in the priesthood at the age of 80.  

At the time, he said: “I shall leave St Pancras with many happy memories and warm feelings as a result of the welcome and support that I have enjoyed from the parishioners.” 

He was, as friend and colleague Julian Wong puts it, truly “the people’s priest.” 

Father Leeder died on the afternoon of Sunday, February 13, aged 82. He is survived by his cousin, Geraldine St John-Maule, Jennifer, Chris, and Chris’ two children, Esme and Elijah. 

A requiem will be held for Father Leeder at St Pancras Church tonight (Wednesday) at 6pm. 

Father Sam Leeder (left) receiving the Silver Acorn award from David Clements

Father Sam Leeder (left) receiving the Silver Acorn award from David Clements County Commissioner for Suffolk in 2004. - Credit: Archant 2004

Tributes pour in

Danny Savage, correspondent BBC news and lifelong friend: "For many years Rev was the leader of the 12th Ipswich Scouts.

"He introduced the mountains of Wales, the Lake District and the Scottish Highlands to many an Ipswich schoolboy and changed their lives for the better.

"Rev was a beacon of everything a good priest should be. He gave up so much time to add value to other people's lives."  

Stephen Griggs, parishioner said: "Rev possessed an ability to uphold the teachings of the Catholic faith without being judgemental but exuding unlimited compassion.

"Never fearful of mixing with the secular world, he was well known in the world of sailing on the Deben and Adnams hostelries. RIP to a much-loved priest, a great servant of God and his people."

Stephen Donaghy added: "I've known Father Leeder for more than 56 years since he arranged for me to go on a Scout camping trip near Flatford Mill.

"I remember one couple telling me how they moved to Ipswich with very little and he helped them set up home and managed to get them a TV set.

"Many people in the town will remember him, his good humour and twinkling smile. May he rest in peace." 

In his tribute, Julian Wong, friend and colleague, said: Father Leeder was a real role model. He kept the church open all the time. I went there to pray a lot, and that was how I became a Catholic in the first place. A lot of churches are always locked up, but St Pancras is always kept open."