The English YCW

John Fitzsimons

Biography of Patrick Keegan

Chapter 2 – The English YCW

The first twelve months in London were extraordinarily difficult. Pat had launched out into the unknown, to build a national secretariat for a national movement, for a movement that was at that moment an ideal rather than a reality, and to obtain official recognition at both church and civil national level. Besides this there were sections to be set up in the London area, and existing ones with their chaplains to be supported. As he himself was to say later: “We were still unrecognised; nobody wanted us. We had no money at all. I used to sign on for the dole one week and the Health Insurance the following week. Harry Tolfree who was working as a civil servant gave me what he could from his salary.” The important first step was to recruit priests who would start sections, in their parishes. “In the beginning we received tremendous opposition from priests. It is a thing I cannot describe or understand to this day. It was as if we were projecting something mad.” And of course it was so utterly new. a completely different kind of youth movement. At that time the accepted idea of such organisations was, apart from the uniformed ones, like the Scouts and Cubs, Guides and Brownies, something that was organised far young people: the components were some or all of the four Cs: Club, Camp,Congress, Communion Sunday.

This mind-set was to prove an obstacle and a stumbling block to the progress of the YCW all over the world. In England Father Rimmer and Pat Keegan had to fight off an attempt by the Catholic Young Men’s Society (which, despite its title, covered an age range from 18 to 80) to take over the YCW as its junior division. In Chicago development was severely hampered by the opposition of Bishop Shell who saw the CYO as the beginning and the end of all youth work. In the U.S.A. as a whole the YCW in its early days found no enthusiastic welcome from Monsignor Tanner, head of the youth department of the NCWC (the bishops’ national secretariat) in Washington.

Even in those countries, such as France and Belgium, where the idea of youth having a positive apostolic mission was accepted, the development of this into an apostolate of like by like as distinct from a general youth moment, had to make its way slowly and against great opposition. In those countries the Davids of the JOC had to face the monolithic Goliaths of the ACJF and the ACJB In achieving the autonomous apostolate of the young workers, they eventually split the general umbrella movements into their component parts. Thus in France, following the JOC for young workers, there were eventually the JAC, JEC, JIC, JMC, for young farmworkers, students, middle class and merchant marine respectively.

Pat ploughed steadily on, admitting later that “it was all very experimental, and I did not know what was right and what was wrong.” His only experience had been in the area which he had cultivated between Wigan and Preston, and so most of his decisions had to be pragmatic. But he was sustained by his love of the Church and his sense of apostolic mission. He was utterly convinced of the need for the apostolic formation of young workers, and that the YCW was the apt instrument to do this. To that he had committed himself. His optimism and idealism were harnessed to a life of hardship and sacrifice. At times this made him more blunt than diplomatic. He describes his first meeting, at the London House of Hospitality, with Father (afterwards Archbishop) Mathew. “At first he was cynical about the YCW…. He said ‘You are a member of what is the foreign JOC?, and I am afraid that I was a bit outspoken and said there was nothing foreign about the problems of the young worker in England, and said he should have the intelligence to see that. Despite this sour beginning they became very good friends, and when David Mathew became auxiliary bishop to Cardinal Hinsley he supported the cause of the YCW in splendid fashion.”

The need for literature was great, both for practical use in new sections that were starting up and for propaganda purposes. Already in 1938 Pat had provided the material for a booklet entitled How to start a Boys’ Section. This had been published by the Liverpool Archdiocesan Board of Catholic Action under the guidance of the Ecclesiastical Assistant, Monsignor Thomas Adamson. This was indeed the first YCW text in the English-speaking world that was not a translation from the French. By 1939 there was a monthly bulletin for leaders, i.e. members of sections, and this was prepared by Pat. Meantime Harry Tolfree was responsible for a magazine for general consumption called The Young Worker, and on May Day 1939 this was being sold in the streets of London, at the entrance to Tube stations and at public meetings.

Pat did not find the same sympathetic environment in the London House of Hospitality as he found in Wigan, and decided to move out so as to be completely independent. But, of course, he had no resources, no funds, no salary. Here, as in so many tight corners in the future, Providence and his own determination won through. Drawing blank at housing agents he was put in touch with an Anglican housing association. They appreciated his problem and with true Christian charity provided him with a lock-up shop in Somerstown, and furniture came from a businessman sympathiser. This was the first National HQ of the movement under its own roof, and Pat was soon joined there by the first full time organiser, Alan Deans, from Birmingham.

At that time the institutional Church, or some parts of it, still had a rather feudal attitude. Hardly had the two young men settled in when they received a visit from an irate parish priest, fulminating that they had “moved into my parish without my permission.” Fortunately, however, this attitude was soon counterbalanced by am offer from another priest of the Westminster diocese. He was in charge of a large social centre for young people in Vauxhall Bridge Road, and a Youth Hostel Just round the corner in St George’s Square. He offered them an office in the social centre and bed and board in the hostel. The offer was too good to refuse, though with hindsight Pat was to admit that it was a mistake. One of the first results of this transfer was that a YCW Section was started in the social centre and some of the members became part time extension organisers.

A further preoccupation from the time of his arrival in London was preparation for the Pilgrimage to Rome. Pope Pius XI had died in February of that year and had been succeeded by his Secretary of State, Cardinal Pacelli, who had taken the name of Pius XII. In the preceding years he had come to know Canon Cardijn and to appreciate the worth and the work of the JOC. Hence, early in his pontificate, he welcomed the project of a World Pilgrimage to Rome of the JOC/YCW. The plan was that some 20,000 young workers from forty countries would converge on Rome for September 5th in a Pilgrimage of Peace. In England funds were being raised through the Catholic press to send a delegation. But it was not to be. With the war clouds gathering, a desperate attempt was made to warn the delegates not to set out. In the event, only three delegations arrived in Rome. Significantly none were from Europe – they came from Canada, Colombia and Tonkin.

On September 3rd, 1939, Prime Minister Seville Chamberlain announced that Great Britain was at war with Germany, It was obvious that there would be general mobilisation which would have a serious effect on the growth and development of this organisation that was only two years old. Pat, who hasd taken on the full responsibility of running the movement, was very conscious of the fact that the most that could be hoped for would be a holding operation that would keep things ticking over till the end of the war. Moreover, it was he himself who would have to this before being called up. Yvonne Bosch van Drakestein, of the Grail, continued her role of guardian angel. Through connections in the high command she saw to it that Pat’s call up was deferred to give him time to consolidate.

Fortunately there was a group of enthusiastic YCW chaplains in the London area who met regularly, and in the provinces there were a number of priests who were equally keen on keeping the movement going, and if possible extending it. During this period there were three priests in London who were particularly important because of the influence they had on Pat and because of the support they gave him.

The first of these priests was Father Eugene Langdale of the archdiocese of Westminster. He was thoroughly conversant with the apostolic movements in France, and particularly with the worker movements, having studied at the Ecole des Missionaires du Travail at the Catholic University in Lille. In fact while there he was a contemporary of Father Henri Godin who later became perhaps the best known alumnus of the school because of his book France, Pays de Mission? published in England (with the title France Pagan?)

Father Langdale was an assistant priest at St Mary’s, Cadogan Gardens, where he had a YCW section. It was through this that Pat met him, and in a short time he had adopted him as his “personal” chaplain – Father Rimmer although nominally still National Chaplain was still in the north and had little to do with the day-to-day running of the National Headquarters. It would seem that Langdale perceived the potentials that Keegan had and helped to actualize them. Pat would see him once a week – sometimes more often – for a kind of tutorial conversation. What Pat appreciated most was that he was never treated as a student but as an intelligent adult. Langdale never patronised, never condescended. As a background to their discussions he gave Pat a sense of the wider Church – of the international movements in the Church. He was no dry-as-dust academic. In fact he was an incorrigible gossip about matters political and ecclesiastical. He would suck on his pipe and make dry and witty comments on the passing show. This filled a need in Pat’s life, first of all to break out of the narrow circle of the daily round: office by day and trying to start sections in the evening. Langdale who moved with ease in all the Catholic circles of social concern (often as the Cardinal’s representative) introduced Pat into them, into the Plater Club, the Catholic Social Guild and after its foundation the Sword of the Spirit. Pat even came to speak at public meetings organised by the Sword of the Spirit. For instance, he shared the platform with Barbara Ward at a Rally in Manchester. (It was typical of Barbara’s thoughtfulness and generosity that on that occasion she gave Pat the honorarium that she had been offered.)

It was an all round education that he received, even taking in art and music appreciation. lor did he neglect the history of the working class in Britain, adding a further dimension to Pat’s understanding of the YCW as a worker movement. Langdale also represented the Cardinal on various secular bodies and Pat was introduced to these too – perhaps in the light of post-war events the most Important of these was the National Council of Social Service. Langdale was no rabble rouser. He was mild-mannered but determined. It is obvious that he saw Pat as having the possibilities of being a new type of lay leader in the Church. Yet he was no Professor Higgins. He did not force his views, but helped Pat to make his own judgments. Their association at this time lasted for only two years, but it was of inestimable value to Pat. It meant that when he went into the Forces he had an immense amount of mental furniture, and also of self-confidence, which helped him to plan for the future of the post-war YCW.

Father Vincent Rochford was totally different. He had started a section in Poplar, and Pat went to see him. What impressed Pat most was the fact that he produced extremely good leaders, and in fact it was due to him that the YCW really put down roots in the East End of London. This in spite of his temperament which was choleric and rather moody. But he did understand the YCW, and his writing helped the movement when it was most needed. In late 1940 he produced a pamphlet, The Priest and the YCW which is as valid and as useful today as it was nearly fifty years ago. And a couple of years later his book The Young Christian Workers set out fully the theory and practice (from his own experience) of the movement. Although Pat never arrived at the same rapport with Rochford as he did with Langdale, nevertheless he valued their relationship. One suspects that the reason for this was that he was reassured and gained confidence from seeing that a committed and enthusiastic chaplain could produce as good results in the East End of London as was possible in Hindley or Wigan. This despite Rochford’s tendency, when the mood was on him, to be rather authoritarian. So, regular visits were paid to Poplar. Sometimes he had to walk back from there to north London because he did not have the bus or Tube fare, but was too reticent to ask Rochford for money.

It was in the London House of Hospitality that Pat first met David Mathew who at that time was Catholic chaplain to the University of London. Mathew was much more of a Langdale type. He was a professional historian, and had the ability to read the signs of the times in the light of the past. They soon became fast friends and Father Mathew helped wherever he could to smooth the path for the YCW, espeiaally perhaps with Cardinal Hlnsley, to whom he eventually became auxiliary bishop. In 1942 the Hierarchy of England and Wales established the National Catholic Youth Association, and it is interesting to note that the Chairman was Bishop Mathew, the Secretary was Father Langdale and the Treasurer was Yvonne Bosch van Drakestein.

In 1944 Bishop Mathew prepared and presented an official handbook of the Association in which is described the work of some fourteen national Catholic youth organisations. In his Introduction Bishop Mathew firmly nailed his colours to the mast. He wrote: “The final question which lies at the core of Catholic youth work is that of religion (Young people) emerge into a world that has little concern for organised religion… How can they be set in motion against the mass of contemporary opinion which is post-Christian, opportunist and impatient of all creeds To the present writer, the remedy for the loss of interest in religious faith and practice, which in fact characterises the working boy and girl, is that proposed by Canon Cardijn: the Jocist movement, which is represented by the Young Christian Workers, the YCW. This turns upon the necessity of the boy or girl to be seized by the truth of the Catholic Faith, and for them to bring back their fellow-workers to religion, and to Christianize their milieu.” He continued to be Pat’s confidant and adviser even after he became Apostolic Delegate in East Africa.

For the first few months of the war the National Headquarters of the YCW was located in a small office in the Social Centre in Vauxhall Bridge Road run by Father Charles Carr. At first this seemed to be a very good idea because it provided security: an office, a bed and meals. But, as was to become clear more often in the future, security would often mean a degree of dependency. Fr Carr did not really understand the movement. He had been very impressed by a JOC Rally that he had attended in the Pare des Princes in Paris in 1937 because it fitted in with his idea of a Catholic youth movement. Hence he was continually pushing the idea of the YCW putting on a similar event in Wembley Stadium.

Things became awkward when Pat recruited some of the committee members of the Social Centre to help, not with organising a national Rally, but with the basic work of starting sections. The crunch came when they began to give priority to their work for the YCW and neglected their responsibilities in the Club. The time had come to move on once more.

Through the good offices of Yvonne van Drakestein they were able to move into a house belonging to a friend of hers, Oak Lodge, on the edge of Golders Green. This was a great improvement because it meant both security and independence. Income came for running the house from a group of young men who were working but who had previously lodged in the hostel in St George’s Square and were only too happy to move into Oak Lodge. As for creature comforts they had a Belgian refugee who was an efficient cook, and the nuns in the Carmelite convent down the road very kindly dealt with their laundry. But this was not to last for long. Dunkirk came and went, and then the bombing of London began in earnest. Security was at risk. Oak Lodge had some near misses, windows blown in etc., and the caravan was again on the move. The problem that had been lurking in the background all the time was: what was to happen when Pat joined the Forces?

Mgr Adamson, who had always been a good friend, arranged for Fr Rimmer to be posted to a convent chaplaincy where he could devote more time to the movement. It was decided to move the Headquarters to Liverpool to be near Fr Rimmer, and that some of the Liverpool leaders would take over running the movement. Again through the good offices of Mgr Adamson the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Mary gave the YCW the use of an unoccupied house in the grounds of their convent in Great Crosby, a suburb of Liverpool. In late 1940 Pat moved there with all the impedimenta of the Headquarters and proceeded to instruct Rose McGregor in the secretarial work for which she would be responsible, in collaboration with Fr Rimmer and with John Miles who was to be acting secretary/president. By this time Harry Tolfree had been called up and was in the Forces. Pat worked out of Liverpool until the Spring of 1941.

Father Vincent Rochford was already a chaplain in the RAF, and in April 1941 Pat went to the same branch of the Forces. This was part of a plan where they would cooperate in running a paper for members of the RAF to be called Front Line. This would be in connection with courses to give spiritual formation to active Christians. But first came the general training, known as square-bashing. This Pat did at Preston, then Christchurch, and finally Feltham. The idea was that he would then proceed to join Father Rochford at Cardington. Unfortunately the chief chaplain to the RAF, Monsignor Beauchamp, who was to sponsor this joint venture, was of a like choleric temperament to Father Rochford, and when they disagreed the sparks flew. Just as Pat was about to go to Cardington, he became an unwitting victim of such a quarrel. He was unceremoniously bundled off to Aden in the Gulf.

In retrospect it would be true to say that this posting was providential because, until the Italian campaign began, Pat was doing an office job (in Code and Ciphers) and so had plenty of free time for reflection. His was a curious state of mind. He was still national secretary of the YCW, with work suspended till the end of the war. But what then? He knew he wanted to serve people, and even for a while wondered if he could make it as a doctor, using his gratuity for the purpose. He was quite clear that he did not have the vocation to be a priest. In his prayers he was conscious of wanting to do God’s will, and his heroes at this time were Father Damien and the Mexican Jesuit, Father Miguel Pro. He was ready to continue with the YCW if he was needed but at the same time he was prepared to move on. Dominating these thoughts were the two interwoven themes of serving the Church and being a worker. It is interesting that right from the beginning of his involvement with the YCW he was never class conscious: to him being a worker was a source of pride and not a reason for confrontation and conflict. It became clear that there was only one option for which he could make preparation there and then: to take up the reins again at the YCW, When he had arrived in London from Hindley he had no forward plans and very few guidelines, but through the years from Hindley to Great Crosby he had learned a great deal – the hard way. With all that behind him he could now make some judgments and from them draw up a plan for action. And so it was. In the balmy breezes on the edge of the Indian Ocean the future of the English YCW was planned.

First of all he attended to basics, to principles that would provide him with parameters for the overall plan, and specifically for his own role in it. First and foremost, never to work alone but to work in and with a team, one of whom would be trained to succeed him. Next that he, if he were asked to take on responsibility in the YCW, would do so for a limited period. Thirdly, he would remain single. This was a tentative not a final decision, but part of the plan for the time being. Lastly, to bind all this together, he made the decision that once the choices were made he would never question them fundamentally.

The biggest problem that he had to face was how to spread the movement as quickly as possible after the war, and the conclusion was that it would have to be done with a team of full time organisers. So a great deal of thought had to be given to their training and their role in the overall plan. He thought in terms of as many as twelve who would be committed leaders who would be asked to give three years to full time work in spreading and servicing the YCW. After being accepted they would spend some time at the Headquarters in training which seemed to have some of the features of a religious novitiate! Apart from “sessions” with Pat and the chaplains, visits to sections in the London area and the compilation of reports, they had to do all the domestic work and cleaning. At the end of this period they would be assigned a Region, this being the intermediate level in the organisation between local and national. (By 1948 there were already fifteen Regions.)Their role would be to go out into the field as apostles, to be propagandists throughout an area. This would mean very largely visiting and talking to priests, supporting existing sections and helping to launch new ones. They would also have to organise study days for priests (chaplains and sympathisers), give talks in seminaries when invited, and in every way animate the area which was their charge. As a help to their own self- discipline they would keep a log book for each day they were on the road. This would normally be for three weeks in each month, and would be followed by a “week at home”. This week would include further training, e.g. talks on subjects relevant to their apostolate, reports on their work and a discussion of their log books with the chaplain and with Pat. These weeks too would have a special significance in making the organisers feel that they were working as a national team. The three basic truths enunciated by Cardijn which were the Charter of the YCW were that its role was to educate, to serve and to represent. So some time had to be given to these. Publications were a service and these had to be planned, but the service to which he felt all sections should be committed was the Service for the Sick, and this was placed high on the agenda.

This was the broad outline which, at his leisure, he was able to fill in in more detail. The circumstances were propitious. He was happy in the community life of his station, and was able to exercise a discreet apostolate there. He had plenty of time for reading, and for prayer. The Franciscan church at Steamer Point was handy, and so he was able to get to Mass every day. Before leaving Aden he had even recruited his first post-war organiser, who was to take charge of publications.

But like all idylls it could not last. Besides there was a war on. The Italian Campaign was about to begin, and they were to be part of it. It took Pat to Naples, to Florence and then to Rimini. By this time we re in mid 1948. In October of that year Pat was given a compassionate posting to London to help with the work of the reconstruction of the YCW. He was still in the R.A.F. and worked in the Department of Documentation in Regents Park.

Among the sections that he had been instrumental in starting had been one in Gravesend, with Father Edward Mitchinson as chaplain. Fr Mitchinson was subsequently appointed full time diocesan youth chaplain and YCW chaplain for Southwark. He had settled in a house in Offley Road. He describes the homecoming: “I can still see Pat Keegan in trim air-force gear, back from Aden, with exercise books full of reflections and plans for the movement… He had always managed to get a post as secretary to his C.O. and this helped to arrange passes. After a number of day visits, he moved to stay at Offley Road until his demob.” He also presided over the move back from Great Crosby to – Offley Road. “John Kiles and Rose MGregor who had headed the war time movement were due to marry and move on. Father Rimmer was happy with developments and when he resigned, being the only full-time chaplain I was appointed general chaplain in his place. Major Gerry Sherry (the pre-war national treasurer) organised the move from the North.

But before this, in August 1945, a momentous meeting took place. A small group, Father Rimmer, the present writer, Pat Keegan, John Miles, Rose McGregor and several other leaders went to Brussels to reestablish links with the international centre. The Dover-Ostend ferry had not been re-started and we had to go via Paris. None of us can forget the night we had to spend in the Gare St Lazare, sleeping on the hard wooden seats of the third class compartment. It was worth it, for not only did we spend some time with Cardijn but he arranged for us to be received by Cardinal Van Roey in Malines. The Cardinal gave Pat a gift to take to Cardinal Griffin in Westminster. On another occasion Pat had presented himself to Cardinal Griffin and had talked to him about the movement. When the Cardinal asked Pat “Well, what can I do for you?” He had his answer ready: “Please pay off our debts and give us three full time chaplains.”

On November 27th, 1945, Pat was officially demobbed and given a Class B release. This type of release had two conditions attached to it. The first of these was that the subject forfeited his gratuity; the second was he had to report to the body stated on his release notice under pain of being recalled to the colours. Pat’s release notice stated that he was being demobbed for “National Reconstruction”, and that he was to report to the “Young Workers Christian Organisation, Offley Road, London.” The work of reconstruction had begun.