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Fr André Lecoeur - 80+ celebration

The celebration mass and the party were also in thanksgiving for Fr André's steadfast service to St Richard's as our summer relief priest. He was born in 1924, ordained in 1947 and first came to Chichester in 1949 - to the old church at South Street. He has been a welcome visitor ever since.

Canon Fogarty, another octogenarian, remembers Fr André well:

"What was so special about Fr. André is that he fitted in so well in the presbytery and the parish. He would take on his share of the work, including the hospitals. He would go to the Festival Theatre if the play were one which helped his English course. For Chichester parish, he is one of the longest serving priests."

This account of Fr André's remarkable life was published in The Vineyard:

Fr André was born in 1924 and until he was nine, lived in Paris with his parents and sister. Then, while on holiday with his grandparents in Brive, not too far from Massif Central, he became ill and had to undergo a mastoid operation after which his parents were persuaded that the cleaner air of Brive would suit him better than the polluted air of Paris. He lived with his grandparents until he was sixteen, attending the local Catholic Boys' Secondary School, which was run by priests. In 1939, having just completed his Baccalaureate, he was at a family lunch attended by a number of relatives fleeing the German Army when he was asked what he intended to do next. Although he had known for some time that he wished to become a priest, his announcement came as a bombshell, particularly to his father who was eager that his son should study mathematics. He did, rather unsuccessfully, for a year but then his father yielded (Fr. André's word) and he was admitted to the Diocesan Major Seminary at Tulle. Tulle was in unoccupied France so, during the war years, its inhabitants fared better than those in other areas including his parents from whom he had been separated for some years. After three years at Tulle Fr. André was sent to Toulouse but, when Paris was liberated, his mother decided that her son had been too far away for too long and persuaded the authorities to give permission for his transfer to the seminary in Paris. Three years later, at Easter 1947, he was ordained.

Returning to his school, he discovered that he was to replace a seriously ill teacher and become a teacher of English. To facilitate this, he was dispatched for two consecutive summers to Dartford parish to learn English quickly. He found those first two years very difficult and although the parishioners were friendly and helpful, the industrial environment of Dartford held little appeal.

In 1949, two things occurred. The first was that he was given permission to attend the Sorbonne to study for a degree in English and the second was that he met a nun from Nevers whose Chaplain had been asked to find a supply priest for a place called Chichester. Having consulted a map and decided that Chichester looked congenial with both countryside and seaside, Fr. André embarked at Dieppe in a non-waterproof jacket and with a cardboard suitcase -the only type available after the war. His train journey from Newhaven was not encouraging until he reached Ford Station with its wonderful view of Arundel when he became more optimistic. Fr. André has fond memories of Fr. Hart and Fr. Hill who were assistant priests at the time. Fr. Hill lent him his bicycle and he spent many happy hours exploring the surrounding area, particularly the harbour. He maintains that the housekeeper, Miss Gunn, who was well educated and articulate, taught him more English than any of his professors.

L-R Miss Gunn, Fr Hart, Fr Hill, at old church in 1964

The living conditions, however, were far less attractive. The old church and presbytery were damp and riddled with dry rot. Does anybody remember the cramped conditions and the red and green lights for the confessional? All this together with the pollution from South Street (particularly the double deckers constantly changing gear outside his window during Goodwood Week) persuaded Fr. André that it was not a healthy place to live.

Thus, there was a four-year gap in his trips to England during which he helped to organise holidays for French children, but he missed the contact and the language. He resumed his trips as a supply priest, aiming to see as much of the country as possible. Having read widely in English, one of his choices was Leeds because he wanted to know if industrial England was as grimy as some English writers suggested. He wasn't disappointed! For seven years he acted as Chaplain, each summer, for SCVA, an organisation that brought groups of French children to England. While doing this he spent time in both London and Edinburgh. Eventually other commitments meant that he was unable to continue.

In 1967 he met an American priest in Lourdes who offered him supply in his parish in Long Island. As he was teaching American Civilisation he thought it would be good experience so he embarked on his first flight. The parish was a revelation with huge mass attendance and the collection gathered in what looked like large fishing nets. More importantly for us though, while there, Fr. André met Fr. Martin Kensington from Surrey who happened to know a priest who needed a supply. The following year, 1968, Fr. André joined the priest who had been one of Fr. Martin's Professors at Wonersh. The priest was Canon Fogarty; the Parish was Chichester. The rest, as they say, is history - or, perhaps, a future story!

(Canon Fogarty adds a tail piece: "Most of this information was new to me but I do remember that the Catholic school, which he attended and in which he taught, was called 'Ecole Bossuet' after a famous Bishop of Meaux, Jacques Bénigne Bossuet, 1627 - 1704. He was a renowned preacher.")