IF YOU visit your parishioners they’ll forgive you everything, and if you don’t they’ll forgive you nothing.
That’s the advice that Hilary Wakeman got from her bishop when she became the rector in Schull back in 1996, and it’s something that served her well.
‘It meant I ate lots of cake and drank lots of tea – and also sherry and whiskey!’ said Hilary, adding that it also helped her make life-long friends.
Now retired in her native Norwich, her book A Different World – An English Vicar in West Cork, has just been published and captures the first memorable year of her five years working in the parish.
Hilary was actually one of the first women priests in the Church of England and was ordained in 1994.
‘My mother was Catholic and my father was a non-conformist but we were raised Catholic. When I hit my teens I actually left the church and remember thinking what a lot of nonsense it all was and I was nothing at all for around 11 or 12 years.
‘I found God again by visiting empty parish churches, but as I lived in a small English village our local church was Church of England, which is really how it all came about,’ she remembers.
Initially the Church of England weren’t accepting women priests, and Hilary was a deacon for seven years, before being ordained with around 800 other women in 1994 after which she became vicar of a city centre church in Norwich.
It was on the way back to the ferry after a less than successful family holiday in Doolin in Clare that a chance sighting changed her pathway in life.
‘We diverted into one of the many peninsulas of the south-west coast and found the fishing village of Castletownbere. Then I saw the Church of Ireland church there.
‘It was clearly not in use but what distressed me was that there was a great lashing of chains and a padlock on the high iron gates. “Keep out,” it seemed to say.
‘When we got home to Norwich I couldn’t get that church out of my mind. Was there a vacancy? What would it be like to work there?’
Straightaway Hilary contacted the diocesan secretary of Cork, Cloyne and Ross to see if there was a vacancy, but she was out of luck.
However six months later, in March 1996, there was a vacancy in Schull and Hilary applied and was accepted.
She moved with her husband John (a freelance writer and editor who could work from anywhere)and her daughter Rosie.
She has lots of good memories but some things she singles out for praise in her book include the patience of people (especially the drivers), the dedication of her post man (who when faced with a locked door, stood on a downstairs windowsill and pushed a package into the open top half of an upstairs window) and the quality of the local bread (‘real food’).
Among the challenges was having to ‘relearn how to drive because everyone salutes each other.’
‘It requires enormous alertness to identify the car and the driver in time to do it, especially on windey lanes and I fail again and again being frequently saluted by people I have not recognised.
‘Perhaps the safest thing is to salute everyone with a registration plate of this county. If they don’t know me it won’t matter and if they do I won’t have snubbed them,’ she wrote.
During Hilary’s eventful year there were challenges and setbacks, and even tragedies: drownings, a suicide, the fatal road accident of a young boy, and the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier.
Her diary entry of December 27th read: ‘It’s almost as if everyone is stunned frozen. In our Christmas Day services in the two churches the congregations seemed just to whisper the responses. And could hardly sing the carols at all.’
Her husband John and herself lived locally in a little cottage until 2017, when they returned to Norwich.
But there was also great happiness and the book ends with a Catholic–Protestant, homemade wedding of her late daughter Rosie, an esteemed Southern Star columnist, to Richie Shelley. The marriage service was conducted by Hilary in the Famine Church by the sea, and she captures the joy of the occasion perfectly.
It’s now 25 years since Hilary became rector in Schull, and 20 years since she retired early on health grounds in 2001.
John passed away in 2018 and Hilary is now a parishioner (with permission to officiate) in the parish where she was a vicar. ‘I still miss West Cork and am very homesick for it,’ she said.
• A Different World – An English Vicar in West Cork is published by Liffey Press (€16.95)