A personal perspective by Gary Mangan
With my wife Joan and our then one-year-old son John, I arrived in Doncaster in the early 1970’s. I had come from Dublin to join my late father, Kevin and to develop an agricultural merchanting business in the town. As our first day in Doncaster was a Sunday, we enquired about Mass and were told that one was celebrated in Armthorpe at 4pm each Sunday. The timing for us was perfect that day. Finding the Church of Our Lady Of Sorrows and St Francis was not difficult. Situated on Mere Lane, just off the main road through the modern mining village of Armthorpe, it was a welcoming sight for us three weary travellers! Soon we had our first sight of Fr Tolan, or Fr Terry, or even Fr T as he was known by the Catholic community throughout Doncaster, the Diocese of Hallam and beyond. As he arrived at the altar with the servers that afternoon, he raised our spirits with the welcome that he gave to everyone. I remember how clear and sincere were his words, delivered in a very impressive Yorkshire accent with a distinctive voice which captured everyone’s attention. Over the following 34 years that we lived in Doncaster, Fr Tolan’s homilies during Mass inspired all who were fortunate to be present and to hear them.
We were to see Fr Tolan at various centres and churches in Doncaster over the coming years: as he joined in the concelebration of Masses throughout the Deanery or in Sheffield, or performed marriage ceremonies, funerals and baptisms that we attended. As we settled into life in Doncaster, I was introduced to the annual Diocesan Pilgrimage to Lourdes and was privileged to join the team of dedicated volunteers who, under the direction of Fr Harney, made such wonderful pilgrimages possible each year. As Deputy Pilgrimage Director, Fr Tolan brought a unique calmness and tranquillity to the planning meetings at home and in Lourdes. As Co-ordinator, my duties included travelling to Lourdes for 11 February, the date of the first meeting of our Lady and St Bernadette in 1858. Each year, around that date, representatives of Pilgrimages to Lourdes from throughout the world gathered there to attend to travel, transport and accommodation arrangements for the pilgrimages that would take place in the coming months. In the case of Hallam Diocese, that would consist of about 500 pilgrims each year. Fr Harney and Fr Tolan attended to the religious planning and ceremony booking arrangements.
It was following the first of these February planning meetings that I experienced Fr Tolan’s great wit and humour. In those early days we travelled by train from Doncaster to and from Lourdes. They were arduous 8-hour journeys each way and any opportunity for humour was very welcome. On this occasion, however, the visit had been particularly sad. We stayed at the great Liverpudlian Sr Benign’s house in the centre of Lourdes. Sadly, during our stay, she died during the night and this was on all our minds as we journeyed home. Our train drew into a station outside London during the return journey; the engine stopped and there was silence just as Fr Tolan began to speak, “Ee, we ‘av supped some” he said in an exaggerated Yorkshire accent! Until then we had been competing with the normal sounds of a train as it travelled along its rails, but in the sudden silence, Fr Tolan’s distinctive voice resounded throughout the carriage to the alarm of other passengers to see two priests and a lay person making such a statement! Needless to say, all that we had “supped” were copious amounts of tea and coffee! There are many more examples of Fr Terry’s wit, nearly always delivered in a dead-pan style which added to the humour!
It was during my first visit to Lourdes when there was a break in the planning meetings that Fr Tolan asked if I would like to see some of the places of interest in Lourdes. There followed a leisurely stroll from place to place around the Domain and beyond with a fascinating commentary that brought this wonderful place of apparition by Our Lady to St Bernadette to life. There and then it was decided that such a tour would be an important part of our itinerary on future Hallam Pilgrimages. From that year on, “Fr Tolan’s Tour” became an item on our published Pilgrimage Programme. Meeting at the Crowned Virgin statue, a large group would follow Fr Tolan around the Domain and to various places so closely linked with the life of St Bernadette. He never referred to notes during those tours and of course had no need for a microphone! I joined many of those tours or walks over the following years and found each one new and fresh, during which I always learned something that I had not seen or heard on previous pilgrimages. Sadly, “Fr Tolan’s Tour” will never be part of the Hallam Pilgrimage programme again.
We were all delighted when, in recognition of his service to Lourdes and its pilgrims, like Fr Harney, Fr Tolan was appointed a Canon of Lourdes. In the 10 years since leaving Doncaster, we have been privileged to exchange Christmas cards with him and to learn about life in the Holy Spirit, Dronfield, to which he moved from Our Lady of Sorrows Armthorpe, and then from St William’s in Sheffield, his final parish before retiring in 2011. Fr Terry died on Monday, 20 April. May he rest in peace. Air dheis Dé go raibh a n’anam.