At about 8 o'clock in the evening of 31st January 2012, our Brother John Forest Holden was taken very gently to God by Sister Death. It was so gentle as to be barely perceptible. He had had a very long struggle, being totally reliant on an oxygen machine for the last months of his life, but he showed tremendous fortitude and humour through it all. May he rest in peace.
On Wednesday, 8th February 2012 at 6.00pm the body was received into St Edward's Church, Gordon Road, Nottingham. The following day, Thursday, 9th February 2012 at 12 noon, the Funeral Mass took place, followed by interment at Wilford Hill Cemetery. There was a buffet reception after the Funeral in Greyfriars.
Br. JOHN FOREST HOLDEN, O.F.M.
Fr. Michael Copps, O.F.M., Minister Provincial
St Edward’s Church, Nottingham
9 th February 2012
The Light had in been in the world unknown for a period of 30 years in which He prepared, and then He took to the road. He travelled from town to town never resting on His success. Sometimes He and His disciples were so busy they did not have time to eat. It was too much for them, and so the apostolic calling had to be extended to others that the villages and towns on every continent could be reached with Christ’s message of hope. Our brother, John, shared in that calling.
Surprisingly, as we thought of John as a Lancastrian, he was born in the village of Upwood near Ramsey in present day Cambridgeshire. His father worked for the Air Ministry and moved around in his job. After a short time the family moved to Blackburn where he started school and then onto Warrington in 1952 and he went to St Bede’s Manchester for secondary school. His father got him an apprenticeship as an electrician and told him to stick at it until he was 21. After that you can do as you like. In that time John joined the Auxiliary Fire Service and his chief was keen to get him into the main Fire Service. He cleared it with his Dad and thus started a very significant period in his life. As students at East Bergholt I was on rubbish duty with John. It meant on Thursday which was housework day, he collected the bins and burnt the rubbish. After we got the fire going he would look into the flames with a far-away look and the stories, some farfetched, would flow. A story I did not hear about this time was told me by Marie Clare his sister. John was attending a house fire. They managed to get a mother out but her 2- year old child was left screaming inside. The chief said that it was too dangerous to attempt a rescue. John said douse me in water and I’ll see what can be done. In he went and a gas explosion helped him up the stairs. It was all black smoke but the screams of the child led him. He grabbed the child and dropped it out of a window to his waiting colleagues. He was too big to get out of the window and he found that the stairs had collapsed. He had to jump into a void of flame and managed to exit the building with slight singeing. He felt someone had been with him throughout and his thoughts turned to an apostolic mission.
He went to Osterley to continue his education in preparation for entry into the religious life from 1965-1967. He went to the novitiate in 1967 and then on to studies at East Bergholt from 1968-73 and on to Canterbury. He was seen by his formators as a conscientious worker, and the area he preferred was working with cars, plumbing and maintenance of boilers. Many of us wished we had spent time on such skills which often seemed more useful than theology. It was noted that he preferred to work alone. One of the things he valued in the fire service was the bonding between the men. When attending a fire you relied on your colleague and he relied on you. Here he found the seeds of the calling to apostolic life in fraternity. In our fraternities we put our independence at the service of each other and this is difficult because we value our independence. It was also noted of John that he presented himself in a brusque manner and had strong opinions. Together with this there was great sensitivity and he could be hurt easily. He was ordained in 1974 in Warrington and after a short time at the Missionary Institute in Mill Hill he left for South Africa. He was in South Africa for 7 years and he enjoyed the building of Christian communities. There was an upset at the end which I will not go into. Also the violence and killing that was going on meant he needed to get out. He came home to serve in our parishes. He was for 10 years in Osmotherley where he took up practical working in re-building the shrine there. He always seemed happy in practical work and his room is full of tools.
With his brusque manner, quite a lot of people did not take to him. The apostolic life is one that is lived in public. A priest is the celebrant at liturgy and the focus of parish life and functions. While John says God is the focus, His instruments are often in the firing line. John was a retiring character and sensitive. The call of God takes us into places we would rather not go. John was devoted to the public mission. He wondered whether the friars’ emphasis on the importance of fraternity was too inward looking and that our purpose was to bring the gospel to people by the imitation of Christ. The Order believes that it is by creating good but not inward looking fraternity that we preach the Gospel. So many people do not get on and a fraternity that is united is a great witness. John’s concern was that we might be too inward-looking and not concerned enough about people. It is a real worry.
I think that John as a man called to public mission took the call seriously, but as a retiring sensitive man he was not at home in the public eye. However what he did have a gift for was the one-to-one care for people. When I went to Forest Gate in 1999 to take over from him as Parish Priest, a number of people told me of how he had helped them. East London is a traditional entry point for people into this country as asylum seekers and immigrants often without papers; people in difficulty. Even in his long illness, people came to talk to him and found him a good listener, full of sympathy and they loved him.
At Forest Gate he suffered a heart-attack and in 2002 here in Nottingham he had a heart by-pass. From then on his life was badly afflicted by illness. He dealt with it with humour, sometimes black humour. In his Curriculum Vitae having listed his appointments he wrote, “Now awaiting next appointment in local cemetery.” He was constantly in need of oxygen in his final years. However in the midst of this time he had the joy of seeing his sister Marie Clare professed as a Poor Clare. He sat on the sanctuary at Arkley with a long tube bringing oxygen to him from the sacristy.
He spoke openly about death and this in terms of creation. God is not so much the Creator as creating; a doing word. Death is not a punishment but a stage in His creating that leads to His final purpose in creating, namely as creatures to share in the fullness of His love. We pray that that is what he is experiencing. May he rest in peace.