Father Owen McGreal's Memories

Items in this story:

Fr. Owen McGrail transcription, recorded on 11/01/2023 at The Paul Sartori House, Haverfordwest.

Present: Shamus Buckley (SB), Kiara Quimby (KQ) and Fr. Owen McGrail (Fr.OM)


00:00:06 SB: Good morning, as it still is, Father Owen and thank you for coming. Can I ask first of all, if you give your full name?

00:00:15 Fr.OM: Father Owen McGrail.

00:00:16 SB: right, and do we have permission to record this interview?

00:00:20 Fr.OM: Yes.

00:00:22 SB: Right, and for the purposes, where and when were you born?

00:00:25 Fr.OM: I was born in Galway, Ireland, erm, brought up there.

00:00:33 SB: and when?

00:00:35 Fr.OM: 1935.

00:00:36 SB: right, and how did you meet Father Paul first?

00:00:40- 1:36 Fr.OM: As a curate in Llanelli in 1974, he was then the parish priest of Haverfordwest, and erm, he visited his family regularly in, in Swansea but on route,

He called to the presbytery in Haverfordwest. there was Canon Schwartz and Father Darmody later and we met him, I met him then. There was the first time I met him, and then we obviously, were around the same age at the time and we became friends. We, regularly, he'd call in. We, nearly all the time he’d call in to, to Llanelli on his way. Usually very late at night and erm, and erm, er, we'd have a chat and, and er, and then we got to know him in the, in the years later. It was five years in Llanelli as a curate, so we met regularly. You know, we'd go for meals and, and things, so you know.

00:01:37 SB: And what would you say is your, those early impressions of of the man himself?

00:01:42- 02:44FR.OM: Well, he was, he was. He was certainly extremely gregarious, so he, he was erm, you know, easy to communicate with, you know, easy to become friends with.

He was, erm you know, erm funny. He was very, very, very, very witty. His remarks, you know, on in descriptions of people was with. You know? Erm, er, Very, he seemed to. I'm, I'm, outline, I'm saying he was, he was, you know, jolly, but also had a serious points. You know, he was clearly interested in, in, in people, in their welfare. You know, he wasn’t, just, you know, prayerful as we would expect a priest to be.

But he was, you know, always interested in the welfare of people and er, and, and especially those unfortunates you know, of the wafes and the strays of this world and always a compassion. There was a compassion about him. About those who were less fortunate than he was, even though he himself came from a fairly, you know upper middle-class background.

00:02:55- 03:04 SB: Er, before this interview started you, you were telling us your favourites some of your favourite stories. So, and for the benefit of the recording, could you repeat some of those please.

00:03:06 - 05:23 Fr.OM:

Well, some of the, like, like the favourite stories. The favourite recollections I have was him during his three months in Singleton and Sancta Maria, you know, facing a terminal illness and this is where his, where he sort of came erm, you know that he, that he, that he, that his character seemed to to to come to the fore, you know he... His approach to his terminal illness was very positive, you know, and he could still retain his sense of humour you know, and during those times like he would recall, recall some of, of incidents but in in this in in as I've been mentioning to you the the incident.

The incidents that relate to, to his period as parish priest that he would recall to us. You know these were the funny ones he really like, he, he the, the one which you know mentioned in the in the in the mass about the, the, the time that Bishop Fox was visiting the parish and he always visited the sick and he took Father Paul with them. To visit the sick and do the blessings and Paul came back then, they came back after a very, very lengthy and you know, hard working afternoon.

But the whole sick of the parish, Bishop Fox said to him, you know, “Paul, thanks, be to God, you know that's over now”. He said, you know. And yeah, “oh, it's not over yet.” he said (Referring to Father Paul) and he said, “oh dew...” (Referring to Bishop Fox).

“You have to visit the Labour Club.” He said (Referring to Father Paul).

“Oh really?” he said, “Do I have to?” (Referring to Bishop Fox).

“Yes,” he says, “my Lord,” he said, “because I bet £10 I'd bring you in” (Referring to Father Paul). and, and to give him, give him credit. Bishop Fox came into the Labour club in all his regalia, you know and had a pint with the with the boys, that's, you know a familiar one. Erm, The, his. Another-

00:05:23 SB: The gardening story?

00:05:24-00:07:29 Fr.OM: The gardening story? Oh yes, the, he was as as you know, Paul was very, very interested in the needs of the underprivileged and as at every presbytery, the, these people came to the door. I mean, we all know what happens. You know, it’s, it's their final refuge and they expect the priests to help them. You know, economically, now there's one. The one case where he, where in one particular case, where this chap came to the door and he wanted and he told him this cock and bull story about his, his, his uncle being dead in Ireland and he, and he wanted the the fare to fish- from Fishguard fair to Ireland.

And he put up this famous story and Paul gave him quite considerable amount of money to, to cover the fares. So OK, he went off later on, Paul, as he usually did, visited the Labour club, you know 10 now, just now before closing usually.

And who do you think was at the bar? Absolutely stocious drunk.

That's the fellow he gave the, he gave the, the, the fare to, the fare to Ireland to. So, Paul was so furious, you know. You know nearly sort of well, he had to be prevented from physically.


And he said “You,” he said “this is, this is the the fare to Ireland was, was spent, you know? Drinking the afternoon”. That's the sort of story, you know that and then you know but that didn't stop him. You know, again, you know.

00:07:30 SB: no, you said, he said, there was a break in the presbytery, and he, he ended up going to defend-

00:07:35-00:09:18 Fr.OM: Yeah, Yeah. That's right, that's right. Yeah, that that's another case. It's typically, I'm trying to bring out the point that, that he had a great heart, and you know, he, he, he even though and he still was human.

You know he could sometimes- and the the break into the presbytery is, is, is a well-known story where they, they… This chap broken and then not. I'm sure, I hope I'm accurate in this, but I don't know did they-? Did he take things? But he threw things out of the window, clothes of his. They used to come later on I don't know so the police were called and he, the police, you know, indicted him for this. And there was the Magistrates Court and Paul went down to the Magistrate Court and defended him, in front of the magistrate. Claiming that you know, maybe he needed things more than he did, that was, and that was one case I can note, but that was a regular case.

You know that he would defend people who not just breaking into the presbytery, you know in any particular position whom we'd have known he, he regularly defended. He regularly appeared at the magistrates’ courts in defending people, and so that's you know, these are typically. These are stories which bring out his humanity and his, his sense of of of recognising the needs of people, and therefore the backgrounds you know which we all you know were…Could be could be responsible for what for their behaviour you don't know.

00:09:19 SB: And the background, that was quite different to his own operation.

00:09:21-00:10:37 Fr.OM: For to, his own upbringing, which was upper middle class really, but he had tremendous consciousness of the needs of the unfortunate and the underprivileged.

And again, it all applied to the sick. You know, because were, were the sick were concerned, they were a top priority to him, you know. And of course ending up with his, his notion of a of a Hospice.

Because he realised at that particular time and that you know, historically, hospices were in were a rare, rare institutions and he had this idea that there should be a place.

I, I think that, that the original plan came because of a housekeeper, because Mrs. Dursley, whom I didn't know and when she got very ill and, and at the end there was no place she could go. I have an idea that that was the actual, initial reason why he, he, he thought of the Hospice. You know that there should be a place where these people should be. You know, given refuge and and there wasn't anyone locally, you know.

00:10:38 SB: And you said first of all, he was interested in, with the generosity of his, this aunt in Jersey interested in the house first of all.

00:10:48 - 00:11:00 Fr.OM: That's right, that isn't. Yeah, I mean my, my knowledge my he, he, his, his initial point was to have a, have a residential Hospice. I think I mentioned that in my talk.

00:11:01 SB: Yeah.

00:11:02-00:12:27 Fr.OM: And that was initially, and he wants a large property, you know, and he had, he had, he had his eyes on certain properties in, in the Haverfordwest area, you know? So, that was his initial so erm, because as you know, as, as, as of obviously.

During his illness his he's he, he did. He did mention regularly in my talks- visits. You know, the, the Hospice, but naturally he was more interested than in in the in, in his own spiritual future you know. I mean, he didn't mention it that often. You know towards the end. He, he, but, but he did mention many, many times. You know that that he hoped that that's, that, that project would continue after him, you know, and, and it was later on as we know that, that the, the committee had to decide on Hospice at home and to make… What, what part he would play, you know, if God had given him the help? I suppose, I suppose he, he would certainly go along with, with, with the project as, as because he would take the advice of the Bishop, you know, and which I had to take. And and you know…

00:12:28 SB: And you said that as regards to that, that you came off the initial committee and that there would be a more- the bishop decided…

00:12:35 - 00:15:45 Fr.OM:

That's right, I mean. That’s right, yeah. Yeah, that's that's. That's an important point, really. I mean, I at the beginning you know there was the talk of it.

I mean, Michael Burke and Russ and Mike Stalbo, and those they, we got together. I mean, we just talked, you know, about now continuing his his his, his, his, his legacy and we talked about, about it and what, what, what we do and what sort of thing and so and I, I, obviously since involved the parish I would have to, to communicate that to the Bishop you see, this is now. We hadn't not actually created, we just talked together.

I think we; I don’t know where we met, the Presbytery and we agreed. You know, that obviously you know, a thing like that owned by the parish would have to get the consent of the bishop and I I, as far as I know, whether I, I think we had a meeting with Bishop Fox and he mentioned to me and and I was already my idea, an idea that had in mind that it was a big thing to undertake, and he then brought the point up. He said that, that, the, the, the, the idea was good and he was all for it but he said it should, It should not from the beginning be a Catholic thing.

Or a parish thing because it's too big for the parish to, to undertake that. And especially a communicant involvement. You know, which again, we, we, we, we, he was brought up and he said, and this this small little group that we had, agreed that this was the only way they could do it.

Then, but he also said to me. Then he said, that he said, would be an idea that what I'd while I'd be part of the of the whatcha’ call but officially, I should not be on the committee and so and but but he said that to the staff you, you know, encouraging them and supporting them and then the the the the official committee set up. I was not part of the official committee, and then they agreed that it would be, and then we had obviously great. You know, we I there was. I was a member of the comintican group. You know, the the the paternal round and they were all the, they, they, including Cannon Harvey, was a great friend of Fr. Sartori. You know he was. He was vicar of Saint Martins at the time. He was very supportive, and he became, you know, very, very supportive and and they he set off them with the initial committee. I'm not sure.

I know some of them obviously, and they set up the the the, the the Committee then which put the whole thing in motion and got and and got you know charitable status and various things like that so, so that but that I, I'm pretty certain that Paul would would have would agree to that too, you know that and I'm sure that Bishop Fox would have brought the same point up in there.

00:15:46 SB: Can I ask you to recount what you said, which I found interesting the, when erm, He was in Withybush and the diagnosis was that Bishop had been told and for priest that he that the diagnosis was was terminal and he had to be told, that story. If you could repeat that one?

00:15:58- 00:22:29 Fr.OM: Yeah, yeah. Yes, yes, yeah that that's that's the story which you can hear. He recalled to me In in, in Singleton and also I, I learned it from Canon Kanan, God have mercy on him. Initially he was in Withybush and the, the, the consultants, you know, and you know, went through the procedures and finally, mentioned to the Bishop and to Cannon Kanan, who was the dean, that really, this is very serious, and that, that would be palliative care and so it came to the point then of, of, of telling him. and he had his own particular ward- cubical in Withybush. So Canon Kenan and then had this sad sort of job at telling.

And Sheamus. you know, went in and and he said it wasn't easy for either of them because while Sheamus was, you know, different characters still, they were good friends.

So, he, he received it according to Sheamus without any great emotion. He just said that he would need half an hour to reflect personally on this news and that Sheamus, as he called him, would come back in half an hour, and then he'd tell him his reaction, so of course when Sheamus went back it was. It was quite a different mood and he said now If God something says that, you know.

“If God wants me”, he said. “I accepted it,” he said. “But he's got to expect to fight”.

So, he said, “I'm not sitting under this, and I want all the treatment” and he said I think he mentioned two facts with the power of prayer and the prayer of the parish. And you know that God, you know, that prayer can change things something so this whole treatment you know went from there then to Singleton. As far as I know and on to Sancta Maria.

And but that, so that was it was his approach all the time, and he went through a lot of very painful treatment. Where others might say you know palliative care.

And especially his treatment, whether it was very, you know. It, it was painful and and especially in Singleton, you know, visited him regularly. It was it was it was heavy, cross, uh, but he accepted it, you know, and uh. At the same time, except another story which I might tell was that. Which I, I often tell his. I think I told it in the church that towards the end of his, you know, things were getting sort of close to to to the time and I visited him one evening and his family were there, including his mother.

He said to me. I want before, he said I want to see you now, he said, and he said, he said as soon as these go, he said some extent, more or less said clear, the clear the house I want to see you on your own.

And he said, there's certain things that, that we need to discuss, and he said because he said. In a week's time, he said, I could be doolally, he said, and, and I wouldn't be able to talk to anybody. So said no, we said it since I have all my, my, my, my marbles he said. I want to see you and now we talked on things, which of course I'm not going to, to elaborate on which were close to him and things. Especially I could mention the fact, projects things which in his, I think probably in his, in his work on the wider scale of looking at of, you know, the parish in he had… He had neglected and for one thing, and I need to say that like you know. He, he would... economically his, his economic and his bookkeeping was well absolutely disastrous really. He, he wasn't, he wasn't, You know, up to date at all, so he said, and certain economic, certain things he wanted undone, you know again, and I'm, you know I was quite willing to do, we said, you know things would have to be to be done so and other things which, which, which he wants to discuss and that was very emotional. And then he...

I always remember it, I was so emotional that I began to express emotion really, I suppose you could say I broke down. He said, “hold on.” he said “lad”, he said “hold on”. He said “it's me that’s dying, it’s not you” you know I mean, that's the sort of character he was and that brought me back, back to reality so I will always remember that particular incident. Why did that come in to that particular question? I don’t- But these things like can be. But that's the sort of person he was, you know. He and I must emphasise how he, you know, he, he was a tremendous example of how to accept terminal illness without giving up the ghost without, without giving up. That's which happened, and so, yeah…

00:22:29 SB: Yeah, because I think that's an, that's a new side to him that people, other people who knew him when dealing with them as parishioners and people who came to him wouldn't have, wouldn't have experienced that. So that's very important to to put down would be very-

00:22:33 Fr. OM: It is, it is. Yeah, yeah. That's right, yeah him yes.

00:22:49 SB: -Difficult to ask you, sort of, for you to sort of, which is one of the questions here, like in three words. To sum up, the man because you've summed him up and so many so many different things you could say about him.

00:23:02 Fr.OM: Well, I couldn’t think of anything more but all I could emphasise is that outside you know, he, he was gregarious. He was popular. He was, he was very much a man of the people.

He had a very, very deep spiritual life, and you know he was spiritual and he, he, you know he wasn't in any way. You know, he, he was conscious, you know. You know he didn't sometimes have what you know he, he, he, he thought that he didn't devote sufficient of his life to the spiritual but, but I, I think he did and the way this the way like.

Often it was said of him, you know that he could be. Outside, you know was, but when he got on to the altar to say mass, he was a different person.

And erm, that was said by many people that once he put on those vestments and appeared on the altar. There was nothing haphazard about what, how, how he reacted. He, he and he certainly said his prayers and he had a deep spiritual life apart, behind that, and that's that's the impression I would give for him you know, and he was very much a priest, and he never was never and never anything other than a priest.

And but, And I, I, as far as I could see, you know he had. He had the qualities of both sides. He was he both sides of the coin. He was a priest spiritual, but again he was a pastor and and he had a caring, very caring person.

00:24:52 SB: You know, underneath the outside, sort of thing, there's a, there's a foundation of...

00:24:56 Fr.OM:

Absolutely. I mean, you know there was never any doubts about the fact that, and he never he never sort of moved in any way away from the image of what a priest should be.

But and in many ways, that's the way of priests should be. I mean, the idea of you know, the old idea was the sacristy priest. You know who said Mass said his prayer, said his office. That was not his vision, and maybe there should be a pastor, you know, sort of and and that.

That maybe it's part of his. You know, when you say the the vision of a Hospice is care for for, for the in the you know the ordinary person and and the needs of the ordinary person in in the distressful situation and come to the end of their lives you know that that was part and part of his of his vision, of what a priest should do.

00:25:51 SB: And you said because she was so well known that when people were wanting to make funeral arrangements from all denominations or none-

00:25:56 Fr.OM: That's right, yes.

00:26:01 SB: would ask him to.

00:26:02 Fr.OM:

That's right, I mean, that was part of his. He he, he was so well known. That many people, who had bereavements, you know, and wanted our parents and so forth, but wanted religious service but had no commitment to a Chapel or a church.

Because he was so well known they would just mention his name. As, as someone who would help them, and he did, and he was. And then in many cases he did. You know, services and you know, especially in the crematorium you know, and, and again.

And that of course was no problem with the churches of approach either, you know, I do it myself, so that was his way of saying, you know, and he did not that he wanted people, you know. To you know before you…

That you know the that they should have religious service, if they wanted it and he was prepared to, to, to, to give it to them. And of course, the, the, the reason behind that was that of course he knew them.

00:27:13 SB: That’s what I was saying that he wasn't this orchestry priest. And so, when he's going out there like everybody says today, it's lovely to hear a man up at the alter who actually knows the deceased rather then-

00:27:17 Fr.OM: Yeah, yeah that's it. Yeah, yeah and that's right and, and you could say something about them, I mean. He, he's understood that you know, you know, and he, he was very comunical. You know he had good friends among the local clergy. You know, he got on very well with with all the local clergy and, and, and. Few in particular Canon Harvey was. Who is now retired in Tenby. He was parish priest and vicar of Saint Martins. They were good friends.

00:27:55 SB: So, he might be a man to speak to.

00:27:57 Fr.OM: He might know, like he certainly knew him, And he appeared at his at his at the masses. He did you know, he, he appeared, you know, in the congregation. So so. I don't. I don't know what health John is at the moment.

00:28:11 SB: Do you do you think that we've covered a fair bit now, is there anything else you'd like to mention?

00:28:17 -00:29:48 Fr.OM: I think, I think we have, I mean. You know. the point where I've been emphasising is that he was a man of the people.

He was very much a priest, but a priest with with conscious of the needs of the underprivileged and, and the need to help them. And and that was his vision. And therefore, that vision, which is now being thankfully, you know, being expressed in the foundation, and I think personally you know, as I mentioned in the mass, you know that that the this the Paul Sartori Foundation is probably his finest legacy.

And, and you know, and, and. To me you know, and and not alone as I mentioned. And, the, his legacy but he would be proud of what they're doing.

And, and in that sense that they are, they are keeping you know, his vision. You know as an inspirational leader in that line and that's, and that by keeping to his vision the Paul Sartori’s success, it's part of it, really, that that's about. And that's that's, and I'm so pleased that this is this. What you're doing is is being sort of is, is, is being initiated. Yeah, so

00:29:49 SB: We'll be grateful for you to come in and talk about him because you have a, an insight that very few people have.

00:29:57 Fr. OM: Yeah, I mean there's so much more, but I think that you know basically you can. (gestures to turn off recording)