Obituary: Abbot Patrick Barry, headmaster, cleric

Born: 6 December, 1917, Wallasey, Merseyside. Died: 21 February, 2016, Ampleforth Abbey, North Yorkshire, aged 98.

Abbot Patrick Barry, headmaster turned around fortunes of Catholic Eton. Picture: Contributed

Abbot Patrick Barry was widely regarded as a gifted headmaster who turned the fortunes of Ampleforth around leading the school to be dubbed the “Catholic Eton”. Such was his kudos that he became the first Roman Catholic to lead the Headmasters’ Conference (HMC), the association of leading independent boarding and day schools.

Despite his formidable, fearsome reputation and nickname of “the Black Mole” (an apparent reference to both his aloof demeanour and the colour of his habit), Barry was a shy, calm, softly spoken man capable of quick, dismissive ripostes if required, but who nevertheless commanded utter respect and devotion from his pupils. Many also found him unfathomable: one boy expecting a punishment was asked to fetch a copy of The Times, read aloud the crossword clues and enter Barry’s answers; within the allotted 15-minute time span, Barry had completed it.

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Born in Wallasey, Merseyside, in 1917, Noel St. John Barry, (he took the name Patrick on becoming a monk) was the son of an Irish doctor. Originally destined to be educated at another Benedictine school, aged 10, he was eventually sent away to Ampleforth because his mother refused, at the height of the Depression, the expenditure of buying three tailor-made black suits as school uniform.

On arrival, Barry was greeted by the headmaster Father Paul Nevill, who had recently introduced boarding houses and would duly become his mentor. Although originally destined to become a doctor, after seven years at Ampleforth, Barry sought to become a priest. His family conceded and he joined the monastic community in 1935 and was professed as a monk on 23 September 1939.

He completed a degree in Classical Mods and Greats at St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, but hopes of further study in theology, only possible at that time at a continental university, were thwarted by the outbreak of the Second World War. He was ordained priest in 1945.

Returning to Ampleforth, Barry became the school librarian and head of classics. As a monk he played an important part, with Sir Sydney Cockerell, in the revival of italic script and in time became a master calligrapher, promoting it among his brethren for even the most trivial of messages; he was Vice-President of the Society for Italic Handwriting for some time. He was also devoted to teaching less talented students, schooling generations of boys into producing a distinguished script which captivated examiners into misjudging their intellects.

In January 1954, he became Housemaster of St Wilfrid’s House and soon after Deputy Head, which included the duties of Director of Studies. Over this period, while befriending the architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, he played an invaluable role in pushing for the building of the Abbey Church, which was completed in 1961.

Three years later Barry was appointed headmaster. Realising that change was afoot with the swinging sixties, the Cold War and Communism and boys seemingly starting to question authority, he organised school forums for all to attend to air their views and grievances. Despite his lack of small talk, he even visited the homes of parents who were worried about their sons and exhibited a warmth that was in stark contrast to his fearsome reputation and persona.

During his tenure, he also assembled a strong body of lay teachers as the school’s focus moved to academic achievement as well as developing rugby and music. He believed that the future of the church depended on the laity.

Despite being a moderniser, Barry was ultimately a monk and thus accustomed to a Spartan lifestyle, which he allowed to spill-over into school life; pupils’ accommodation was not updated with heating at a premium and boys often waking-up, in the winter months, to semi-frozen towels at the end of their beds and with up to 40 boys sharing one set of toilet facilities. On some issues he was remarkably more liberal; smoking among sixth formers was permitted after 4pm with parental permission.

In 1975, his contribution to education was recognised when he was elected as the first Catholic chairman of the HMC. Upon retiring in January 1980, he took a sabbatical working in parishes in Cardiff and East Dulwich, before being elected the sixth Abbot of Ampleforth in April 1985, then the largest of Benedictines in England. Re-elected in 1992, he retired from office in March 1997.

The following year he went to live at St Louis Abbey, Missouri, USA, whose founding he had played an important role. While enjoying life there he undertook frequent and sometimes lengthy visits to Santiago, Chile, to work as a mentor to three lay-led co-educational day schools modelled on Ampleforth, established by José Manuel Eguiguren, after he had flown to Ampleforth in 1981. Eguiguren was a founder of the Manquehue Apostolic Movement in Chile and Barry later wrote the movement’s history, publishing his first major book, A Cloister in the World, in 2005 at the age of 88. He also lectured on monastic history both in St Louis and in Santiago.

Aged 91, Barry returned to Ampleforth Abbey, where he lived in the monastery infirmary and, despite failing hearing and being confined to an electric wheel chair, he took an active part in community life where he was sought for his spiritual advice and acute judgment and known for his warm friendship.

He continued to teach and write until shortly before his death.