Obituary: Canon James Simcox, parish priest

Canon James Henry Francis Simcox, parish priest. Born: '¨29 January 1928, in Cork, Republic of Ireland. Died: November 30 2016, in Glasgow, aged 88

Obituary and background to Canon James Simcox

Canon James Henry Francis Simcox, retired parish priest of St Martin of Tours in the village of Renton, West Dunbartonshire, has died. He was 88.

Canon Simcox was wonderfully eccentric and cheerful with it and had a special gift for getting to know the congregation in every parish in which he served, most of them in poor areas in Glasgow and West Dunbartonshire.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

He was born into a prominent Irish family, who owned a large and successful bakery business in Cork, where his forebears included two Lord Mayors of the city.

Canon Simcox was named after Sir Henry O’Shea and James Simcox, both of whom were prominent in Irish politics in the early 20th century, immediately prior to the Uprising of 1916.

Canon Jim was called to the priesthood in Ireland in 1953 at a time when there was a surplus of priests there and a shortage in Scotland.

Consequently, many of the newly ordained clergy were sent to this country by their bishops to work as missionaries in Africa and in Britain’s large cities, where there was a shortage of vocations.

Canon Jim was posted to Glasgow by Bishop Cornelius Lucy, Bishop of Cork, who ordained him on 21 June 1953, at All Hallows College, Dublin, where he had undergone his formation as a priest.

He cut his clerical teeth during a temporary appointment at St Charles’ in Kelvinside, but was transferred within months to the Good Shepherd parish at Dalbeth in the deprived East End of the city.

I first met him in 1960 on a train to Dumbarton when I was going home from a back shift as a copy boy at the Scottish Daily Express and he was going to take up an appointment at St Michael’s in Dumbarton.

Like most young priests of that era, he was concerned about his appointment and wanted to know all about Dumbarton.

He also wanted to be briefed about his new boss, St Michael’s parish priest Father Bernard Magauran, who had a reputation amongst younger clergy for being strict and keeping his assistant priests on a tight rein.

At that time, there were often four or five priests in larger parishes such as St Michael’s to administer to as many as 4,000 parishioners. (The average age of priests in Scotland today is now around 70, and there is often just one priest to a parish with many of them over 80 and still active in the ministry. New priests are being drafted in from Africa and India and one Scottish diocese is training lay people to conduct rites of passage services, such as funerals.)

Canon Simcox, who was effervescent, outgoing and humorous, had a story for every occasion.

One of them was that his mother, Dolly, who was from the O’Shea side of the family, had travelled over from Ireland to see him in his new parish in Dumbarton.

Fr Magauran invited Mrs Simcox, whose father had been a knight of the realm, to dinner in St Michael’s presbytery. And when they sat down, the parish priest asked the then Fr Simcox to pour the wine.

The Canon said he was nervous and spilt some of it on the tablecloth. When Fr Magauran protested that he wasn’t making a very good job of it, Mrs Simcox leapt to her son’s defence.

“You must forgive him, Fr,” she said. “In our house it is the butler who usually pours the wine.”

Canon Jim may have come from a high-class background, but he relished his work in working class St Michael’.

The priests there served two secondary schools, Notre Dame and St Patrick’s High, and a primary school, now St Michael’s, plus two convents – the Carmelite monastery of the Holy Ghost at Kirktonhill and the Convent of Notre Dame at Clerkhill.

He was the school chaplain at St Patrick’s and the occasional confessor at the Carmelite Monastery, now at Clerkhill, where he often celebrated Mass for the nuns.

In 1974, Canon Simcox was transferred to St Paul’s, Whiteinch, and he stayed there until 1981 when Cardinal Tom Winning appointed him parish priest at St Martin’s in Renton.

Canon Simcox’s soft Irish brogue and friendly approach were more than welcome in a parish that had seen tough postwar times with high levels of poverty and unemployment, which resulted from the closure of the silk-dyeing industry along the banks of the River Leven.

The Very Rev John Chalmers, former minister of Renton Trinity Church and later Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, remembers Canon Simcox with great affection.

Dr Chalmers was his opposite number, ministering to the Protestant community in Renton.

He said: “Jim Simcox was a parish priest with a big heart and a big vision of the Church.

“At a time when the West of Scotland still suffered from visible and damaging sectarian division, he was prepared to be counter-cultural, opening the way for unheard of levels of ecumenical cooperation.

“We were ahead of our time in sharing ecumenical services and initiatives and I particularly remember the trouble that Jim went to, to ensure that my wife Liz and I had front of house seats at the Papal Mass in Bellahouston Park in 1982.”

Dr Chalmers, who is the Principal Clerk to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, added: “Both Liz and I enjoyed his company, his humanity and his humour and we will always remember his kindness and generosity as a priest and as friend.”

After 26 years of looking after the people of Tontine, Cordale and Back Street – and the many people from other parishes who went to his “quick” 5pm Mass on a Saturday – 
Canon Simcox retired.

He then joined other elderly clergy who are looked after by the Little Sisters of the Poor at St Joseph’s Nursing Home in Glasgow, where he died on St Andrew’s Day.

Archbishop Philip Tartaglia said: “Canon Jim devoted his life to the Archdiocese of Glasgow and came to love the people here. He was a devoted priest with a gift for getting to know his parishioners.

“He will be fondly remembered in all the parishes he served in during his 54 years of active priestly ministry, but perhaps especially in Dumbarton, where he was Assistant Priest in St Michael’s for 14 years, and in the Vale of Leven, where he was parish priest of St Martin’s, Renton, for 26 years. May he rest in peace.”

The Rev Robert Watt, formerly of Riverside Parish Church of Scotland in Dumbarton, said of Canon Simcox: “He was a great character and a very nice man.”

Dumbarton exile John Reilly, who lives in Denmark, said: “I remember him with affection. He always had time for a wee chat and some kind words of advice, even for a messed-up teenager like me.”

Church worker Harry Hyland, of Balloch, said: “Canon Simcox always had time for people. If there was a dinner at St Michael’s presbytery, he was told it was an hour earlier than the actual time, but still managed to be late. The people of Dumbarton Deanery have lost a true character who loved its people.”

Former St Patrick’s High School pupil John Coleman, said: “Fr Simcox was a terrific human being. I remember him coming to the school when I was 13 to teach us that very tricky subject of sex 
education. He wasn’t much older than us and he was very funny.”

Linda McKinley whose late father, John, owned Kemp’s, the High Street chemist shop, said: “What a wonderful man he was, a great friend to my father and father-in-law, Provost Jim McKinley, who was one of his fellow residents at St Joseph’s Nursing Home.”

Bill Heaney