On April 1st 1929 the then Parish Priest of St. Joseph's died. Father Edmund O'Connor, who had. not long since celebrated his Golden Jubilee as a Priest, was buried in the village cemetery in Salacre Lane and his long funeral procession passed through a silent mourning village of closed shops and drawn blinds. The Rev. Canon Bellamy, then Vicar of St. Mary's, stood outside his church and failed to hide his tears as the cortege of his old friend passed by, and the children of St. Joseph's, at the end of the long procession of priests and mourners, carried spring flowers to the cemetery.
As one of those children, the memory of Father O'Connor has lingered over the years. My recollection is of a round, smiling man, with a booming voice which called "Hello" at the Convent gates and could be heard all the way to those of St. Mary's at the other end of the village. He knew every villager personally, both Catholic and non-Catholic, called all by their Christian names and was welcome in every home. Always at his heels was his Scots terrier dog, Prince, who used to wait in the vestry during the Mass, and when Father O'Conner reached the closing prayer "And do Thou, PRINCE of the Heavenly Host", to the delight of the children who in those days sat in the two front benches under the watchful eye of either Mother Ethelburga (Head Mistress of St. Joseph's) or Mother Sophia (Infants Teacher) the dog would howl and scratch at the door until the Mass ended and his Master joined him. He took snuff from a worn silver box which he kept in his pocket - a puzzling habit which fascinated the children.
It was said that he never owned an overcoat - he gave them away to any passing tramp who called at the Presbytery, until in his latter years his housekeeper tried, not always successfully, to hide them away.
He had a remarkable understanding of children and loved to be with them, and as soon as he appeared in the village they surrounded him. In those days the children of St. Joseph's School were privileged to enjoy an annual sports day in a field in the Convent grounds, and there used to be a huge barrel of sweets which each child was invited to dip into and take out a handful. Somehow Father O'Connor was always nearby to "dip" for the little ones with the tinier hands! Another day of great excitement was the annual children's outing to Barnston Dale. I remember the donkey rides and the organised games and races, and again Father O'Connor was in the vicinity of the sweet barrel to ensure that the smaller children got their fair share of the contents.
First Holy Communion Day was preceded by special instruction sessions which took place in Father O'Connor's study at the presbytery. Somehow, whilst managing to stress the importance of the occasion and its solemnity, he made First Holy Communion Day a joyous occasion always to be remembered. Each little girl was given a large medal inscribed "Commemoration of First Holy Communion" on a broad white ribbon to wear round her neck (something like today's "Jim'll fix it" badges!) and the boys' medals were attached to a ribbon bow which they pinned on their white shirts. Each child also received a Certificate of First Holy Communion. Mass was followed by a celebration breakfast of a boiled egg and strawberry-jammed toast, also at the presbytery.
He visited sick Uptonians in hospital, especially the children, and I have a special memory of ouch an occasion when he came to see me at the Children's Hospital in Liverpool, bearing a beautiful doll which be had 'begged' for me. we had a serious discussion on what was to be its name, and I remember I wanted to call it Rose, but he pointed out that there was no more beautiful name than Mary and I was torn with the desire to please him and yet have my own choice. He always he had the perfect solution and when I left hospital some months later I brought Rosemary home with me.
The journey to Liverpool in those days was difficult and tiring. A small single decker bus ran infrequently from Salacre Lane, which was the terminus, into Claughton Village. On arrival there Father O'Connor would take a tram to Woodside, sail on the ferry to the Pier Head and then take another tram ride or walk to the hospital he happened to be visiting. This tiresome journey was taken time and again by an ageing priest when visiting sick villagers or their children.
His Golden Jubilee was a time of great rejoicing and amid much secrecy a surprise celebration concert was organised and held in the school when fifty golden sovereigns, collected by the schoolchildren, were presented to him in a gold mesh bag. At the end of the concert he made a special request that we should sing his favourite hymn "Hail Queen of Heaven" and he stood by the piano, using the blackboard pointer as a baton, urging us to sing loud enough to be heard in Saughall Massie!
Father O'Connor, who was in fact a Londoner by birth, was by his own wish buried in Upton amongst the villagers he loved and served so well, and I still recall the sorrow of the day he died - my mother's tears and the mixed feelings of sadness and pleasure when Prince was brought to live with us. Although our little house was but a stone's throw of the Presbytery, Prince never tried to return there after his Master's death, and he was a treasured member of our household for the remainder of his years.
No history of long-ago St. Joseph's could be complete without mention of that wonderful 'Pied Piper', that kindly generous Priest who understood his children so well, a devoted Pastor whose example of true Christianity shines on down through the years, and whose memory is still held dear by those fortunate enough to have lived in his time.