Barnes & Sons will be conducting the funeral of Father Bill Kirkpatrick on Monday 29th January at St Cuthbert’s Church. The following obituary illustrates the character of a man much loved and respected by all who knew him.
William Kirkpatrick – Father Bill to his many friends – was born in Calgary, Canada, in 1927. He was brought up by people who ran a nursing home for seniors, where he worked from an early age and where he developed his sensitivity to and understanding of end of life care that became such a significant feature of his later career.
In 1952 Bill moved from the far horizons of western Canada to the crowded streets of London. For the next five years he had a number of jobs including two years as cabin crew for BOAC where his tall frame and rugged features must have made quite an impression within the small planes of the day.
In 1957 Bill set off on the career path that was to define the rest of his life. He trained as a nurse and specialised in psychiatric nursing. Perhaps in part due to his experiences at the nursing home back in Vancouver where the family had moved, this was a profession in which he excelled as evidenced by numerous awards. From 1967 to 1969 he was a nursing officer at the Royal London Hospital where he helped to develop the Chemical Abuse Unit. This was the first such dedicated unit to the care of chemical dependent persons and their families.
It was at this time that Bill became ordained as Deacon followed by his ordination as a Priest and he worked at St Anne’ church in Soho. In 1979 he became Honorary Assistant Priest at St Cuthbert’s with St Mathias in London’s Earls Court. He was to remain in this part of London for the rest of his life and it is here that his ministry touched so many lives and for which he is most fondly and respectfully remembered.
The following year, with the backing of various trusts and individuals, he started Reaching Out, which he described as a hearing through listening service. Many people simply have no one to talk to or they are not heard above the noise of modern life. Father Bill maintained that listening should be an active process done in respect for the person trying to express their pain and problems. Their words must not go in one ear and out of the other, but into one’s intellect and heart. His experience with end of life care made him particularly attuned to the needs of people who are dying and their bereaved friends and relatives. Father Bill understood not just the power of words and of silence, but also of touch. He knew that the warmth of one hand upon another can help to drive away a little of the chill of life’s darkest times. He was much moved by the stories in the Bible where Christ’s feet were washed by Mary, sister of Martha, and when Christ washed the feet of his disciples. In such a hot dusty climate this was obviously very practical but it was also a gesture of profound humility and charity.
That knowledge and sensitivity and the fact that his life and ministry was based in Earl’s Court put him at the forefront of the church’s response to the AIDS epidemic when it emerged in 1983. People with AIDS then were widely considered to be literally untouchable. He was part of the Terrence Higgins Trust’s Interfaith group supporting other people of faith who were caring for people affected by AIDS and helping to inform and develop religions’ response to the challenges of AIDS. As well as being able to refer people to sources of practical help where appropriate, Father Bill would spend hours holding someone’s hand and listening as they cried out their grief, fear and anger. Before the development of new treatments in the mid-1990s most people who developed AIDS died. Father Bill conducted hundreds of funerals of mostly young men, and some women, who died from AIDS. These were not solemn black clad events but often a celebration that reflected lives full of colour cut short. He enabled a community weighed down by the horror of the epidemic and an endless river of deaths to give full expression to both its pain and its faith in the value and beauty of each and every life. Many of these were for people Father Bill had got to know and who were very dear to him.
In these early fear-filled years of the epidemic Father Bill’s faith, experiences and profound understanding of the importance of the warmth of human contact was a beacon to people with HIV. It was also an inspiration for faith communities that sometimes struggled against doctrine and custom to respond with compassion and care to the people affected. Father Bill travelled widely, sharing his knowledge and experience, including a visit to South Africa in 1996 at the invitation of Archbishop Desmond Tutu to be the opening speaker at a conference on the ecumenical response to AIDS.
In 1985 he co-founded with Richie McMullen the Streetwise Youth project in Earls Court. This unique project worked in partnership with Barnardo’s to provide support, advice and care to young men selling or exchanging sex to live. The needs of these men were very complex and Streetwise responded with a professional team that provided medical care, accommodation referrals and counselling. In 1991 Father Bill was presented with the Childline/Telecom award for twenty years’ work with young people by the Duchess of Kent and she visited the project’s centre in Earl’s Court.
Father Bill recognised that many of the needs and complex problems he saw in the young men at Streetwise were also reflected in the lives of the many vulnerable people of the area. He helped to develop the St Cuthbert’s Centre. Here people can find a hot meal and practical support infused with the simple human warmth that so characterised all Father Bill’s work.
Father Bill wrote a number of books during these busy years.
AIDS – Sharing the Pain 1988
Cry Love Cry Hope; Responding to AIDS 1994
Going Forth; A Practical and Spiritual Approach to Dying and Death 2002
Being There; Reaching Out The Listening Project 2002
Father Bill’s last years were haunted by dementia, a cruel fate for a man who had specialised in psychiatric nursing and who had done so much throughout his working life for people in pain and despair. He spent ten years in a nursing home not far from Earls Court, which had been such a focus of his life’s work. There, however, he was cared for with great affection and respect for which his many friends are deeply grateful.
Father Bill Kirkpatrick
16 June 1927
4 January 2018