Brother Thomas Declan Woodhouse (1901-69)

Obituary by W. D. Foley

In the spring of 1916 the Superior General, Brother Calasanctius Whitty, and his Council were meeting to consider the applications made by those who wished to enter the Congregation of Christian Brothers. Among the young men who sought to become Brothers was one Tom Woodhouse, a pupil in the senior class of the Christian Brothers’ School in Nenagh, County Tipperary, in the heartland of Ireland. The letters required from senior members of the community to assist the Council at work contradicted one the other. The writers were men of reputation in Ireland and known to be loyal and conscientious. One wrote in strong support of Tom Woodhouse, attesting to his determination, his strong character, his good family background, his ability and his intelligence. The other writer did not think Tom was at all suitable. He was strong-willed, worse still, there appeared to be some marked difference of opinion between the boy and his father, who was alleged not to approve of his son’s application form. The letters are still in existence or were a few years ago. The final outcome of the Council discussion was that Thomas Woodhouse was to be admitted as a postulant and to present himself on 1st July 1916.

So aged fourteen and one-half years of age, Tom left his large family. There is a tradition that there were twelve children and later events would show that Brother Declan, as he became, was deeply attached to his brothers and sisters. Declan was a reserved man and did not talk much of his childhood and early years but he was fully alive to his world.

1916 – the Great War was grinding into its bloodiest stage and many Irish regiments in the British Army suffered heavy casualties and there was many a sad home in Ireland. German success in submarine warfare was hitting imports of foodstuffs and people were increasingly and severely rationed, and mealtimes drab and insufficient for young appetites. 1916 – The Easter Rising was a victorious failure and brought the time for Irish independence very much nearer. Thirty years would pass and Declan would live through another period of war, slaughter and food rationing.

After a year of novitiate spent in St. Mary’s, Marino, Dublin, Declan made his first profession on Christmas Day 1917. With a modicum of teacher training he was assigned to the Richmond Street community where his spiritual and professional lives were nourished by precept and example. Easter 1920 found him in England, in St Edward’s College, Liverpool. And for the next forty-nine years he was to devote – the word is apt – his life to work in England.

Declan and a number of young brothers of his time undertook studies that would eventually lead them to a BA degree from London University. By day they spent six hours in school, teaching part of the syllabus prescribed for secondary schools in England. In the evenings and at weekends, and during their vacations, they worked at fulfilling the requirements of a tough correspondence course, which aimed at success in the external examinations for the award of a Bachelor of Arts degree. The boys in his classes did not know how the teacher filled in the idle moments when the school closed at 4 p.m. in the afternoon and did not begin again until 9 a.m. the next morning, not to mention the long week-end from Friday afternoon at 4 p.m. until Monday at 9 a.m. that followed. And as for the long holidays that teachers enjoyed, well…! Some of these boys later became Christian Brothers and lived with Declan and companions. These youngsters joined communities after three and four years, completing a professional course of teacher training and gaining a university degree, and could only admire the true grit of their immediate seniors who climbed the peaks of learning the hard way. Declan was now teaching senior classes at St. Brendan’s College, Bristol, when he sat his BA degree examination. He was freed from school for three months of preparation before he sat the crucial papers, which satisfied the London University examiners that he was worthy of the Bachelor of Arts degree. And he could look his lay colleagues in the eye as their equals intellectually as well as professionally. A sour note surely? Alas! But true and for some years an unpleasant odour was to persist until the fresh breezes of time and maturity cleansed the atmosphere.

It would be gratifying to think that the contemporary secular atmosphere did not seep into our communities in England. The year 1932 was when Declan got his BA degree was the year when the world’s economic system took a fearful battering. And there was suffering throughout the world, and North America and Western Europe felt the pain most of all. While the Roosevelt administration helped the USA slowly to haul themselves upright to self respect, Western Europe saw the growth of dictatorships, Communist and Fascist. The western world was slowly teetering towards armed conflict in the hope of finding wealth and security by war. England suffered financial disaster and mass unemployment. The brothers’ schools relied on pupils’ fees for income and school rolls declined as parents’ income fell. Declan was in his thirties, energetic, qualified and static. Not quite, for war came and hit the city of Bristol hard, literally, for German air raids brought terror and destruction all around St. Brendan’s. Declan together with brothers from Ireland could not gain brief respite on vacation in his native land because travel between Ireland and Great Britain was forbidden by the military authorities, unless for those joining the armed forces in England.

Blackpool, in peace time a well known holiday resort, in wartime a vast training camp for those recruited into the Air Force, was Declan’s next posting. The town is on the coast, in the North West of England and there are people who find it attractive. He found it an escape from the harassment of German bombing. Also it was not very far from Liverpool where the brothers had a numbers of communities and in them were those of Declan’s background and his way of thinking.

In 1920 when he came to England there were three communities. Now in 1943 there were nine, but in 1943 still under the governance of the Superior General and Council. Local superiors and headmasters cautiously carried out their duties according to the book and sought to please. Declan was one of a group that did not subscribe to the philosophy of safety first and he and his companions spoke freely about their frustrations. Declan never set himself up as leader, he was naturally gifted, he wrote and spoke fluently, at times with wit, at other times with a degree of sharpness that could be cutting. One does not know whether he and his friends realised that the same process of scrutiny of the status quo was going on in the armed forces. In government circles while the war was being fought vigorously and ruthlessly, high officials in the Government Civil Service working with university dons and members of learned societies were drawing up plans for a revitalised education system open to all irrespective of race, creed or colour and certainly not sliced into layers according to social status.

Nursery schools right through to higher education in university, there was to be a place open to every child capable of profiting from education and training offered. For the vast majority of pupils this would be free of charge and in many cases students in higher education would be given a grant to help them pay the costs of travel, board and lodging, books and sundry expenses. When planning for this educational reform was complete it was incorporated into the British legal system by the Education Act of 1944 even before the war in Europe, on the seas, in the Far East was over. At the same time as reform of the educational system was undertaken, detailed planning was begun for a free National Health Service, a social service that would look after the poor, the physically and mentally handicapped, the aged, the unemployed. Paradise seemed on the menu as soon as the war ended, or so those in power and authority thought.

Younger brothers in our British communities who had family and friends serving in the armed forces, or in munitions factories targeted by German bombers were hearing grumbles of social discontent, even of mutiny. The national government had been in for too long; there had been no election for a government for years, many in authority were aging and out of touch with the real world. It would be naive to think that there was no resonance around the refectory tables or in the community rooms, or on walks.

The English Province was established in 1945. Two years later there followed elections to the General Chapter, the first for nigh seventeen years, and Declan Woodhouse was one of the three delegates from England. There is not much written about this chapter. Rumour has it that Declan spoke forcibly. As far as the English Province was concerned there was appointed a Provincial and a council that was attuned to the vibrations of the times and ready to make full use of the new education and social reforms. Declan Woodhouse was appointed superior and headmaster of St. Joseph’s College in Blackpool and rose to the challenge. Here it would be well to let a brother, who knew him well and who saw him at work as head of a secondary school and who has had hands-on experience of heading a school during a period of challenging education reform, describe Declan at work in school and in the resulting religious, official and social contact that perforce came his way. The writer is Brother J. C. Sreenan.

I arrived at St. Joseph’s College, Blackpool, on 5th September 1950. I was then twenty-two years of age and had spent two years teaching chemistry to the senior classes in St. Edward’s College, Liverpool. Brother Declan Woodhouse was my new superior and also head of the College. Declan proved himself to be a headmaster of the highest quality. He set high standards and led by example. Not only was he a brilliant teacher admired by his colleagues on the teaching staff but highly respected by the pupils he taught and still remembered in the Blackpool region with great affection. He undertook large-scale building work to meet the needs of a growing school population and to equip the college to provide facilities that would enable it to meet the challenge posed by the Government in the school curriculum; the provision of extra classrooms and facilities; the building and equipping of chemistry and physics laboratories which enabled teachers and pupils to understand the new syllabuses drawn up mainly by university teachers with the purpose of both making the subject relevant to the modern world and also leading on to the higher courses available in university education. Declan was not the least afraid to prepare suitable students for the challenge presented to those who sought entrance to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Into the school curriculum he introduced orchestral and choral music and recruited highly qualified staff to prepare the boys for music festivals where soon St. Joseph’s College, Blackpool, became known over a wide area of northern England with its strong musical tradition. Brothers and lay colleagues were inspired by his example and a senior lay member of staff declared to his colleagues lay and religious, "Brother Woodhouse was the finest headmaster that St Joseph’s College ever had."

There was a price to be paid though. When his six-year period of office came to its end in 1953 he was sent to teach in St. Joseph’s College, Stoke-on-Trent, in the English midlands. Declan, exhausted though he was after his stint in Blackpool, tried to keep up the pace of work he thought he owed to his new students. The result was a severe stroke that hampered him for the rest of his life; his movements slowed down and he lost the sight in one eye. His recovery was too long and slow for his liking; he wanted to get back into the classroom. And he did, but in the beautiful and peaceful surroundings of some of the finest English countryside. Juniorate, Novitiate, Scholasticate and Provincialate were housed in a large mansion in Toddington at the foot of the Cotswold Hills in southwest England. Declan taught English to the scholastics to prepare them for university entrance, and to judge by examination results, he was most successful in his work.

For Declan, Toddington was a place of relatively easy access from London and Bristol. From London came one of his brothers and a niece with family news; from Bristol came a number of his ex-pupils. Declan was deeply attached to his family and when the time of his golden jubilee came around he looked forward to visiting them in the USA. It was not to be and his disappointment was both audible and visible. The Bristol group, led by Monsignor Buckley V.G. came for an evening meal. One hesitates to describe the proceedings as rowdy, but that a good time was had by all was unmistakably evident.

Later the Monsignor invited Declan to stay with him in Bristol where he could meet ex-pupils. It was from Monsignor that we learned that Declan was not an enthusiastic supporter of the liturgical changes made during Vatican II and especially as they were taken up by those employed in the religious formation of the novices and scholastics. But he was an example to the young people in his faithful attendance at all religious exercises and he seemed to have a premonition that his time on earth was drawing to a close. It was the end of the teaching term; the examinations had been written; Declan was getting slower in his movements around the place. His superior summoned up the courage to ask him if he would accompany the Provincial who was going to Dublin on business and who would arrange for Declan to have a spell of rest in hospital where the medical team could give him a thorough health check. Surprisingly he agreed. When he came downstairs to get into the car, which would take the two of them to the airport, Decline’s luggage consisted of one small case.

For a short time he enjoyed the hospital stay, especially as there was another brother there, and they could get together for long talks, Decline’s favourite pastime other than reading. One night they had a long session and it was near midnight when Declan went out to his own room. The nurse on duty looked in on Declan at midnight to see that all was well. It was; he had gone to God, as he would have liked, smoothly and unobtrusively. And may he rest in peace.

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