ST GREGORY THE GREAT, SOUTH RUISLIP

PHILIP RICHARD DAYER
1912 - 2005
A tribute by his brother Peter

Philip was born in London in 1912, the eldest of three brothers. What a contrast of living conditions in his life span! London transport was only just being converted from horse drawn buses to motorised vehicles. Street lights were by gaslight. Homes did not have a telephone, television had not been invented. Philip made with the help of a great friend a wireless set (called a cats whisker) - the first in the street in 1920 when he was only 8. There were no electric gadgets or aeroplanes and the cinemas were silent- most children just played ball games for their fun.

When he was only 2 the Great War broke out and lasted 4 years 1914-1918. During this time our father, Richard became seriously ill and our mother had a very hard time trying to manage in conditions of harsh poverty. She had a great affection for Philip and he for her which lasted their lifetime.

As a schoolboy at Haberdashers Askes at Hampstead he developed the great love of his life - cricket. At the age of 12 he was playing for the school 1st eleven with 17yr old boys. Cricket clubs all around wanted him to play for them. He was exceptionally talented behind the stumps. Had he not decided to become a priest he would almost certainly have played for his county Middlesex and even for England. He really had to choose between a career as a professional cricket player and becoming a priest. After some deliberation he chose the priesthood.

His vocation had started as a young boy around 9 yrs of age during a visit to Westminster Cathedral. There in the chapel of St Gregory the Great he became enthralled by the story of that saint and later his own parish was of course dedicated to St Gregory. He went to Ware seminary and was ordained in the Cathedral in 1937.

Two years later the Second World War came. Philip was 27 and volunteered, becoming the catholic chaplain to the Coldstream Guards. Brother Freddie and myself, Peter also joined the Territorial Army and were called up before the war started. Suddenly our mother was without her three sons!

Philip went over to France with the British Expeditionary Force in 1940 and in May of that year the debacle of Dunkirk took place. Remnants of the British Army were stranded on the beaches at the mercy of the dive bombers, machine gun and artillery fire. Philip stayed on the beaches for four days, saying mass, hearing confessions and baptising soldiers even in the sea. He told us afterwards that he baptised more men during those four days than during the rest of his life as a priest. He showed extraordinary courage and only left when ordered to do so by his commanding officer. The destroyer which took him across the channel, the SkipJack, was actually blown up on its return back to France. On the retreat through Belgium he had left his vestments, chalice and cross with the rest of his kit with a Belgian priest in the crypt of a church near Armentiers. Nearly five years later I was able to collect these items and bring them back to him in the UK. You can see the cross on the altar today.

In 1944 Philip returned to France with the Normandy Invasion as chaplain to an elite Armoured Brigade. The big battle in the Normandy Invasion was at Caen where the German strength was centred. Philip's brigade was one of the British Tank formations that tackled the German Panzer tanks and Philip was wounded with shrapnel in his leg. The driver in the vehicle with him was killed. I was at Arromanche, where we had landed, and saw him being carried through on a stretcher to a ferry to return to hospital in England. He told me that before he was wounded he had been ministering to soldiers with appalling wounds.

When the war in Europe was over he stayed on in the army as a chaplain and spent 2 yrs in Palestine where he said Mass at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. He had his very last game of cricket during this time - for the army - in Nazareth. It seems fitting that he spent his last months with the Sisters of Nazareth in Hammersmith.

In 1948 he returned to England and Westminster Cathedral. Ten years later in 1958 he was given the opportunity to fulfil a lifelong ambition to form a new parish at South Ruislip which he wished to be named after St Gregory the Great. The Diocese gave him very little help and he started with virtually nothing, living in a run down damp house and saying mass in the garage.

Philip helped design the church which was eventually built in 1966. He said his first mass in this beautiful church on Christmas Eve the same year. Cardinal Heenan came to open the church in April 1967. He had initially opposed Philip's idea to build the church as he believed the project to be too enormous and too expensive and had told Philip it would not succeed. The church was consecrated by Bishop Tickle on 1st November 1975 after all the debt was repaid. Although Cardinal Heenan was very ill at that time he made the great effort to attend the ceremony and acknowledged the great achievement Philip had worked so hard to complete. [The image shows the original architects' model The architect was Gerard Goalen whose work continues to be admired. Students visit the church quite frequently to admire the design.]

Philip told the story (perhaps well-known to those of you from South Ruislip) that at the first mass in the church a bee appeared and hovered above the chalice at the moment of the consecration. According to St Gregory this was a symbol of a community living and working in harmony. The visit of the bee proved a good omen for certainly the growth of the parish, the development of the primary school and the early repayment of the debt after 8 yrs followed. It was a magnificent effort from a small new parish and surely the enormous support of his parishioners was driven by the respect and love they felt for him.

Philip managed the parish on his own until 1985 when he finally left the parish he had formed and loved so much. Cardinal Hume was present at his retirement ceremonies and asked him to continue relief work which he did until a few years ago.

He remained living independently until Easter 2004. An apparently trivial injury caused a fractured femur with subsequent hip replacement operation followed by three hip dislocations. He never recovered from this and together with a progressive lung disorder suffered a long and painful illness over many months. Much of this time was in hospital but to his relief he was transferred to Nazareth House Nursing Home last November where he stayed until his death. He fought his last battle with illness bravely, always hoping he would get back to independence in his own flat. Sadly that was not to be and he died on Sunday 30th January. The last mass he said was on Christmas day in Nazareth House, exactly 38yrs after the first mass at St Gregory's.

Philip, at times apparently reserved and laid back, really enjoyed good conversation and his contributions to it were always worth listening to. He was a first class cook and a real connoisseur of wine. Above all he had a great sense of humour and I shall never forget the way he would throw back his head rocking with laughter. At Jean's wedding (at which he officiated), he stood up after the toasts had been made and said,

'we three brothers are all very different but we all have one thing in common - we all have the same sense of devilment!'

Not bad for a Priest!!!

We shall all miss him.

This tribute was delivered at Fr Philip's funeral on Monday 7th February 2005. The funeral was held at the Church of Our Lady and St. Benedict at Wootton Wawen.


On Sunday 21st October Bp Alan Hopes, Assistant Bishop in Westminster visited the parish of St Gregory the Great to bless a memorial to Fr Philip Dayer during the course of the morning Mass. It was a very joyous occasion made all the more so by the presence of Fr Dayer's family.

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