Mgr Canon Thomas Joseph Gavin, MA, one of the longest-serving priests in the Archdiocese of Birmingham, died in Coventry’s University Hospital during the early hours of Christmas Day after a short illness, writes Peter Jennings.
Mgr Gavin was parish priest of St Thomas More, Coventry, 1978-2004, where he will be remembered with affection by parishioners and the wider community.
Nationally and internationally he is acknowledged as the mastermind behind the successful pastoral visit of Pope John Paul II to Baginton airfield, Coventry, on Pentecost Sunday, May 30 1982.
Two years earlier he had the idea of using the airfield, situated in his parish, for the open-air Papal Mass during the historic first visit of a pope to Great Britain.
Despite the challenges and uncertainties leading up to the visit, caused by the nearfatal shooting of Pope John Paul II in St Peter’s Square on May 13 1981 and the Falklands War that started on April 2 1982, the visit to Baginton airfield was a success. More than 350,000 pilgrims from all over the Archdiocese of Birmingham and beyond attended the Papal Mass.
Thomas Joseph Gavin was born in Coventry and baptised at St Mary’s Church in Coventry. He attended St Mary’s Primary School and then Sacred Heart Primary School in Coventry.
From an early age he desired to be a priest and so he embarked on his secondary education at Cotton College in North Staffordshire where years later he was to be headmaster. At Cotton his passion for Classics and for sport, especially rugby and cricket, began to develop.
He studied for the priesthood at St Mary’s College, Oscott, the seminary of the Archdiocese of Birmingham, from 1940 to 1946.
He was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Humphrey Bright on July 21 1946 at Sacred Heart, Coventry. At the time of his death, Mgr Gavin was the third longest-serving priest in the Archdiocese of Birmingham.
He read Classics at Christ’s College, Cambridge, graduating in 1949. He spent a year, 194950, teaching at Ampleforth, where he met a young Benedictine monk, Dom Basil Hume, later to be Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. This was the start of a lifelong friendship between them.
Fr Gavin was appointed as Prefect of Studies at Cotton College in 1950 and became headmaster in 1967, retiring in 1978. Three former pupils, Terence Brain, Kieran Conry and David McGough, are bishops.
In 1978 Archbishop Dwyer appointed Mgr Gavin parish priest of St Thomas More. He was appointed a Chaplain of Honour in 1969, and Prelate of Honour in 1978 and was the founding chairman of the Historic Churches and Art and Architecture Committees of the Archdiocese of Birmingham, 1992-2002.
He played rugby for Moseley and London Irish, and represented Ireland in the 1948-1949 season alongside Karl Mullen and Jack Kyle, gaining two caps and winning the Triple Crown.
Years later, in the book Corinthian Days: A Golden Age in Irish Rugby, Mgr Gavin told of how various archbishops argued over whether a Catholic priest should play for Ireland. In January 1999 the team met up to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their historic win.
Archbishop Vincent Nichols said: “Tom’s heart was always with the Church which he loved and served so faithfully.” Archbishop Bernard Longley said: “I thank God for his generous and fruitful service over many years and his faithful witness as a priest. May he see the light on the face of Christ.”