Obituary: James Canon Friel, a loving pastor of souls

The Very Rev James Canon Friel, who has died aged 86, was a loving pastor of souls renowned for his intelligence, love of music and teaching ability.

Parishioners at St Mary’s in Haddington, where he served from 1993 to 2013, fondly remember him.

Friend Allan Doyle said: “During Fr Jim’s tenure in Haddington the old organ gave up. We looked at all sorts of options for replacement, including a new pipe organ which would have cost a very large amount of money.

“He was keen to do the right thing to support the church and enhance the liturgy, but couldn’t bring himself to go ahead. He looked at me and said, ‘God didn’t put us here to buy organs – that money must be used to do good.’ A digital alternative was sourced instead.”

At his Golden Jubilee Mass in 2006, pupils from St Mary’s Primary presented Canon Friel with his own stole. It included images of his favourite things, including The Eucharist, coffee, chocolate, football and france.

Mr Doyle added: “He was so delighted with this work of art that he refused to wear it under his chasuble, saying, ‘It wouldn’t be fair to the children to hide their beautiful work’. He wore the stole on all the children’s special occasions.”

Becoming a priest

James Friel was born and raised in Lennoxtown and was one of eight children.

Sister Claire Gonet said: “Mum wanted him to finish St Ninian’s before going to Blairs (junior seminary) but he insisted, and our parish priest at the time said you might as well let him go now because he’s going to go anyway!

“He was the first to have a car and he used to take us trips down the coast – so I remember him being the fun brother.”

After Blairs he attended St Sulpice in Paris, as a seminarian of the Archdiocese of St Andrews & Edinburgh.

Fr Thomas McNulty attended both Blairs and St Sulpice with him and they were ordained to the priesthood together at St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh on 5th August 1956.

Fr McNulty said: “He was an extremely intelligent person and a good preacher. I remember as a deacon he was the only one among us invited to preach during advent in St Sulpice. His French was very good to be given that accolade.

“It’s quite remarkable that, 65 years later, I can still remember he preached about John the Baptist being used by God to prepare the way for the Lord.”

Immediately following ordination, he served for 14 years on the seminary staff at both Blairs and St Vincent’s College at Langbank in Renfrewshire. He then served as Archbishop’s Secretary to Cardinal Gordon Joseph Gray and also in the parish of St Mary’s in Leslie, Fife.

Parish life

Canon Friel's longest periods in parish life, however, came in Stirlingshire and East Lothian with many years of service given to the parishes of Christ the King in Grangemouth (1983-1993) and St Mary’s in Haddington (1993-2013).

He loved animals and nature and often had a family dog to stay in the presbytery. In Haddington he enjoyed his pot garden at the back door which also housed extensive bird feeding paraphernalia. This inspired the opening him of his requiem Mass, and one of his favourites, 'All Creatures of our God and King'.

For the last two years, he lived at the Holy Rosary Residence care home in Greenock. He concelebrated daily Mass up until a week before his death when he became unwell.

Claire, a volunteer at the care home, said: “The staff here called him ‘the smiler’– he always looked content. He was a very vibrant priest - he was a servant of God and did that to the best of his ability. He was a talented teacher and a very loving pastor.”

Canon Friel died peacefully at the Holy Rosary Residence on Tuesday 24th December.

The requiem Mass takes place today (Monday 6th January) at St Mary’s Church in Haddington, with burial at St Mary’s Cemetery.

Very Rev James Canon Friel, 09/09/33 - 24/12/19. Requiescat in pace et amore.