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F. Denis Florence Sheil (1962)

A Reminiscence of Mr Harold Johnson:

Whenever F. Denis was invited to tea in Beaufort Road or Plough & Harrow Road, I always took him. If the weather was wet, he was taken and brought back by car. One day – it was the Feast of S. Valentine, and we always went through the Church – Father Denis said he would like to say a prayer for me at S. Valentine’s Altar, for which I thanked him. Outside the church, I asked him what kind of a priest Cardinal Newman was. He told me that the Cardinal was strict regarding the rules, but at the same time was very kind.

He gave me an example. One day Father Denis was feeling a bit low, so he went to the Cardinal’s room and told him he would like to spend a night at Rednall. The Cardinal answered, ‘You know Denis, a novice is not supposed to ask for privileges.’ Father Denis replied, ‘Sorry, Father,’ and as he was opening the door to leave, the Cardinal said to him, ‘Denis, you may go to Rednall, but stay one week – it will do you good.’ The day Father Denis returned to the Oratory after his stay at Rednall, the Cardinal died.

On another occasion, when I entered the Church with Father Denis, someone asked for Confession, so I sent him to the front door. F. Denis asked me what he wanted and when he learned that he had wanted Confession, he said to me, ‘I could have heard him.’ He didn’t mind being late for his tea! He thought the man’s confession more important.

‘impressive dignity, gentle manliness and Victorian courtesy.’

For those readers too young to remember F. Denis Sheil, a few facts may be of interest. He was born in Dublin in June 1865, the son of Sir Justin Sheil. He came to the Oratory School in 1875 and, in 1884, went to the Scots College in Rome to train for the priesthood. F. Denis was ordained in Rome in 1889 and entered the Oratory early in 1890 – the last novice received by Cardinal Newman. He was Superior from 1923 until 1932. He was 6ft 4in tall and, as his obituarist wrote, had, ‘impressive dignity, gentle manliness and Victorian courtesy.’ He died at the Oratory in June, 1962. I remember F. Basil Lynch’s recounting how, one summer’s evening, he was passing the open windows of a pub in Ladywood, when a voice was heard within, declaiming: ‘Father Denis says . . .’!!