Charles Heurtley

The following recollections are taken from the Oratory Parish Magazine for Easter 1997.

I remember Fr. Charles Heurtley, as will so many parishioners, especially those whose hair is now turning a little grey. They will surely have a vivid memory of a very large man with a stick and a dog, making a progress through the streets of Ladywood, surrounded by children.

The dog (or dogs, because there must have been a succession of them) were housed by parishioners and were invariable but self-willed. The children were locals, not all of them Catholics, who loved the good priest for what he was, a benevolent, happy man, who sometimes had a sweet in his pocket. Come the Autumn, this largesse occasionally took the form of conkers, pretty certainly from the garden at Rednal.

Fr. Charles’s harmony with children was nowhere more clearly evident than at their Mass on Sunday mornings. Leaning on the pulpit, he spoke to them in words they understood. One such memorable sermon stressed the importance of prayer – even despite distractions. “Prayer,” he said, “is like knitting – although you may be thinking of something else, you get the garment in the end.” Old girls of St Paul’s School will remember him well as their confessor and chaplain. Mrs Audrey Wardell has an additional reason for her memory. As a very small girl, she was made to learn the Catechism by heart (common practice in those days!), and so, being able to answer all Fr Charles’s questions, he nicknamed her “the Little Theologian” – much to her subsequent displeasure! The Oratory Scouts, a flourishing and successful group at the time, also came within his loving care, and he regularly made the effort to visit them during their annual summer camp.

The Oratory has always been famous for its Father Confessors, and Fr Charles was one of those who comforted and advised people from all over the city. Readily available at any time, his sympathetic and gentle approach saw him much in demand.

As he grew old, Fr Charles became rather deaf, and penitents confessed to him through a special trumpet in his box near the door of the sacristy. Later, too, he became less mobile, and was pushed around the parish in a wheelchair – but still with dog attached.

A member of the Congregation for 47 years (including service in the Army in World War I), he was Parish Priest for a large part of that time. Going everywhere on foot, often enveloped in a large black cloak, he was a famous figure in the locality. In fact, he was so much a part of the scene around the parish that someone has said it would not be surprising to find his statue in Chamberlain Gardens. A novel idea to which many would doubtless give their support, but Fr. Charles’s real memorial must surely remain as the influence he exerted on the lives of those who still acknowledge him as a truly great and most devout priest and a committed follower of his holy Patron, St. Philip.