Shock at death of retired priest

Retired priest, Rev Vernon Smith, All Saints Church, Leighton Buzzard
Retired priest, Rev Vernon Smith, All Saints Church, Leighton Buzzard

A retired priest associated with Leighton Buzzard’s All Saints Church has died suddenly, writes Terry Warburton.

It was a great shock for many people to hear that the Reverend Vernon Smith had died on January 23. They knew he was unwell but the speed of his death came as a great surprise to his family and to his friends.

Tireless in his work, always with time to chat and time to listen, for many people in the town he was the face of the Church as he visited them when they were sick, he comforted them when they were bereaved and helped them to say goodbye to loved ones.

Others he married, some he baptised. Pastoral work was his great strength, although he regularly led services at All Saints and in the surrounding parishes.

Leighton’s vicar, Canon Grant Fellows said: “I shall miss Fr Vernon enormously, he and I came back to Leighton Buzzard at the same time, just over 11 years ago. Since that time he has become a valued colleague and a good friend. Nothing was ever too much trouble for him. He was a faithful priest and a caring pastor.”

Vernon was born in Taunton, Somerset in 1933 but the family moved to Luton when he was two years old. His mother had been in service in Newbury where she had met Vernon’s father who was driving for the local bus company.

The eldest of three children, he went to school in Luton and was regularly attended Christ Church, sadly now demolished. It was an active church then, and he sang in the choir, rising to be head choirboy, in which role he was chosen to sing a solo in Westminster Abbey. It was “O for the Wings of a Dove” by Felix Mendelssohn, not an easy piece to master. When his voice broke he became a server and helped with verging and caretaking. This interest in the Church stayed with him for nearly all of his life.

Leaving school he took up a five-year apprenticeship with Luton Vauxhall dealers Shaw and Kilburn as a car mechanic, eventually becoming a foreman mechanic helping to prepare cars for export. A new workshop there saw him as manager for new vehicle preparation and eventually, after a company reconstruction, junior manager in the expanded Parts Department when the company became Lex.

He met his wife Ann in 1952 in Leighton Buzzard. A curate at Christ Church had been appointed to All Saints for a second curacy and Vernon had struck up a friendship with him and used to travel over to Leighton each Sunday evening to hear him take Evensong and afterwards join in a discussion group which met in Eversholt House, Grove Road. It was here he met Ann. They were married in 1955 at All Saints living at first in South Street and then in larger premises in Hockliffe Street, where their two children were born.

In 1961 they moved again, this time to Richmond Road. Vernon commuted to Luton and lost touch with the Church although Ann continued and took the children with her. They moved again, this time to Orion Way.

Something must have happened to draw him back to church and the 1970s saw him involved with youth work at All Saints and taking up serving once again. In 1983 he joined the Ministerial Training Scheme set up to attract late entrants to the priesthood, attending evening, weekend and some residential studies over three years. He came through it all with flying colours and on June 29, 1986 he was ordained deacon in a packed St Albans Cathedral. A year later he was made priest by the Bishop of St Albans.

He retired from Lex in 1989 but continued to serve at All Saints combining his priestly ministry with that of church administrator – with his background he was well qualified to do both jobs!

But he wanted more responsibility and in July 1998 he and Ann headed south to the parish of St Francis of Assisi in Charminster, Bournemouth, where former All Saints’ curate Fr Paul Berrett was vicar.

Vernon was to take responsibility for the parish whilst Paul was on a sabbatical and this proved to be good practice for a move to Newbury in Berkshire later that year, where he was licensed to the parish church of St Mary the Virgin at Speen as their non stipendiary Vicar.

In an enormous coincidence some months after his appointment he discovered a cloth on a table in the church had his mother’s name stitched into a seam. She must have attended that church at some time when she was in service 70 years or more before.

In 2003 Vernon retired for the second time and returned to Leighton Buzzard and until just a few weeks ago helped at its parish church in so many ways.

An unusual pain in the stomach had recently worried him, throughout most of his life he had enjoyed good health but this felt serious. Within weeks he died of pancreatic cancer. Surrounded by his family and with the Vicar of All Saints at his side he slipped away to his final retirement.

He was a modest man, like all of us a product of his time and his upbringing. Today he would probably have been through university and his life might have been wider and deeper, but I think the direction would have been the same. He showed that with faith and with determination and the support of a good partner there is still so much that can be achieved.

His Funeral Requiem will be in All Saints on Thursday, February 12 at 11.45am.