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COMMUNITY SITE FOR THE JERICHO DISTRICT OF OXFORD, UK
On Thursday 22 February 2024, a packed St Andrews Church in Headington celebrated the life of one of Jericho's most important former residents, Father Michael Wright, who died in January 2024 at the age of 86. Father Michael served in Jericho for 27 years, not just as parish priest of St Barnabas but as a leader for the whole community and helped establish the Jericho Community Association.
Father Michael's association with Oxford started in In 1947 when he arrived at Magdalen College School at the age of 10 as a chorister. Then after completing his National Service, he came up to what is now St. Catherine's College and lived in Jericho in 1958 as an undergraduate. His training was completed at the Oxford Diocesan Seminary at Cuddesdon in 1964.
His efforts to reach out to everyone were evident from his first posting to a parish in Willesden Green where he worked with a large Caribbean immigrant community. Intrigued by this experience, he asked for a posting by a Church missionary society and went to the Bahamas where he worked from 1968 to 1972. He then returned to England to work in the parish of St. Stephen’s in Lewisham.
Arrival in Jericho
In 1980 he arrived in Jericho as Vicar of St. Barnabas, whose living is in the gift of Keble College. At his inauguration on 7 September 1980, a trumpet fanfare greeted a huge congregation which included many West Indian visitors from his previous parish.
As before, he soon engaged in community activities. One major contribution was his alliance with our then local councillor, the redoubtable Olive Gibbs, to make better use of the Church Institute building in Canal Street. At that point the building was being used for sports activities such as badminton and some meetings. But it was very run down. They arranged for it to be renovated by the Council and it was reopened in its present form in 1984 – still owned by the Church but occuped, for a fee, by the JCA and run as the Jericho Community Centre.
Father Michael also became a local magistrate, though he always avoided taking on cases involving Jericho residents. For a number of years he was chair of the Community Association and subsequently remained a key member. In 1979 he was also responsible for recruiting me as editor to revive the Jericho Echo which later became Jericho Online.
The vision of a new community centre
As one of the trustees of the Church Institute, he also played a central part in the decision to contribute the proceeds of the sale of the current building towards the construction of a new centre on part of the canalside development site.
Over the years, Father Michael was involved in major building works at the Church, notably the restoration of the tower and ‘bells’, and the laying of a new floor.
In October 2005, Father Michael celebrated 25 years at St. Barnabas Church – and 40 years as a priest. Both events were marked in a service at the Church at which the Bishop of Oxford spoke of Father Michael’s “long and faithful ministry” and his dedication as a “much appreciated parish priest”
After all this activity he might have been looking forward to a peaceful transition to retirement. Instead, in December 2006 at the age of 70, he found himself under arrest. A man, then aged 44, had accused him of sexually assaulting him when he was an altar boy at St. Stephen’s. These false accusations had first been made in 2000 but were not pursued by the police. Then a different officer launched the prosecution that put Father Michael’s life on hold. “To be honest”, he says, “knowing that nothing had happened, I previously hadn’t taken the issue too seriously. Now I had no choice”.
At the trial in London, the prosecution’s case soon began to fall apart. The accuser regularly changed his story and wrongly described both Father Michael and the location of the alleged assault. Other altar boys from that time rallied to testify in Father Michael’s defence. On March 27, the jury took just a couple of hours to dismiss all the charges. It subsequently emerged that the accuser had previously made allegations of assault against several other people.
Fortunately, the case was dismissed in time for Father Michael to return to his duties to conduct the Easter services for the last time. “I would”, he said, “like to thank the very many Jericho residents who rallied to my support at a very difficult time”.
His first retirement task, was to refurbish the house he moved to in Headington where he was to live for the next 17 years.
An Oxford institution
At the funeral service in St Andrews, Father Peter John, who had known Fr Michael since he himself was an undergradate at Oxford, described him as "As a faithful friend, a pastor, a wise confessor and confidante, a parish priest and a defender of local communities. A sort of Oxford institution in himself."
"One of the things that characterized his life was his love of friendship. He constantly introduced new people and fascinating individuals he taken under his wing. I dread to think how long is personal address book might have been I always imagined it as about the size of the Yellow Pages."
Father Michael was also renowned for his hospitality. He enjoyed dining out. One college bursar pointe out that he had 'wangled' dining rights at four Oxford Colleges. St Catherines because he was an undergraduate there. Magdalen because he was a chorister and later a chaplain. Keble because it was the patron of St Barnabas Church and Worcester because it was in his parish. He was the perfect high-table presence. Affable and kind and genuinely interested in whoever he ended up sittiing next to. He would have approved of the ample spread in St Andrews church hall for those who attended the service
As Father Peter John pointed out, one of his other important characteristics was his courage. "He would stick with what he knew to be right even when that even when that was unfashionalble or difficult or unpopular. He also was able to stand by people experiencing their own periods of darkness, or struggle or ostracacization, because he had experienced such things himself, and had faced them with exemplary fortitude and dignity. It was heartbreaking in later years to see him struggle with infirmity and dementia."
At the ceremony, thanks were also expressed to Father Michael's friend, Oscar, for all the love and care he showed Michael through his final illness.
Any donations in memory of Father Michael will support the work of Ireland Lodge (Care Home) and the Royal Surrey Hospital Charity and can be made through the Muchloved website
Author: Peter Stalker
News posted - February 25, 2024
Friday, 1 Mar
Being a vicar in a strange world
Fr Christopher Woods Thu 7 Mar - 6:30pm
At: St Barnabas Church