Fr Barry Wymes (1936-2020), a lifelong relationship with Lourdes.

November 16, 2020

Catherine Simon's interview with Fr Barry Wymes (1936 - 2020)

In September 2017 I had the privilege of interviewing Monsignor Barry Wymes on the beginnings of the Arundel & Brighton Lourdes pilgrimage. After his passing on Friday 30th October, I retrieved the transcript of our conversation. I share a small window into a rich life that will leave many recalling their own memories of Fr Barry. Mine were shaped by his love of Lourdes.

'I regard Lourdes as my home'

Barry Wymes was born on 4th May 1936, and was the eldest of four siblings: Mary, Michael, and Enda. He was ordained on 12th June 1965 at Holy Cross College in Clonliffe, Dublin. Fr Barry first went to Lourdes as a young student in his early twenties, accompanied by his parish priest. He had just moved to Rome to study theology. “I was bowled over,” he said. And so began a lifelong relationship with the pilgrimage town. In our interview, he described it with characteristic understatement: “I regard Lourdes as my home. I just love the place.”

This love of Lourdes was given full expression in the way he lived his life. Through his work in establishing the A&B Lourdes pilgrimage, Fr Barry made this journey possible for countless others in the diocese, and left his personal mark on the pilgrimage as we know it today.

The beginnings of the Arundel and Brighton Lourdes pilgrimage

It was on a flight from London to Ireland to visit its seminaries (at the time, Fr Barry was the Bishop’s Secretary and Vocations Director for the diocese) that Bishop Michael Bowen turned to him, “halfway across the Irish Sea”, and asked him to take on a new job: to organise the first Arundel and Brighton diocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes. “I liked the idea because I’d been going to Lourdes since I was a young student. So I said to him immediately that I’d be very happy to do that”. But Fr Barry had one condition: “that we organise our own pilgrimage.”

The first independent Arundel and Brighton pilgrimage took place in 1976. Fr Barry built it from the ground up, appointing its first matron, Chief Brancardier, and so on. Numbers jumped from just 15 pilgrims (which according to Mgr John Hull, consisted of the Bishop, a few priests and pilgrims, and one lady in a wheelchair) to over 250 pilgrims, in large part thanks to new numbers of sick, young people, and nurses. “I wanted the thing to have its own momentum. And I wanted it particularly to have an emphasis on young people and on the sick: that was my star, guiding me to get the thing moving.” Fr Barry recruited from schools, driving around and speaking to 5th and 6thformers. To the best of his knowledge, he told me, Arundel and Brighton has hardly ever had to recruit young people since then; it happened by word of mouth.

It wasn’t until 1977 that Cormac Murphy O’Connor became the bishop of Arundel and Brighton diocese. As secretary to the bishop of Portsmouth, Bishop Cormac hadn’t gone much to Lourdes. But he quickly developed a relationship with the A&B pilgrimage. He was remembered fondly for his ‘pep talks’ to young helpers, encouraging them to keep their eyes peeled for potential partners in the week in Lourdes. Fr Barry spoke of Bishop Cormac’s natural ability to make friends: “Everyone spoke of ‘my friend, Cormac’”.

An invitation to Lady Sarah Clutton

After entrusting the organisation to various travel agents, Fr Barry decided that the pilgrimage needed to go it alone and take charge of all accommodation and travel. Transport was no small feat, with the SNCF overnight train, jumbulance, and independent travel all converging on this one pilgrimage town. This became a major job for an organising secretary.

Enter (Lady) Sarah Clutton. Fr Barry knew the Norfolk family well. “I suddenly had a little light from somewhere. Why not see if Sarah might take it on? I knew she had the Norfolk genes in her. Her father was the Earl Marshall organising coronations and state funerals. I knew her sister, Jane, had been very intimately involved with the HCPT. I knew her great grandfather, the Duke of Norfolk, organised the first national pilgrimage way back shortly after the apparitions in the 19th century. I knew that the potential was there. So I spoke to her parents, the Duke and Duchess. I spoke to Mary. They all gave me the green light.”

Fr Barry invited Sarah and Mary to come with him to Lourdes on a small pilgrimage. They stayed in a small hotel opposite the Accueil St Frai hospital. Fr Barry “popped the question” over dinner that Wednesday night, catching Sarah unawares. Eventually, Sarah said yes. Fr Barry turned the sheds at the bishop’s Storrington office into houses and gave one to Sarah as a Lourdes office. “And that was it. The rest is history,” Fr Barry told me.

Lourdes pilgrims know that it’s difficult not to be touched by the place. In this sense, Sarah was no exception. “She blossomed and bloomed and grew. It was like a magical touch for Sarah,” Fr Barry recalled. Sarah grew quickly into the role. “She was a fast learner. She very quickly put her own stamp on it.”

A pilgrimage for the young and the sick

There is something special about the Arundel and Brighton Lourdes pilgrimage. “I think it’s one of the best pilgrimages in Lourdes, internationally,” Fr Barry told me. When I asked him what was special about it, he immediately spoke of its young people as the foundation. He commented on the sense of belonging fostered both inside and outside of Lourdes. Perhaps the best illustration of this was the vocations to marriage. “There’s a whole story there about the marriages that came out of Lourdes, in its own right”.

I asked him about the pilgrimage’s emphasis on the sick: “When I took over, we weren’t taking any sick from Arundel and Brighton at the time because we were absorbed in the Catholic Association. And I always saw Lourdes as being a focal point for sick people. They are the VIPs. So there was a big effort there to recruit the sick and give them a good week, surround them with young people, and give the young people a relationship from which they could learn. I suspect it also had an impact, vocation wise, on a lot of young people going into nursing and medicine.” Fr Barry spoke of the spirit of spontaneity and responsiveness at the heart of the pilgrimage, which allowed it to be attuned to the needs of its pilgrims.

“I’m looking forward to meeting her”

After doing the job for five years, Fr Barry handed over the role of Pilgrimage Director to Canon Seamus Hester, who went on to do it for 23 years. Fr Barry began to go to Lourdes on personal retreats in place of the diocesan pilgrimage, to allow the space for it to grow. But he did come back for the blessing of Lady Sarah’s memorial benches in 2016.

Fr Barry held a quiet but strong passion for Our Lady. “ It’s not just Lourdes itself. She,” he pointed his finger upwards, “has had a very big influence in my life”. “Our Lady?” I asked. “Big time,” he said. And as though anticipating my next question, he quipped, “I’m not going to talk to you about the miracles!” “I’m sure there have been many,” I offered.Precisely,” came the response. “I’m looking forward to meeting her.”

May he rest in peace