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December 3, 2012

Father Jack

Father Jack Witbrock would have been 76 today. He died a month ago on Saturday 3rd November, from a tired heart and blocked arteries. 

His full title was: The Very Reverend Father Jack, Dean Emeritus of the Antiochan Orthodox Church in New Zealand. 

I had missed his celebration of 40 years of ordination - the first ten as an Anglican minister - on 21st October, so I'm glad that I made the effort to pop in to the Deanery late on the Ashley Church's saints' day after I had set off borer bombs in the church - 28th October is the Feast of St Simon and St Jude, but also my mental marker for woodworm treatment.

Father Jack was saintly material himself. He and his family came to live in the village about thirty years ago, adopting the neighbouring inter-denominational church as the seat of worship for a far-flung Eastern Orthodox congregation. Father Jack and Julia, his wife, developed a community garden and hosted many young people who were floundering in life. This work was tireless and selfless and quite often it seemed to me thankless. Father Jack was as devout as he was practical and the arcane business of daily offices, complete with robes, chants, bells and censer not only fascinated me but gave life to a little country church that would otherwise have been an empty shell.  I almost take for granted the icons and bright altar cloths but how remarkable to walk into the vaulted  Anglican architecture of Benjamin Mountfort and find Christ the Pantokrator, and his attendant images, basking in the afternoon sunbeams, or to spot Father Jack swishing through hip-high cocksfoot along the country roadside, in black robes, purple satin and his stovepipe hat.

Of course he would have loved me to join his flock, but although I probably exasperated him, he treated my personal brand of atheism with good humour and once when there was no congregation about, I stopped mowing, kicked off my gumboots and read the refrains for him.  He didn't appreciate being interrupted mid-office however, and I remember slipping away once rather than disturbing him, only to find that he had been saying a Requiem Mass for Elwin. I wish I had been bolder that day. 

Father Jack was a scholar and when I asked him to say a final committal in Latin for Elwin's otherwise secular funeral, he asked me whether I wanted German pronunciation or not. He could have come up with any dialect I thought of, I'm sure. I rather envied him his scholarship since I used to fancy myself translating ancient texts in my own ivory tower, which I never imagined could be here in rural North Canterbury.  In recent years he worked on translating the Monastic Office, aquiring texts dating back to 1703 in order to translate the reference into current idiom, so that modern priests might no longer "be tied to the innovations of the 1925 edition."  More prosaically Father Jack compiled an extensive history of the Ashley Church of St Simon and St Jude, which is a valuable addition to local archives.  

His departure also means the loss of the Orthodox tenancy, but there is no hurry to remove its presence. As this door closes another will open when the time is right. In the meantime I remember that I had my first lesson in dressing the altar at Father Jack's funeral. I learnt in no uncertain terms that one should "never cover the tabernacle with black," and I think the priest who did, will never forget that!
But Advent is here and maybe Julia and I can dress the altar in violet.



Father Jack's was the most elaborately religious funeral I have ever been to, proscribed and full of ritual. It was also the truest religious funeral I have been to. It was Father Jack.
There was nothing false at all about him and his eulogy which likened him to Tolkien's Niggle from Leaf by Niggle summed up his character perfectly. I will miss him.


18 comments:

rusty duck said...

That's a lovely tribute. Thoughts and best wishes to Father Jack's family.

John Gray said...

I will say the same as rusty
nicely written and remembered

Susan Heather said...

A lovely tribute - he sounds a remarkable man.

One thing that struck me is that you seem to have a lot to do with your local church for an atheist.

Cro Magnon said...

I do attend funerals, but being a good atheist boy, I always leave when most others enter the actual church. I say my goodbyes without the superstition.

Lady Mondegreen's Secret Garden said...

Thank you for kind thoughts.
This atheist is also a heritage nut.
140 years isn't very old in Old World terms but here, especially since Canterbury has lost so much of its built heritage since the Earthquakes, the old buildings need people to look after them. The Ashley Church has been part of my landscape for fifty years. I'd like to see it last me out.

the cuby poet said...

Father Jack parting sounds a real loss to all who knew him. What beautiful writing, a lovely tribute to this special man.

MrsC (Maryanne) said...

I never met Jack but his lovely daughter Elisabeth is dear to me and a real tribute to him. Thank you for this insight into who he is.

Lady Mondegreen's Secret Garden said...

Mrs C: Isn't it funny all our inter-connections. I'm not surprised Elisabeth is dear to you and she is certainly a tribute to her father. I saw her the other night at the Ashley Carol Service. Thinking of Leimomi's current project, I learnt from Jack and Julia, that there is a whole world of Ecclesiastical vestments to add to the parade of historical dress!

Athair Ambrois said...

Father Jack was a friend of 40 years. A very special man,a wonderful priest, a helper of the poor, a man of prayer and good counsel.

Christopher McCarty said...

"The Clergy in the Orthodox Church are the ordained leaders of the Community. St. Paul says in the Bible that they will answer before God for the people in their care. Their responsibility is very great and they are heavily involved with the people of their community. During their ordination the people must give their approval by calling out Worthy during the Sacrament of Ordination. The community has high expectations of the clergy and generally has much love for it as well."

Lady Mondegreen's Secret Garden said...

This blog is not intended as a forum for venting spleen. I write about real and fallible human beings, but incline specifically to positive observation. Although I welcome readers and indeed their comments, I do remove derogatory, self-serving and negative commentary.

Christopher McCarty said...

Perhaps I should write my own blog for stating factual information then perhaps I will have my own say what goes up rather than you dictate what goes up? How does that sound?

Lady Mondegreen's Secret Garden said...

What a good idea Christopher. This post is certainly not intended to be a complete biography of Father Jack, and as with all my published words and pictures, composed from my own personal observation and experience, and moderated with respect. I certainly reserve the right to what goes up on MY blog.

Martin Davies said...

I was thinking about Fr Jack today, not knowing he had died; in an Internet search I subsequently came across your blog. He was a predecessor of mine as vicar of Lyttelton. As a student In Dunedin I met him, and began serving his Western Rite Orthodox Mass (I can't accurately recall how he termed it). I had only fleeting email contact with him in more recent years, but remember with affection his conscientious faith and prayerful devotion to the liturgy. RIP

Lady Mondegreen's Secret Garden said...

Thank you so much for dropping by Martin, and leaving your warm recollections of Father Jack.
He and Julia always spoke very fondly of their time at Lyttelton - I have somehow ended up with boxes of old Lyttleton prayer books in my garage!

Unknown said...

Thanks for this lovely and timely eulogy.
I came across it almost by accident today, which is of course the 3 year anniversary of Daddy's departure.

Lady Mondegreen's Secret Garden said...

Lovely to know that you enjoyed this post on that special anniversary. I did see your mother last night at a church meeting and we remembered Father Jack together. All the best, Jeneane

Brian Kelly said...

Hello, I came across your blog by an internet search today. I am very sorry to hear of Fr Jack's death. He taught me German with humour and urban sophistication when I was in Form 7 in Dunedin (I was the only student in the class but went on to do a German degree at Otago U) back in 1973. He was teaching at St Paul's High School (now Kavanagh College), an experience he likened to shell shock. I liked Jack greatly and kept in touch a bit during my uni days. The teaching job was to support his ministry at St Michael's Church, South Dunedin. He was often trying to get together choirs to sing the Divine Liturgy at St Michael's, calling on the help of my school mate Peter Lauren (now in Columbia, MD). I knew very little theology then (and didn't know that I didn't know)so I appreciated knowing this scholarly and thoughtful man. I remember dropping in on the family in Mornington in Dunedin one hot afternoon seeing Jack trying to mend the fence as well as welcome an uninvited yet welcome visitor. Jack's response was to send out for ice creams for everyone. As the Orthodox say, Eternal Memory.