It all felt so sudden and traumatic. One minute I was with my family and part of it. The next I was alone and on my own. With them driving off, waving goodbye and leaving me. My family had been substituted by many anonymous strangers.
All the security and love, the things that made me who I was, had gone and left me. The attachments, the touches, the sounds, everything that I had come to know and love, and be loved by, were no longer with me.
Even now, I find it difficult to use words, and to find words to describe the loss, pain and fear that I experienced then.
It didn’t seem to matter that the move to Mirfield had been discussed numerous times beforehand. I was a child, and until it became real, I viewed the move through the eyes and mind of the child that I was. The idea of the move was one of excitement and adventure. The reality was very, very different.
Looking back – especially when looking at the first term – I realise that what I was going through and feeling and experiencing was depression. I remember spending a lot of time on my own, sobbing my heart out – literally – and being totally withdrawn and existing and living in a world of my own.
My biggest fear was that, whilst I was away, everything at home would change and consequently I would not be loved by my family any more. I needed constant reassurance that this was not happening. And so wrote letters home every day, with either my mum or dad – usually my mum – replying to each one.
Fr. Fulvi visited us at home, and a weekend visit to Mirfield was arranged. My mum seemed especially keen for me to go, but my dad was not so enthusiastic. Some Catholic families thought that it was a great honour to have a priest in the family. The words “God chose you, you did not choose God,” I remember being said several times both before and during my time at Mirfield.
I do not remember much about my weekend visit. I recall being dropped off by my mum and dad and seeing the big building for the first time. It was very daunting going in the dormitory – with maybe 40 beds in it. I played football, went to the services – I don’t remember mixing with the other boys very much. However, I also don’t remember missing home – probably because I knew mum and dad were coming for me on Sunday night. I don’t think it occurred to my consciousness that this was, more than likely, going to be my home for the foreseeable future.
So in September 1969 I found myself being dropped off at Mirfield, the Verona Fathers Junior Seminary, to begin my training to be a missionary. I have this memory of everyone waving to me as they went back home.
The moment my family left me I knew I had made a terrible mistake. What was to follow was a period of extreme pain, fear, loneliness and isolation.
The first time I heard the name the Verona fathers, or Mirfield for that matter, was when Fr. Luciano Fulvi came to my school. He was what was known amongst the Verona Fathers as their Vocations Director. And it was his job to go around all the schools in the UK “seeking out” potential vocations for the priesthood and the religious life. He must have done this job very well. In the 1960’s junior seminaries were full.
It seems bizarre to me now, that as a child of 12 years old I could make such momentous decisions about leaving home and attempting to train to become a missionary. No one in my family believed, or would have thought for one minute it would be me – my brother yes – but not me.
Anyway there I was, sitting in my class listening to Fr. Luciano Fulvi talk about the African Missions. Or more importantly, as far as I was concerned, the African wildlife. Even then I was passionate about wildlife and nature. His stories of lions and elephants and of hunting and fishing were what hooked me. The missions or missionary work did not play much part, and why should it? I was a child and a dreamer and I already had that Nile Perch at the end of my rod and on the hook.
When Fr. Fulvi asked the inevitable question at the end of his talk, “is anyone interested?” my hand shot up and I ticked the box to say I wanted more information.