Catholic Life

On Mgr Freddie Miles’s diamond jubilee, a friend considers his life

While I was with him a young priest also arrived to visit another resident. He asked if he could “say hello” to Mgr Miles and, as the three of us chatted, I asked him how he came to know the Monsignor. His reply was: “Everybody knows – or knows of – Mgr Fred Miles.”

On another occasion, I accompanied Mgr Miles to a celebratory Mass at Allen Hall seminary. Monsignor and I sat in the congregation, while a number of priests concelebrated the Mass with Westminster’s Vicar General, Mgr Seamus O’Boyle. The priests processed up the aisle and, as Mgr O’Boyle drew level with us, he paused, reached over and shook the hand of Mgr Miles, before continuing his procession.

I think those two little stories speak volumes about the way Fred Miles is regarded in the Diocese of Westminster and beyond, and of the high esteem in which he is held. Everybody seems to know his name and everybody seems to have great respect and/ or affection for him.

I first came to know Mgr Miles when he was the rector of St James’s, Spanish Place in central London, and my parish priest. I began to offer him some help when his eyesight began to suffer as a result of macular degeneration. I have only really got to know him well since his retirement in 1998. As I helped him compile his light-hearted memoirs, I learned more and more about the man and his life.

Frederick Anthony Miles was born in 1925 in Dunmow, Essex – number five out of six children born to very Irish parents. (Fred can summon up a great Irish accent, although his natural accent is the sort of English you would expect from an 84-year-old former English teacher, with an eagle eye for accuracy of pronunciation and syntax). He knew from the age of nine that he wanted to be a priest and, after being turned down by Bishop Doubleday of Brentwood (who was ever-mindful of budgetary constraints), he was accepted at the age of 12 by Cardinal Hinsley of the Diocese of Westminster. His association with Westminster, therefore, goes back about 73 years.

Freddie Miles was schooled and trained at St Edmund’s College and Seminary in Ware, and ordained on July 16 1950.

He then studied at Christ’s College, Cambridge, before returning to St Edmund’s as a teacher and, later, housemaster. I have taken Mgr Miles back to his alma mater a number of times to celebrate St Edmund’s feast. These are always wonderful occasions when many of the old Edmundians gather for the celebrations. It is truly touching to see how many of his former pupils – some now sporting silver hair – approach their former master and greet him with genuine affection and almost reverence. And not a little awe. I do remember one former pupil of his whispering, wide-eyed, to me: “He was very strict, you know.” I turned and repeated this observation to Mgr Miles and before he could comment, the “pupil” added: “But fair. Very fair.” I had a feeling he feared being given detention for his remark. So there: strict, but fair. The blueprint for all teachers, I think.

In 1966, Fred Miles was taken away from St Edmund’s and moved up to Archbishop’s House, Westminster, where he was to stay for about 11 years as private secretary, first to Cardinal John Heenan and then to Cardinal Basil Hume. It was during this time that – unknown to him for many years – he earned the moniker “Fierce Fred”. We must assume that this was because of his Rottweiller instincts in protecting the cardinals from matters which could be dealt with by others.

Despite his own initial misgivings, Mgr Miles enjoyed his time at Archbishop’s House. He developed a wonderful rapport with Cardinal Heenan in particular; they shared a similar sense of humour – probably because of their joint Irish roots. It was a sad day when John Heenan died, but Fred Miles made sure that his wish to be buried at ground-floor level in the Cathedral, rather than in the crypt like his predecessors, were adhered to.

“I want people to see my grave, remember me and pray for me,” said the cardinal. In order to achieve this, Mgr Miles spoke to the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, who readily granted permission for the request saying: “Go ahead; if any objection is raised I shall have an Order in Council, and make it retrospective.”

In 1977, after two years working with Basil Hume, Mgr Miles was placed at St James’s in Spanish Place. And there he stayed for 21 years. He says these were the happiest years of his life – mostly because of the immense affection and kindness of his parishioners. I recall his director of music, Dr Terry Worroll, telling me that he was very nervous at the prospect of Fierce Fred’s tenure at Spanish Place. And yet, it was Terry who delivered the ultimate accolade some years ago when he said: “Everyone is a better person for knowing Mgr Miles.”

It was his failing eyesight which made Mgr Miles go – with reluctance – to the Cardinal in 1998 and ask to be relieved of his duties at Spanish Place. He realised that it was becoming too hard to read the Missal and Lectionary during Mass, and he felt that was unfair on his congregation. And so he retired to be cared for by the Little Sisters of the Poor in Vauxhall, which is where he still is – loved by Sisters and staff alike for his humility, humour and for being no trouble to anyone.

In 84 years he has done a great deal; achieved a great deal, affected a great number of people. As a priest, his work is to inspire, to lead by example, to care for his flock, to preach and teach. So, what have I learned from him? I’ve learned what to aim for: absolute honesty; genuine interest in and deep concern for others; great generosity; utter humility; absolute acceptance of those things which cannot be changed and endless patience.

I have learned that Freddie Miles has a wonderful sense of humour and, more than that, fun. Many is the time I have seen him rock with laughter. Oh, and I have also learned that he’s a bit fond of rugger (not rugby!) – and I think that is called litotes. And that he scored a try in the final of the inter-college rugger match (the Cuppers) at Cambridge, which Christ’s won for the first time in 400 years. A paragon is the name given to a perfect diamond. As we congratulate Mgr Freddie Miles on his diamond jubilee of ordination, would it be going too far to call him a paragon? I know what his answer would be.

Fran Godfrey reads the news on BBC Radio 2