11 August 2022, The Tablet

Michael Strode - a saint in the making?

by Peter Strode

Though the formal canonisation process cannot begin for another two years, friends of Br Michael are gathering testimonies for his Cause.

Michael Strode - a saint in the making?

Br Michael Strode in the garden of the Cistercian community on Caldey Island.
David Turner

“That man was a real saint!”

How often do we hear that? It’s a phrase said usually with great feeling, but it hangs in the air for a moment and then vanishes. Nothing more comes of it. With Brother Michael Strode it’s a different story: a group of friends has just embarked on the long and tortuous road that might possibly lead to his canonisation.

What led them to consider such a venture? It was not so much the charitable causes that he founded but his deep underlying spirituality. In his ninetieth year Michael wrote a lovely prayer that encapsulates his life tenets:

There are two things that I long for –
to become wholly yours losing myself in your love –
and sharing with others the wonderful truth of your love for each of us.
I hope to do this through my writings –
but above all by the witness of my life –
and there is much to be done.

Born in 1923, Michael embarked on a medical career in 1941. During the war he was an enthusiastic member of the Home Guard, which he admitted bore a close resemblance its portrayal in Dad’s Army. On qualifying in 1946 he did National Service as a Surgeon Lieutenant in the Navy. He contracted tuberculosis and lost two years before resuming his medical career.

In 1953 Michael was appointed to Chailey Heritage, a hospital school for disabled children in Sussex.  Brought up in the Church of England, he had become a Catholic in 1945. He saw that Anglican children were given an annual holiday, whereas there was nothing for Catholic children. Possibly in a spirit of “fair play”, he took four boys on pilgrimage to Lourdes. It was a great success, and in 1956 Michael formed the Handicapped Children’s Pilgrimage Trust (HCPT).

A pioneer in this field, he insisted that disabled children be accommodated in small “family” groups in hotels, not ascetic hospitals, so they could live a “holiday with Our Lady” with their helpers – an idea that was extended to disabled adults in the 1970s. Over the years, very many helpers have learned to give themselves to others with “millions of extra acts of kindness” and so actively participate in the Church and the wider community. Cardinal Basil Hume once described HCPT as “the Church’s best kept secret”.  For his work at Chailey and for HCPT Michael was awarded an MBE; with characteristic modesty, he declined it.

Noticing that some Chailey children had nowhere to go at weekends and holidays, Michael bought Leyden House, which was to become a happy home to many Chailey children. He played a very “hands on” role there, helping at weekends, taking the children on outings and developing it to include adults. Leyden House closed in 2008 and proceeds from the sale benefited Chailey and other charities.

In 1988 Michael could have settled down to a comfortable retirement, continuing to support his two charities. But he had long felt drawn to the Cistercian community on Caldey Island “to deepen my friendship with Christ”.  He knew it would not be an easy life, but he wanted at least to “give it a try”.  He half hoped the Abbot would think he was too old, but not a bit of it.  In 1991 he joined the community as an Oblate, so he could lead the full and exacting monastic life, but he had two weeks’ annual leave to spend with his family.

Ever persuasive, Michael was able to “wangle” extra leave to join the annual HCPT Easter pilgrimage, as well as other important life events. And, until he was allowed a phone in his cell, he would use the Abbot’s phone to check up on progress with his charities. It was on Caldey that he felt drawn to share his spiritual thoughts through publishing a succession of prayer cards. He seemed to sense a calling to reach out to a wider audience than just HCPT. 

His skills as a medic were invaluable to the Caldey Island community, where he was the only qualified doctor. Sometimes Michael would find himself joining a patient in an emergency helicopter “lift off” or tossing about in the Tenby lifeboat if that was the best method of evacuation.

He would have ended his days on Caldey, but in 2016 ill health made that impossible and he moved to Nazareth House, Cardiff.  There he still influenced HCPT policy until his death in December 2019, aged 96. As his Abbot said, “It was grace at work in him that brought out his unique humanity for everyone to see – the beam of laughter and joy in his eyes, his ability to welcome life in a pure, childlike way, and a great sense of fun that is (almost) inimitable.”

His friends and many who worked with him think Michael was a saint. While the formal process of canonisation cannot begin until five years after his death, testimonies about his spirituality are actively being gathered. 

For more information, see www.brothermichaelstrode.org or contact Richard King chairman@brothermichaelstrode.org

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