Moving tribute to a “beautiful dad” from late Bishop’s daughter

The late Bishop James Mehaffey’s daughter, Wendy Gledhill, paid an emotional tribute to her “beautiful dad” during Saturday’s Service of Thanksgiving for his life at St Columb’s Cathedral.

“I wish to take this opportunity to say a few words on behalf of the family.

“If Dad were speaking to you now he would begin by acknowledging that you have all come from different places, perhaps covered some distance, of different faiths and from different communities. He would welcome you with that great smile that we all know and love. Dad’s joy when with people never ceased and I consider he received great fulfilment in the company of others and this sustained him.  The common thread that connects us all together today is to give thanks for the life and ministry of Dad and we as a family thank you for sharing this with us.

“He was, of course, a very much loved husband to Thelma, a grandpa, brother, uncle and much more, and I wish to share more about Dad’s life and his journey to this place.

“Dad was born in the Drumnakelly area, just outside of Portadown, the first child of three children. He lived with his family and paternal grandparents in the countryside. Education and learning was a lifelong pursuit for Dad which he began in a small country primary school before moving onto Portadown College aged 11. There he excelled both academically and in sports, with rugby becoming a passion that endured throughout his life. He even had a trial for the under 17s Ulster Rugby Team: what a different life he might have led had he been selected!

“Dad was an industrious student and was popular with his peers. He was initially considering a future in teaching; however, in his late teens he felt called to serve in the ministry, and this became his destiny. The path was set, and he studied at Trinity College Dublin from 1948 until 1954. He applied himself to his studies with hard work, diligence and ability. It was through Scripture Union at Trinity that he met Mum in 1953, and thus began the powerful union that led to marriage in 1956.

“Those who have been to the house will have seen the beautiful photographs of their wedding. One cannot fail to note their joy and love for one another, which remained strong and evident throughout the 63 and a half years! This is some achievement and we as a family give thanks for that. Mum and Dad were devoted to one another, and would affirm that openly and clearly. This strong, loving relationship has been the bedrock for Dad, with Mum supporting and working alongside him. They were a dynamic duo which many of you have reflected to us in recent days. This partnership allowed Dad to become the person he was and to achieve so much in his life.

“Married life began in London and Philip was born there. Frugality was the order of the day and necessitated the selling of the motorbike, in favour of the washing machine – one being better suited for a growing family. They returned to Ireland where I was born and we moved to Downpatrick. We then moved to Belfast and Tim arrived to complete the family. Kilkeel was our next destination and bore many childhood memories. From there we returned to Belfast and it was here that we settled. Dad returned to the rugby pitch and played for Ballynahinch until he was 49 years of age. We all remember watching him preach his sermons with the previous day’s injuries ever present, not least his defining nose! He went to the gym and was keen to maintain his fitness, a habit he continued until his early 80s. It was from Belfast that as a family we would embark on our continental holidays, notably adventurous for the 1960s, as we would drive from Belfast through Scotland, England and  France to Sitges in Spain, where we would then camp for several weeks. Our parents have always loved travelling to sunnier climes and with time in Africa establishing links with churches there.

“1980 was a defining year when Dad was appointed Bishop. Much has been said of the new and uncertain ground this presented, and this is where Dad’s love of people came into its own, as he sought friendships across the city. There was challenge in this role. However, Dad was steadfast in his belief and faith. He had a calm and measured demeanour which was acknowledged and welcomed and became one of his defining characteristics. Challenge came to us as a family and we lost our beloved son and brother, Philip, who died in 1993. These public and personal challenges strengthened the bond between our parents as they supported and held one another through these dark times.

“Dad’s ministry was also in Donegal where my parents established a very happy second home. Dad loved to go walking on the beaches and headlands of the west coast which gave him time for reflection.

“Retirement in 2002 allowed Dad and Mum to share their time between Derry and Donegal. They embraced the opportunity for holidays, returning to favourite places for longer, and these created many happy memories. They chose to stay in Derry as they were so happy here, building on the many affirming relationships that they had established over the 22 years of his ministry. Dad remained involved with the Inner City Trust and he took much joy in seeing how Derry has continued to develop.

“Over the past three years and with changing health for Dad, Mum’s role adapted to that of carer. This change became more profound in recent times and the impact on how they lived required adjustments. Health and social care professionals became a key part of their lives and enabled them to retain their independence. Mum’s resilience and strength of character have been crucial in maintaining them in the home they so cherish, and we give heartfelt thanks and acknowledge her love and devotion to Dad. Their union was powerful and palpable.

“We wish to thank the health and social care professionals for the unstinting care and support which they provided to our parents, in supporting them to remain at home. Many of you will have seen our parents on their weekly trip to town, which they relished, and this was made possible through the assistance of their favourite taxi driver. This team of carers, community district nurses and driver played an essential role in supporting them and we thank each of you for your work and care.

“Dad like all of us has been many different things to many people. In joining us here today we can see his legacy become manifest, as we unite in our connections and create new ones with others. This is what Dad’s life’s work sought to achieve.

“During his last spell in hospital there was a day when, in a moment of brilliant and characteristic clarity, Dad said: “One helps the other”. May that be the profound message that we each take away from our gathering today.

“With so much love and thanks to you, my beautiful Dad.”

Mrs Thelma Mehaffey and her daughter, Wendy