Eric was a man of faith and someone who made things happen. With his wife, Marion he raised 8 children of his own and fostered another 24 children.
He was born on January 13, 1926 and when he died, on January 4, was nearly 95 years old.
My relationship with Eric began when his family were adults and he was living at Downham Market, and Collector’ World was his brain child. It was a truly an eccentric place with an eclectic mix of collections that he had hoarded and that people had donated to him, a museum that appealed to children and the young of heart.
Eric was an inspiring and generous character who loved nuns and had brought up his large family in Arundel Priory, part of Arundel Castle. So, in Downham Market, he soon made friends with the Sisters from Sacred Heart Convent, Swaffham. He had a small chapel with the Nativity always on show and we would sometimes go to the Tuesday Masses.
Eric’s faith was deep and strong and he used to explain the existence of God by talking about the workings of a watch. This fascinated the teenagers who we took for retreat days at Hermitage Hall. Eric would take fantastic photos of the Year 11 leavers’ groups, rush them to be printed and present them to the pupils at the end of their extraordinary retreat day.
We formed a partnership with Eric and for years we brought children to perform at a carol concert interspersed with small dramas given by our speech and drama group in the Nelson Room. It was like a theatre with an upper room leading out onto a balcony and the audience below. Eric believed that anything was possible so, with only an hour’s practice, these performances took place. Afterwards we were all treated to mince pies and the famous non-alcoholic Norfolk Punch.
Eric involved the school in his many projects and called the children to be guards of honour or just to have an extraordinary experience. They came to hand roses to Dame Barbara Cartland and experienced the opening of the Pink Room dedicated to her. They met the actress Lisa Goddard and drove around the premises with her in one of his famous Sidley Armstrong cars.
Freddie and the Dream Makers was another time we celebrated together and heard one of the band perform. The children were able to visit the magical Dickens Museum which culminated in a Christmas World of wonder. Eric with all his ingenuity and innovation had a child-like heart and the real meaning of Christmas was something he wished to make known and celebrate all year round.
He loved Our Lady and on one of his trips to Turkey he and Marion visited the house at Ephesus where Mary lived with St John until her assumption into heaven. In order to build a replica of their home he brought back photos and a stone to be the foundation of the building. This was a shrine dedicated to peace and a place where Christians and Muslims would meet in prayer. It was blessed by our Bishop Peter Smith and the children were privileged to attend.
Together we organised a Diocesan Youth Day on the grounds of Hermitage Hall with Bishop Michael Evans taking part and being the main celebrant at the Mass. It was a truly special day for our young people who were inspired by Eric’s enthusiasm and love of God and teenagers.
He offered Retreat Days to adults and invited Fr John Daly, a local priest, to run the day and he provided hospitality with his homemade soup served in the piggery. These days were very popular and it gave Eric the idea to have a permanent place in the grounds where people could come and stay and make their own individual retreats, take the rosary walk and visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.
This was one of his unfinished projects but it showed his love of the Catholic Church and how he longed for people to be in touch with their creator and spend time in solitude, amidst his sanctuary for so many of God’s creatures – horses, pygmy goats, ferrets and peacocks as well as his very large Irish Wolf Hounds.
A man to be remembered and surely he will be with the TV station that he set up in Felixstowe. He was a man that I greatly admired and many times I asked him to write his memoirs which he had put on tape. He did write an extraordinary booklet ‘The Answer to Almost Everything’ which was his philosophy in later life and was shared with the older pupils. I hope that heaven is ready for Eric for he is likely to want to proclaim his ingenious ideas and inventions to all.
Pictured above is Eric St John Foti.