Ipswich priest Fr Francis retires after 56 years in ministry

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Ipswich priest Fr Francis retires after 56 years in ministry

An 80-year-old Ipswich priest retired on Sunday September 1 after an impressive 56 years in ministry. Stephen Donaghy reports.

Fr Francis Leeder, often known as Sam, was ordained on June 9, 1963 at St Joseph’s, Luton and went to Ipswich as his first priestly appointment. He has been parish priest at St Pancras in the town centre for nearly 40 years over two separate periods. He says he has lost count of the number of couples he has married and babies he baptised in that time.

Fr Francis said: “I have had a great life. People have been so kind to me. I shall leave St Pancras with many happy memories and warm feelings as a result of the welcome and support that I have enjoyed from the parishioners. My successor is coming to a lovely parish.”

He says he witnessed “many miracles of healing” as a hospital chaplain but also had to cope with the deaths of three children in a house fire, which meant he “never had any time for anyone who played with matches”.  Fr Francis also had to deal with an arsonist setting the church on fire on Christmas Day in 1985.

He came to St Pancras as a curate, his first permanent appointment, before moving to St John’s, Norwich, now the Catholic cathedral, from 1970-73 and then Woodbridge before returning to St Pancras in 1981.

As a mountain man, one of Fr Francis’ jobs was to clean the very high Cathedral gutters so that water did not come pouring into St John’s during a storm. It was a job he was asked to repeat several times many years later, working in the foot-wide gutters in wellies and with a shovel for the pigeon mess.

For many years Fr Francis was an active member of the local Scout movement and restarted the 12th Ipswich troop at St Pancras in the 1960s

“We did proper scouting with wood fires, tents, oil lamps. We dug latrines halfway up a Welsh hill and did winter walking, ascending Ben Nevis in snow,” he said.

Fr Francis also used to sail, and act as a caller for two barn dance bands in his leisure time.

In 2011, he helped St Pancras celebrate its 150th anniversary and he holds the title of the parish’s longest-serving priest.

Fr Francis will be retiring to Melton and Fr Russell Frost succeeded him as parish priest from Sunday September 1.

A retirement mass for Fr Francis, attended by local clergy and the deputy mayor took place at St Pancras on Thursday August 29, followed by a cheese and wine reception in the parish hall.

“The dean of Ipswich, Fr John Barnes, preached the sermon at Fr Leeder’s retirement mass and guests at the cheese and wine reception afterwards included the deputy mayor of Ipswich, councillor Jane Riley, and the minister of the neighbouring Christ Church URC/Baptist church, Rev Neil Coulson.

Parishioners also packed into the church hall after Fr Leeder’s final mass as parish priest on Saturday, August 31 for a Tavern Evening. Stephen Griggs, who served as parish council chairman for many years paid tribute to Fr Leeder saying: “Those of you who have sat in the presbytery will know that the phone and doorbell ring without mercy. Fr Leeder, Sam, Rev you have served your parish well. Your ministry has touched so many families through the sacraments and as a friend, Scout leader and master of the river. On behalf of all your parish and friends I wish you peace and contentment in your retirement.”

An interview with Fr Francis was broadcast on Radio Soffolk last Sunday. You can listen to it here

Pictured top is Fr Francis Leeder in March marking his 80th birthday, above in Ipswich in 1966 and right with his retirement cakes.