Ipswich: 50 years on and challenges remain for dedicated priest Fr Francis Leeder
12:00 14 May 2013
In the early summer of 1963 JFK told the world “Ich Bin Ein Berliner,” the Beatles had their first number one with From Me to You ... and a young Roman Catholic was ordained in Luton.
Changes to the Catholic Church
DURING his ministry in Ipswich, Fr Leeder has worked closely with other churches in the town and has also seen major changes within his own church.
Physically St Pancras is next to Christ Church, and the two churches work closely on social and church issues.
Fr Leeder said the role of the churches in providing shelter for those sleeping rough during the coldest months of the year had increased.
“That is very important – there are those in the town who have nowhere to live and it is important that we do what we cant to help,” he said.
The early years of his ministry was a time of significant change for the Roman Catholic church as the reforms sparked by Pope John XXIII came through – especially the new liturgy.
Some people think that the election of Pope Francis could prompt more significant changes in the church – a prospect that Fr Leeder would welcome, to a degree at least.
He said: “It would certainly be good if the Pope gets to grips with the Vatican bureaucracy that is a real issue for the church.
“And of course it is very important that the church works to ease poverty and draw attention to this problem all over the world.
“But we have to remember that you don’t end poverty by becoming poor yourself. The church has to have the resources to do its vital work around the world.”
A few months later Father Francis Leeder arrived at St Pancras Church in Ipswich as curate – and began a relationship with the parish that has lasted until today.
Fr Leeder has been priest at St Pancras, the landmark Catholic church in Orwell Place, since 1981 – and is now one of the best-known figures in town’s religious community.
But he first arrived at the church in September 1963, remaining as the church curate for seven years before moving to St Johns in Norwich – which is now the cathedral for the diocese of East Anglia.
He returned to Suffolk in 1973 to spend eight years as priest in Woodbridge before returning to St Pancras where he has been a fixture ever since.
At 74 he is still the town’s best-known Catholic priest – but accepts there have been many changes over the years.
And he has firm views on many issues affecting the town – from the difficulty in getting around Ipswich to the transformation of the Wet Dock.
One thing that is absolutely clear about Fr Leeder is that while he may represent the largest Christian church in the world, his feet are placed firmly on the ground.
“It’s become more difficult for people to get to the church on a Sunday,” he says. “They can’t park so easily so they go to other churches in the area.
“The number of members here has gone down from 700 to 500 over recent years.”
His church is beside the Cox Lane Car Park, and he said the area was affected by the closure of Fore Street last year.
“I sometimes wonder if the council wants people to be able to get around the town,” he said.
Fr Leeder said the composition of his congregation had changed over the years.
“When I first came here, it was mainly all long-established Ipswich and Suffolk people with a few Italian immigrants.
“Now we have a much wider mix – Portuguese-speaking Africans from Angola, Poles, Ukrainians, Indians, Romanians, Filipinos, Burmese. We don’t get many Aussies though!”
The changes to the town have been significant: “I’ve seen the Civic Centre come and go, and the Waterfront has changed beyond all recognition.
“I’m not sure that’s all to the good – I remember it as a working area with a few barges and coastal freighters coming into the industry down there.”
There are a number of events planned to celebrate Fr Leeder’s 50 years of ministry – and overall he has thoroughly enjoyed his life and work in the area.
He was born and brought up in the Luton area – his father was originally from Great Yarmouth and his mother was from Carlisle, and he certainly feels himself to be a Suffolk man through and through now.
“I feel very fortunate, I do something worthwhile and I have also been able to do other things – I do work with the scout movement and I love sailing and walking.”
One of Fr Leeder’s passions takes him out of the area – he is a keen steam rail enthusiast and one of the highlights of his year so far was a trip over the Settle to Carlisle rail line behind a steam locomotive.