The history of the Lennon family is littered with many scoundrels and bounders, but as least one of John Lennon’s ancestors, his great Uncle, The Reverend Father William George Lennon seems to have conducted an exemplary ministry, although questions remain unanswered about his later life. Given the views of John Lennon about Christianity in general, it is amusing to reflect that one of his near ancestors was a priest, and was feted, in a small way, in Liverpool long before his great nephew.
Father Lennon was born in 1857, the fourth of, probably, seven children of James Lennon and Jane McConville. After completing his studies at St. Edwards College in Everton, he studied to become a Catholic priest, and was appointed as the third parish priest of the Sacred Heart RC Church in Liverpool Road, Ainsdale, Southport, on the coast north of Liverpool. He stayed there for two years.
In 1890, W. G. Lennon moved to a new ministry at St. Joseph’s Church in Blundellsands, an affluent area, 10 miles down the coast. The place was named after the Blundell family, Lords of the Manor at the nearby Crosby Hall since the 13th century. The family, through William Blundell, had already provided the funds for the building of St. Mary’s RC Church in Little Crosby in 1847, and William’s son, Col. Nicholas Blundell had added a memorial chapel in 1886. Around the same time, Nicholas fully funded the building of St. Joseph’s, although by the time the Rev. Lennon became its priest, it was still unfinished.
The ongoing construction of the church meant that a Merseyside Lennon gained column inches more than 60 years before his illustrious great-nephew. The Liverpool Mercury carried many reports about his activities. By 1899 the building project had built up a debt of £1800, a significant sum for the time, equivalent to around £185,000 today. Lennon chaired, and was treasurer of, a committee to find a way to pay of the debt. They decided on a four-day bazaar at the nearby Waterloo Town Hall from 12 – 15 October 1899.
The interior of the hall in which the bazaar took place was designed to represent an Icelandic village, and many local dignitaries were present for the opening ceremony. Among them was also the guest of honour, the Bishop of Auckland, New Zealand, the Rt. Rev. George Lenihan. It may seem curious that such a person would be present to open a local event, and indeed Father Lennon mentioned that the Bishop had come a distance of 16,000 miles just “to open the bazaar”. The truth was that he was visiting Rome and Ireland that year to recruit more priests for his diocese in New Zealand. He was born in England, and he and Father Lennon were old friends. It is quite possible that they studied for the priesthood together, being almost exact contemporaries. From the Bishop, Father Lennon received the first endorsement from a higher authority, Rev. Lenihan congratulating him on “the heavy work he had done” and mentioning that he was pleased to be present to show his respect and admiration for a lifelong friend.
The second endorsement was from a much more illustrious source. At the end of the opening ceremony, it was announced that the committee had received a telegram from His Holiness Pope Leo XIII, conferring his blessing upon the bazaar, its promoters and supporters. Whether Father Lennon had informed the Pope of his activities, or the local bishop, or whether the Bishop of Auckland had done yet another favour for his friend isn’t known, but it’s unlikely Pope Leo was keeping tabs on a parish in provincial England! Using the only technology available in 1899, the telegram was photographed many times, and the copies were sold to the public to raise extra funds. At the end of the second day, the takings from the bazaar amounted to £441 3s 10d, not including individual donations. Those donations amounted to another £150, bringing the total to within a third of the required amount. Whether the total was reached at the end of the four days is not recorded.
Father Lennon stayed at St. Joseph’s for another six years, until some time after 1905, he took up another ministry on the other side of the River Mersey in The Wirral. It’s possible he became the priest of St Alban’s Church in Liscard, where his youngest brother, Richard, lived. He had officiated at Richard’s wedding some years earlier.
What happened next is subject to a little evidence, and a whole lot of speculation. It has been suggested that he had a nervous breakdown and became alcoholic, something that he supposedly shared with his brother, Jack – John Lennon’s grandfather. It is also claimed that his career as a cleric ended shortly after, due to his breaking his vows of celibacy with his spinster housekeeper, Lucy Kavanagh. The former suggestion has some evidence in Catholic records of the time, but the latter, in my opinion, is unlikely for three reasons. The first is that is appears that the source was his nephew, Charlie – John’s uncle, who has been shown to be an unreliable family historian.
The second involves the aforementioned Jack. At the beginning of the 1890s, after losing his first two wives, he, unlike his brother, did start having relations with his housekeeper, Mary Maguire, known to all as Polly. During that decade, she gave birth to five children, all of whom died either at birth, or shortly after. They went on to have many more children together, of which another three died young. Jack and Polly didn’t get married until 1915. Polly concluded that she was being punished in some way, despite her Catholic faith, and the later children were christened into the Church of England, including John Lennon’s father, Alfred. Naturally, this amounted to heresy to the devout Father Lennon, and he confronted Polly about “living in sin”. This would have been the case, with or without children, so to suggest that William Lennon was doing the same would have meant a great hypocrisy on his part.
The third reason is simply that, under the morals of the times, it was reasonable to suggest that a celibate, gentleman cleric live with an unmarried servant, without any suggestion of impropriety. I therefore conclude that the reason for Father Lennon’s dismissal from his post in The Wirral was due to some perceived mental instability.
William died on 26th August 1921, and his estranged brother, Jack, had died just three weeks earlier.
Copyright 2018 Philip Kirkland. No original part of this work may be reproduced in whole or in part in any manner without the permission of the copyright owner.