Father Michael Perry, Assistant Priest from 1971 to 1978, here gives some personal reflections on Monsignor William Westlake, St Joseph's third Parish Priest
"After all, you knew him so well .. ." Thus spoke Canon Armand the other week when asking me to contribute a few sentences on Mgr William Westlake.
Well, yes, I was, between 1971 and 1978, one of the assistant priests at St Joseph's. Mind you, I had got to know him much earlier; in my first three years at St John's Seminary, Wonersh, he was Bursar. In fact, he was involved in seminary life for twenty-one years, first of all as Bursar at Wonersh and then as Rector of the Junior Seminary at Mark Cross until 1970. On the latter's closure, he was - in common parlance - 'out of a job'; but not for long. He was to become a Parish Priest, and was appointed to one of the largest parishes in the Diocese: St Joseph's, Epsom, succeeding that much loved and lately deceased Parish Priest, Fr John Chatterton. I arrived, just a year later, also in the footsteps of a much-loved predecessor. Father Michael "Smiler" Albon. For both of us, it was a hard act to follow.
Mgr Willie Westlake was able to make that transition from the institutional life of the Seminary's strictly regimented calendar to the - what you might almost call - humdrum, 'never- know-what's-coming-round-the-corner-next' of Epsom Parish life! He was able to do this because he was a man who possessed in super-abundance that rare quality - humanity. He had the most wonderful gifts of patience and understanding; he was quite unflappable . . . "Don't worry, don't worry, don't worry" . . . well, that's three times, but it came out many times more, and I can still hear it reverberating down the years as, doubtless, many parishioners can tool
If anything did make him a little bit, well, 'tensed up', and there were plenty of opportunities for this in the Lord's garden that was Epsom, Surrey, you were made aware of this as he hummed - nay 'pum-pummed' out loud - the Toreador's Song from Bizet's "Carmen"! That he never got beyond the first two lines showed that - in reality - all was well with the world once more!
My mind's eye memory of him . . . the black homberg placed firmly on his head ... the presbytery door was slammed - no, not shut, it was slammed . . . often on his way to shrive some Holy Sisters in the Diocese, to whose Convent he was Father Confessor, or - just occasionally - to Highbury Stadium to watch his beloved Arsenal. Incidentally, he knew the back doubles to Arsenal ground so well, he could be back in Epsom in 35 minutes!
Mgr Willie was a man of genuine holiness who truly loved Our Blessed Lord. His Priesthood was the epicentre of his life, and many an hour did he spend across the road before the Blessed Sacrament. He was truly a priest of Jesus Christ. In his life, he made it plain that this was the greatest calling a person could follow.
It was his kindness and understanding that really shone through, and there must be many parishioners who have memories of this, often in the most surprising of circumstances. So here is one I was the beneficiary of. When I arrived in September 1971, in the priests' sitting room, we had a TV set. It gave out the most perfect reception, all crystal-clear. The only snag was that it was black and white, and the early 70s marked the transition time to colour. Anyhow, one fine day, me, with my dainty size 11 shoes, just happened to catch the table the TV was on . . . it crashed to the floor and was no more! I confessed to Mgr Willie and, after the usual "don't worry", his eyes lit up: "Ah! thank goodness for that! I've been looking for an opportunity to get rid of that old set!" That afternoon, on with homberg hat, into the Vauxhall Cavalier, and we zoomed off to Hinchley Wood, where the best offers were, and bought a super new colour TV! . . . all just in time to watch the Cup Final, in which Arsenal were playing. So, as with everything with Mgr Willie, everything turned out well . . . he was a superb organiser . . . apart from the result of that 1972 Cup Final, that is . . . Arsenal lost 1 -0!
He was a great priest and much, much loved in Epsom. This was borne out at his funeral Mass at Tadworth, where he went after his time in Epsom. So many were there just over a year ago to pay tribute to him. He was a truly wonderful priest. He was brought up in an age when all was black and white (not just televisions!). Gradually, through his time in Epsom, he came to see that the Lord sometimes writes to us in crooked lines . . . our God is a God of surprises. God bless you, Father Willie. You gave so much. In our following of the Lord, we all learnt so much from you.Fr Michael J Perry, 2001