17 August 2020

Behold how good it is
to be reminded of those
who share our priesthood

The memorial in Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, to Canon Samuel Richard Wills (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

The psalm yesterday (Psalm 133) recalled who ‘good and pleasant’ it is when we dwell in unity. The psalm evokes imagery of Moses anointing his brother Aaron as High Priest.

It is good for priests to remember those who go before us as in our ministry as brothers or sisters, sharing in the same priesthood. As I was wandering around Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, last week – before Sunday’s service of Morning Prayer and in quiet time before Tuesday’s meeting of the Easter Vestry – I found myself being reminded of the ministry of two priests who have gone before me in priestly ministry in this parish.

High on the north side of the east wall, in the corner just to the left of the altar and behind the pulpit, two brass plaques commemorate two former Rectors of Rathkeale, Canon Samuel Wills and Canon William Nicholson. Although separated in age by almost a century, these two men died in office, while they were still Rectors of Rathkeale.

Canon Samuel Richard Wills (1826/27-1905) was the Rector of Rathkeale for over 30 years, from 1872-1905, and died in office. For most of the time he was in Rathkeale, he was also Prebendary of Kilpeacon in the chapter of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (1872-1905).

Samuel Wills was born in Co Leitrim ca 1826 or 1827, the son of Robert Wills of Carrick-on-Shannon. A younger brother, Archdeacon Robert Cooper Wills (1836/37-1916), was also a priest in the Church of Ireland, serving briefly in the Diocese of Limerick as Vicar of Kilfentinan (1867-1871), a parish near Sixmilebridge and Bunratty, Co Clare.

The parish was on the north banks of the River Shannon and contained the two small islands of Grass and Grague.

The two Wills brother, Robert and Samuel, served in the parish as rector and curate. But it was no longer viable as a parish after disestablishment. Samuel moved to Kilfinaghty in 1871 and Robert moved to the Diocese of Cork, Cloyne and Ross, where he was Rector of Mallow (1873-1909), Archdeacon of Cloyne (1889-1909), and a prebendary in both Cloyne Cathedral (1877-1889) and Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork (1893-1909).

After ordination, Samuel Wills was a curate in Birr, Co Offaly (1855-1867), in the Diocese of Killaloe, before moving to the Diocese of Limerick as a curate in Kilfentinan (1867-1871), near Sixmielbridge, where his younger brother Robert was rector.

After the parish was discontinued in 1871, Samuel Wills returned briefly to the Diocese of Killaloe as Rector of Kilfinaghty until 1872. But he spent the rest of his ministry back in the Diocese of Limerick, as Rector of Rathkeale (1872-1905) and Prebendary of Kilpeacon (1881-1905). He was the author of some poems, including one on Kilkee and one on Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, and some of his sermons were published.

He died in office on 4 May 1905, at the age of 78. Wills and his wife Margaret (Buchanan) were the parents of a large family, including a son who was ordained (Revd Thomas William Wills), and one who was army surgeon and colonel; his father-in-law and his son-in-law were also clerics in the Church of Ireland.

Below the plaque to Samuel Wills, a second, smaller recalls Canon William Howard Nicholson (1925-1981), who was twice Rector of Rathkeale. He was first in the parish in 1968-1972 as Rector of Rathkeale, Nantenan, Ballingarry and Rathronan, and then again in 1978-1981 as Rector of the Rathkeale Group of Parishes.

Nicholson was born in 1925 Dublin, the son of AH Nicholson of Terenure, and after taking what was known as the ‘short divinity course’ and the General Ordination Examination (GOE), he was ordained deacon and priest, both in the same year, 1962.

Nicholson was a curate in Holy Trinity Church, Rathmines, for two years (1962-1964) before being appointed Rector of Modreeny, Cloughjordan and Ballingarry, Co Tipperary (1964-1968). He then moved to Rathkeale for the first time. After his first four years in Rathkeale, he moved to Portarlington (1972-1978), in the Diocese of Kildare. While he was there, he was appointed a canon of Saint Brigid’s Cathedral, Kildare (1974-1976), and then became Precentor of Kildare (1976-1978).

Nicholson returned to Rathkeale in 1978, and while he was in Rathkeale he was also an honorary chaplain to the Missions to Seamen (now the Mission to Seafarers) in Foynes.

Like Samuel Wills before him, William Nicholson died while he was still Rector of the Rathkeale Group on 2 April 1981; he was 55. He was buried in Stratford-on-Slaney, Co Wicklow. He and his wife Jacqueline Frances (Keeble) were the parents of two daughters.

The memorial in Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, to Canon William Howard Nicholson (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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