The priest who converted thousands...

On the morning of August 21 England lost one of its most inspiring priests. Hugh Simon-Thwaites was born on July 21 1917. He was brought up an Anglican and he converted to Catholicism on board a troop ship during World War II, when he was travelling, “somewhere between Cape Town and Bombay”.

Shortly after his conversion, the Japanese captured him and he spent three and a half years as a prisoner of war, when he did such gruelling tasks as clearing dynamited rubble with wicker baskets. Refusing to let his spirit be crushed by these punishing conditions, he later said that he never hated the Japanese. After his release, he wrote to his parents, telling them  that he had become a Catholics and that “in spite of everything I’d had the happiest three and a half years of my life”. He reflected: “I expect my family thought I had gone off my head.” After settling back in England, he entered the Society of Jesus.

Over the last 50 years Fr Thwaites became known for his insatiable desire to bring as many people into the Church as possible. People who worked closely with him say that it’s no exaggeration that he made thousands of converts to the Catholic faith.

Fr Eamonn Whelan knew Fr Thwaites for more than 40 years. Fr Whelan was ordained in 1983, but prior to this, during the late 1960s and 70s he helped Fr Thwaites found and run a hostel and chaplaincy for overseas students in Upper Tooting Park, south London. The first week they opened the chaplaincy, they slept on the floor, because they had no beds. Fr Thwaites spread the word about the chaplaincy by arranging for groups to greet students at the airport and to let them know about the Catholic chaplaincies in London. At that time, over 70,000 foreign students arrived into London during late summer.

Fr Whelan recalls Fr Thwaites buying thousands of plastic rosaries. Fr Whelan says he wants to correct the notion, suggested on some blogs, that “Fr Thwaites just gave the students a rosary and let that be the extent of instruction”.
“He also gave them the Penny Catechism and at times John Hardon’s long catechism,” he explains. “And made himself available at all times to chat about the faith or their problems.”
Furthermore, spiritual nourishment was not the only priority, and Fr Thwaites kept the chaplaincy very warm, which was really appreciated by the African students who found the English climate chilly. He also put big meals on the tables for the students. If they were ever broke, he helped them out by paying bills. If a student felt down, Fr Thwaites would suggest a type of therapy. On one occasion he encouraged a student to paint a mural in the chaplaincy sitting room of Moses leading the people towards the Promised Land. As a result of the art project the student’s spirits were lifted.

 Fr Whelan remembers that Fr Thwaites always woke at 5am to do an hour’s meditation, and that he could be found asleep in the chapel at midnight. He always said 15 decades of the rosary each day. In the early 1970s Fr Whelan remembers that Fr Thwaites had a health scare when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. But when surgeons operated, they found no cancer. While Fr Whelan calls Fr Thwaites, “a truly saintly person” and says that “he didn’t have an uncharitable bone in his body”, he describes a time when Fr Thwaites found it challenging to forgive someone. A doctor had asked him to take in a mental patient for the weekend. One night, the patient overdosed on his prescription drugs and Fr Thwaites found a dead man in the guest room. Fr Thwaites felt upset that the doctor had not mentioned that he had given the patient a large prescription. Had he known about it, Fr Thwaites said he would have kept a better eye on the patient and prevented him from taking his own life. But he resolved with all his strength to forgive the doctor, and did so.
Fr Thwaites never considered that he was immune to temptation. One night in Rome he looked down from his window and saw a young couple beneath, who were very much in love. At that moment, he felt “a pang” that because he was a priest he would never enjoy romantic love. Later he said that he felt the Devil was tempting him to think less of his own vocation. Instead of falling into despair, he poured his creative energies into writing a song that celebrated romantic love and would sing the song at parties.  

The chaplaincy in Upper Tooting Park eventually closed, but Fr Thwaites’s influence on university students has not ceased. Adam Coates, a 20-year-old university student in Dundee, says that the Jesuit priest “showed me the value of putting the mystery of the Mass above earthly things”. He was brought up with no particular religion. At 18, he was introduced to Fr Thwaites’s audio recordings. A few weeks later, he decided to convert to Catholicism. He credits Fr Thwaites’s tapes as having been “a hugely important catalyst” in his conversion. He says that the spiritual advice prepared him “to meet Our Lord in Confession and to receive Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist”. Coates says that the metaphors that Fr Thwaites used were especially stirring. One example is that Fr Thwaites asked people if would they would go to Mass if £20 notes were being given out. He then invited them to think that Our Lord is worth more than £20, so why not go to daily Mass? But for Coates, the most enduring aspect of Fr Thwaites’s teaching is found in his “Catechism of Christian Doctrine” recording, in which Fr Thwaites says that suffering in this life is like walking through the rain. You are cold, wet and hungry. But the thought that, despite all this, you have a home to go to with food on the table and a loving family makes it worth the walk in the rain. The road that the you walk is a symbol for the way of the Cross, and the home is heaven. Coates says he would not recite a daily rosary “were it not for Fr Thwaites, who compares it to sitting on Our Mother’s knee looking at the family photo album”.

Francis Phillips, a reviewer and blogger for this newspaper, knew Fr Thwaites over several years, and like Coates says that the priest made her see that the rosary mattered. “Not just because it is ‘a pious Catholic practice which the faithful should say’, but because Our Lady, our heavenly mother, has asked us to say it,” she says. “I learnt from Fr Thwaites that heaven, the saints, Our Lord and Our Lady are real – not just ‘necessary Catholic tenets of faith that we must believe’.
“When he talked about them they were in the room, real, flesh and blood; as visible as it is possible for invisible persons to be. You can only talk about God, the angels, the saints in this way if you yourself are in intimate and familiar conversation with them – as Fr Thwaites was.”
Fr Whelan echoes the point that the spiritual realms were entirely real for Fr Thwaites. But he never lost his sense of humour and once, when he was teaching the young Fr Whelan how to drive, he said: “People who say God is dead or that guardian angels don’t exist should come for a drive with you!”
Francis Phillips recalls a time when she was in the presbytery and reading a poem about St Paul in Fr Thwaites’s parish bulletin. She asked the priest: “Who wrote that poem?
I like it.”
He replied, rather embarrassed: “I did.”
Phillips exclaimed: “What! Are you are a poet, Father?”
He smiled disarmingly and replied: “Well, it’s the nearest a man can get to having a baby!”
Thank you to Ann and Savio DeCruz for this photo of Fr Thwaites when he baptised their son

Ann and Savio DeCruz both knew Fr Thwaites separately before they were married. Savio met him on a trip to Lourdes, where he spent seven to eight days in his company. Reflecting on those days, Savio says: “I learned more about my Faith than ever before and came back energised to do more and encourage more friends back to the Church. I joined the Rosary Crusade of Reparation shortly afterwards.”
Savio says that, while Fr Thwaites did not directly introduce him to his future wife,  he did show him the importance of the Marian devotions that led to him meeting Ann at the Rosary Crusade. Fr Thwaites celebrated their sung nuptial Mass at Chesham Bois in Buckinghamshire, where he repeated six times during his sermon that children were fundamental to marriage. Between 1997 and 2006, the couple had six children.
In talking to people whose faith was moulded by Fr Thwaites there are some recurring themes. He continually drew in people of all ages. Another is that he helped Catholics become confident in their faith, despite societal and cultural pressure to either abandon the faith or scorn it. At a time when reciting the rosary or going to “the Old Rite Mass”, as he called it, were seen as obsolete practices, he became all the more vociferous in encouraging them. 

I wrote this article for The Catholic Herald, 2nd November edition.


  1. What a truly great man. One of my regrets is that I never met him.

  2. When one of our babies was to be baptised I asked him when a good time to have the baptism would be and he said, oh leave it a while, maybe a few hours after the birth- it's very easy just get a small plastic syringe - tiny babies are very easy.We did arrange a baptism, about five days after, but he did think that was pushing it a bit. "We are not meant to be out of the friendship of God at all and the sooner it's put right the better." he said. Alan R.

  3. What a truly great man indeed.

    God Bless.

  4. I read that he described Anglicanism as drinking watered down whiskey as opposed to Catholicism being the real whiskey. He put it better than that! Lovely article Mary, a priest one wishes one knew. Stella

  5. I enjoyed reading this in the Herald. My Father Thwaites story, such as it is, is here:

  6. WONDERFUL ARTICLE --Thank you for sharing with us --What a great priest and may he be recieving the glory of heaven for his efforts .

  7. Spreading the word about a Mass to be offered in honour of Fr Hugh and for the repose of his soul.

  8. Has anyone else noticed the lines on his forehead appear to make the sign of the cross. It is interesting because it is so very clear, and he was such a holy man. Perhaps he was marked by God, and the Bible does speak of the mark of God. Fr. Hugh Thwaites, truly was in all his holiness a much devoted, and pious, man of God, who is there more deserving than someone like him, to receive the Kingdom of Heaven. May his soul rest in heaven, and as he was such a saintly man, I do believe he is a saint in heaven and I pray, that he may pray for us in heaven.


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