Brother Michael's Life
"Give yourself to the Lord.
Trust in Him and He will help you.”
Life for Michael Strode began in Woking on 5 June 1923, when he was born the second son to Gladys and Julian Strode, two other brothers following in later years. The home was a very happy one, with a close friendship between the brothers, and plenty of friends to increase the richness of early childhood.
Michael was educated at the Old Malthouse Preparatory School near Swanage from 1932 – 37 and then, following his father, at Haileybury College until 1941. He decided to become a doctor and was accepted to train at St Thomas's Medical School in 1941, graduating from there in 1946 with a MB-BS from London University. During this time he became increasingly attracted to the Catholic faith, and was received into the Church on 15 September 1945.
Michael's first appointment was as Junior Medical Officer at St Thomas's and he served in this post from November 1946 until he was called to do National Service in 1947. He elected to join the Navy and became a Surgeon Lieutenant in the RNVR in this year, being posted to HMS Bruce, in Scotland, a training camp for boys. Regrettably, towards the end of his service, he contracted pulmonary tuberculosis. At this time there was no quick cure for this disease and Michael had to spend most of 1949 in the naval hospital at Haslar, where he started to make a slow recovery. This was completed when he transferred to the King Edward VII Chest Hospital at Midhurst in Sussex, but not until late in 1950.
When he was well again Michael decided to update and expand his medical experience fairly rapidly (bearing in mind that it had been over three years since he had left St Thomas's), and took three appointments in fairly quick succession. These were as House Physician at King George V Chest Hospital, House Physician at St James's Hospital in Balham and Resident Medical Officer at the Sydenham Children's Hospital, from which he left to join Chailey Heritage in July 1953. Michael initially considered his appointment at Chailey Heritage was to be temporary – a quiet placement where he could study for additional qualifications in paediatric medicine and then move on. However, this proved not to be the case; finding time for study was more difficult than he imagined, and he was ideally suited to the life and work of the Heritage. He worked at Chailey until his retirement in December 1988.
Michael was always intensely aware of other people’s feelings and situations. He noticed that the children at Chailey who belonged to the Church of England were treated to an annual holiday, whereas nothing was provided for the Roman Catholic children. In 1954, therefore, accompanied by his colleague Peter Keevney, he took four boys from the Heritage on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. There was no particular intention that this would be repeated, but, carried forward by the success of the venture, he formed a charitable trust in 1956 – The Handicapped Children’s Pilgrimage Trust, or HCPT as it better became known.
The success of this wonderful initiative, and the impact it has had on the lives of thousands of disabled people and helpers from all over the UK, Ireland, and indeed other parts of the world, cannot be over-estimated. Michael’s insistence on having 'family groups' of children and helpers stay together in hotels was ahead of its time and marked out HCPT as something different. This concept - the inclusive experience for sick or disabled pilgrims - was to have a profound effect on many other pilgrimages to Lourdes.
During all these years Michael was playing a full part in the HCPT as Chief Medical Officer (until 1990) and as a Governor of the Trust. In 1975 he was awarded the KSG at the opening of Hosanna House. The last year in which he participated as a doctor with HCPT was in 1990. He last travelled to Lourdes to join the 2013 Easter pilgrimage, during which he was awarded the prestigious Médaille Notre-Dame de Lourdes in recognition of his long dedication to pilgrims and pilgrimages to the Shrine.
Today HCPT’s annual pilgrimage to Lourdes numbers some 5000 people, and throughout the year approximately 2000 adult pilgrims are accommodated at Hosanna House, a purpose-built retreat centre near Lourdes owned by HCPT. For his work both at Chailey Heritage and for the HCPT Michael was awarded the MBE, but with characteristic modesty he declined to accept it.
During Michael’s time as a physician and surgeon at Chailey Heritage he was conscious of a core of disabled children who seemingly never went home at weekends, or during holiday seasons, and thus never had the experience of a family living in a real house. Michael seized an opportunity to remedy this with a legacy, and in 1970 bought a three-bedroom property in North Chailey, “Leyden House” which came with an additional housekeeper’s quarters and a detached double garage flat. Michael had ‘gently’ persuaded one of the nursing sisters from Chailey Heritage and her husband to see the merits of the project and they moved in for no salary, kept their own occupations, and became foster parents to ten disabled children. Their first holiday at Leyden House was at Christmas the same year. The Leyden House Trust, sustained by an army of voluntary helpers, became a registered charity the following year, with Michael taking on the role as Hon. Secretary to the Trust.
In the early years of Leyden House, Michael would be found volunteering for weekends and every Sunday would take the Catholic children and helpers (affectionately known as candles) to Sunday Mass, which was always followed up with a visit to the King’s Head pub for a ‘shandy’ which had the effect of causing the other children to explore the merits of church-going. Sometimes he drove the Leyden House mini-bus, taking the children on an afternoon visit to a local beauty spot. As the Leyden House family grew it became apparent that more suitably adapted space was required. So the “Guildway” extension wing was constructed providing space for ten children and two helpers 1979.
In 1994 Michael was instrumental in guiding the charity to change its Trust Deed, enabling a change of purpose to caring for adults. The rooms were re-configured and converted to en-suite bed-sits with shared areas. Four ex-Leyden House Children returned as adults. But to be viable the property had to be run at full capacity and rooms were difficult to fill.
With serious cash flow problems the trustees sadly took the momentous decision, in June 2008, to close and re-house their tenants before the year was out. The trustees, in consultation with Michael, took the decision to distribute funds to nominated charities with similar objectives. The legacy of Michael’s Leyden House Trust lives on in the adults that had the experience of living there as children, in a house surrounded by love, full of fun and laughter and singing, and his cherished memory lives on too in all those volunteers who stayed there and experienced his generosity of spirit and love.
It has to be said that Michael’s involvement both with HCPT and The Leyden House Trust was very much ‘hands on’. He liked nothing better than to act in the role of helper, seeing to the personal needs of disabled children or adults, and a fine example of this was his decision to take some of the children from Chailey Heritage on summer holidays to Caldey Island, in Pembrokeshire. Michael’s association with Caldey had begun during the war, when his family started to go on holidays there, invited by a friend of his mother.
Caldey is something of an enchanting place, with few inhabitants, and a monastery in the care of the Cistercian Order. It is accessible from Tenby by boat, assuming the weather permits which is not always the case. With several sandy bays and attractive countryside it’s an ideal summer holiday venue for young children, and Michael, together with some devoted helpers, took small parties of children there over the course of several years. Here were sand castles, ice creams and stories of pirates or smugglers, both of whom had been part of Caldey life in earlier times.
Caldey, and its community, were to play a very large part in Michael’s life in later days. For many years Michael felt he had a vocation to become a monk. In fact, so certain was he of this that, before he had finished his medical studies, he resolved to abandon them and join a monastic community. However, listening to the advice of a wise monk, he decided to qualify as a Doctor after all, and to defer any decision to follow his vocation for the time being. In 1973 he had approached the Carthusian Community at Cowfold in Sussex and had been accepted as a postulant. However, to his great disappointment, his health record was considered to be an insurmountable barrier, and so he continued at the Heritage for the remainder of his working life.
Over the years Michael had maintained strong connections with the Cistercian community on Caldey Island. Having retired, and enjoying his retirement, Michael had all but forgotten the possibility of his vocation to the monastic life, but, while attending Mass at Hosanna House, he felt he received a call from Our Lord to serve Him in this way, and joined the Caldey Community of Cistercian monks on 19 October 1991 as a cloistered oblate. He made his final commitment to the order on 7 June 1998. This was, in his own words, “an occasion of great happiness.”
Michael remained with the community on Caldey until early 2016, when ill health made it impossible for him to return to his beloved island. On 9 May the Abbot, the Prior and Michael’s brother Peter went to visit Michael in the hospital in Pembroke Dock where he was staying and told him the bad news. After a moment of silence he said “I accept it”. This is a wonderful example of his attitude to life, and his devotion to whatever God’s plan for him was to be.
Arrangements were made later that year for him to reside at Nazareth House, Cardiff. Here he loved the Catholic atmosphere and became a great favourite with the staff and Community. He suffered greatly in his last months from increasing blindness, deafness, and pain through prostate cancer. However, he never lost his cheerful attitude, and was always pleased to see people. He died on 27 December 2019 and, following a funeral service at Nazareth House, was buried on Caldey in the Community cemetery. (Unfortunately no members of the family were present, since strong gales prevented the Tenby boat from sailing).
One can hardly do better than to take this quotation from a beautiful testimonial written by the Abbot of Caldey, Father Daniel van Sandvoort. He says:
“ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind: and your neighbour as yourself’. These words ran through Michael’s life as a consistent theme. Love, … love in action. His deep yearning for grace transformed Brother Michael into a man of prayer, into a great listener with a genuine interest in people, so many people … and yet, only you were important to him. When he listened to you, it was to you and only you who were important to him.
‘He became an oblate, literally meaning his existence became a life sacrificed to God, to his brothers, to all his friends and family in a life of silence, prayer, service and dedication. This step certainly did not change him, in fact, it was grace at work in him that brought out his unique humanity for everyone to see – the beam of laughter and joy in his eyes, his ability to welcome life in a pure, childlike way, and a great sense of fun that is (almost) inimitable.”
Brother Michael Strode's Obituary
Michael Strode, who has died aged 96, was one of the most influential British Catholic laymen in the second half of the last century. He has left a very significant legacy for disabled and disadvantaged children and adults and their helpers, of all denominations and none.
Having been brought up in the Church of England, while a student Michael followed his mother’s example, converting to Catholicism. His faith became all important, not just in the way he lived his working life and how he influenced thousands of others, but also to the unusual decision taken on retirement, based on a great interest in monastic life, to become a Cistercian Brother on Caldey Island for his last three decades.
His faith was also to have a major bearing on his life and the lives of thousands of others. In 1954, as the Residential Medical Officer at Chailey Heritage Hospital School in Sussex, he was motivated by Church of England children being taken on an annual seaside holiday, so he and a colleague, Peter Keeveney, decided to take four Catholic disabled children on Pilgrimage to Lourdes. This proved to be the beginning of a life dedicated to enabling severely disabled children to experience a pilgrimage holiday of a lifetime to Lourdes each Easter.
He was born in Woking on June 5th 1923, the second of four brothers. After his education at Haileybury, in 1942 he enrolled at St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School, qualifying MRCS LRCP in 1946. He then joined the RNVR as a Surgeon Sub-Lieutenant to do his National Service, but contracted pulmonary tuberculosis requiring prolonged treatment. On leaving the Navy he was casualty officer at St James' Balham, before moving to the appointment at Chailey; he intended this to be temporary to allow time for post-graduate study, but he remained there until his retirement in 1988, acquiring unrivalled expertise and understanding in the care and management of gravely disabled young people.
His first visit to Lourdes was such a success that in 1956 he formed a charitable trust, HCPT (now also known as Hosanna House and Children’s Pilgrimage Trust). Over the first dozen years, 30 small family-sized groups had been formed and in the 1970s expansion was rapid, soon encompassing the whole of the United Kingdom and Ireland so that today there can be as many as 200 family groups with 5,000 pilgrims on the largest children’s pilgrimage to Lourdes worldwide. Now there is an Irish Pilgrimage Trust and groups regularly join from the West Indies, USA, and 9 other European Countries. Since its foundation HCPT’s work has benefitted over 250,000 people - beneficiaries and helpers alike.
From the outset Michael’s vision was unique, emphasising the holiday aspect of the pilgrimage, based around small and intimate ‘family’ groups and insisting the children stay with their helpers in comfortable hotels, rather than austere 'hospitals'. This model and other innovations have been adopted by many other pilgrimages and has delighted the Lourdes authorities and townsfolk who now welcome the annual colourful and vibrant invasion of well over a thousand children and their young helpers at Easter as the opening of the pilgrimage year. The streets fill with groups in their colourful attire, singing as they explore the town and creating an atmosphere of joy and laughter, while providing an opportunity for the disabled to experience tremendous happiness and fulltime care as the sole beneficiaries of their helpers’ outstanding attention.
Following a former child pilgrim asking Michael how, as an adult, she could continue to visit Lourdes, Michael and his co-trustees in the 1970s acquired and converted a hotel outside the village of Bartres near Lourdes, renamed “Hosanna House”. A striking chapel, administration wing and, later, a second purpose-built residential wing were added. For the last 45 years hundreds of disabled adults have enjoyed a week’s holiday there, cared for by dedicated volunteers.
Michael’s charitable ventures also included the foundation of the Leyden House Trust, near Chailey, for children without homes to experience family life. He was a pioneer in both promoting activities for disabled people and integrating them into society.
Michael declined a richly deserved MBE, because the citation also referred to his salaried work at Chailey, which he felt was ‘just doing my job’. On the opening of Hosanna House, he did accept a Papal award, as a Knight of St Gregory, for exceptionally meritorious service to the Church and during his last visit to Lourdes in his 90th year, he was awarded the prestigious Médaille Notre-Dame de Lourdes in recognition of his long dedication to pilgrims and pilgrimages to the Shrine.
The monastic tradition of silence in no way inhibited Michael’s heartfelt concern for the enterprise he had founded and to the end he displayed an intense interest in every detail of HCPT’s governance and development. While he was at Caldey this often involved clandestine visits to the Abbot’s room, in order to borrow his phone! Later, exceptionally, one was installed for his use in his monastic cell and he truly became the greatest of communicators! For most of his last four years he was happily accommodated in Nazareth House in Cardiff, able to attend daily Mass, hold court in the presence of his many visitors and, equipped with an indispensable telephone, maintain contact with all his innumerable friends.
Michael’s personal involvement in the Trust, both in Lourdes and back home, added profoundly to the experience of both disabled and helpers alike, not least because of his ability to make anyone and everyone the focus of his attention. He had an almost tangible aura of spirituality and displayed immense serenity and devotion and closeness to Our Lady of Lourdes, but he also displayed a unique twinkle and sense of fun, which often belied his clear foresight and steely resolve. He has left HCPT as a magnificent legacy for the benefit of the disabled and disadvantaged and, of equal importance, as a vehicle enabling young people to care for them as a real reflection of the way they actively participate in the Church and the wider community.
He died, fortified with rites of the Holy Church, on the morning of Friday 27th December 2019. He is survived by his brother Peter.