Lives Remembered

Chaplain used pain of losing son in Bloody Friday to campaign for peace

Rev Joseph Parker was a founder of Witness for Peace

“I don't believe that Ireland has yet been born.

“I think we have two small states in this country, both of which were born out of violence. It seems that history has been written and our political institutions have grown up to defend these entities, one against the other, and to justify their existence.

“But they have forgotten all about the people. If more effort had been made to try to understand each other, I don't think all of this would have happened in Ireland.”

Joseph Parker's words could have been written today, a quarter of a century ago, or indeed at any time in Northern Ireland's troubled history.

He was speaking in fact in 1974, two years after the devastating loss of his 14-year-old son in the slaughter of Bloody Friday and just a few weeks before he left Belfast for a new life in Canada.

Reverend Parker, who was chaplain to the Missions to Seamen in the city, had spent those two years campaigning for peace – but had grown disillusioned by the response of Church leaders and others.

Along with relatives of other Bloody Friday victims, he had done all he could to promote reconciliation and talks.

A three-day vigil and fast was held at Belfast City Hall, followed by another outside the GPO in Dublin.

The group Witness for Peace was formed and organised peace marches. At one point 436 crosses were planted outside the City Hall to represent each victim of the Troubles up to that point.

“We held services for everybody: soldiers, IRA, all the dead. Unfortunately I was a little bit ahead of my time. A lot of people in my own church didn't approve of what we were doing.”

By October 1974, having witnessed the collapse of the Sunningdale power-sharing executive, Rev Parker announced that he and his family were emigrating.

A few months later he was installed as senior chaplain of the Vancouver Missions to Seamen, where he remained until his retirement in 1993.

The work in Canada provided great fulfilment and he was also encouraged by news of the developing peace process at home, culminating in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

As sworn enemies finally lay down their arms, he could draw comfort that his early peace-building work had finally borne fruit and Stephen's loss had not been totally in vain.

Rev Parker was born in Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny in 1928 and enjoyed success in business as a young man before feeling a calling to the Church and studying theology at Trinity College Dublin.

He was appointed curate at St Donard's Church, Bloomfield in east Belfast and joined the Missions to Seamen in 1964. A few months later he was made chaplain.

His life changed forever on Friday July 21 1972 when the IRA detonated around 20 bombs across the city in little over an hour.

One of the last to explode was at a busy row of shops on Cavehill Road, near the Parkers' home in Tokio Gardens.

Stephen helped out in one of the shops and had become suspicious of a car outside. He was in the process of warning people when the bomb went off, killing him as well as mother-of-seven Margaret O'Hare (37) and pensioner Brigid Murray.

Stephen, a bright, happy boy who played the French horn with Belfast Youth Orchestra, was the youngest of the nine people killed across Belfast that day.

“We checked all the hospitals. We found him in the morgue,” his father said.

“I was able to identify him from his hands, and by a box of trick matches he had in his pocket and by the scout belt he was wearing.”

Stephen was posthumously awarded the Queen's Commendation for bravery and a memorial trust at the City of Belfast School of Music still awards an annual prize in his name.

Rev Parker was given sabbatical leave to set up Witness for Peace and when he finally returned to his chaplain role, 4,000 miles away in Vancouver, he put all his energies into it.

Having lost his own father when he was relatively young, he felt a natural affinity with the sailors far from home and was very concerned about the difficulties they faced.

He returned home several times but didn't feel it was his place to interfere, enjoying instead a long and happy retirement with his wife in the town of Penticton, having found peace in his life and deep faith.

He died aged 89 on April 21 and in accordance with his wishes, his ashes are to be interred with his son Stephen at Roselawn Cemetery.

Rev Parker is survived by his wife Dorothy, son Roger, who is a Church of England parish priest in Lancashire, his daughter Karen, grandchildren Andrew and Heather and his brother Lovell.

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Lives Remembered