A life of service to young people and the poor has seen an Ellesmere Port grandfather rewarded with a Papal honour.
Pope Francis has granted the award, known as a Benemerenti (well deserved), to Christopher Duke, 83, who has dedicated years of his life to altar service and to the poor through the Society of St Vincent de Paul.
Mr Duke received the honour after a Mass at the town centre Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea and St Bernard of Clairvaux.
The award was kept secret from him until the end of the Mass when Fr Niall Mullaley, the parish priest, invited the congregation to sing For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow as the final ‘hymn’.
The Benemerenti, an honour for laity who have exercised long and exceptional service in the Catholic Church, was then presented to him by two of his fellow altar servers.
Mr Duke, a widower, fought back tears as the congregation gave him a prolonged and loud round of applause. He said afterwards: “I am dumbfounded. It’s completely unexpected but I should have known something was up when all the family were here.
“The altar servers are so helpful. It is an honour for all of us. It reflects on the parish – you couldn’t do this on your own. I hope I can live up to it.”
He added: “I feel fabulous. I am absolutely flabbergasted. It is an honour for the parish, the local pastoral area and the deanery.”
Fr Mullaley said that Mr Duke had always been an ‘invaluable support’ to him and other priests in the area. “He is a real mentor figure to our altar servers and as a result many of them stay connected with the ministry of the altar into young adulthood,” he said.
“Often some of our young people who come home from holidays at university still come and serve on the altar even after they have qualified.
“One of our altar servers, now in her mid-20s, has just gained her doctorate. This is all down to Chris’s personal care and support and friendship to them and to their families.”
Mr Duke helped to establish the St Vincent de Paul Society and ‘Minnie Vinnies’ in the Catholic Church’s local pastoral area for Hooton & Ellesmere Port and he continues to works to support and sustain the groups.
He is also an active member of the Chester and Ellesmere Port Lourdes Youth Group.
“Whilst there are other adult helpers with these groups, Chris still comes to every meeting and supports and encourages the young people,” said Fr Mullaley, the dean of Chester and Ellesmere Port.
“He takes some of the older youth SVP members on visits and encourages the young people to develop initiatives of their own.”
Fr Mullaley explains that Mr Duke helped to set up the SVP furniture unit in the town, helped on the SVP vans delivering to those in need and in assessing their situations.
He was on hand to set up and support the SVP holiday home in North Wales for underprivileged families, organises the parish Christmas fayre and much more. “He has been very influential with the SVP work on a wider diocesan level,” said Fr Mullaley.
“Suffice to say, his contribution is vast but undertaken with a genuine spirit of Christian service. He always ensures that each altar server gets their proper Guild of St Stephen Medal and certificates. He is a real encouragement to our young people in living their faith.”
Fr Mullaley revealed some of the young people and older parishioners had asked him to take forward the initiative to seek the Benemerenti Medal to celebrate Mr Duke’s service.