Matthew Littleton was born at Dangan, in the parish of Quinn, Co. Clare on the 8th December, 1903, the youngest of a family of seven which was destined to give another son to the priesthood and a daughter to the religious life. He began his education in the local national school and later he entered St. Hannan's College, Ennis, for his secondary education. In September, 1922 he entered All Hallows College, Dublin, to study for the priesthood. During the first two years of his seminary life he attended the National University of Ireland which entitled him, as he often said, to the letters, U.G.N.U.I. after his name. In 1929 he was ordained for the Archdiocese of Glasgow. In July of that year he took up his first appointment for a short spell in St. Patrick's, Anderston. In September he was appointed curate in Holy Cross, Croy. He was to remain there for three years during which he acquired a tremendous regard for the mining community. Once he risked his own life to go down and attend to miners trapped underground. These were the years of the Great Depression and it must have been a real test for a young priest in a strange country. That he measured up to the challenge is borne out by the fact that he is still remembered in that parish with great affection. Even in recent years, his former parishioners, and their children, called on him in Kilmarnock. Surely proof of his devotion and zeal in trying times.
1932 he was appointed to St. Joseph's, North Woodside Road, in Glasgow, a parish
formerly administered by the Jesuits. Materially his status could not have improved
but that was secondary in his book. The deplorable housing conditions and chronic
unemployment of the area was something that he never could forget. He was a great
visitor "of his district", a favourite phrase of his. He saw at first
hand good, honest people trying to bring up their families in impossible conditions
and he set about doing what he could to help them materially and spiritually.
One organisation for which he is still remembered, not only in St. Joseph's but
elsewhere, is the Boys Guild. He saw this society as a chance to get to know the
youth and the young men of the parish and an opportunity to channel their God-given
talents in the right direction. He was one of the first priests in Scotland to
form a men's praesidium of the Legion of Mary. This he did in St. Joseph's. While
others talked about the need for a book-barrow, he went and built one himself,
thus showing at this early stage a particular trait of his character for which
he would be famous in later years. This piece of furniture would no doubt have
borne the Littleton trademark "a thing of beauty is a joy forever".
In 1936 things must have improved materially for Fr. Littleton, for he was appointed to St. Columbkille's, Rutherglen, as assistant to the late Canon Macintosh, a man whose picture always graced his mantelpiece and for whom he had the greatest respect and admiration. In 1939/40 he was transferred to St. John's, Port-Glasgow, where he remained throughout the war years. Again he was to experience at first hand and share his people's suffering and tragedy, this time as a result of the Clydeside air raids. He was literally a tower of strength as he strove to rescue people trapped and maimed in the debris of their blitzed homes. He spoke sometimes of how he and his fellow priests anointed hundreds of dead and injured on one night.
It was during this period that he fell ill himself. Probably as a result of malnutrition and sheer exhaustion, he contracted pneumonia, which put him in hospital for a lengthy period and almost took his life.
In 1945 he was again on the move, this time to the Ayrshire coastal town of Ardrossan. His "boss" here was Mgr. McSparran, whom he had also worked with in Croy, again a man whom he highly respected as a priest and a gentleman. This change was to have a very significant effect on his life. It would take him not only to a new parish but shortly a new diocese. In 1948 diocesan boundaries were changed and he found himself in the Diocese of Galloway. He had a great regard for the Archdiocese of Glasgow, above all for the friendly and strong Catholic tradition of its people and the loyalty of its priests who were his colleagues and friends. Down through the years he was a familiar and welcome sight at church openings, funerals, celebrations of different kinds throughout the archdiocese. But he was always a priest of Galloway Diocese, totally accepting the change as God's will.
In 1950 he was given the charge of St. Patrick's, Auchinleck, or Birnie Knowe as it was then called. Once again he was closely involved with the mining community, and he is fondly remembered there, though his stay was a short one. In July 1953, Bishop McGee appointed him parish priest of what was then the largest and probably the most demanding parish in the diocese, St. Joseph's, Kilmarnock, where he was to spend the rest of his life. His wide experience, allied to a strong constitution which never allowed him to shrink from hard slogging, ideally equipped him for the challenge ahead.
His ministry in St. Joseph's was to be a long and fruitful one. He arrived to find St. Michael's, Shortlees, about to open as a separate parish. He saw the new parish on its feet and immediately turned to the other side of the town. Onthank was a large and sprawling housing estate as much in need of a church as Shortlees and Bellfield. But, first things first, he had to attend to the needs of the mother church. St. Joseph's itself needed urgent attention. He closed the church to allow major internal plastering and redecoration. New confessionals, kiosk, car-park facilities, drainage were needed. He did much of the work himself, often to the amazement and admiration of his parishioners as he slogged away in his dungarees, black bonnet, and sturdy labourer's boots. In 1963 the new Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel was opened in Onthank. It was a marvellous occasion, both the church ceremony and the reception in the grand hall afterwards, which only he could have organised and conducted. The church is a fine building, and those of us who knew him well can see the stamp of his personality on it, a building with real character, a solid, impressive structure built to meet the needs of the area for many years to come. It may be easy to build: it is another matter to pay for the building. It was part of his make-up that he would not start what he could not finish: he would not build and leave others to pay the bilL. He never used his pulpit to appeal for money for the needs of his parish. For the missions and other worthy causes - that was a different matter. He believed that his people would respond if he offered them something worthwhile - and they did wholeheartedly. To augment the parish collections he organised, in typical pioneering style, the largest and most successful social club in the district, based at the parochial hall, blazing a trail which many cinemas found profitable to follow.
In 1970 St. Joseph's again needed attention, this time to be re-adapted to meet the needs of the new liturgy. He was not always in total sympathy with the new changes brought about by Vatican II, especially if it meant bringing in architects, contractors, etc., to alter the structure of his beloved St. Joseph's. The worst fears of his curates at the time that he might tackle the job himself were realised one Saturday afternoon when, with the help of a compressor and two of his Irish "labourers", he set about removing the back of the altar. It did not work. Professional advice and skill were needed to "modernise" a building 130 years old.
In 1971 he had to turn his attention to the new housing estate of New Farm Loch. With his customary foresight, he had years before acquired an option on ground for a possible new church. As it turned out, his chosen site was about the best possible in the whole estate. He initiated the new parish, St. Matthew's, in 1974, and made a major contribution towards the new church-hall. One of his last public appearances was to attend the Solemn Opening on 24th April of this year, 1977. His last project, the building of a new hall for St. Joseph's, had just started. He was keenly interested in it and only the day before his death he was seen examining the foundations. It was not God's will for him to see the building completed.
During all this activity he received two honours which he valued highly. In 1966 he was elected to the Cathedral Chapter, and in 1975 he received the Freedom of the Burgh of Kilmarnock.
Canon Littleton was a man of great physical strength and energy. During his last few years he found it difficult to accept that he could no longer do the strenuous work he was accustomed to all his life. In his young days he was a noted exponent of his national game of hurling, a full back whose motto was, regarding opposing forwards, "Thou shall not pass". It was his proud record that his college team never lost a game. His strength and determination were evident in the construction and repair work he carried out at St. Joseph's. He liked to be his own architect, master of works, contractor and labourer. He may not have won any awards for design, but solidity and endurance were hallmarks of his work. One major exception to this do-it-yourself approach was Mount Carmel Church and presbytery already mentioned. Even then he was closely involved in the construction. Every evening he could be seen on the site inspecting the day's work, removing what he considered poor workmanship. Architects and contractors were never his close friends during the building process, but once the job was completed to his satisfaction he would be profuse in his praise.
He was very much at home in Scotland, but he never forgot his origins and his Irish heritage. The sheer joy that exuded from him as he set off on holiday, especially if he were going to his beloved Co. Clare, could only be equalled by the schoolboy going home for Christmas after his first term in boarding school.
He saw his role as parish priest going beyond the confines of his parish and his own parishioners. He was intensely interested in the community and was highly respected by civic and community leaders. He had the unique distinction of being given the Freedom of the Burgh of Kilmarnock in April 1975, in conjunction with such distinguished figures as Mr. William Ross, M.P., then Secretary of State for Scotland, and Lord Howard De Walden. In failing health at the time, the honour gave him a great boost, and as always he rose to the occasion with a speech which Mr. Ross later described as "absolutely marvellous". Those of us who worked closely with him often felt that had he not become a priest he would surely have reached high office in the police department. He had a great liaison with the police, and on a number of occasions he was responsible for apprehending criminals who from time to time visited St. Joseph's - not to pray or to enquire after his health. In November 1976, only a few months before his death, he was the proud recipient of a letter from the then Chief Constable of Strathclyde, Mr. David McNee, commending him on the part he played in the capture of three youths on the police wanted list whom he found in the church. If at times, as Mgr. Kennedy put it in his panegyric, he "obeyed the law in a disorderly manner", he was ruthless with those who did not respect his property. To an onlooker, St. Joseph's may have appeared as a "Wild West station" or a "fort under siege," but it was his home and he was determined that no one would invade it. Barbed wire, steel truncheons, blackthorn sticks, were part of his defence mechanism. A young man was once observed departing from St. Joseph's at record pace. He had been disturbed by the Canon trying to steal his car and had been encouraged to get on his way with the blackthorn. One cannot be sure, but it is a safe bet that he never returned to the scene of his crime. Canon Littleton was a respected member of the local Crime Prevention Panel, in which he played an active role for many years. Education was another great interest in his life. For twenty-one years he was the Church's representative on the Area Education Sub-Committee, a task he fulfilled with great regularity and zeal. His Sunday sermons frequently contained exhortations to parents to see that their children applied themselves to their lessons. He was convener of St. Joseph's Academy for many years, a familiar figure as chairman at prize-giving and other school functions. He was very honoured when the Rector gave one of the School Bursaries for the Native Priest Fund his name. Many generations of pupils will remember with awe his presence as invigilator at public examinations, a task he carried out in his own inimitable style. He played a significant role in campaigning for Mount Carmel Primary School at the same time as he was building the church. Over a long period he fought for buses to bring St. Joseph's Academy pupils to the school gates. He did not think it was fair that, as he put it, "children from outlying districts should be dumped at the bus station". He eventually won his case. He had also a special interest in the care of the sick, especially that involving Kilmarnock Infirmary. Twice yearly he was invited by the teaching staff to speak to the student nurses on the work of the priest in the hospital. The nurses were always vividly impressed by his talk. He was keenly interested in the new hospital being built at Crosshouse and had arranged for facilities for Mass to be offered there and a room for the chaplain's use.
He obviously had many commitments of his own to consider but, perhaps unknown to most, he helped, and encouraged others to help, such places as Nazareth House, Fatima House, Coodham, the Verona Fathers, Hansel Village, the National Institution for the Blind, not to mention parishes in need in the diocese. He was a member of the Quota Fund, through which he procured financial help for the smaller parishes throughout the country. He valued loyalty highly, both to himself and the Church. This side of his character could be recognised in his active support of the Retired Housekeepers' Association, which he served for many years. He believed that those women who dedicated their lives to the service of the Church as priests' housekeepers should be adequately supported by the Church in their retirement.
If he prized loyalty in others, he himself also gave it to those who stood by him, and above all to his Bishop and to the Church in general. In common with many priests of his age, he strove manfully to adjust to rapid changes in the Church following the Second Vatican Council. Previously, when newly ordained priests came to him, he invariably presented them with a book on the rubrics of the Mass - to be returned, of course! His demonstration on how to ensure a valid baptism was impressive. Latin scholars may have squirmed, but there was absolutely no doubt that water flowed over that baby's head. His devotion to his daily Mass never wavered, even when the changes caused not a little confusion, as happened on one occasion as he "whispered" to one of his curates, boldly directing him through Sunday Mass, "whoever heard of a secret prayer out loud"? On another frustrating moment he was heard to warn his people, "Next Sunday the altar may be on the roof". In his last years his doctor advised him against saying public Masses. Private or not, on 2nd November and Christmas Day, he faithfully offered his three Masses. His birthday was on the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Perhaps that inspired his devotion to the Rosary. He would say it in his car if out late, often a comforting support for his passengers bemused by his unique style of driving, traffic lights and one-way streets being particularly unnecessary.
He had a brusque manner which often made him seem aloof and difficult to approach. But he had a big heart, as his busy confessional indicated and the occasional discovery of his sympathy, understanding and charity to people in need. It is easy to believe that there are many more similar beneficiaries. Deep down he loved children, even if at times his manner and personality overwhelmed them. One recent incident comes to mind. One of his curates was faced with a tearful child outside the church, and having asked what the problem was, he was informed, "I have lost my bus money and a big man with big, bushy eyebrows told me I would have to walk home". Had he been able to drive, he would have driven the child home.
As a preacher he was definitely of the old school. At his best, his message was clear and to the point, impressively backed up with apt quotations from the Scriptures. His wonderful choice of phrase allied to his wit made him a popular and informative preacher. It was indeed rare for anyone to sleep during his sermon. On one occasion the pulpit bookstand ended in pieces in the front seat as he emphasised that the Church was built on "rock"!
Canon Littleton will be remembered by many people for different reasons. Some will think of him as a public figure in the community, others will think of his church-building projects and his "tin shacks" around St. Joseph's, others of the almost "ungodly" figure seen labouring around the church and garden, others again of his forthright sermons; but those who worked with him and knew him well will remember him as a man larger than life in some ways, yet amazingly simple and ordinary in others. Despite the complexity of his character, he had a down-to-earth approach to life and was a jovial companion and a wonderful story-teller. A wise counsellor in the ways of God and man, he was a priest dedicated to the service of the Church.
His funeral from St. Joseph's on Friday, 12th August, with Mgr. S. Kennedy, V.G., as chief concelebrant in the absence of Bishop McGee, who was out of the country on holiday, was a fitting tribute to one who had served God's people for forty-eight years. Bishop Devine, Auxiliary Bishop of Glasgow, was one of the concelebrants, as was his nephew, Fr. Pat Littleton from Dublin, and Canon P. Gunning, St. Brendan's, Saltcoats, his cousin. A large congregation, representative of Church and community, including Mr. William Ross, M.P., his friend and fellow burgess, filled the church to capacity as they paid their last respects to one who will be greatly missed for a long time. He was laid to rest in Kilmarnock Cemetery alongside three of his illustrious predecessors. One cannot pass that way without remembering a frequent remark so characteristic of the man, "I'll be up there in Grassyards Road keeping an eye on you." May he rest in peace and be rewarded for his labours in the Lord's vineyard.
The first photograph above was taken in the late 1940s and the second one in March 1975.