FR BRIAN COOGAN AND CHARISMATIC RENEWAL
An appreciation by Alastair Emblem, leader of Alton Day of Renewal (ADoRE)
It was with great sadness that we heard of the death of Fr Brian Coogan recently. Among the many remarkable ministries that Fr Brian was involved with in the course of his lifetime was Catholic Charismatic Renewal. While serving as a priest in St Josephs Basingstoke, he started a prayer group which in turn started the monthly Alton Day of Renewal (ADoRE) in 1975, which is still going strong today! His enthusiasm, guitar playing and prayer were a major factor in establishing the conference, which for a while attracted hundreds of people from across the southeast of England.
I met him at the Celebrate Charismatic Conference in Southampton in 2019 and was amazed by his vitality and sharp mind at the age of 95. When the world went into lockdown in 2020, we decided to continue ADoRE monthly meetings in a condensed form on Zoom, as a three hour morning of spiritual renewal. We always start our meetings with Mass and, when I discovered that Fr Brian had embraced modern technology quicker than most people half his age and was celebrating Mass daily on Zoom in the Isle of Wight, I asked if we could connect with him so that ADoRE could livestream his Mass to around 100 people across the UK and further afield. He was happy to do so on several occasions, and we had many comments back from participants remarking how moved they had been by the prayerful yet joyful way he celebrated Holy Mass.
I thought it would be interesting to interview Fr Brian over Zoom to record his recollection of the early days of Charismatic Renewal. I had intended to ask him a number of questions, but all I had to do was ask When did you first come into contact with Charismatic Renewal in the Catholic Church? And he just came up with the following amazing monologue, remembering so many of the pioneers of Charismatic Renewal that he met about 50 years ago. It’s a little bit disjointed – but bear in mind he was 96 at the time!
“Oh, that is a good story. A long time ago before all of you young people were around I was in a place called Basingstoke in the 1970s. And I’d been on the missions and had said Latin Mass, but somehow I felt that in those days, the times they were changing and you’re not going to convert the world anymore by the Latin Mass, there was something missing in the church I thought. And what can we do about it?
“Now, I was with a group of five priests in Basingstoke and we had our weekly meetings and at the end of one meeting they said, well, there’s a day of prayer for priests at the Grail if anybody would like to go. So I thought, well, that won’t do many harm. So I went, and at the prayer meeting was Father Ian Petit and a group of other priests, Benedict Heron and priests like that. And so they started praying together. Father Ian gave a talk, which was good and they were praying away and next to me, there was a Dutch guy, I could tell he was Dutch, and he started praying away in some funny way. I knew it wasn’t English, wasn’t French, wasn’t Chinese, wasn’t Malay, what was it?
“And so we had a lot of help. Father Ian Petit, Benedict Heron, Mike Gwinnell. I was just greedy, I’m afraid. Our need was very great and so I looked around in Portsmouth Diocese to see if there was any other priests interested in charismatic renewal and I found just one, Father Leo Targett and Father Leo had been a missionary in Peru as a Diocesan priest, and he’d gone for a holiday up to North America and met a priest called Francis MacNutt. And so, when Father Leo got back to Portsmouth Diocese, we met at a pub somewhere and said, well, what can we do about all this? There was one Bishop, Bishop Langton Fox. He was the only Bishop interested.
Well, I was living in Basingstoke, and somehow there was a gentleman called Ron Nicholls, and I was friendly with him. and he did the driving and we drove all over the country. If there was something charismatic, we drove there!
“There was Bob Balkam, an American with Father Ian Petit. And he was stationed in Chawton at the Redemptorist house where they had books about charismatic renewal. So yours truly, of course bought a lot of those books and read them. And we got very interested and we went to listen to Francis MacNutt in Birmingham, and there was a wonderful American group called the Community of Celebration with a guy called Graham Pulkingham. And they were so joyful in their singing of fairly short little charismatic tunes. And I began to love them and of course I learned them because I was sort of interested in music.
“And there was a nun called Sister Briege McKenna, and she used to run a day for priests up in Leeds in Hinsley Hall. So I used to drive up there and met her. And in the olden days, it was a load of nuns who would wait to see the priest. Well, now it was a load of priests waiting to listen to this nun! And so she prayed over us all and she showed us we had to put our hands into a glove used by St. Padre Pio. And so we went and prayed our socks off!
“And actually I had been teaching boys in our junior seminary in Freshfields, which is up the railway line from Liverpool. And they would be saying, well Father, how do you like the Beatles? And I listened to The Beatles and I thought it was lovely. And of course I had to learn to play guitar. So I became what’s called a three chord wonder. You learn three chords and you’re in business.
“We went in 1978 with my sister – who’s still alive, she’s in Staines – we went to the International Conference of Charismatic Renewal in 1978, and that was in Dublin’s Fair City. So we had a wonderful conference there and we met David du Plessis, who was the leader of the Pentecostal church, who had been pushed by the leader to go to these funny churches like Catholics.
“We knew the sisters in Alton because one of our nuns in Basingstoke belonged to that order. And so they let us use their beautiful convent [for Alton Days of Renewal]. And I never played guitar in public before. I thought it, Hmm, well I sort of dared to do that. We had Bob Balkam, we had everybody talking at the conference and we just really enjoyed it.
“And of course, The Lord is very powerful in his spirit and he does very powerful things. He gives us Damian Stayne with miracles of healing. He gives us in modern times a wonderful holy English lady called Edwina Gateley, who had helped Mill Hill and now lives in America and has books on mystical prayer, contemplative prayer. And so of course I went full-time for that as well, sort of holy greed really.
“But now, once and for all times, Pope Francis, who wants the whole church to be charismatic! So what more could you desire? So that’s my little story and I’m sticking to it!”
Transcript of interview recorded in September 2023.
ADoRE (Alton Day of Renewal) meets on Zoom for a monthly morning of renewal including Mass, Adoration, Prophecy, Praise & Worship and Inspiring Talks from leading charismatic speakers. More details at https://www.altonrenewal.com/2023