Bishop William Timothy Cotter

Parish Priest of Ryde (1900-1910); 3rd Bishop of Portsmouth (1910-1940)

The Church in Ireland appears to be at a crossroads at present. Secularization, dwindling vocations and other well-publicised problems have combined together to remove the clergy from their pedestal and the hierarchy from influence in the corridors of power. Times have clearly changed. In Pre-Vatican II days there was an Irish priest in almost every English Catholic parish. The Church in Ireland could proudly proclaim its achievements in the English mission fields. One bishop whose ministry highlights the significance of this missionary work is Mgr. William Timothy Cotter, 3rd Bishop of Portsmouth (1910-40).

He was born on 21st Dec. 1866 at Cloyne, Co. Cork. As a young boy he was taken to Portsmouth to visit his father in the Navy (on HMS Active). The English naval port certainly made an impression on the young William Cotter. After his education at St. Colman’s College, Fermoy, he studied for the Priesthood at Maynooth and was ordained for the Portsmouth Diocese on 19th June 1892. His first appointment was at St. Mary’s, Ryde on the Isle of Wight. Apart from a brief return to Cork for three months, he remained at St. Mary’s as curate until 1900 when he was appointed Rector in succession to Mgr. Cahill when he became Bishop of Portsmouth. In 1902 he was received in audience by Pope Leo XIII and promoted to Canon. Despite the limitation of his parish work (he had only served at Ryde) he was nevertheless consecrated by Bishop Cahill as Titular Bishop of Clazomenae and appointed Auxillary to him at Portsmouth in 1905. An episcopal throne (carved from oak) was presented to him by parishioners of St. Mary’s, Ryde. (It is still used as the celebrant’s chair in St. Mary’s today).

On the death of Bishop Cahill in 1910, it was, almost inevitably, William Cotter who suceeded him as Bishop of Portsmouth. In fact Cotter succeeded Cahill in every clerical post that he held. A rare event in the Church! In fact this situation tells us much about the nature of episcopal appointments at this time, when clearly, bishops could raise their preferred successor to positions of prominence in their diocese and highlight their strengths and talents in Rome. This does not suggest however that Bishop Cotter was undeserving of his episcopal position. By the grace of God and favour of the Apostolic See he led the Diocese of Portsmouth for 30 years. He took as his motto “Non Recuso Laborem” (I will not refuse work). During this time he opened or inaugurated many churches, schools and convents. This was a period of steady growth and consolidation for the Catholic Church in England. World War One witnessed Catholics taking a full and active part in all branches of National Service. Consequently, the acceptable face of Catholicism began to emerge. Great Catholic literary figures such as Chesterton and Belloc came to promince. Religious Orders and Catholic societies flourished. Bishop Cotter was a keen promoter of the Catholic Evidence Guild and the Guild of the Blessed Sacrament. In 1929 one hundred and thirty six English and Welsh martyrs from the Reformation period were beatified by Pope Pius XI; and in 1935 William Cotter’s silver jubilee as Bishop of Portsmouth co-incided with the canonization of John Fisher and Thomas More who put Almighty God and His Church before the demands of Henry VIII, four hundred years earlier. The bishop frequently recalled the sacrifices made by the martyrs and their unquenchable and all-prevailing love of the Truth, for which they so readily gave their lives, and consequently joined the communion of saints.

Bishop Cotter inherited a cathedral which had been completed by his predecessor. He did however add a (north) chapel in 1925 dedicated to St. Patrick with stained glass windows in memory of Bishop Cahill. In 1910 there were just under 4000 Catholic priests in England. At the time of Bishop Cotter’s death in 1940 this figure had increased by 60 %. He encouraged his clergy to foster vocations in their parishes especially from among the ranks of altar boys. He reminded his people that from good Catholic schools and homes, with conscientious teachers and parents, the Church would find its future priests and religious. The bishop had a rather nationalistic view of their suitability. He preferred students for the priesthood to have an Irish background. Whilst this attitude would be unacceptable today, with many bishops opting almost exclusively for home-grown priests, it became the unwritten policy of the Portsmouth Diocese under Bishop Cotter. It persuaded one student for the priesthood, a certain Derek Worlock, to test his vocation in the Westminster Diocese rather than his native Portsmouth. He was ordained in 1944 but eventually returned to the Diocese of Portsmouth in 1965 as bishop in succession to Archbishop King.

In June 1934 Bishop Cotter created history by becoming the first British Bishop to fly to an official visitation, when rough seas in the English Channel prevented him taking the ferry and required him to fly to the Channel Isles. It was these Islands of course that were occupied by the Germans at the start of World War II. Thus part of his Diocese was in enemy hands when he died on 24th Oct. 1940. He is buried at Waterlooville Convent cemetery. As ill-health took its toll two years earlier he had asked Pope Pius XI to appoint an auxillary and Mgr. John Henry King was duly appointed in 1938 and succeeded him in 1940. Bishop Cotter is remembered for his lively sense of humour and for fostering a good sense of fellowship that existed in the Diocese at the time between priests and people. He left his flock in no doubt about the saving grace which flowed in abundance from the Sacraments of the Church. Membership of the Catholic Church was essentially the faithful’s passport to eternal life and the Holy Mass and the sacraments brought them closer to attaining that goal. He had a powerful voice and used it to good effect both as a preacher and in the singing of the liturgy. His sermons were forthright and packed with theological truths and the faith and doctrines of the Holy Catholic Church. No one was left in any doubt concerning his views and beliefs. Devotion to Our Lady and a special affection for the Holy Souls in Purgatory were prevailing themes.

He was certainly an Irish nationalist, as exemplified by his coat of arms with the Celtic cross and shamrocks. Often it would be “Hail Glorious St. Patrick” which was sung after Mass instead of the Salve Regina. Nevertheless he was a deeply spiritual man who loved the Catholic Church and all that it stood for.

The (non Catholic) Lord Mayor of Portsmouth, Cllr. D.L. Daly paid him a warm and generous tribute: “He was the embodiement of all that Christianity stands for. He always radiated kindness and that coupled with a sharp and genuine Irish wit made him a friend of all. To Catholics in his Diocese he was a father in the true sense of the word. He suffered ill health in recent years and this was borne nobly. If ever suffering was angelic it was with him. He would smile through pain.”