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Monsignor Provost Peter Cookson, former President of Ushaw College, Parish Priest of St Mary’s, Chorley and Dean of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Liverpool, died on the morning of Friday 8 November. He was 80 years of age and in the 57th year of his priesthood.
Peter Michael Cookson was born in Liverpool on 16 July 1939, the son of Robert and Nellie Cookson. He received his early education at St Edward’s College, Liverpool, and St Cuthbert’s College, Ushaw. He remained at Ushaw for his studies in philosophy, but then transferred to the Venerable English College in Rome for his theological studies. He was ordained priest in Rome on 27 October 1963.
The first five years of his priestly ministry were taken up with the completion of further studies to equip him for the teaching role that he was to assume at Ushaw. Studying at both the Gregorian University and the Biblical Commission in Rome he pursued the studies that would lead to a doctorate in dogmatic theology and a licentiate in Sacred Scripture. He had hoped to spend some time in Jerusalem as part of his course, but the political situation in 1967 meant that he chose instead to spend time at the University of Würzburg in Germany and with it the opportunity to study under Professor Rudolf Schnackenburg.
At the end of January 1969, he was able to write to Archbishop Beck, ‘I am very happy to have all these examinations behind me, and am now back at Ushaw, busily teaching Old Testament theology and preparing two New Testament courses for the second semester. He continued happily in his teaching role until May 1977 when he was appointed President of the College, assuming the challenging leadership role soon after the amalgamation of the senior seminary with that of Upholland. The following December he was named as a Prelate of Honour by Pope Paul VI. He was only able to continue teaching Scripture for one more year before the demands of his role as President took him away from the joy of enlightening his students from his great knowledge of the Scriptures. He was famous for turning his hand to whatever was needed, so that he could just as easily be seen atop a tractor as in the chapel or in the precincts of the college.
When his term of office as President came to an end in 1984, he took a sabbatical before succeeding Monsignor Charles Jackson as parish priest of St Mary’s, Chorley, and dean of Chorley. During his four years at St Mary’s (1985-1989) he oversaw major building work on the site adjoining the church. A new presbytery, some sheltered accommodation and a new parish club were all constructed during his tenure. He is remembered with great affection and respect by the people of Chorley.
In August 1989 he was asked to succeed Bishop Vincent Malone as Administrator of the Metropolitan Cathedral in Liverpool - a job title that later became Dean. He was named as a Canon of the Metropolitan Cathedral Chapter in November 1989 and became Provost in 2000.
As Ushaw had been the dominant feature of his early life, so the Cathedral was to become so in his more mature years. In an interview with the ‘Catholic Pictorial’ he once said that, ‘You’re a parish priest administering the sacraments day by day and taking part in the public working of the cathedral, but at the same time you’re dealing with the multiple practical problems which a building of this size brings up. This meant that he was at the helm during a major programme of repairs. As he observed, ‘Virtually every external surface needed to be replaced or restored.’ Repairs and maintenance were not just things he left to others to do. He was frequently spotted wearing his boiler suit and attending to one problem or another. One of his assistant priests discovered him one New Year’s Day up a ladder in the crypt dealing with some electrical problem, having been there since about 7.00 am.
There were a number of highlights during his tenure as Dean. In October 2003 the grand entrance and steps were opened, together with a new visitors centre and the piazza restaurant. The completion of the steps brought to fruition Gibberd’s original concept of a processional entrance looking on to Hope Street. Another highlight was the inauguration of the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland in 1990, when both Cardinal Basil Hume and Archbishop Robert Runcie signed a covenant to work together for Christian Unity.
Peter fostered good relations between the Metropolitan Cathedral and its Anglican counterpart. At the time of Peter’s resignation as Dean in 2006, Rupert Hoare, the former Dean of Liverpool, described him as ‘a tremendous friend of Liverpool Cathedral and a first-class colleague.’ He added, ‘Peter has participated very loyally and with conviction, in many ecumenical services in our Cathedral often coming straight on from something at the Metropolitan, and, it has to be said, arriving rather at the last minute, but always there and completely dependable.’ They worked jointly on enterprises such as the Conference of Northern European Cathedrals. Dean Hoare further remarked that, ‘Peter has a readiness to do whatever is needed: no standing on his dignity.
At a Merseyside Council of Faiths walk of faith one year we were short of two people to carry the Buddhist banner, so Peter came to the rescue and took one side of it.’
After recovering from major surgery in 2006, Peter continued to live at Cathedral House, blessing the Cathedral and its community with his quiet and prayerful presence, and continuing to exercise his priestly ministry insofar as his health permitted.
Monsignor Cookson’s Requiem Mass was celebrated by Archbishop Malcolm McMahon OP at the Metropolitan Cathedral on Monday 25 November, prior to burial at Lytham St Annes.
The following interview with Monsignor Peter Cookson appeared in the special June 2017 edition of the ‘Catholic Pic’ marking the Golden Jubilee of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King.
‘You’re a parish priest who also has to deal with multiple practical problems’ Monsignor Peter Cookson recalls the significant renovation work overseen during 16 years as administrator and dean of a place he holds dear.
‘You’re a parish priest administering the sacraments day by day and taking part in the public working of the cathedral, but at the same time you’re dealing with the multiple practical problems which a building of this size brings up.’ So Monsignor Peter Cookson sums up the challenges he faced after arriving at the Metropolitan Cathedral as administrator – a job title that later became dean – in 1989.
The one-time President of Ushaw College came to Liverpool from St Mary’s Parish, Chorley and soon discovered the scale of the cathedral’s problems. ‘Virtually every external surface needed to be replaced or restored,’ he explains. What followed was an extensive programme of repairs – from new drains to a new roof (of stainless steel instead of the original aluminium) – carried out at an overall cost, he suggests, of £8m and that renovation work was not the only major project of his tenure.
He explains that Gibberd’s concept of a processional entrance looking on to Hope Street had not initially been possible ‘because there was a building in the way called the Innovation Centre which was leased to the university on a long lease’.
The longest-serving administrator/dean in the cathedral’s history, Monsignor Cookson went on to play a prominent role too in the refurbishment of the crypt, whose deep purple brickwork and vaulted ceilings provide a permanent reminder of Sir Edwin Lutyens’ original 1930s designs.
Although ill health had led to his retirement as dean in 2006, he still played an active part by identifying objects for the treasury ahead of the crypt’s 2009 reopening. ‘Part of the crypt is given over to the treasury which is a collection mainly of sacred silver and gold vessels and also embroidered vestments,’ he explains. ‘The opening of the restored crypt was a big occasion. We had a choir concert in the cathedral and then went down into the crypt for a reception and dinner.’
If that was one highlight, another was the 1990 inauguration of the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland. ‘We had all the church leaders signing a covenant to work together for Christian Unity, including the Archbishop of Canterbury and Cardinal Basil Hume,’ remembers Monsignor Cookson, who still lives in Cathedral House and says Mass daily in the crypt.
His attachment to the cathedral is strong. ‘I appreciate its atmosphere of calm and prayer. The light from the windows makes it a very ethereal space, very calming and contemplative. It changes through the day, with different moods, and is a place which says something to all kinds of people, some who are Catholics and come to pray and take part in the liturgy and others who perhaps just come out of interest and are very moved by it. It has a very calming effect on people.’