Sid Irwin always wanted to be an Anglican priest.
He was ordained nearly seven decades ago. But his journey of faith, almost from the start, moved along paths that he never anticipated.
After finishing high school in the late 1930s, he made his plans for university, his plans for eventual ordination, his plans to serve God in the parishes he would be called to by his bishops.
With six generations of Anglican priests in his father’s family, the call was “kind of in my blood. Ours was the kind of home where we held daily prayers no matter what the circumstances.”
He enrolled as a postulant in the Faculty of Divinity at Bishop’s University in Quebec in September of 1939.
In just 24 hours, his carefully laid out plans unravelled.
On September 3, 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced to a tense and waiting world that England and her Empire had declared war on Nazi Germany.
The young candidate for the priesthood left his bags and his books at Bishop’s: three days after the declaration, his father by his side, Sid Irwin joined the Canadian army.
“By December 16, I was in Halifax, on an armed convoy, heading out for Europe.”
July of 2015, Sid celebrated 66 years of service as an Anglican priest, joined by members of the parish of Morrisburg-Iroquois-Riverside Heights. Although he points out that no one ever really “retires” from the priesthood,
Sid will now assume the role of Pastor Emeritus with the parish, continuing to live in Morrisburg with his wife, Elizabeth. He shared his memories of over six decades as a priest and talked about the events that shaped his ministry.
“On VE day,” he recalled, “I was in the huge crowd outside Buckingham Palace, and down the Mall. The party lasted two days and two nights, and I hung in for it all,” he grinned.
“But I was also ready to go home. I sailed on the Ile de France, which was carrying a load of American POWs, and landed in New York on May 22, 1945. Mom and Dad and my fiancee, Isabel, were waiting for me in Ottawa.
I took my month’s pay, and officially left the army.”
Married in August of that year, Sid finally took his long postponed place at the Faculty of Divinity, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts and Theology in 1949. He also took honours as top student. (In later years, he earned additional credits, via correspondence courses, from Oxford University.)
Trinity Sunday, 1949, he became a deacon, and in November of that same year, Sid Irwin was ordained into the Anglican priesthood.
By this time, his family had grown to include two children. Like many young priests, he found himself serving a number of rural parishes (some more rustic than others!) in his early years.
But from 1956 to 1967, he was at St. Luke’s Parish in Ottawa (“Isabel was very happy!”), where he also found himself Chaplain of the Ottawa Fire Department.
“I even had my own uniform,” Sid recalled, “and I went to all the fires alongside the men. The guys wanted me there.” Sometimes firemen were badly hurt, sometimes they were lost in the flames: there were also civilian casualties. Sid was called to minister to them all: it also became his sad duty to notify next of kin.
“But it was a time when I felt very needed. I was there to comfort the men when they had to deal with tragedy. Being the chaplain was part of my ministry, but it was a wonderful part.
There were Sunday mornings,” he added, smiling, “when I showed up at my church to preach still smelling of Saturday night’s smoke.”
After St. Luke’s the Irwins went to Smith’s Falls, then to Cornwall. “Now Cornwall was a challenging parish,” Sid remembered. “And Isabel and I worked hard there, but it was a great five years.”
He officially “ended” his career, age 65, in Manotick in 1986, where he helped to build a new church, which took its name, St. James, from the old pioneer church.
Around 1977, Isabel and Sid had seen, fallen in love with, and ultimately purchased the old St. James Sunday School Hall. After some renovation work, the couple moved into their Morrisburg home in the summer of 1986. “It was very pleasant living there: we had a beautiful garden.”
In retirement, the Irwins led groups for Craig’s Tours, travelling all over Europe. Sid also began serving as an honourary assistant to many of the St. James incumbents, becoming a familiar and welcome addition to the Anglican parish.
“I have loved life as a priest because I believe that all people are blessed with some spark of divinity. I think I really learned the truth of that in the Army. As a priest, I never saw myself as better than anyone else. I wasn’t brought up that way.”
“During World War II, I guess I would call myself a kind of ‘fitful’ priest,” he laughed, “since I was also a young officer who led my men into fights.”
When he left to go overseas in 1939, Sid had yet to take his final vows as a priest.
For many young men who marched away to war when he did, the years of brutal, horrifying combat, of shocking inhumanity, of massive destruction, all too often turned optimism and dreams into cynicism.
Sid did not see his time as a soldier that way.
“Being in the army did not dismay me from my choice to become a priest. The men I served with were good men, great men, who did the best they could with what they had. They supported and encouraged me when they learned that I was a divinity student.
I believe I learned that life comes from God, however you might view him.”
Sid shared a story from his war years that “firmed me in my idea of ministry. There really is nobody ever that you can give up on. You can’t dismiss anyone. I learned that from a guy called Smitty.”
Smitty was one of those soldiers who managed to be a trial for both his officers and the other men in his unit. “Smitty was a guy who couldn’t put two words together without swearing. He was always complaining, finding fault, shirking. The rumour was that he had at least three different women on the side back home.
He was a drinker and a carouser who often picked fights. Frankly, no one liked him. In both civilian and military life, Smitty was constantly on the police radar.
But there was one thing he was good at: he was an excellent mechanic. It seemed like he just had to touch a vehicle that was totally broken down, and it would begin purring.”
Sid’s unit was in action in Greece, in charge of mobile high velocity guns.
The unit always carried extra people on these convoys, but Sid had been given earlier orders to reassign some of his men. “Most of the officers, and quite a few of the men, saw this as an opportunity to finally get rid of Smitty. But I decided we might need a mechanic, and I kept him with us.”
The unit was suddenly ordered into action when word came that the 48th platoon, ahead of them, had been pinned down by a German tank turret. Fortified in cement, that German turret commanded every approach, keeping up constant machine gun fire. Infantry could not get anywhere near it.
Irwin’s half tracks, carrying their HV guns, were ordered to get close enough to blast the Germans out.
Under withering fire, his guns headed up the road. And then Sid’s half track rolled over a land mine. The explosion blew most of their track off: the engine died.
“I yelled to Smitty, and he was immediately down there, working beside me, trying to repair that vehicle. Then he got hit.”
It was a terrible wound. Sid knew right away that there was no chance Smitty could survive it.
“I knew he was dying.
I was pretty young myself, but I got down on the ground with him and I asked him what I could do for him.
Like all the rest of my unit, Smitty knew I was planning to become a priest. He whispered to me, ‘Read the Nativity story’. I was his troop commander,” Sid said quietly, “and that was what he asked.
So right there in the field, I was able to recite the Christmas story to him while he listened.”
“That’s when I realized that there is more to life than just being loud and strong.
You can never dismiss anyone, not anyone. I kept in touch with Smitty’s family after the war for as long as they were alive.”
Sid Irwin is now 94 years old. For 66 of those years he has been an Anglican priest.
“I’ve been blest in my life with the people I’ve known, with the things I wanted to do, and with the things that I didn’t want to do. It’s been a wonderful journey.
And,” said the reverend Sid Irwin, Pastor Emeritus, with one of his famous grins, “it ain’t over yet.”