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Fr Thomas Lawson celebrates 50 years of priesthood

By Lara Pickford-Gordon

Fr Thomas Lawson’s OP love of his adopted home and the people have not waned since his arrival October 16, 1981. His first parish was St Anthony’s Petit Valley working alongside Parish Priest Fr Canice O’Riordan OP. He would eventually be the parish priest. On July 2, Fr Lawson celebrates his golden jubilee with a noon Mass at St Finbar’s RC Church, Diego Martin.

Thomas Lawson was born January 11, 1948, in Dundalk, Ireland. He was the last of four children of James, a tailor, and Mary Alice Lawson. They were Catholic as was most of the Irish population at the time.

He was called ‘Tommy Francis’ as a child: ‘Tommy’ after an uncle and ‘Francis’ from an uncle on his mother’s side of the family.

Lawson’s Baptism took place at St Patrick’s Cathedral on the first Sunday of the month of March, which in 1948 was the first Sunday of Lent. “We would not have been in tuned to the fact that it was the Feast of St Thomas Aquinas, 7 March,” Fr Lawson said. March 7, the day St Thomas died, usually fell in Lent but in 1969, it was changed to January 28 when the liturgical calendar was revised.

The Lawsons attended St Malachy’s Church, Dundalk which was run by the Order of Preachers – Dominicans. This religious Order would be influential in Fr Lawson’s life as he attended schools managed by the Dominicans.

“My whole spirituality growing up was Dominican”, he said in an interview June 13, at the House of Immaculate Conception, St Finbar’s Diego Martin. “Nearly every boy became an acolyte, that was part of one’s formation. It was very rigid; Mass was celebrated in Latin in those days and at the age of nine, I had to learn Latin so, the Church was the heart of the society.”

Even social activities of the young people in the 1960s Ireland were influenced by church; boys and girls met and mingled at the Legion of Mary. “You made your Confirmation pledge not to drink until you were 21…lots of my friends today have not broken that, even in the modern world,” he said.

Fr Lawson said the Catholic Church formed the nation through construction of primary schools, convent schools and colleges. Secondary education was

private and had a small cost, but it was not uncommon for students to attend and not pay fees. “Religious orders built and ran many of the hospitals,” he added.

Fr Lawson explained that boys becoming farmers, doctors or priests were some of the career paths after school, and for girls, nuns, nurses, teachers, or doctors.

At 16, he thought about being a bookmaker with a known bookmaker. There was a spot waiting for him when he completed school, but this was not to be. His college friends wanted to leave Ireland for jobs elsewhere; he chose a vocation to the priesthood. “We all had our own dream,” he said. It was considered a special grace and blessing for a family when a son became a priest and the community also felt pride.

The process to priesthood

His path to the priesthood began with a year in the novitiate in Cork. There was no pressure and people were encouraged to just try. During this period, the novice learns about the Dominican way of life, customs, spirituality, and laws etc.

Further formation 1966–1973 took place in Tallaght, Dublin. He describes this period as being “consumed by study” although there were amenities for recreation –swimming, football, rugby.

One of his classmates was Archbishop Robert Rivas OP. Through affiliation with the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas, known as the Angelicum in Rome, Fr Lawson continued studies in Ireland.

“We had fully qualified professors on staff teaching us,” he said. Fr Lawson was ordained at the Church of St Mary Immaculate of the Rosary, Tallaght on July 2, 1973.

He was assigned as Chaplain to a post-primary technical institute. He taught religion, civics, and English for seven years which were not examinable subjects. “I never saw myself as a teacher…I felt I was not cut out for teaching,” he said matter-of-factly. Despite that, he believes he did have an impact on the formation of his students.

Growing up in Ireland, Fr Lawson was not immune to the plight of the minority Catholic Irish in Northern Ireland. “My hometown of Dundalk is three miles south of the border so as a kid growing up, I would be very conscious of what is going on…the whole thing exploded in 1968–69 in Northern Ireland and then the situation became extremely militant and the British sent over the British army to create peace…they aggravated communities, it became worse.” He participated in peace marches against injustices.

Fr Lawson admits the events in the north caused him much anger, especially hearing the first-hand accounts from victims of violence. “Some of my own contemporaries became radicalised and took up arms…to survive I needed a breath of fresh air,” he said.

Living and ministry in Trinidad

Trinidad provided the opportunity for a change of setting. He said in 1966, there were about 66 Irish Dominicans in the country; when he came there were 43. Trinidad was viewed as “the daughter of the province, that is where most of our manpower went,” Fr Lawson said. Trinidad was their first outreach in 1895.

He heard about Trinidad from some semi-retired friars living in the community. “I was fascinated by the fact they all spoke in glowing terms,” he said. It seemed fortuitous. As a boy, his youthful imagination about life on an island was sparked after reading Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and he had a love of history— “who they were, where they lived” and geography.

Fr Lawson worked in four parishes: St Anthony’s 1981–1988, St Joseph 1988–1994, St Finbar’s 1994–2011 and St Francis of Assisi, Belmont 2012–2022.

At St Anthony’s, he found active involvement of lay people and a professionally run parish. A relationship between the parish and the Valley Harps Steel Orchestra was established during his tenure and the band performed in St Anthony’s RC Church. He found out many players were baptised Catholic. Through this relationship, the pan yard is available for church activities.

He said there was “great community spirit”. Between the choirs at the church and pan side, Fr Lawson said he was overwhelmed by musical talent. During his tenure medical and legal clinics were started for the community.

Questioned about which of the parishes was the most challenging, he replied: “I just felt loved and whatever the challenges were, we dealt with it.” At St Francis, he would have met an ancient church building in need of costly restoration. “It was a big challenge, but I found myself surrounded by very competent people”, he says.

Retired from active ministry, Fr Lawson is willing to assist with Masses in the Archdiocese as he sees fit. Reflecting on 50 years of service, he said in an earnest tone: “I am very happy within myself. I am retired and I am living here in Trinidad, very happy to be here because I am surrounded by gracious and wonderful and talented, creative people who love their priest.”