A memorial Requiem Mass to celebrate the life of Suffolk humanitarian and philanthropist Leonard Cheshire is to be held on 7th September, the centenary of his birth, in his home village of Cavendish.
It will also mark the start of a campaign by the Diocese of East Anglia to promote his Cause, the first step to sainthood.
He is best known for his work creating hundreds of homes around the world to care for disabled people, but he was also an outstanding war-time leader and pilot who was awarded the VC. He converted to Catholicism at the age of 31.
Fr James Fyfe, who will be promoting the Cause of Leonard Cheshire, explained: “It means to begin to try to collect any evidence for sainthood from among the faithful. There is a prayer which invites people to pray to Leonard.
“If the prayers are answered then evidence is collected, examined and presented. This does not mean that we already think he is a saint – that part is a very long way off and it may be 50 or 100 years hence – it is a discovery process.
“Bishop Alan and the diocese are embarking on the process because Leonard lived in Cavendish. But he is a worldwide figure and many people will be praying for the success of the Cause and we shall reach out to them. However, we shall begin in East Anglia first because there are people here who knew him and remember him and who may have something to tell us.”
Leonard Cheshire was born on 7th September 1917, the son of an Oxford Professor of Law. He was educated at the Dragon School in Oxford, at Stowe School, and at Merton College Oxford where he took a degree in law.
He was commissioned in the reserve of the RAF on joining Oxford University Air Squadron in 1936. He took a regular commission in 1939 and during World War II served in Bomber Command, including taking command of 617 Squadron “the Dambusters”.
Leonard’s record of 100 operational bombing missions was unequalled. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in 1940 (with two bars in 1943 and 1944), the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1941, and the Victoria Cross in 1944. He was selected by Winston Churchill as the British observer at the dropping of the atom bomb on Nagasaki in August 1945.
He left the RAF after the war and attempted to set up a community life for ex servicemen and women, first at Gumley Hall in Leicestershire and then at Le Court in Hampshire, but the scheme failed. In 1948 – still at Le Court – he agreed to look after one of the former members of the community who was dying of cancer. It was contact with this man, Arthur Dykes, which initiated Leonard’s conversion to Catholicism.
He was received into the Church on Christmas Eve 1948. He found others coming to him for help, and so started what was to become the world-wide charity Leonard Cheshire Disability with 80 homes in the UK and over 250 worldwide.
His award of the Order of Merit was announced in February 1981 and his elevation to the peerage in June 1991. In 1959 he had married Sue Ryder, whose own international charity, the Sue Ryder Foundation, was well established helping sufferers of persecution and illness.
Together, they established the Ryder-Cheshire Foundation. They had two children, Jeromy and Elizabeth. But Leonard developed Motor-Neurone Disease and, then devoted his time to developing his relationship with Christ.
He died on 31st July 1992 and was buried where he had lived in Cavendish. His wife died in November 2000.
The Requiem Mass will be held in the parish church of St Mary the Virgin, Cavendish, Suffolk, CO10 8BA, at 7pm on Thursday 7th September, celebrated by Bishop Alan Hopes.
Picture: A portrait of the late Lord Cheshire by June Mendoza. Photo: Kelvin Freeman.