Monday, November 10, 2008

94-Year-Old's Service to the Church

Ran across an article in The Dominion Post today that I'm so glad not to have missed. I think you'll like it too.

New Zealander Noel Byford suspects he is the world's oldest altar boy. Every weekday at 7am, the 94-year-old, despite blindness and spinal damage, arrives at St Mary's Parish church in Taihape to begin a dutiful routine in preparation of the altar for Mass.

It has been this way for the past three years, since Father Bill Casey asked his most regular attendee if he could be his weekday altar server, filling the same role as the primary school-age altar boys and girls who help the priest prepare for liturgies at weekend services.

Mr Byford missed out on being an altar boy as a child and, more than 80 years on, he's taken on the role with total devotion.

Sometimes there are only four people at morning mass, but the diminutive Mr Byford performs his duties with absolute reverence.He slowly lights candles, retrieves the sacramental wine and wafers from locked cabinets and prepares them for communion, and rings a bell three times.

"I love it. I really do. I'm fond of my faith," he says.

Last month, Mr Byford was honoured with a Benemerenti Medal, sent from the Vatican, honouring his years of service to St Mary's.

He wears the gold medal on its yellow and white ribbon pinned to his heavy green suit; thick head of hair on his head, cane in hand.

The medal - which director of Catholic communications Lyndsay Freer says is held by only a few dozen New Zealanders - was an honour to add to the other accomplishments that have punctuated Mr Byford's long life.

The self-made businessman and former Taihape mayor was born in 1913. His mother went into hospital when he was six and later died.

His father told him: "We'll all meet in heaven." The young Noel Byford took this literally, and so began a lifelong commitment to his faith. "It had an impression on me. I kept that in mind."

At his modest home on the edge of Taihape, statuettes of Christ and Mary watch over him from the wall as he eats. He says grace before a lunch of tomato and ham sandwiches.

Mr Byford moved from Hawke's Bay to Taihape as a 19-year-old to take up a horse-and-cart milk run. It was 1933. "I was only going to stay a while, save up and get my fare home again. But I'm still trying to get my fare." On his milk run, he met brown-haired Marjorie, who came to the gate in a pink top with white dots.

"I often remember that summer's morning, when God gave me no warning," he says, reciting a ditty he wrote about their courtship.

A mate of his was very fond of Marjorie but Mr Byford asked her to a dance and so began a relationship that grew to marriage and produced five children, 21 grandchildren and 35 great-grandchildren.

Sitting in a soft chair, hunched by 94 years of life, Mr Byford wonders whether he should feel guilty about cutting his mate's grass: "Was it a dirty trick?"

Marjorie - "my wife, my bride" - died in 1983. "She's always got my heart."

Gumboot capital Taihape, a popular tea stop south of the Desert Road on State Highway 1, has about 1800 residents. It's only a small rural town but it was here that Mr Byford launched a construction, transport and ready-mix business that employed 68 people and was worth several million dollars by the time he retired in 1993.

Mr Byford was mayor of Taihape from 1983 till 1989, spent 20 years on the Power Board and is a life member of Victim Support. Alongside photographs of him on official mayoral business on his dining room wall is a mirror featuring an image of Christ.

Now he will need to find some space, between the landscape paintings and family photographs, for the certificate celebrating the outstanding and meritorious service of quite possibly the world's oldest altar boy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

love you granddad