Brother William Cahill is the longest-serving of the Brothers of the Good Shepherd when it comes to unbroken service for the community of Wolverhampton.
This year’s Golden Jubilee celebrations marking 50 years since the Little Brothers first arrived in the city is also heralding 30 since Brother William first settled in Wolverhampton at the centre in Thornley Street in 1992.
He had earlier first visited to spend a year training in 1981 before returning to Ireland to Kilkenny a year later.
Now, at the age of 86, the Good Shepherd remains more of a watching brief for Brother William but he is still very much involved with the charity, checking on progress and offering advice and guidance and still living with the other Brothers in the Finchfield area of the city.
“People say I am like the Bishop or the Queen now – I just pop in for a special occasion,” he says with a chuckle.
“The Good Shepherd still does such important work with some terrific support from the community.
“Tom (Chief Executive Tom Hayden) is doing a marvellous job and it is being done in a different way now but still with strong involvement with the Brothers.
“I still visit when I can but mainly now potter around the garden where have an aviary, looking after the birds and the fish.”
Brother William’s continuing love and care for animals should come as no surprise because, prior to taking his vows, he worked as a farmer.
“Once a farmer, always a farmer,” he says, with another laugh.
Brother William’s mother’s first husband had been killed in the first World War before she remarried an ex-soldier, and exactly the same tragedy – losing her husband – would then befall his sister.
He lived at home until his parents passed away and that time, in his early Forties, is when he realised that his life needed to take a new and very different direction.
“It was time to make up my mind with what I wanted to do in my life,” Brother William recalls.
“One day I talked to my Curate about it all and he said that if there was something inside my head I needed to get it out.
“That if I kept putting it off I would keep putting it off until the next year, then the next year, then the next.
“And by then I would be too old and no one would want me!”
So it was that in 1981, William left Ireland for the very first time in his life to head to Wolverhampton for the initial training period to becoming a Brother.
It was a huge step, and one he admits wasn’t without its challenges.
“During training I would live in the very house I am in now but would attend the Centre, which was the old Cinema on Thornley Street, for half a day every week,” he explains.
“It was marvellous in terms of being able to help the people in the area but the building wasn’t great.
“I always say at that time that if there was a bridge over to Ireland and I could jump on a bicycle I’d be gone!
“After the year’s training I went back to Ireland and to Kilkenny, working with young men who had learning difficulties in a house in the middle of an estate.
“We then opened another place at the other end of town for homeless people in an old boarding school.
“We always had crowds there, people who were homeless coming in off the streets and people who were travelling, and would try and help them get out and into their own flats although many would end up coming back.”
It was in early 1992 that Brother William and also Brother Stephen came to Wolverhampton and, by now, the Good Shepherd was occupying a far more suitable premises, on a different site in Thornley Street.
Up to 46 men could be accommodated in either single rooms or two dormitories with four beds each used as emergency accommodation for those who arrived with nowhere else to go, and space to offer so many other services including medical treatment from a nurse and a counsellor.
Other activities were also available with a TV room and a pool room, although residents had to be in bed by 10.30pm every night, with an extension at weekends.
The ambition was again to try and help service users rebuild their lives with the ultimate aim of moving out into a flat or bedsit.
“We had so many different services under the one roof with a range of residents including younger fellas but also older men as well,” Brother William recalls.
“I enjoyed working with them all, but it was a challenge, and so often we would manage to help people into accommodation but they couldn’t cope and a month later would be back.
“We would never ever give up on anyone, an approach which has continued to this day, even if we had to be firm and there would be the odd row or argument!
“With those additional services we also had a Day Centre called The Fold, which included serving food, usually soup and bread, and offering facilities for a shower and a change of clothes.
“Anyone who came in off the streets would have access to the food and also the clothing, which was donated, and then there would be tea served later on.”
Ultimately difficult times and a change of direction led to the Good Shepherd leaving Thornley Street, and needing another venue to continue their support for so many across the community.
That was when Darlington Street Methodist Church, and particularly the minister the Rev Tony Kinch, came to the rescue.
The service started up again for about 10 regulars in a small room at the front of the premises, but as numbers increased, moved to the back and what became the familiar ‘home’ of the Good Shepherd backing onto the Fold Street Car Park.
That was how it remained up until the start of 2020 when, after 17 years, the Good Shepherd moved to its current site on Waterloo Road, opposite Molineux.
The move was needed in order to provide so many of the support services which the Brothers had initially brought in at Thornley Street, with a larger and more flexible premises offering more opportunity for joint working with other charities and agencies across the city.
As time has moved on Brother William has stepped back from the more strenuous duties and, whilst keeping a strong watching brief on the Good Shepherd and keeping in close touch with Tom and (Business & Finance Manager) Helen Holloway, his visits are now more for special occasions. As he jokes, he’s like the Bishop or the King!
His service, however, has been invaluable, over so many years, delivered with good grace and built on the foundations of his faith and the values which the Brothers hold.
It wasn’t however without its challenges, and moments of doubt. Perhaps only to be expected from such a worthwhile but sometimes difficult calling.
“It is our religious faith that drives us – we want to help people – and that is what prompted Mathias Barrett, the founder of the Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd, to start back in 1900,” he explains.
“He was born in Ireland but established the new Order of Brothers in Albuquerque in New Mexico and I have been fortunate to meet him a couple of times.
“I always admired him, and also Brother Thomas, in Kilkenny, who would always took about Brother Mathias and the work that he did.
“It was strange for me when I first made the decision to leave Tipperary and I always remember my first Winter and Christmas over here as it was the coldest I had ever experienced.
“We were let home for a visit every couple of years and there was one occasion when myself and another chap from the West of Ireland were due to go but we had two foot of snow arrive the night before.
“He managed to get back on the train but I had to get a bus, and didn’t get home for four or five days, by which time I was due to come back!
“There were ups and downs coming across to England, especially at the start, and there was one time I had my bag packed ready to come home.
“We had a meeting every week with our Superior to check how things were going, and I was waiting for the meeting to say I wanted to go home, that I had my case packed and was getting my ticket the next day.
“There were five or six of us waiting, and after the first two had been and gone, the telephone rang and the Superior had to go and sort something.
“Then he finished with another fella and, just as he was ready for me, the doorbell rang and a couple of nuns had arrived for a visit.
“So the opportunity went and night came and I didn’t sleep for about three or four nights but somehow, something settled me down.
“Suddenly everything seemed fine again, and I hadn’t even had the chance to talk things through, so someone must have had a hand in it I’m sure!
“If you speak to anybody involved in religious life, there are always times when you think you may actually be better off being somewhere else.
“But somebody has a hand in it, to get you where you need to be, and on that occasion, after a couple of good nights’ sleep all was fine and I unpacked my case and was back on track as they say.”
There will be an immeasurable number of people who have been supported by Brother William and the Good Shepherd over the last few decades.
Some still come and see him, in a crisis or tough times, and one visits to help out with the gardening.
They will say they have no one else to help apart from the Brothers, no one to catch them when they fall, to help nudge them back onto the right path.
“And that is our calling,” Brother William concludes.
“It’s why we do what we do.
“I once asked Brother Mathias why he picked the name of the Good Shepherd, and he said the concept of the Good Shepherd is one which is recognised by all religions.
“Because what does a Good Shepherd do? They look after their sheep.”