Obituary: Canon Roderick Johnston

​Canon Roderick Johnston
Canon Roderick Johnston, formerly parish priest in StornowayCanon Roderick Johnston, formerly parish priest in Stornoway
Canon Roderick Johnston, formerly parish priest in Stornoway

Canon Roderick Johnston, formerly parish priest in Stornoway, well known and much loved throughout the islands, has died at the age of 69, not long after being diagnosed with lung cancer.

Roddy was born and schooled in Sheffield, the son of Kathleen and James Johnston. His father won a Military Cross as a medic in the Second World War before becoming a consultant anaesthetist.

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His siblings who survive him are Jayne, Hamish, Michael, David. His nephews and nieces adored him.

On the right of picture with fellow island priests John Paul Mackinnon and Michael Hutson at their appointment as canons.On the right of picture with fellow island priests John Paul Mackinnon and Michael Hutson at their appointment as canons.
On the right of picture with fellow island priests John Paul Mackinnon and Michael Hutson at their appointment as canons.

At 18 he lived on a Kibbutz in Israel. When he returned, he enrolled at Art College in Hull, then worked as a labourer in a building firm before joining the Forestry Commission – working throughout Scotland before settling in Oban. Roddy worked as a forester until 1993.

Bishop Brian McGee writes: Roddy loved being in a forest, smelling pine! His experiences of nature generally, and of forestry in particular, made a deep impression on him and he often used his insights in his pastoral and spiritual ministry.

Roddy was received into the Catholic Church in 1989 and four years later began studies for the priesthood in the Pontifical Beda College, Rome, and the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas. He was ordained a priest for the diocese of Argyll and the Isles in St Columba’s Cathedral in 1997.

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He served as an Assistant Priest there for two years before becoming parish priest of St John the Evangelist, Caol and also St Mary and St Finnan, Glenfinnan. In 2011 he moved to Our Holy Redeemer Parish in Stornoway.

Roddy was the first diocesan priest to live on Lewis since the Reformation but his sincerity, friendliness (and ability to fix chainsaws!) built lasting bonds across the wider community.

In 2019 he moved to St Mun’s, Glencoe and also The Visitation, Taynuilt. The following year he further ministered to Our Lady of the Angels, Mingarry. In 2022 he became parish priest of St Andrew’s, Rothesay.

Throughout his years Roddy generously and enthusiastically helped the diocese through a number of roles and ultimately as the Vicar General from 2016-24.

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Since his death many have paid personal tributes to Fr Roddy. It struck me that people frequently remarked that when they were troubled or feeling isolated he spent time with them in a gentle, uplifting and often humorous manner.

Pope Francis urges the Church to reach out to those who feel on the ‘margins’. For Fr Roddy this was as natural as breathing.

When I moved to the diocese of Argyll and the Isles as bishop in 2016 my first appointment was to make Fr Roddy Vicar General. I am so glad that I did!

Not only was he committed to the work and put in the hours, but furthermore he was compassionate and understanding, always putting people at ease and often brought healing to difficult situations. Fr Roddy was such a rock to me and incredibly supportive on a personal level, a true friend.

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Fr Roddy, through his decent humanity, touched people well beyond the Catholic Church. One public example was his excellent ‘Thought for the Days’ on BBC Radio Scotland.

However, it was through personal encounters that so many lives were enriched.

Roddy was serious about his faith but was always great fun. He had time for everyone and treated everyone the exact same. He looked for – and saw – good in everyone.

Fr Roddy was deeply loved by, and beyond, every parish he ministered in.

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We are all heartbroken by his sudden and unexpected death but take comfort in knowing how blessed we have been to enjoy his friendship. He had deep faith and faced death with trust in God’s love.

We are preparing for Holy Week. Roddy has completed life’s journey with all its crosses and we pray that, through God’s mercy, he is now sharing in the glory Christ won.

Canon William Maclean writes: Fr. Roddy’s warm, welcoming personality (and his large stature) enabled him to be very easily recognised and well-loved among the people of Lewis and Harris.

He made great inroads into various aspects of ministry, especially school and hospital chaplaincy and his outreach to other Christian churches on the island.

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In 2016, the new bishop, Rt Rev Brian McGee appointed Fr. Roddy as his Vicar General, which is essentially the Bishop’s right-hand-man.

Despite being busy with Diocesan business, Fr. Roddy was also busy making good relations with, it would appear, everyone on the island!

From the perspective of a fellow priest and as a good friend, I found that Fr. Roddy would do anything for anyone, would never say no and would always have a smile and a story to share.

He would be there for any of us in times of difficulty, stress, need of any kind, and usually had good advice. He had a lot of wisdom and a deep faith. He was generous to a fault. We could spend ages on the phone when he had plenty other things that needed to be done.

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My own wee story that typifies Fr. Roddy: When my mother died in 2018, the funeral directors and I forgot to arrange who would carry Mum’s coffin from the hearse up to the graveyard. We all stood around at the grave for a few moments wondering where the coffin was.

I was officiating, and standing next to Fr. Roddy. When it dawned on us that Mum was still in the hearse, Fr. Roddy just looked at me and said, “Leave it to me”, and gathered a posse of priests to go and carry her up.

I don’t know of anyone else who was carried to her grave by four priests… Thanks Fr. Roddy, you saved the day!

It is usually hyperbole to describe anyone as ‘irreplaceable’, but Fr. Roddy comes close. He made everyone he met feel special and valued.

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He will be desperately missed by all who knew him, whether that is family, friends, fellow priests, and the people here in Lewis and Harris, where he made such a positive impact.

Rest in peace, my friend.