Last tribute paid to well-loved minister

This Is Wiltshire: The Rev WV Awdry with daughter Hilary The Rev WV Awdry with daughter Hilary

HER death devastated those who knew and loved her.

But despite their grief, her family, friends and parishioners chose to celebrate Hilary Fortnam’s life rather than dwell on their loss as they gathered at St Michael and All Angels in Highworth.

Some 300 people packed into the church yesterday morning to pay their respects and say one last goodbye to the mother-of-three and daughter of Rev WV Awdry, the creator of beloved children’s character Thomas the Tank Engine.

The lay minister died of cancer on Monday, November 25, after living with the disease on and off for the past decade. Despite the pain and her fast-deteriorating health, she never allowed the condition to dictate what she could or could not do.

She defied doctors’ prognoses back in 2011 when she survived her third major operation and went on to spread joy and her faith for nearly two more years.

Feeling the end approaching, Hilary, who felt God’s calling at the age of 40, jotted down her brief life story.

In passages read out by her husband Alf and daughter Sara among others at the service, Hilary, 67, recalled her struggle with cancer and addressed the congregation one final time.

“To use a phrase from one of the long-time residents of my childhood parish ‘I have been spared’ through three major operations over the last ten years,” she wrote.

“All the time I have been supported by your prayers and that of many others.

“At the emergency operation on Christmas Eve 2011, the surgeon did not think I would pull through.

“I am so grateful that I was given these last two years. During this time I have felt surrounded and cushioned by prayer from all the people present today – my host angels.

“I am convinced that that was why I was pain-free for so long and was able to carry on.

“Alf and I have been blessed with good fortune to become grandparents in 2002 and now have six gorgeous grandchildren.

“Emily, Rebecca, Ruth, Jack, Sam and Caitlin, I love you all so much. Please don’t forget your grandma.”

Hilary never gave up hope and inspired scores of parishioners through her journey.

Rev Geoff Sowden, who led the service, remembered the remarkable baker and the unforgettable chocolate cake that would appear safely packed in a tin on his doorstep.

But one of the most remarkable things about his friend and colleague, he said, was the deep bond she shared with her husband of 47 years.

“In the last years since the diagnosis, we have seen a vulnerability which Hilary was prepared to express,” he told the assembly.

“That willingness to express her vulnerability has been an inspiration to us all.

“She has always been there for Alf. ‘I never had any doubts about her love for me’, said Alf to me just this past week. She was a great mother, patient, kind and loving.”

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