You are here

How We Got Alastair

November 9, 2013

You could call it Divine intervention. Certainly the way that the Rev. Alastair McCollum reached the pulpit of St. John the Divine was not conventional.

The church had advertised for a new rector three times before it finally got its man.

And it happened because a former parishioner, Martin Hendry, had the sad task of arranging his father’s funeral in Kilmington, Devon. That is when he got to know McCollum, the vicar at the country church of St. Giles.

“Being a former member and rector’s warden of St John the Divine, I thought Alastair would be a good fit for the parish and a real asset to the Diocese, so I suggested a visit to the Old Inn, Kilmington, for a chat. We were there for two hours. The rest is history,” Hendry said.

Jim Harlick, chair of St. John’s search committee, picks up the tale: “Alastair went on-line, found out more about St. John, and applied to the Bishop.” Then followed three teleconferences with the seven-member selection committee.

Entirely coincidentally Harlick booked a trip to Great Britain and invited Alastair and Jo McCollum to London. This involved some cloak and dagger strategy because there were other parishioners on the holiday tour.

“I said I had to do some work…a bookshop may have been involved,” said Harlick, whose walls at home are lined with books.

So they met for a meal and a chat…”and within minutes I knew we had the right man.” That was mid-2012.

Late that October the whole family arrived for a week’s inspection and was hidden away in a hotel. There were clandestine visits to the church premises late at night, two formal interviews and a dinner at Harlick’s. What might have sealed the deal was the children’s excitement at Hallowe’en, an almost unknown concept in England. Katherine even celebrated her 11th birthday in Victoria.

But once the Bishop made an offer to Alastair, and it was accepted, there were anxious days ahead.

The Canadian government changed its visa process and the family did not get permission to arrive until the day before the scheduled flight.

Meanwhile, parishioners rented and equipped a house for the family, with kitchen utensils “borrowed” from the church kitchen until their own belongings arrived by sea. They even found four bicycles for Alastair, Jo, Katherine and Jack, 8.

And they tried to find food that would offer a taste of England. “Alastair very happy to see the Bird’s custard powder and HP sauce and grateful there was no Marmite,” said Jo McCollum. “We were very excited about the maple syrup and a fridge chock full of edible gifts… bowled over by St. John’s generosity… lots of nice surprises!”

Moving is second nature to Jo: In 20 years of marriage the McCollums have moved 10 times. She said she misses the big vicarage they enjoyed in Devon—but life for her husband began in more straitened circumstances.

Alastair, 44, grew up in social housing in Honiton, Devon, one of 11 children in a four-bedroom house (six older siblings had already left home).

He and Jo, who was born in Colchester, Essex, met in university in London. “He was long haired, into rock and had a terrible sense of humour, which matched mine,” she recalled. “I had never met anybody like him.”

She was a lifelong Anglican so it was fitting that they met in a theology class. After graduation they moved to Cambridge where Alastair qualified for the ministry and she worked in a school. After a move back to London, she trained as an occupational therapist. In Devon, she worked in the Axminster hospital but says it is now “a treat to be a full time mum for a bit while we settle into work and schools here.

“As a vicar’s wife I have learned that it is good to be flexible, thick skinned and faithful. And equally importantly, to have your own life and identity. I do not see myself as Alastair’s assistant, I just happen to have married a vicar! (And he is always the first to affirm this!). He is actually, after all, an occupational therapist’s husband!”

To get a taste of the new man, a guitar-playing, real ale-loving fellow, try his blog: