It's a long way from sunny Ocho Rios in Jamaica to Willesden in North London. But one priest in Westminster diocese is in the unique position of feeling equally comfortable in both places. Fr Howard Jones, new parish priest at Our Lady of Willesden, was born in London, but lived from the age of three to 20 in the West Indies. He returned last month from two years' working in Jamaica, and his background should make him ideally suited to Willesden. Many of his new parishioners are also of West Indian descent. The second of five children, Fr Howard was only three when the family returned to Jamaica and it felt very exciting. He said: "All I can remember is everyone waving flags. It turned out that we'd arrived just in time for the Independence celebrations." Fr Howard first trained to be a teacher but, from the age of 14, he says he felt called to the priesthood. "By the time I was 18 I had a real sense of loving God and wanting to serve as a priest but I also felt really unworthy, just not good enough. It was a very tough process." The family returned to England when Howard was 20. In 1985 he finally took the plunge and applied to train for the priesthood. Cardinal Hume, he says, was very encouraging. "He was very very supportive and trusted me. A wonderful man," Fr Howard said. For the next five years Fr Howard studied at Allen Hall and the American College at Louvain in Belgium. He said: "It was a very challenging and exciting time. I'm still friends with many of the people I met there. The most important thing for me in the seminary was the spiritual training. The other subjects were interesting but once you are a priest and someone comes to you because someone in their family is dying you need other things more than a knowledge of history or philosophy. The seminary was a great place to develop a relationship with God. A sense of prayer. Bishop Patrick O'Donoghue was a wonderful rector who gave us the freedom to be adults. He led by example. However early you arrived in the chapel in the morning he would always be there already." Fr Howard's family live in Willesden and he says they have always been very supportive. When he went to Allen Hall and the families came for their first visit, his mother Gloria was privately very upset. He said: "I learnt much later that my mother cried all the way home after she saw my small room. She never told me at the time. I would go home sometimes full of the joys of spring, sometimes depressed and they always listened and were there for me." Fr Howard's father Oswald and sister Diane came to Louvain for his commitment to candidacy. Later the Bishop of Antigua, Donald Reece, who he had got to know many years ago in Jamaica, made a special detour on a trip to Belgium for Fr Howard's ordination to the diaconate at the Church of the Transfiguration in Kensal Rise. In 1991 Fr Howard was ordained by Cardinal Hume at Westminster Cathedral. At the time he made headlines as the first British-born West Indian to become a priest in the UK. After a spell as assistant priest at Our Lady and St Joseph's in Balls Pond Road, he spent three years working with the Catholic Missionary team in Golders Green. In 1998 he was sent to work for the Diocese of Montego Bay in Jamaica, where he looked after two parishes some distance from each other - St Ann's in Ocho Rios overlooking the sea and the Sacred Heart church in Concorde, a rural community. During his time there the parish set up an education programme sending 30 children to school. They also built and furnished a house for a homeless mother with three young children. Those projects have now being taken over by local sponsors. Fr Howard says he felt particularly drawn to healing ministries - in the broadest sense - counselling relationships, working for the sick and the sacrament of reconciliation. Though there are only a small number of Catholics in Jamaica, Fr Howard found that many people who weren't churchgoers came to him with their problems. He must be very missed now. When he left Jamaica the communities organised 12 leaving parties for him. "My time as a priest in the West Indies was wonderful," Fr Howard says, "but I'm now looking forward to new challenges here in Willesden." There are more than 900 parishioners to get to know. Fr Howard has two assistant priests working with him - Fr Gerard Meany, who has been in the parish two years, and Fr Taeve Carroll who arrived a few days before him. They are still decorating and shifting furniture. For the first few weeks, Fr Howard says he is going to spend a lot of time getting a feel for the area. "I want to get to know the community," he said. "There's going to be a lot of listening before anything else. Then I'd like to hold a mission and, by next Easter, set up pastoral council. It's a great challenge. I'm very happy to be here."
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