Monsignor Thomas Acton

THE Reverend Monsignor Thomas Acton, known to his family as Tommy, died in Los Angeles on October 17, aged 84.

Tommy was born at Ballyalton, Downpatrick, on February 2, 1934. He had eight brothers and sisters — Maura, Seamus, Sean, Frankie, Agnes, Norrie, Danny, and Dermott. 

His father, Thomas Acton, came from Galway to work as a manager in the Mourne quarries. He was an Irish speaker and is said to have introduced hurling to Douth Down. He met and married Elizabeth Boyd, of Newry, where the Boyd family still have businesses.

In the 1920s the Actons owned Acton’s Bar in Market Street, Downpatrick, opposite the railway station, along with another pub and post office at the Roadhouses, Ballyalton. Thomas’s brother, John, also owned a bar in the town, in St Patrick’s Avenue — then known as the Circular Road).

In the days before the Quoile flood barrier was built in 1957, Tommy was occasionally carried from Market Street on his father’s back, when the town centre was badly flooded. 

With his parents running the businesses he was sent away from Ballyalton to be a boarder at an early age. His secondary education was at the Jesuit Clongowes Wood College in Kildare. Upon leaving school he enrolled at the Jesuit Mungret seminary near Limerick, and then in 1953, following in the footsteps of so many others in that era, he left Ireland for America.

He joined his cousin, Sean, at St John’s Seminary in Camarillo and was ordained on May 3, 1957. His first assignment in Los Angeles diocese was at St Bridget of Sweden in Van Nuys. He also served at St Pius 10th in Santa Fe Springs, and St.Anthony’s in El Segundo. He was at Mother of Sorrows in Los Angeles for eleven years before being appointed to Maria Regina, Gardena, in south central Los Angeles in 1978. 

He served in this urban parish for 44 years, rising to become parish priest. It was an ethnically diverse community, of some 1,200 families, which today includes Filipino, Nigerian, Spanish, and Vietnamese members.

With his relaxed manner and sense of humour he was respected and well liked in this community.  He was a spiritual pastor with a practical approach to parish life. He established Spanish language masses and learned to speak Spanish himself. He celebrated dates of significance to Filipino parishioners, such as Simbang Gabi and the feast of San Lorenzo Ruiz.

He was known for his positive attitude to new arrivals, especially welcoming a large Vietnamese community to the parish in the years after the Vietnam War. This was followed in 1986 by the arrival of 600 Korean families. In addition to his parish work he visited young offenders institutions and ministered to hospitalised Vietnam War veterans. 

Such was his dedication that he continued to live and work in the parish after his retirement, and right up until his death. In the words of one parishioner, “he was always invited to people’s homes for the holidays, people brought food and newspapers to him regularly and took him out to eat. They often asked to have private confessions with him, to talk about their spiritual needs.” At his funeral many parishioners remarked that he was often regarded as one of their family.

In retirement he kept up his regular Tuesday game of golf with his lifelong friends amongst the large group of Irish Catholic clergy in the Los Angeles area. 

Though far from home, he retained very fond memories of the well-known Ballyalton characters of the 1940s, such as Ned Grant, Drafty and Sonny Campbell. A well-thumbed letter from Sunny, dated from the 1950s, was discovered by relatives in his desk after he died.

Despite the long years away, Downpatrick was always home. With the advent of long-haul air travel in the 60s he was able to re-establish his links with Ireland, and visit his mother and the family.

Most summers he stayed in the bungalow at Ballyalton — a contrast to the urban environment of LA. He enjoyed golf and horse racing and a drink in Acton’s. He loved to walk along the front at Newcastle. He valued his visits to family members and got to know a new generation of grand-nephews and nieces. In later years, when at home, he stayed with Frankie Acton and Valerie in Ballyalton.

He became a regular at the Galway races with his brothers, Frankie and Danny. Each summer before he returned to Los Angeles, he would take a walk down to Lough Money for a last look — a walk he took for the final time in the summer of 2018.

He will be much missed by both his family here in Ireland, his parishioners in Los Angeles and his surviving sister, Agnes.