28th Feb, 2020

Grandson follows in the footsteps of Worcester's Woodbine Willy

THE GRANDSON of Worcester’s famous First World War chaplain Woodbine Willie has spoken of the emotional moment he stood in the pulpit his grandfather occupied a century ago.

Kostya Kennedy, who lives in New York, called into St Paul’s Church, in the heart of Worcester, during a flying visit to the UK.

During 1914, when war broke out, the Rev Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy was the parish vicar at the church and preached with compassion and understanding which won the hearts of many of those living in the blockhouse – the area of narrow cobbled streets of two-up two-down houses which surrounded the church.

He became an army chaplain and was nicknamed Woodbine Willie for his time in the trenches handing out Woodbine cigarettes to the troops. His courage earned him the Military Cross and he went on to become the personal chaplain to King George V before his death in 1929.

Kostya said: “Our visit to Worcester, and to St Paul’s Church in particular, was remarkable. It brought my grandfather to life.

“My father, Michael Studdert-Kennedy, was the youngest of Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy’s three sons. He was just two years old when Geoffrey died, and he emigrated to America where he made a career as a speech scientist and a professor of linguistics. Geoffrey’s values, as well as his perspective, were very much present in my father, guiding him in work and in love.

“Part of that characteristic was a humility. While I certainly learned of what Geoffrey did, and many intimate stories were passed down from my father, it was quite powerful to come to Worcester and see more closely the impact that Geoffrey had on his parish, in the Church and upon so many people as Woodbine Willie.

“It was remarkable to visit Worcester Cathedral and see the window etching that shows him bringing the light to soldiers at the front. And it was incredible to read through some of the letters that came from so far away, from the United States, from all reaches on the United Kingdom, from ordinary people and from the secretary to King George V on the occasion of Geoffrey’s death. These were letters to Emily, my grandmother, and the three boys.”

He said seeing St Paul’s now and understanding the way the church is used today to support and to aid the community, was ‘enormously touching.’

“It seems as if the current mission of the church, to care for those who need caring for, and to bring God and love to the community, is precisely the same mission as my grandfather’s.” Kostya added.

“I felt a surge of emotion standing in that pulpit at St Paul’s, the same pulpit from where he preached so passionately and so powerfully. It was then that I felt his presence most strongly and tangibly. My breath caught.”

Kostya visited St Paul’s with his wife Amy and their teenage daughter, Maya.

“As my feet touched the same church grounds as my great grandfather, I tried my best to absorb his admirable quality: to love,” said Maya.

“As I stood in the same pulpit my great grandfather preached in, pride of the inspiration he shared overwhelmed me.”

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