Shock at sudden death of popular ex-Wigan vicar

Tributes have been paid to a popular former vicar who lived in Wigan for decades following his sudden death the day before his 70th birthday.

Friday, 20th April 2018, 2:21 pm
Updated Friday, 20th April 2018, 2:26 pm
Rev Roger Gibbard

Roger Gibbard had recently moved with his wife Isabel from the borough to South Wales to be near their eldest son Chris and his family.

The couple spent around 30 years in Wigan, where Roger had a stint as vicar at St Michael and All Angels’ Church in Swinley and also spent years as a chaplain at HMP Hindley and as a support worker.

He was particularly known for spurning shoes and even going barefoot when indulging in his passion for running, doing the Wigan 10k minus his trainers in aid of Swap which works with asylum seekers and refugees, an organisation whose work was extremely close to his heart.

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His unexpected death in hospital following a short illness at the age of 69 on April 2 has sent shockwaves through the community of those who knew him in Wigan and left his grieving family devastated.

His wife Isabel led the tributes, describing how he was always happiest being alongside those who had been dealt a difficult lot in life.

She said: “Roger was an Anglican priest but I would say he was very uncomfortable in the established church and with parish life.

“He was most comfortable and happiest with under-privileged, marginalised and disadvantaged people.

“He had a very strong Christian faith and took it extremely seriously. There’s an awful lot in the Bible about God’s love for the poor and oppressed and that was what he did.

“He just found people absolutely fascinating. He loved hearing their stories and being with them. He didn’t see what he did as helping people, he saw it as an equal, reciprocal relationship.

“He was also a barefooter. It was something he started doing on holiday and then in summer before he took the plunge and decided he would not wear shoes at all.

“The only exception was when we went to the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester because I would make him but he only put them on outside.

“The idea of it is to tread lightly on the Earth and Roger was very passionate about looking after the planet and taking care of it. He thought we should have as little impact on the Earth as possible.

“He died on Easter Monday, He had been poorly but was expected to make a full recovery. I’ve had lots of messages, many from people I don’t even know, and that is very heartening.”

He finished his working life in Bamfurlong helping men with challenging behaviour and learning difficulties.

Roger had a long association with Swap, having been one of its original trustees, and his commitment to helping asylum seekers was such that he went to Greece last year to help refugees.

He worked on the formal side of the organisation, setting up meetings and serving on the board, but also took part in day-to-day activities such as helping with the English classes and setting up the allotment.

The great outdoors was a defining passion for Roger, who loved birdwatching and wildlife, cherished his garden and had his own allotment plot in Wigan for around 30 years.

Mick Taylor, Swap’s project co-ordinator, said: “Roger was a founding trustee and very dedicated to making sure the organisation survived

“He did an awful lot on a day-to-day basis, helping a number of families from places all over the world including Iran, the Ukraine, Syria and Sudan.

“He always went the extra mile and was an extremely warm, caring and compassionate person. His smile and warmth really helped people settle in.

“He was also a keen environmentalist and I remember chatting to him as much about birdwatching as anything else. We would talk about all sorts of subjects.”

Roger and Isabel met at Taize in France and the Christianity of the country remained an interest of his.

At his death he was working on translating a book which has never appeared in English by a Roman Catholic theologian called Jacques Pohier, whose ideas were so radical he was stopped from preaching by the church authorities.

Michael Hunt, a close family friend from Swinley, said: “He was an extraordinary man. He was very strong willed and erudite with a broad knowledge of very many subjects.

“I actually met him through his work in the prison system but I’m a novelist and academic editor so we talked a bit about his translation work.

“I also persuaded him to take up running because he was already a very keen walker. We got to know the Gibbard family as our children were of a similar age so we started babysitting for each other and then they progressed through the school system together.

“His death has come as an incredible shock. He is going to be such a loss to everybody. I don’t think you will find another man like him anywhere.”

Roger and Isabel were married for 38 years and had four children, Chris, Sarah, Katherine and Elizabeth. The couple also have one grandchild, Ffion.

The family is now quite widely scattered, with Chris living in Swansea, Sarah in Vancouver, Katherine in London and Elizabeth working as a nurse, but they have all come together to mourn Roger’s loss.

Roger’s funeral was due to take place today, Tuesday April 17 in Port Talbot.