Twin priest joins his brother in eternity
Fathers Bruce and David Noble journeyed together from Anglicanism to Catholicism
By Mary Ann Mueller
VOL Special Correspondent
February 22, 2017
A Roman Catholic priest died over the weekend. This priest was special. His priesthood slices through Anglicanism and Catholicism. He made his mark in Australia, Oxford and Texas. If he wasn’t wearing a clerical collar, you might think him to be an elfin Santa with a closely trimmed white beard. They were born in 1937. Fr. David was 73 when he died in 2011 and Fr. Bruce was 79 when he died last week, in 2017.
I first met Fr. Bruce Noble in July 2008, a year and a half before I started to write for VOL. I met him in Houston, where he was on his second stint at Our Lady of Walsingham. I hitched a ride with him to San Antonio to attend an Anglican Use Conference being held at Our Lady of the Atonement. At the time, I was covering the Anglican Use Conference for the Anglican Use Society.
Little did I know Fr. Bruce came as a matched set, with his identical twin brother, Fr. David Noble, who was staying behind in Houston. The pair were born in Australia and, naturally, they were Anglicans. One can’t really talk about Fr. Bruce without also talking about Fr. David. Up until Fr. David died in 2011, the twins were inseparable. They became an oddity in Anglicanism because there are few unmarried celibate priests. Most Anglican priests are married, with children.
I never was able to tell Fr. Bruce apart from Fr. David, although others could. I understand that one way to tell the twins apart was to look at their shoes. Fr. David routinely wore shoes with pointed toes, while Fr. Bruce didn’t. But I didn’t learn that trick while Fr. David was alive. But that is not the first time a set of twins kept me confused as to whom I was speaking with at the time.
While in high school, there were the Wood twins. I had one of the twins in my English class and the other worked at Bishopscourt, an Episcopal nursing home my dad ran for the then Diocese of South Florida. Bishop Henry I Louttit, Sr. (III South Florida) hired my father as Bishopcourt’s administrator in 1965.
I would encounter one twin at school and the other twin at Bishopscourt and not realize they were two separate people, which lead to some pretty disjointed conversations. I’m sure the twins must have thought I was daft.
It was through Bishopscourt I first encountered The Episcopal Church. We moved from the Northwoods of Wisconsin to Florida when Daddy hooked up with Bishopscourt. At the time I was Lutheran. I come from Wisconsin after all, and with the Germanic last name of Mueller, it was natural that I might be a Lutheran of some stripe.
Daddy eventually introduced me to the Bishopscourt chaplain, Fr. John Raciappa,… of very fond memory.
Fr. Raciappa’s first words out of his mouth to me were: “I’m going to make an Episcopalian out of you.”
“Sinner’s chance in hell, priest,” I retorted. I thought Daddy was going to box my ears.
Well … Fr. Raciappa won! In 1970, I became an Episcopalian when Bishop William Hargrave (I Southwest Florida) confirmed me at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in St. Petersburg Beach. At that time, I was a cub reporter working for the Gulf Beach Journal in St. Pete Beach. It was a most powerful experience. But I digress.
Back to the Fathers Noble.
As Anglicans, the Noble brothers were born on September 17, 1937, in Brisbane and it was a well-guarded secret who was older than whom by how many minutes. They attended an Anglican parochial school and went on to Queensland University, and eventually to St. Francis Theological College, which led to their twin ordinations as Anglican priests. At that point, their paths diverged somewhat. Fr. Bruce went on to Oxford and Fr. David stayed in Australia to become a Bush Brother. The Bush Brothers are a quasi monastic order, dedicated to providing ministry to the Aborigines in the Outback of Queensland.
Eventually, Fr. David became chaplain at Christ College on the island of Tasmania, where he also taught New Testament, while his brother, Fr. Bruce, became the vicar of St. Georges, an Anglo-Catholic shrine in Portsmouth, England. From there, Fr. Bruce went on staff at Coventry Cathedral.
Ultimately, both Fathers Noble ended up in the United States, first in New York, then down in Texas. They brought their charming Australian lilt with them and never lost the “downunder” accent.
First, Fr. David crossed the ocean blue to study at General Theological Seminary where he connected with Fr. Robert Terwilliger, an adjunct professor of theology. Fr. Terwilliger eventually went on to become bishop suffragan for the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, but not before he founded the Trinity Institute at Trinity-Wall Street and Fr. David became the associate director of the Institute.
Fr. Bruce also crossed the ocean and again the twin Noble priests were both living in the same country on the same continent, this time until death. Together the twins labored in Christ’s vineyard through Episcopal Marriage Encounter. For a dozen years the Fathers Noble worked the Marriage Encounter experience, each separately travelling to the four corners of the globe many times for more than 40 weekends a year. Eventually they both landed in Houston, which afforded them an international airport for their growing ministry.
Marriage Encounter eventually expanded to encompass: Engaged Encounter; Beginning Experience for Divorced and Widowed; and Youth Encounter.
It was in Houston during the mid-1980s that the twins experienced their conversion to the Roman Catholic Church and it is in that Texas city is where they both died, six years apart. However, it was their work with Marriage Encounter which got them rethinking the theology of marriage in The Episcopal Church and how it was changing before their very eyes into something very different than what they believed.
Once the twin Anglican priests became Catholic priests under the Pastoral Provision, which allowed them to keep aspects of their Anglican spiritual heritage and “accent,” they both worked with the Catholic Chaplain Corps, which is dedicated to “provide sacramental and pastoral care to patients, families and staff of health care institutions in the Texas Medical Center and select health care institutions within the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.” Fr. David was assigned to MD Anderson and Fr. Bruce was assigned to Methodist when he was not in the pulpit at Our Lady of Walsingham. Both facilities are a part of the overarching Texas Medical Center as is Houston Hospice, where they died.
Fr. Bruce devotedly stayed with his brother during his final agony due to cancer. He slept on a rollaway near Fr. David’s bed and helped lead his dying brother to the edge of time so that he could step in to eternity and meet Christ. For six years, Fr. Bruce was alone in this world; his brother was in the next. Fr. Bruce retired from active priestly ministry in the fall of 2011, following 50 years of dedicated Anglican and Roman Catholic ministry. Now he, too, has stepped over into eternity where I am sure he has been met by both Christ and his long-awaited brother David. Fr. Bruce died of the same cancer that took his brother. It must have been in the shared genes and identical DNA.
The last two times I saw Fr. Bruce was when the Anglican ordinariate was gearing up. He was at the initial January 2, 2012 news conference which introduced former Episcopal Bishop Jeffrey Steenson (VIII Rio Grande) as the founding ordinary of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, which is home-based in Houston with Our Lady of Walsingham being named the principal church. Now OLW has been raised to the status of a cathedral with the advent of Bishop Steven Lopes as the Ordinariate’s first bishop. As a married man, Steenson could recover his priesthood in the Catholic Church, but not his episcopacy, so he became a mitred monsignor to lead the Ordinariate during its early years.
The 2012 news conference was held at OLW and Fr. Bruce was looking over my shoulder, mesmerized at my reporter’s note taking. I do it the old-fashioned way with a reporter’s notebook and pen; I don’t use a lap top as reporters do nowadays. I was with him in San Antonio at the 2008 Anglican Use Conference and he was fascinated how I could turn pages of hieroglyphics and hen’s scratching into a story. He even made it into that Anglican Use story.
“When Anglican Use Society President Joseph Blake was asked where the next Anglican Use Conference might be held,” I wrote. “He indicated in Texas.”… ‘Where in Texas? … He was reluctant to reveal the locality because the Ordinary had not yet been contacted for his consent…. ‘Does he ordinarily wear red?’ … The Anglican Use Society president silently flushed. … ‘”Houston!’ was the educated guess. … When the final assembly was formally adjoined, Blake closed the gathering with: ‘Next year … Houston!’ … ‘The eagle has landed,’ retorted Fr. Bruce Noble from Our Lady of Walsingham.”
I again saw him six weeks later at the February, 2012 enthronement of Monsignor Steenson and the formal erection of the Ordinariate. That event was held at Sacred Heart Cathedral because OLW would be too small a venue for such a large event which drew worshippers from throughout the United States and Canada and other parts of the world. However, we have never again crossed paths in this life, even though he remained the dedicated chaplain for the Chorus Angelorum, an in-residence choral group at OLW.
I was at Fr. David’s funeral, which was held at OLW with Daniel Cardinal DiNardo celebrating. My heart went out to Fr. Bruce. They say it is hard to bury one’s child, but it must be excruciating to bury your identical twin. Some of Fr. Brucemust have been buried with Fr. David that day.
It is always interesting to hear Cardinal DiNardo celebrate an Anglican Use liturgy. The words are familiar, the voice is familiar, but that voice saying those words is unfamiliar. I give him credit. Celebrating an Anglican Use liturgy is almost like speaking a foreign language and, for the Latin Rite Roman Catholic cardinal, 16th century Elizabethan English is a foreign language.
Fr. Bruce’s funeral is Friday, Feb. 24, 2017, six years to the day that his brother Fr. David died on Feb. 24, 2011. Circumstances prevent me from attending Fr. Bruce’s funeral rites to be held at Houston’s Sacred Heart Cathedral. Again, Cardinal DiNardo will do the honors. Then Fr. Bruce will be returned to his homeland, to be buried next to his twin brother.
In 2011, when Fr. David died, he left behind his brother Fr. Bruce. Now, in 2017, Fr. Bruce leaves behind many friends that both he and his twin brother knew on both sides of the Tiber. I shall miss seeking out his face and hearing his cheerful voice when I am at an Ordinariate or Archdiocesan event. I rejoice that he is with the Lord and that he can again concelebrate High Mass, this time on the High Altar with the High Priest and his brother.
Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline