Drumcree woman who was chaplain at Holloway Prison

Leah Kearns (nee Ford)
Leah Kearns (nee Ford)

Leah Kearns (nee Ford) began her church life with Drumcree Parish and finished her career as Church of England chaplain at Holloway Women’s Prison, where she had a close rapport with the inmates whom she called ‘My Girls’.

She started off her Christian ministry with the Church Army, and was among the first batch of women to be ordained in St Paul’s Cathedral, one of the many highlights of a life destined to serve others. She and her late husband Paul – a captain in the Church Army – were truly united in the cause. He died of motor neurone disease in September 2001.

There had two sons, Mark and Timothy, and the couple also involved themselves in fostering children, giving them a concept of a loving home.

Leah was brought up in Craigwell Avenue, the daughter of Ben and Ellen Ford, and she is survived by her brother Ben junior. The family church was Drumcree and she was a keen member of the Girls’ Brigade, the church choir and a Sunday School teacher.

She was educated at The Hart Memorial PS and Belfast Technical School where she achieved qualifications in secretarial and shorthand studies. Her first job was as secretary with the building firm of Robert Heathwood in Bridge Street, Portadown.

She joined the Church Army in 1961 and was trained in the HQ in London. It was there that she met David Kearns. They were wed in Drumcree in 1969, and after their honeymoon they took charge of a men’s hostel, run by the ‘Army’ in London.

Other posts in south-east England included a drug addiction centre for young men, working in the mission department – and they often spoke at the famed Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner, preaching the gospel. They later moved to the north-west where David was appointed chaplain of Preston Prison. Leah became involved with child fostering in their home as well bringing up their own two little boys.

It was in April 1994 that Leah, along with a number of others, was among the first women to be ordained at Saint Paul’s Cathedral. By this stage the family had moved to Morden where she served in the Parish at the Royal Putney Hospital. She also served in the parish of St John’s Broughton. Later on, Leah was accepted to hold the office of Church Of England chaplain at Holloway Women’s Prison, London where she served for some 13 years. David was now permanent chaplain at Wandsworth Prison in London, and Leah was also vicar at St John’s North Holmwood.

Her brother Ben said, “One of my greatest memories of Leah was on the day when she retired from Holloway Prison. She requested that they choose a chorus to sing as they filed out of the prison chapel and back to their various rooms. A voice shouted out from the audience ‘Give me joy in my heart, keep me singing’. I sat as some 300 women walked away singing that chorus. A most moving experience.”

Earlier this month, a service of thanksgiving for the life and ministry of the Rev Leah Kearns was held in her parish of St John the Evangelist, North Holmwood.