September 2020

Helping the homeless: Reverend Roger Quick and St George's Crypt

Reverend Roger Quick, chaplain of St George's Crypt

“I first came to the Crypt as a client, forty years ago, too drunk to be let in.”

It is not the opening gambit I expect when I sit down with the chaplain of St George’s Crypt, a charity dedicated to supporting the homeless in Leeds. But then again, I’ll soon learn that there is nothing conventional about Reverend Roger Quick (Music 1979; Theology 1996) and his route from Leeds to Anglican priesthood.

“It’s one of our rules,” Roger explains. “If you can stand up and walk in a straight line, you can get in. I couldn’t do either. The staff and volunteers very kindly sent me to the Salvation Army, but they were full. It’s a long story – I nearly died that night – but I ended up sofa surfing at Hyde Park Road.”

And there I was thinking we’d just be talking about his new book – released in September, and telling the story of the Crypt through the lives of those it supports in this, its 90th year. But that would be doing a disservice to a man whose journey has touched so many lives, taking him from the doors of the Crypt that night, to the pinnacle of musical performance, and back again.

Amongst other things, St George’s Crypt provides accommodation for the homeless and vulnerable, as well as rehabilitation projects and work readiness programmes. Roger was a recent Leeds graduate at the time of that first visit, a one-night stop-off after a drunken row. But there was something about the place that drew him back – he volunteered there shortly after the encounter. “Still, nobody could have predicted 40 years later I’d return again as its chaplain.”

Least of all Roger.

From an early age, all signs pointed towards a life dedicated to music. Roger grew up in Morley, but left Leeds for London at the age of 12, joining the Royal College of Music as a junior exhibitioner. Work as an accompanist followed – performing at Wigmore Hall and working with established names – before Roger returned to Leeds, thanks to the impressive teaching talent. “I wanted to study with a composer, and Alexander Goehr was at Leeds – the only professor who was a real composer as far as I was concerned. I applied, and it was like coming home.”

L: Roger performing as an organist R: Roger performing with Donald Swann

It would prove an astute decision. Roger thrived amongst his peers, writing scores for various productions and plays, and contributing to the success of a number of University societies – including a victory at the National Student Drama Festival and a prized performance at the Young Vic in London. “They were such good times. I lived in Lyddon Hall and spent most evenings in the Fav. I spent a lot of time in the Workshop Theatre, and conducting the Light Opera Society. But they were invaluable years too – my training taught me to listen intently and respond appropriately. That turned out to be vital in my career as a chaplain.”

Roger conducting the University Light Opera Society in Riley Smith Hall

By graduation, Roger’s reputation as a musician was growing. As a freelance pianist, conductor and composer, Roger worked with English National Opera North, and taught piano across the city – including the University music department.

His work even took him to the less familiar stage of television in the form of The Big Breakfast Show. “Ah, yes,” Roger smiles. “Mark Lamarr was the host, and he wanted me to play the accordion by the roadside. He stopped people in their cars and I’d get in, and they’d film us driving off to the traffic lights playing the accordion, and then I’d get out and come back for us to harangue the next person. Good fun.”

The clip, available on YouTube, provides the perfect illustration of Roger’s sense of humour, sprinkled throughout his story –  also demonstrated in his rap version of Sunday service which made BBC News headlines. “You’ve got to be able to have a laugh,” he says. “It's a crucial part of our work at the Crypt."

Roger performing with Mark Lamarr on the first edition of the Big Breakfast Show

When Northern School of Contemporary Dance opened in 1985, Roger took the role of director of music and senior lecturer. Soon enough, he was composing alongside some of the best choreographers in the world and performing in front of some of the most illustrious audiences.

“We were scheduled to perform at the opening of Symphony Hall in Birmingham in front of a real royal flush – the Queen, Prince Philip, Prince Charles. Anyway, our dancers went down, and they’d chosen some music they wanted to use. The organiser watched them in rehearsal, and gave a nod. ‘Yes, that’ll be fine, but you’ll have to change the music. The Queen won’t like it.’  My boss looked at me, eyebrows raised. They'd choreographed a dance to the music, so the implications were quite serious for the performance.”

Three weeks out from the date, Roger was entrusted with composing a new piece in time for the show. He managed it – just – and travelled down to Birmingham to conduct his own music in the presence of the Queen to open the complex. “That was pretty cool,” he comments. I pause, and smile. Indeed.

The list of accolades grows. Music, it seems, was everything. And Roger was one of the best.

Of course, things are rarely that simple, and there was something Roger had tried to push aside that wouldn’t quite go away. “I had an over-churched childhood. When I came to Leeds as a student I was a convinced atheist – I didn’t want to see the inside of a church again. I stayed like that for the next five years or so.

“But it would never settle, and sure enough it came to a head. I had a good friend, John Mackendrick, a man many of us went to with our problems – he understood. Well, I got a call one morning to say he’d committed suicide.”

Searching for answers, Roger headed to his favourite jaunt: the Faversham. Much to his disappointment, he recognised one of the other patrons – the University Chaplain, Reverend Alan Overell. They struck up a conversation that would take Roger along a very different path. “I didn’t want to talk to him but there was nobody else there, so I had to – English politeness. He asked me how I was, and I told him. I told him all of it.

“It wasn’t immediate, but the sense that there was something else I wanted to give my life to never went away. I began to realise that this faith was the most important thing there is and started training for ordination at the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield. My second degree was validated by Leeds – I came in often for lectures at the Theology department. 17 years after that conversation, I was finally ordained in Ripon cathedral.”

Stints serving as vicar in Leeds districts were followed by chaplaincy in Scotland. And of course, I could guess what would follow – a smooth circle back to where it all began in Leeds, as he’d always planned?

“I had no plans to come back" Roger says. "I'd had seven very happy years as chaplain at Strathallan School (which has sent many students to Leeds). But I had a major mental breakdown when my second marriage fell apart, and had to give up my post in the Highlands. I was unemployable in the church, so I was going to return to music. I’d had an offer of work with a national company in Canada, and I came down to Leeds whilst I waited for the visa to get sorted.”

The day Roger arrived, his brother told him that the Crypt were advertising for a chaplain. Naturally, given the new direction his career was headed and what had just happened, Roger didn't get his hopes up. "The closing date had passed, so I tried to ignore it. But it wouldn’t let me go; for the rest of the day it kept nagging at me. Eventually I decided to just turn up on the front door and see what happened."

That was 2013. An extended application deadline later, and Roger has held the position of chaplain ever since.

“Things were a little different to my first visit when I returned – in looks, at least. That night it was all very grey, dark, with single light bulbs hanging from the wire. The men slept fully clothed on benches and bunks. Now we have single rooms and dormitory rooms. It’s light, airy. We do lunch for about 100 people.

“What remains is that we will always look out for people. Those who are isolated, or looking particularly troubled. We value people as human beings when they have nothing to give. That’s what matters. That’s what helps them. The work is tough, so we need to be there for the staff too, and the volunteers.”

Many of whom are Leeds students, who Roger always enjoys seeing pass through the doors. “Students come from all kinds of social and religious backgrounds. Volunteering in the Crypt can change people, making them less judgemental, more compassionate. People come from all religious traditions, and none. We are all climbing different sides of the same mountain.”

Roger with a client of the Crypt during the Ash Wednesday ceremony

And his music, I wonder. Is all that in the past? “I still do my music. We did a scheme in the Crypt with Opera North, and it was the most successful intervention we’ve ever had. I also use music in the role as chaplain too. If someone needs to talk but can’t find the words, it can bring comfort.”

Roger knows about the comfort the Crypt provides better than anyone. Without it, his life, and the lives of so many others, would be a lot worse off.

“I told one of our clients in the Crypt about my first visit as a client myself. I didn’t want him to think I was just trying to get down and dirty with the lads, so I caveated it with, ‘I wasn’t much more than a student, I was just playing at it really.’ He gave me a very old-fashioned look. ‘Well, we could all say that.’ And he was right. My mental health wasn’t that stable.

“But that’s the thing. The Crypt has been my healing as well.”

R: "Laughter is crucial." Roger enjoying a a moment with a client of the Crypt L: Roger still plays his music, often to help bring comfort

Roger’s book, ‘Entertaining Saints: Tales from St George's Crypt’ is published by Darton, Longman & Todd in September. You can find it on DLT's website, or on Amazon.

Did you volunteer at St George’s Crypt as a student? Do you have any stories to tell from your time there? Let us know.