The story of this inspiring young man has the power to move hearts and minds, writes Colm Fitzpatrick
Incredible people can be found in the most ordinary and unsuspecting of places – the small Scottish town of Carfin is one of those places.
It lies between Glasgow and Edinburgh, to the north-east of Motherwell, and is probably most famous for its grotto which sees about 70,000 pilgrims travelling to it annually. Carfin is a tight-knit community with just over 1,000 residents and is also where the Wilson family call home.
Alan and his wife Veronica invited me to their house to talk about their son Joe who died in 2011. He was only 17. But despite the brief time he spent on earth, Joe did and continues to make an incredible impact on the lives of people in Carfin and further a-field. Some are even calling him a 21st-Century saint.
I arrive at the train station to be greeted by Alan and after a quick tour of the grotto, we head into the Wilson family home where family and friends of Joe are awaiting our return. After pleasantries, we all sit down in the living room as I prepare to find out who this young man was and why people have started to gather in his name.
Joe Wilson was born in 1994 and from a young age, it seems like he stood out from other children.
Andy MacFarlane, a close childhood-friend, says that during primary school, “I still remember Joe coming up and speaking to me, although even at a young age, he was one of the first people to come up to me and say ‘Are you alright, how are you getting on?’ and that kind of stuff in the playground.”
Another friend – Michael O’Hanlon – chimes in: “He always had a positive outlook on everything. Everybody that was having problems just seemed to go to Joe and tell him their problems and he’d always listen, he also seemed to have an answer for everything as well.
“He was very positive in life and I think a lot of people were drawn in by that which was a really lovely aspect about Joe.”
Everyone in the room says something uplifting about him and if this were a parent-teacher meeting, he’d received a glowing report. Indeed, he was well-loved in his secondary school, Taylor High, and this affection was to be later demonstrated by the school after his death.
It’s never easy to relay the final moments of someone’s life, especially if it’s your own child, and Joe’s father, Alan, is no exception to this rule. Yet somehow, he is able to tell me about those imminent few days with candour and composure.
Two days after his 17th birthday in the early hours of December 15, Joe’s parents heard a loud thud in the landing and found him on his knees. Alan thought he was choking but upon investigation realised that his throat wasn’t blocked. While Alan performed CPR, his mother Veronica had rang the emergency services and was describing Joe’s symptoms over the phone while they urgently waited on an ambulance.
“So, the paramedics came along and put the defibrillator on him and kept doing what was protocol; he was out, there was no output. Veronica went in the ambulance and I took our daughter Angela in the car behind the ambulance, and I was honestly following that ambulance thinking, I can’t believe it, that’s it,” Alan explains.
Arriving at the hospital, the family learned that there was a cardiac output from Joe, so he was placed in a critical care ward and put into a medically-induced coma. Despite initial hopes of recovery, Joe’s condition didn’t improve and he died on December 20, 2011, at Wishaw General Hospital.
He was the victim of Wolf-Parkinson-White syndrome which is a relatively normal cardiac condition that causes the heart to beat abnormally from time to time. It usually isn’t serious but it proved to be fatal for Joe.
While he was in a coma, hundreds of people gathered at Carfin grotto for a candle-lit prayer and procession in the hope that he would recover. The grotto is very close to the family home and is where Joe often frequented.
Veronica, who is a native of the area, says that the grotto has “always been part of my life” and that as soon as Joe was born, she started to take him there.
“When Joe was old enough, he started to ask to go down himself to pray…he just found it a nice, calm place to be.”
He viewed it as a special and sacred place where he could pray and reflect. Joe dedicated many prayers to others during the time he spent there and was particularly inspired by St Thérèse of Lisieux after learning about her strong Faith and desire to help others.
Alan recounts that at Joe’s requiem Mass, the parish priest Fr Francis McGachey said that when he had just arrived in the parish, Joe was eager to know how he had been settling in. “He said, ‘Well Father, how are you? How are you getting on, how are you enjoying the new parish?’,” Alan repeats Fr Gachey’s words, adding himself, “I just thought that shows how comfortable and at home he was there.”
Another note says: ‘You were the first student to smile at me and say ‘good morning’…as time went on, I realised you were always smiling…a true quality’”
Of course, after Joe’s death, the grotto took on a deeper meaning for the family especially because of the vigil.
“Honestly, the community just rallied around us, didn’t they? It was absolutely brilliant. You’re still kind of wondering, ‘What do I do now? Where’s my new normal, what happens?’ And I think I walked up to the grotto every night for several months, just to sit and pray and contemplate,” Alan says.
“So, I found it a lovely place of solace for me, and I suppose that’s carried on. Every time I’m in need to quiet time, me time, I’ll just wander up…it’s a lovely place.”
The staff and students of Joe’s school also played a pastoral role while he was in a coma by creating a special wall in the building’s mezzanine replete with inspirational messages and prayers dedicated to him and his hopeful recovery. One reads: “We’re all thinking of you, if anyone doesn’t deserve what’s happening it’s you, honestly the nicest person any of us will meet. We’re all praying for you.”
Another note says: “You were the first student to smile at me and say ‘good morning’ when I joined the school on January 5, 2010. You made me feel so welcome, thanks. As time went on, I realised you were always smiling…a true quality.”
The school’s resource centre was subsequently renamed after him, and is now called the Joseph Wilson Library Resource Centre.
Support for Joe’s recuperation wasn’t just local either; while he was in intensive care, the whole world heard his story and people were sending messages of hope through the internet. His classmates started a hashtag on Twitter, urging people to pray for him, which trended globally and was seen by millions.
So incredible was the outreach that an American woman called Vera Pastore travelled from the US to Carfin just to see Joe’s school, explore the grotto and find out more about him.
Despite the thousands of prayers for a turn around, Joe still passed away. His mother is a devout Catholic and his father was Episcopalian at the time – he converted to Catholicism two years ago. In times of such at tragedy, many people in their situation would abandon the Faith, angry at a God who created immense suffering by taking their son away unexpectedly. However, it was actually their trust in God that gave them the stability to navigate through these emotionally-wracked times.
“We were just very heartbroken, but I’ve always had great Faith and so did my parents. I just thought that you’ve got to trust in God, his will is more important than ours and that’s the way I was brought up and that gave me the strength and you’ve just got to trust that even though you’re heartbroken, God helps us through, trust in God’s plan,” Veronica says.
Likewise, Alan used his Faith to muster up the courage and resilience to overcome this traumatic time, although his journey was dissimilar to his wife’s. He explains that he had a “big epiphany” in the hospital while waiting for a prognosis on Joe. He opened up a Bible in the hospital chapel and was drawn to read different verses which had been highlighted under specific themes like despair or anxiety.
“Every verse I read just said put your trust in God, they said it in different ways but that was the common theme – God knows what he is doing, just put your trust in God, so I did. And all the pressures I was feeling just lifted and I just felt like I can handle this, I can do this,” Alan says.
Joe’s diary entry reads about the joy he felt and that his Faith was growing”
“At that point, we didn’t know what the outcome was or what it was going to be and I just thought that’s alright, just go with it and it led me to accept what outcome would come our way. So subsequently, every time you had a chat with a consultant and it’s not going the way you want it to there was an acceptance.
“It didn’t stop my emotions and my feelings but it helped me to understand and go with what was happening. So that was a big kind of epiphany moment for me, so from that moment that really strengthened my Faith.”
After his death, Alan discovered diary entries Joe had created over his teenage years in the back pages of some school jotters. In them, he talks honestly about his feelings and connection to his Faith, including times when he desperately wanted to feel closer to God.
At one point, he mentions how proud he was to attend the then-Pope Benedict’s visit to Glasgow in 2010. His diary entry this day reads about the joy he felt there and that his Faith was growing. As well as contemplating his RE lessons throughout school in his diary entries, Joe also reflected on the rewarding aspects of following God, putting others first and praying fervently.
Alan and Veronica describe this discovery as a “real source of comfort” and they sat up all night reading them. Upon reflection, Alan decided to read some quotes from the diary at Joe’s memorial service creating a surge of people who wanted to hear more about Joe’s thoughts and philosophy.
Given that Veronica is a “very private person”, she was initially apprehensive about publishing quotes from her son’s diary but eventually thought that his words would help people locally. Joe’s school began printing a booklet about him called ‘Joe’s Words’ including details about his story and extracts of his writings.
As more and more people heard about it, Alan approached the grotto shop about stocking them and they happily obliged. “They just kept getting replenished and replenished and replenished,” he says.
Joe’s words have had a profound impact probably because of how mature and insightful they are given how young he was. His last entry on December 3, 2011, for example, reads: “I know the world ain’t gonna be perfect and that’s why I love having Faith. Just think of all the people who were starving, famines, were excluded, were tortured, were not loved in the world. All these people who were unfortunate on Earth are, I am certain, sitting on the highest thrones of Heaven – how reassuring is that?…”
One person in the sitting room who tells me about how Joe’s words have personally changed his life is Patrick Lafferty – he didn’t know him but learned about his story at the Joe Wilson table tennis club run by Alan.
Only time will tell if the diocese will open the cause but he’s enjoying the journey”
“I came across Joe’s words, I think, potentially three years ago after one of the table tennis nights. I started reading it and I thought I’d read a couple of quotes and then I’ll go home but I found myself in the car park of the table tennis club sitting reading through the entire diary because I was so engrossed in what he said,” Patrick says, adding that while he’s always been religious, Joe’s words gave his Faith a boost and that he’s had a profound effect on young people.
A clear sign of his mark on people was displayed a year after his death in the summer of 2012 when Joe’s family and friends climbed Britain’s highest mountain to raise money for the British Heart Foundation.
His best friend Chris Lawlor tells me that he and Joe had climbed Ben Nevis the year prior, and so after his death he decided to arrange the climb in Joe’s memory. Over 170 of his relatives and classmates conquered the climb and raised almost £40,000 for the heart charity. This year, Alan and a few of Joe’s friends decided to take on the challenge again.
“We always wanted to do it again but we just decided on this year because everything lined up for us, we just done it for a few different charities,” Paul says.
On the back of this recent climb, Alan was interviewed by John Mallon of ‘Sancta Familia’, the most followed religious Facebook page in Scotland. John had heard about Joe death years prior to ever meeting Alan and had even read the booklet while visiting Carfin grotto.
At the time, John was struggling with anxiety problems and was feeling isolated in university, but felt empowered by Joe’s words.
“I was almost grieving for him as well, but to see someone who had written those things and lived a good life and clearly was devoted to their Catholic Faith…he comforted me spiritually in that sense and gave me a kind of boost to continue on. Some of his quotes about perseverance, some of his quotes about praying, it did help,” John says.
The interview with Alan received a huge amount of traffic online and John received messages about potentially opening up a cause to Joe for sainthood.
“I said well maybe it’s worth looking into because you see a lot of young Catholic saints and you see a lot of stories and things about people who have lived good lives and been good examples and I was doing something on St Thérèse at that point in time and you see her words and her story and she didn’t do marvellous things, she didn’t do big things but her words showed a depth of Faith and I though that was parallel with Joe…” John says.
With this in mind, John spoke with Bishop Joseph Toal about opening up a cause and the bishop advised starting a devotional night and writing a specific prayer for Joe’s intercession. A Facebook and Twitter page as well as a website was established this year called ‘Joe’s Faith’ to promote his story and garner a following.
On the first ever devotional night in June, over 200 people showed up which is substantial given that Joe died in 2011. The pages continue to grow as Joe’s story gains more traction around the world.
“Well, we’re still at that kind of stage when we’re trying to build a devotion, obviously with these things, I take it very seriously. You’ve got to be accurate, it’s got to be investigated thoroughly and you’ve got to be realistic. It might not go anywhere, it might go somewhere. Our aim at the moment is to promote Joe’s words as much as possible,” John says.
“Schools are using it, people are praying to him, people are claiming favours from him which initially is very good…to have a devotion of that size is already significant, we’re still at the stage as a group where we’re trying to promote and not be presumptuous as well.
“The diocese is supportive in that they allow us to use the church space, they allow us to promote posters and events and diaries around the churches, priests are talking about it.”
He adds that only time will tell if the diocese will open the cause but he’s enjoying the journey. There’s no doubt that the word is spreading and even Belfast’s Clonard Novena this year saw Fr Kieran Brady CSsR preaching on saintliness, humility and courage in Faith, using the example of Joe and describing him as a saint for our modern times.
So, what is the future of Joe’s story? Well, his sister says it’s a testament to his character that he’s been able to connect with people across the world without being physically present in the world.
“It’s quite weird to think back on, it just goes to show that even that far down the line, people that didn’t know him at the time still love to hear about him and how far his words have reached. It’s good to hear,” Angela says, noting that he always wanted to help people spiritually and now that’s “exactly what he’s doing”.
Joe’s mother likewise emphasised his desire to help people spiritually and if he is able to do that, then his mission would be achieved.
“I think he would want people just to believe in Christ, to be nice people, to be forgiving, to help people and just live all the Beatitudes and be humble and just love people – that’s what he would want,” Veronica says.
It’s a testament to his character that he’s been able to connect with people across the world”
Joe’s father has a much more choked up response. This is probably a question he has spent a considerable time pondering. He directs me to the booklet which reads that towards the end of his life Joe expressed a strong desire to help people spiritually and it is through his death that Joe has been able to achieve this.
“As a parent, what do you want for your kids? You just want your kids to be happy. It doesn’t matter what it is they’re doing in life whether they’re up there or down here, you just want them to be happy. He was devout and I just can’t help thinking if I could speak to Joe right now and say to ‘are you happy?’ he’d say, ‘Dad, I’m over the moon’.”
Joe was buried on December 24, 2011, and at his funeral Mass, Bishop Joseph Devine said he knew why Joe had been taken – it was because he is a saint of the 21st-Century. After hearing about Joe’s story and reading his words, I think he’s probably right.
For more information about Joe Wilson and his words, see: https://joesfaith.com/index.html