Born desperately poor, a Protestant in a Catholic part of Ireland, James Wallace was brought up by his grandmother. He left school at 13, preferring to be outdoors in the country working on the farm and in the fields with the animals. He thus learned a lot about nature and retained throughout his life a deep-rooted love, knowledge, and appreciation of plants, animals, and birds. Eventually he, with other young men of the area, emigrated to London where he went into service as a gentleman’s gentleman in a succession of households and establishments including the Turkish Embassy. Since most of his companions from Donegal were Catholics, he was converted and became a very fervent and even pugnacious Catholic concerned to bring others to his newly found faith. Very soon he felt the call to religious life, and on New Year’s Day, 1931 entered the Xaverian novitiate at Deeping St. James, taking the name Columba. It was an appropriate choice since St. Columba was a native of Donegal who, as a missionary monk, left his native Ireland to preach the gospel in Scotland and who was also renowned for his love of birds and animals.
Shortly after receiving the habit, the cook at Deeping, Brother Basil (December 28) became seriously ill and Brother Columba was asked to take over, and did so well that he remained in the kitchen for the rest of his working life. During this time he served in most of the brothers’ communities in England: Deeping, Foxhunt, Mayfield, Brighton, Manchester, Clapham, Bestbeech St. Mary and finally Bradley House where he was cook from 1971 to 1977, after which he retired from active life. In these communities he cooked three meals a day seven days a week for the brothers. In some places he was also responsible for school meals for the boys. His was a hard life which could be thankless at times — taken for granted when things were good, complained about when they were not. Remembering no doubt his own hard beginnings and early experience of hunger, he would save tidbits and treats for those boys or young brothers whom he thought looked in need of extra nourishment.
But a brother’s life is more than the work he does. There is a routine and spirit of prayer, of trying to live more consciously in the presence of God. Because of his duties, Columba could not always be present at community prayer. He would often be found in the kitchen fingering and praying his rosary. His well-thumbed copy of the old Xaverian Manual of Prayer was testimony to his faithfulness to a living rhythm of prayer in spite of obstacles. Such a way of life and of prayer eventually led to a deep acceptance of God’s will for him in his last months. In the nursing home just before his death, he said, “If God had wanted me to be a surgeon or someone clever, he would have arranged things differently.” Pointing upwards he added, “He knows best.” When the time came on January 8, 1997 he was at peace and ready to go. After a funeral Mass in the Mayfield chapel, he was buried with so many of his confrères in the brothers’ cemetery there.