ISLAND-based business tycoon Albert Gubay may have wanted no public acclaim or fanfare of trumpets.
But there was standing room only in the church he built in memory of his late mother to watch the Archbishop of Westminster the Most Reverend Vincent Nichols confer on him a Papal knighthood for his lifetime of philanthropic work, much of it for the Catholic Church.
The Knight Commander with Star in the Order of Saint Gregory the Great is one of the highest honours that the Pope can bestow.
Dating back to 1831, the knighthood is awarded for ‘conspicuous service to the church and society’ and has been bestowed on Mr Gubay, 82, following his pledge last year to give away the bulk of his near-billion pound fortune to charity.
That pledge began with a pact with God that Mr Gubay made when he was a penniless 26-year-old, living in Prestatyn, North Wales, when he promised in a prayer he would give away half his wealth if he made millions.
He went on to create the Kwiksave supermarket chain, which he sold for £14 million in 1970s, and then in 2009 netted a further £80 million after selling his Total Fitness empire.
Last year, he hit the headlines after announcing he had set up the Albert Gubay Charitable Foundation which will take control of his business empire as a going concern after his death, potentially generating an annual income of £20 million for the church and other good causes.
In a service of thanksgiving at St Anthony’s Church in Onchan, and watched by his wife Carmel and daughter Paula, Mr Gubay was praised for his generosity in a sermon by the Archbishop of Westminster who said: ‘Albert, you are generous, thoughtful, intelligent and measured. It’s a great sign of the generosity of God. This is so because you have made it clear that you expect no public acclaim and no fanfare of trumpets.’
He said many had treasured memories of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the UK last year and it was a shame that the Pontiff’s programme could not include the Isle of Man. ‘It was a rare occasion and this is a rare award but entirely appropriate.’
Parish priest Father Philip Gillespie read out the Papal brief in Latin. ‘That means “well done!” translated the Archbishop before conferring Mr Gubay with the Papal knighthood.
Members of the order are not conferred with a title but can place the initials KCSG after their name. Mr Gubay now has the right to be addressed as His Excellency.
The honour confers no privileges except, curiously, for the right to ride a horse inside Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.
At a function at the Mount Murray Hotel after the service, Mr Gubay told the Manx Independent: ‘I’m prepared to do that – if you run behind with a bucket and spade!’
He recalled the moment he made his pact with God.
‘I was 26 and penniless. I was working the markets and market jobs are precarious because if it rains you take nothing. I had two young kids, no carpet on the floor. I didn’t have enough money to buy food.
‘I was at my wit’s end, lying on the bed on a Saturday afternoon and said a prayer to God – “please help me to get on in this world. Whatever I make, you get 50 per cent”. I always keep my word – my word is my bond.’
Mr Gubay, who lives in Crogga Mill, Santon, was in South Africa when he was learned that he was to receive the Papal knighthood.
‘It came as a surprise to me. I just could not believe it. I don’t know how I deserve it. I’ve built three churches – so what? It isn’t difficult when you make far more money that you can possibly spend.’
Mr Gubay moved to the Isle of Man in 1971, largely to escape the ‘supertax’ brought in by Harold Wilson’s Labour government.
‘I was paying 98 per cent tax under Harold Wilson. The island has been good to me. I consider myself to be Manx and I’ve got a lot of friends here.’
Mr Gubay said there had been an excellent turn-out to the service at St Anthony’s but insisted the best thing had been the choir of St Mary’s RC Primary School, which began proceedings with the hymn As I Kneel Before You which includes the appropriate line ‘All I have I give you’.
Mr Gubay’s work in the island has not been without controversy. Most notable was the construction of homes at Mount Murray, which led to an official inquiry.