FORMER Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday (Sunday, February 24) led the tributes to Father John Caden, who died on Friday at the age of 89.

Fr Caden, known as Jack, died at the community hospital in Sedgefield, the County Durham town where he spent decades as a Roman Catholic priest.

During that time he became close friends with the then Sedgefield MP, baptising his four children as well as being Mr Blair’s tennis doubles partner.

Speaking from Jerusalem, Mr Blair said: “John Caden was a charismatic, lively, warm and great spirited priest and public servant.

“He was a constant presence in my life baptising all four of our children and was always there for us with friendship and good advice.

“I was so pleased that this morning (February 24) in Jerusalem I was able to have Mass said for him so he is remembered even in the Holy Land.”

John Burton, who was Mr Blair's constituency agent in Sedgefield, said Fr Caden was a source of much support in the years during his wife Lily’s battle with cancer.

Mr Burton said: “Even though we were Anglican and he was Catholic, he still came to see Lily every Sunday for three years right up until she died.

“He was just a wonderful man, a great man.

“He always told me he came to Sedgefield for five years and ended up staying for 55, clearly he was a great priest for them to have kept him here so long.”

A special prayer was said for Fr Caden at a packed mass in the St John Fisher Roman Catholic Church in Sedgefield yesterday morning (February 24).

Fr Shaun Swales, current priest for the town, said: “For many people here he is the only priest they have ever known.

“He was a great friend and pastor to so many and his life has been intertwined with theirs.

“His passing will be strongly felt across the community."

Labour MEP for the North-East Stephen Hughes said he and his family would remember Fr Caden as a “voice of compassion and reason”, with his wife Cyndi Hughes adding: “Jack was encouraging and enthusiastic.”

Fr Caden got to know many stars of the stage during his time as chaplain of the Sunderland Empire theatre and represented Sedgefield on Durham County Council for a number of years.

He remained active in the community until his death and in 2011 led a delegation opposing the council’s plans to axe free transport to faith schools.

Canon Bob Spence, who worked with Fr Caden over many years, said: “He was an inspiration to all his fellow priests.

“He was a man who was always way ahead of his time from being a young footballer at Darlington, which he was not allowed to be, to the outstanding work he did for Catholic education.

“It was highly unusual for a priest to be allowed to be a councillor but Rome was satisfied in his case he was doing it for the community good rather than for political reasons, and they were spot on.

“He became a close friend of everybody he met.”

*At 7pm on Monday, March 4, a Mass of Requiem will be held at St John Fisher Church for Fr Caden with the church staying open until midnight for people to pray and pay their respects.

*His funeral will be held at noon on Tuesday, March 5, at St Edmund’s Church of England Church before his burial in Sedgefield Cemetery beside his mother.