Wednesday, 10 September 2008

St Anthony of Padua, Rye, Sussex

Up in the crow’s nest you can spot the foreigner.

The church of St Anthony of Padua has smuggled its Spanish-Romanesque campanile and dome into the Tudor and Jacobean roofscape of Rye, adding a flavour of Tuscan hill town to several centuries of clay-tile, timber-frame Sussex vernacular.

It fits in remarkably well.

Ship-shape Rye sails across the East Sussex marshes, land-locked on a cliff top from which the sea long-ago retreated. I’ve gained my vantage point by climbing the tower of another church, Anglican St Mary’s, which commands the summit.

From here I can observe a good deal of this seaside parish, which stretches to the village of Pett in the east, beyond Camber Sands to the Kent border in the west, and inland to Iden.

It’s a commanding vantage point – even on a day like today, when a brisk easterly is powering horizontal gusts of rain across the marshes and blurring my view of Winchelsea, the village on the next hilltop west.

Rye still has its connection to the sea. At the foot of the cliff is the River Rother, where a line of fishing boats is moored. The Rother snakes out through an industrial belt to the mainly Victorian hamlet of Rye Harbour, where the sea has retreated.

At my feet is Lamb House, once home of Henry James and later E F Benson, author of the Mapp and Lucia novels that fictionalised Rye – but only just – as jolly, camp, Edwardian Tilling. From Lamb House I can trace the route along the narrow, pebble-cobbled roads to Watchbell Street and St Anthony’s.

The church is small; slipped into a terrace of old red brick houses on the lip of the cliffs. This is a Franciscan house and beside the church is a little Friary, home to Father Philip Doherty of the Order of Friars Minor Conventual.

The Greyfriars returned to this stretch of coast a century ago, reviving a tradition that was uprooted at the Reformation, and fanning the flames of Catholic revival in an area that still celebrates the Protestant martyrs in bonfire parades each November.

But while the Catholic tradition here might have been forced underground, it had not died. As the church guidebook tells: “Some of St Anthony’s congregation are direct descendents of a handful of people who kept the Old Faith alive here in the early 1800s. During penal times, Rye's fishermen smuggled priests to and from France.”

Fr Philip introduces me to two senior members of his congregation. Miss Audrey Hatter and Mrs Sheila Miller are sisters who have lived in Rye all their lives. Their father was a fisherman and their mother Irish, and a nurse.

“Physically, the town has changed hardly at all,” says Sheila, “but in terms of the people it has changed a great deal. There are so many visitors now – they are here all the year. And the shops; now there are lots of tea shops and gift shops, hardly any ordinary stores.

Audrey recalls Catholic life. “Social life tended to revolve around the big houses of the rich Catholic families,” she says. “They would have fetes and garden parties that all the Catholics would go to.”

In their grandfather’s time, Rye’s now highly prized Norman and Jacobean houses were fisherman’s cottages, and a row of four or five could be bought for a few score pounds.

It was the arrival of artists and writers that made Rye fashionable, and increasingly expensive.

Radclyffe Hall, the lesbian Catholic author of The Well of Loneliness, scandalised Rye when she set up home here in the Thirties with her lover Mabel Batten, a former mistress of Edward VII.

Audrey remembers her: “We thought ‘what an odd couple’. They had to make quite an entrance when they came into Mass. I was only eight or nine and I thought them very odd. She wore a trilby – a man’s hat. She gave a rood cross to the church.”

The Byzantine Rood Cross is magnificent; a blaze of gold and Roman red that strikes a powerful contrast with the cool cream of the church’s simple interior.

The sisters also remember E F Benson. Benson became mayor, and was a great benefactor. His father, Edward White Benson, was archbishop of Canterbury. One brother, Arthur, wrote the words of Land of Hope and Glory and another was a Catholic priest, Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson.

Benson gave the beautiful stained glass west window to St Mary's in honour of his parents, and a north window for Arthur. He also paid for the renovation of St Mary’s organ, a gift replicated by his heroine Lucia in one of his novels.

The comedian Spike Milligan, who was periodically troubled by depression, settled in the town in the late Eighties and joined the congregation at St Anthony’s. He was often unable to attend through illness, and Father Philip recalls his predecessor telling him “I’ve taken the sacrament of the sick to that man more than to any other living soul.” He died in 2002, aged 83.

On Spike’s grave stone is a Gaelic inscription that translates as: “I told you I was ill.” Although his funeral was at St Anthony’s, Spike is buried not in the Catholic plot of Rye’s town cemetery but across the marsh at St Thomas’s in Winchelsea.

John Kilroy, another of Fr Philip’s parishioners, tells me Spike wanted to be buried there because he could see the church from Carpenters, his house on the outskirts of Rye.
The Prince of Wales sent a wreath of white roses with a hand-written card that read: "For Dear Spike, in grateful and affectionate memory."
Fr Philip celebrates the Greyfriars’ ancient connection with Winchelsea annually, with a mass in their ruined friary, which now stands in the grounds of a private house in Friars Road.

St Anthony’s was only the second Franciscan house to open in England during the refoundation. Key in this was the wealthy Sedley family, who came to Rye from Malta in 1906, bringing with them a Franciscan, Father Bonaventure Scebberas, as their chaplain. In 1910 Fr Bonaventure accepted the church of St Walburga, Rye. St Anthony’s replaced its Gothic forerunner in 1929, when the first church became too small.

After the Catholic Emancipation Act, the first parish stretched from Margate to Hastings, says Fr Philip, and the priest toured it on horseback. Early Masses were said in the house of a fisherman called James Head in 1847, on a bureau that now stands in the hallway of his Friary, and bears a commemorative plaque.

Father Philip is new to the parish – he has been here a matter of months - but he has known Rye for many years. Before becoming a parish priest in 1976 he taught at the Greyfriars’ school – later a seminary - in Canterbury.

In the early 70s he would co-celebrate mass at the Pontin’s holiday camp at Camber Sands and get a congregation of 300 in high summer. They were allowed to keep the collection, which was considerable. The Franciscans had a house at Winchelsea Beach, another big holiday area, and mass would be celebrated here too. “The place would be packed,” Fr Philip recalls. “People in the kitchen, in the garden, vaguely hearing Mass.”

His earlier parishes were in the industrial north of England – he is from Bradford – and he finds his Rye parishioners friendly, but more reserved. “You can’t cold call people in the south,” he says. “In the north you can just knock on the door and be welcomed in. You can’t do that here.” But, he stresses, Rye parishioners are close-knit, active and supportive.

Not that there aren’t challenges. “There are two problems in Rye – we have no Catholic school and the valuable housing stock means families can’t afford to live in the town.

“We don’t have a meeting hall – just this room. You can’t run a modern parish from a house like this.”

I say farewell to Fr Philip and his parishioners, and head down to Rye Harbour in search of the sea that has left the focal point of this seaside parish high and dry.

If you can see everything from the crows nest, then it follows that Rye itself can be seen from everywhere. And, sure enough, from the trim little docks where the Rother joins the English Channel, you can easily make out St Anthony of Padua, an unshakeable Catholic presence successfully replanted in the town’s silhouette.

Dunwich, Suffolk

Dunwich is not so much a seaside parish, more of a seabed one.

The north sea has been nibbling at it for 500 years, gradually claiming almost all of what some see as a 14th century city to rival London. Today, a town that had eight churches, five houses of religious orders and three chapels, is 50 feet beneath the waves and up to a mile off the Suffolk coast.

All that is left – on dry land – of the town where St Felix is believed to have reintroduced Christianity to East Anglia in the 630s, is one street with a pub and a museum, the cliff-top ruins of the Greyfriars friary, and the church of St James; a Victorian reclamation of stone from subsumed churches that stands alongside the 800-year-old ruins of a leper chapel.

Dunwich is nothing less than England’s Atlantis and, despite the fact that there is almost nothing left to see, attracts thousands of visitors.

The village is one of eight Church of England parishes that come under the sway of Revd Canon Richard Ginn, and he is very conscious of its appeal: “Dunwich draws people. It is a place of boundaries, not just that between land and sea but between past and present. There is a sense here in which time erodes the human story, and people find it an interesting place to be and to contemplate in.”

Despite its diminished state, Dunwich is still a community. When I visit, the church has just held a flower festival with the apposite theme of Living Water.

I find Dunwich a powerfully evocative place. I accept an invitation in a leaflet I pick up in the church to stand facing the ruined chapel of the leper colony and imagine I am standing at the west end of a long, now removed hall. On either side of the hall are rough open cubicles, housing a dozen men on one side, 12 women on the other. Their cubicles are open so that they can see into the sanctuary of the chapel, and participate in worship.

Dunwich has had its distinguished visitors down the ages. Henry James declared: “I defy anyone, at desolate, exquisite Dunwich, to be disappointed in any way.” Turner painted it and Daniel Defoe saw it as “a testimony of the decay of publick things.”

Mr Ginn gives me an example of others who have been drawn here.

“A lady said to me ‘Oh I don’t go to church, my church is Dunwich beach, there is a certain spot there where I find I like to contemplate.’ So I asked her to describe the exact spot and was able to say “That’s where All Saints church once stood.

“There is a story of bells being heard ringing from the churches on the sea bed. Now I haven’t heard this from a living soul and I certainly haven’t heard them myself. As far as I’m aware the bells were removed before the churches toppled, but I have read two accounts of travels in desert regions, one of the singing sands in which the shape of the dunes causes the wind to make a sound like singing, and the other in Thesiger where he talks of sand that makes a sound like church bells. I wonder whether at a certain point in the erosion the cliff was shaped in such a way that the wind made that bell sound.”

All Saints has been key to another of those for whom Dunwich has great resonance. Stuart Bacon is a marine archaeologist and director of Suffolk Underwater Studies. As a seven-year old in the 1940s, he was picnicking with his family on some rocks that where about to crumble into the sea, and he asked what they were.

“My family just had very little idea,” Stuart recalls. But, living just down the coast at Benjamin Britten’s Aldeburgh, his boy’s imagination and curiosity was whetted.

“I never forgot and when I was in my teens I found out that this was the remains of one of the churches of Dunwich, a city to rival London, the fifth largest port in the country, which traded as far afield as Iceland and exported wool and grain and imported fish, furs, timber and wine.”

As an adult, Stuart qualified as a diver in order to explore Dunwich. “I first dived on it in 1971 and have been doing so ever since. There isn’t a day when I don’t talk to someone or do something connected with Dunwich.

“My mother used to say ‘you were born in the cottage hospital on the seafront with the window open and a gale blowing and that’s when you became hooked on the sea’.”

For three decades, armed with a map of Dunwich from 1587 that has proved remarkably accurate, Stuart has explored this underwater marvel.

“It’s pitch black at times - today it would be. You go by feel and sound, you strike things. I found Roman bronze cannon by striking them - they boom.”

With the help of his map, Stuart sought to discover key landmarks, and in 1973 he found the ruins of one church, St Peter’s, which was taken by the sea 200 years ago.

“We had the map and we took a rope and measured and found that the remains fitted the map.

“When I dive on some of the churches I get a very strong sensation. I’ve been to almost every East Anglian church and the feeling you get in each is different. At some of the churches on the seabed I have had similarly strong sensations.

“I sit and watch my bubbles, then I stop breathing and listen. In the silence I get a very intense feeling of I don’t know what. I also get it in certain dry land churches.”

Stuart is about to get a much clearer picture of Dunwich – one that does not depend on touch to make it real. He has teamed up with Southampton University scientists who, armed with the latest thermal imaging equipment, which can map buildings beneath the silt, will spend the summer surveying the seabed, and create a 3D image of the ruins of this lost city.

A model in Dunwich’s museum gives a vivid picture of what was once here. There in miniature are the grand Preceptory of the Knights Templar – similar to the Temple Church in London - and the houses of the Benedictines and Dominicans. Lines painted across the model date the relentless march of the sea.

I take a walk to the Franciscans’ friary – a rather sorry ruin swathed in orange plastic building-site tape that sits in a field close to the cliff, nuzzled by cows. Until recently the bones from the graveyard stuck ghoulishly from the pale sandy cliffs.

Drowned Dunwich is fascinating, but what of the living village? Mr Ginn sees the threat to it not just from the sea but more immediately from the desirability of Dunwich for wealthy second home owners.

“One of the difficulties with Dunwich is the number of houses that are no longer lived in full time. About half the total of roughly 120 houses are either second homes or accommodation for rent, so that means the community is quite stretched to do all the things a community must do to survive. But we are very fortunate in Dunwich. We get help from other villages, they have to work together, they have become micro communities and they have to help each other in order to retain their identities.

“Dunwich has an active church that is cared for and loved. It’s made up to look much older than its age - it was built in the 1830s - but because it is alongside the 12th century leper chapel there is an immediate link with the past.

“There is a congregation of about 15 but it was 60 last Sunday when a neighbouring village - Westleton - cancelled its service and everyone went to Dunwich.”

Westleton is Mr Ginn’s home. He came here from London in 1985, with his wife Linda, a former nurse who is now part of the ministry team as the parish nurse.

“Parish nurses don’t actually treat the sick but, as medical provision retreats – we often have to travel a long way to a doctor’s surgery – they play a vital role. The parish nurse is there when someone is frightened and alone. They can help the individual or the family that is affected by the illness of one of its members.”

So there is Dunwich, drawing together in faith to cope with modern life – and occasionally looking over its shoulder at the approaching sea.

St Joachim and St Anne, Thurso and Wick, Scotland

In a misty Thurso, with the soft rain brushing your face, it is hard to tell where the grey sea meets the grey sky. And the buildings – uniformly pebble-dashed against the weather - are just a more concrete, angular form of greyness. So it’s only the smudge of blue or green as people hurry, head down, for Mass at St Anne’s that brings any colour to the scene.
But inside the most northerly Catholic church on the British mainland, with its bright white paint and warm pine panelling, things are decidedly more welcoming.
After Friday morning mass Fr John Allen invites the small congregation next door to the parish house, for coffee and biscuits.
We carry yellow plastic boxes packed with nativity figures that will be taken to Our Lady and St Joseph’s church at Kirkwall on Orkney, which suffered a flood last year.
A handsome pipe organ is squeezed into the hall of the parish house, and the living room is dominated by a second – plus a grand piano. We sit and chat in the conservatory, while a hefty gull gazes at us hungrily from the patio as we munch our biscuits.
“The organs are a project of mine,” says Fr John. “You need a winter project and I brought these with me with the idea of installing them in two of the churches. But there is no tradition of organ music here - the fiddle and accordion are the traditional instruments - so I decided to put them together in the house. I did organ building for five years after school.”
Fr John is actually a priest of the diocese of Arundel and Brighton. “I came here for four weeks, just to help out,” he says. “That was 10 years ago!”
He stayed because he is very much needed. Priests are in short supply in the region – a problem for all denominations.
The move happened by chance. Fr John, in the area visiting family, was invited to a dinner to mark the 40th anniversary of the ordination of the Diocese of Aberdeen’s Bishop Mario Conti – whose parish this once was, and who is now Archbishop of Glasgow. After dinner they spoke and the bishop mentioned the difficulty of finding priests, and of how he had had the loan of one from another diocese. “I said talk to Cormac, [Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor was then Bishop of Arundel and Brighton] he might lend you a priest.
“When I got home the phone was ringing and it was Cormac: ‘I understand you want to go to Scotland’ he said. I believe that vocation is not up to the individual; that you should go where you are needed, so I came.”
Thurso is only half of this seaside parish. The mother church, St Joachim’s, is at Wick, 20 miles around the north eastern peak of the mainland. Both churches – which between them venerate the mother and father of the Virgin Mary - were built in response to the arrival of industry, and with it an influx of Catholics in this overwhelmingly Protestant area.
St Joachim, which dates from 1836, was built because of an annual invasion of many hundreds for the six-week herring harvest. But the herrings are long gone, and so is the need for labourers to gut and cure them.
St Anne’s was dedicated in 1960, shortly after the commissioning of the UK’s first nuclear reactor at Dounreay, eight miles to the west of Thurso. With its congregation outnumbering Wick’s three to one, the priest moved here, to a house and parish church built on one of the new estates put up for Dounreay workers.
But the decision was taken in 2001 to close Dounreay, and all that goes on there now is the long process of decommissioning.
Not that Fr John’s work is diminishing. He is also looking after the Orkneys, which we can see from his living room window once the morning mist begins to clear.
He has overseen the 15 months of work it has taken to restore Our Lady and St Joseph’s in the Orcadian capital of Kirkwall which, together with the parish house, was flooded in 2007. Also in his care is the Italian Chapel, on the island of Lamb Holm, built by Italian prisoners captured in North Africa in 1942 and brought to the Orkneys to work building causeways between the islands. They fashioned their camp chapel from a Nissen hut, but ornately embellished and decorated it.
So a weekend timetable for Fr John begins in Thurso with vigil mass at 6.30 on Saturday, followed by a 9am Mass on Sunday. Then it is over to Wick for Mass at 11, followed by a ferry ride to Orkney.
“On Orkney I have a 3.30 mass at the Italian Chapel during the tourist season, and then mass at St Magnus’s Cathedral – I’ve been saying Mass there while the church at Kirkwall is being repaired. St Magnus’s is now run by Orkney Islands Council and all denominations can use it.
“Then, not every Sunday, but I have regular masses at the three out of four chapels that are still used on other islands.”
A retired priest, Fr Ronnie Walls, will say a Sunday morning mass at Kirkwall once the church is reopened.
Fr John travels some 170 miles each Sunday, and must stay on Orkney overnight. If the weather turns bad he can be stuck on the islands. “I was once stranded on Orkney for four days, and there have been seven occasions in the past year I’ve been there at least two days.”
Once a month there is also a Mass at Talmine near Tongue, an outpost two thirds of the way along Scotland’s northern coast.
As we leave the day has brightened, the sun is out and the closest Orkney island, Hoy, can be seen clearly across the sparkling waters.
We take a leisurely route from Thurso to Wick, along the coast of this stunning seaside parish, taking in Dunstan Head, the most northerly point on the British mainland, and Castle Mey, once the holiday home of the Queen Mother, now run as a trust by Prince Charles, who visits each August.
In Wick we step inside St Joachim’s, which has the constraint of a non-conformist chapel. The story of St Joachim's is a remarkable one, told in a booklet on sale at the church.
The site was donated to Fr Walter Lovi for his help during a Cholera epidemic. Fr Lovi arrived in the town in 1832 and found “a kind of latent dread of old popery” which meant no one would rent him a place for Mass.

Many of the casual workers who formed Fr Lovi’s congregations came from Ireland and the West coast of Scotland, and had trekked for 15 days across the country.

He found much need of his presence, reporting: “The herring fishing has increased wealth but also wickedness. No care is taken of the 10,000 young strangers of both sexes who are crowded together with the inhabitants in the narrow streets of Wick during the six weeks of the fishing, when they are exposed to drink and every kind of temptation.”

When cholera struck, many workers fled, and the curers faced ruin. But Fr Lovi persuaded all the Catholics to remain. He was at the hospital constantly, helping the few nurses who had been bribed to stay.

Suddenly the town’s view of him changed radically: “I am blessed and caressed and even kissed by the people as I go along the streets – I am called more often than the doctors.”

He was given the choice of every vacant plot in the town on which to build a church, and in four years had achieved his goal. But outside the fishing season there were no parishioners, and until 1860 the church was only used for six weeks each summer.

Then came a period of great optimism, when St Joachim became the administrative centre of the Arctic Missions, which included Iceland, the Faroes, Greenland, Lapland and part of Hudson Bay. An imposing school was built adjoining the church, and a Belgian order of nuns was to come to run it. But the nuns never arrived, the school never opened and, after six years, the centre of the Arctic Mission was transferred to Denmark.

Since then the tale of Catholic fortunes in the parish has continued to be tied to waves of immigration.

After the town went dry in 1924, Italians came to open cafes and ice cream parlours to replace the many pubs, and made up the bulk of the congregation. During the Second World War, RAF fighter bases along Scotland’s northern coast brought another wave of Catholics, and some married locals and settled.

Now, with Dounreay winding down, you might forgive Fr John if he senses a struggle ahead. Not a bit of it. He has over 200 at Mass, between Wick and Thurso, is very positive about the future, and sees opportunities in the common shortage of clergy. “Ecumenism in Thurso is very active,” he says. “A number of the churches are without ministers and I’ve offered to take services, and to carry out funerals for non-Catholics if the family doesn’t object.” The Mission continues.

St Patrick’s, Southport

Today there are two Southports. One is the grand Victorian town where, on stately Lord Street, lined with the best hotels and imposing civic buildings, well-heeled shoppers stroll beneath the colonnades.

Then there is new Southport, which takes over at what was once the sea-front prom. West of here the sands have been piling up for decades, and the resulting dry land is now home to a good quarter mile of American-style strip development. There’s a Vue multiplex, a bowling alley, a McDonalds, a Pizza Hut, a Matalan and a Premier hotel. And car parks. Plenty of car parks.

The pier belongs to old Southport , and such modernity is beneath it – literally. The pier starts at the old prom, glides above all the new development and out to sea, which means that a good third of its length is now over dry land.

But where is the sea? It’s somewhere way out beyond the end of the pier. In Ireland maybe. There is sand as far as the eye can see.

In the 1870s Southport was also two towns. But then the counterpart to the grand Victorian one was the shanty, called Little Ireland, which had sprung up at Marshside, on what was then the northern fringe of the town. It was home to the Irish families who came from Mayo to work on the farms: harvesting the potatoes, hay and corn, and going shrimping in the shallow coastal waters.

Much of Marshtown was burned to the ground in a forced clearance in 1902. Thirties suburbs have over-run the area, but you can still find some of the original long, low houses – familiar from rural Ireland – dotted along Shellfield Road and the streets around it, among the bay-front semis with their leaded lights.

The Irish Catholic community is still here, and it has thrived. One of those Irishmen who found work in Southport went on to America and made his fortune. In 1912 this mysterious benefactor sent back money to build a church, dedicated to St Patrick. And there it is, on Marshside Road.

Building it was a struggle.

Fr Thomas Leigh, the parish priest, says: “It was a very poor area and a hard life. They had nothing, really, and they weren’t welcomed by some of the locals. So much so that when they came to build their own church the foundations were vandalised each night - had quick lime poured in them and so on - and they had to bring police 17 miles from Liverpool to guard the site so the church could be built.”

Bernard O’Malley, a parishioner from local farming stock, remembers: “This was missionary territory. They used to send the young priests as missionaries out to Banks, a couple of miles north, and one day the parish priest here got an anonymous letter saying if they went out there would be trouble. The priest showed my father the letter and my father asked for the schedule of when the priests were going out. He got all the farms where there were Irish and gathered them together and went along with the priests, and there was never a spot of trouble.”

Today, St Patrick’s is a thriving parish. Around 800 come to mass each week – 1200 at Easter and Christmas -- and, alongside the church, are a thriving parish centre and a primary school with 300 pupils.

The success is remarkable when you consider the pessimistic view of the diocese about building a church here. It was considered folly. In early years there were only a handful at Mass. Until 1934 St Patrick’s was a chapel of ease, with a visiting priest opening up to say Mass and then locking the doors again afterwards.

Father Tom came here in 1995, and has put a great deal of effort into making the parish what it is today. (Bernard O’Malley says: “He’s never stopped working since he got here”.) Father Tom stresses the vital importance, in contrast to those early times, of keeping the church open all day so that all who need it – Catholics, those of other faiths and none, will find a haven here.

Certainly Fr Tom did not initially grasp the task he had been set. He says: “I was at a parish called Holy Name at Fazakerley, just on the edge of the inner city in Liverpool, and that had its problems with drugs and poverty. I had an inkling that when the bishop asked me to come to Southport, after eight and a half years there, that I was being put out to grass, but then he said to me: ‘By the way, you have to build a new church’.

And build a church Fr Tom did, to accommodate the much-increased congregation. It is bright and modern, with pews curved in a semi circle, and an embroidered altar back that has Christ flanked by St Patrick and a representation of one of the traditional, white-washed cottages the original Irish inhabitants of the parish lived in.

Fr Tom says: “We set out to have it ready for the Millennium and what with some money that my predecessor had been putting aside and a great fund-raising effort, we raised about £750,000 and had the church ready for Christmas Day, 1999. We did everything we could think of to raise the money: socials and dances. Everyone got a box with our logo on for what we call Slummy Money, which is the loose coins you find in your pocket at the end of the day.

We have a carol concert on the Wednesday before Christmas and that year we began in the old churchwhich is still a part of the complex and now our church hall -- and half way through we all processed out of the old church, through the lobby in between that was full of cement mixers and builders’ gear, and into the new church, taking the Blessed Sacrament with us.

“Once in the new church we began to light candles and as the light came there was a gasp and I believe we brought all the warmth and prayer and the Masses that have been said in the old church into the new one. Certainly people say it is a very warm church, and often new churches can feel a little cold.”

Father Tom is a Liverpudlian, born and raised in the suburb of Litherland, in a working class family.As a child I saw the priests - we had three - and they were wonderful men. I saw what they did in the community, helping people, and I thought I’d like to do what they are doing when I grow up, without really knowing what it was that they did.

“There are all sorts of little things that drew me to the priesthood. I remember my mother telling me that if someone was poor and hungry then the priest very quietly would make sure they were fed.

“I remember one priest ran a gala weekend each year with floats and a parade, and once seeing a priest in his shirt sleeves stoking the boiler before Mass so the church would be nice and warm when the people arrived.

“And I just thought what they did was wonderful, so I spoke to one of the priests and things went from there. I went to junior and senior seminary in Liverpool and was ordained on 31 May 1969. That’s just over 39 years and I’ve spent all my time in parishes in the archdiocese.”

After visiting St Patrick’s I take a stroll around Marshtown. I find the original houses, a pub called The Shrimpers and, in Shellside Road, the pinched, orange brick Marshside Temperance Hall. On the gable is a relief of a ship and a motto that reads:

Our Teetotal Ship

Our ship is

Afloat on the

Broad flowing wave

You could easily say the same about St Patrick’s, with Fr Tom at the helm.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Our Lady Star of the Sea, Amlwch, Anglesey

A steady drip of Welsh rain falls from the high, round-arched apex of the concrete roof in Our Lady Star of the Sea. It lands with a metronomic tick on a green plastic kneeler, as if time were running out for this unique, modernist church.

They say it is shaped like the upturned hull of a boat, in reference to the shipbuilding and industrial past of this seaside parish of Amlwch on the isle of Anglesey. But to me, with its soaring, stressed concrete ribs interspersed with bands of blue and white patterned glass, it looks more like hands joined in prayer, fingertips touching.

The church has been closed for almost four years. It will take £1.2m to restore it and make it safe.

Fr Declan O’Keefe is confident that time is not running out for Our Lady Star of the Sea, which stands high above the churning ocean in this former copper-mining town. He is hopeful that, in September or October, he will hear that the National Heritage Lottery Fund will bridge the £900,000 gap in his restoration fund and save the church.

It certainly deserves saving.

We climb the 14 steps and Fr Declan unlocks the arched door beneath the high, star-shaped window in the dressed stone facade. Inside, the church is just as striking.

A rainbow of star-shaped windows borders the reredos. The bands of glass that arch right over the apex of the roof startle in their audacity, and flood the church with light, even on a grey day like today.

In contrast to its modernist shape, the stations, statues, pews and panelling are very traditional. A rather primitive painting on the reredos shows the crucifixion against a backdrop of grey mountains and golden water. Why, it could be Wales. It could be here.

Apart from a powdering of paint flakes that have fallen from the roof, and one or two damp green sores weeping on the walls, Our Lady doesn’t look in too bad a shape. But Fr Declan tells me that the front wall has moved away from the rest of the building, and considerable work needs be done to put things right.

Vandals recently broke into the hall that runs below – which, with its porthole windows does give a nautical feel to the building - but mercifully the church has not been violated.

Father Declan is a hearty soul, originally from Westmead, Ireland, and belongs to the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. His Order runs all eight Catholic churches on Anglesey.

“The order bought the church from the diocese for £1,000 in 1943. Big mistake!” he jokes.

“They tell me to build it today would cost £3 - 3.5m. It was built mainly with local labour – unemployed men glad of work during the depression - and I think they did it by trial and error. It was built in situ, with moulds constructed and concrete poured into them. Only they didn’t realise it was slipping down and they got it too thin at the top.

“It took four years to build [from 1933-37]. On wild nights while they were building it, half the town had to come out and hold everything down.

“The problems with damp started after a few years, but it has stood up to 71 years of rough weather, and the actual concrete and steel frame is in good condition.”

The architect was an Italian, Giuseppe Rinvolucri, who settled in north Wales in the Thirties. He built other, more conventional churches, at Porthmadog and Abergele, but this is his unexpected masterpiece. It is Grade 2* listed.

We scurry through the rain back to the parish house, which sits behind the church looking north over the wild rocky coastline. How, I ask, does the life of the parish go on without a place to worship?

“I say mass here at the house a couple of times during the week,” says Fr Declan, “and then there are the two other churches I look after – at Cemaes which is five miles away and Benllech which is 10. Amwlch parishioners go to mass at one of the other churches, and we arrange lifts for those without cars.

“We had 60-70 parishioners at Amlwch when the church was closed, and we haven’t lost any of them. In some ways the closure has been a blessing in disguise because people from the three parishes have met and got to know each other in a way they would never have done otherwise. Twice a year we have a gathering mass at Benllech, which is the biggest church, and everyone gets together.”

Amlwch is a poor place with a proud industrial past. During the Industrial Revolution, the vast expanse of copper-bearing rock on Parys Mountain behind the town became the world’s biggest copper mine. The tiny natural harbour at Porth Amwlch was expanded to take 40 ships.

Those ships left with copper and returned with tobacco leaf, which was processed in the town’s factories. Shipbuilding developed here too.

By some accounts, the town’s 6,000 inhabitants supported no fewer than 1,025 pubs.

Today Port Amlwch is one of the poorest areas in Wales. Anglesey generally is deprived. Jobs are hard to come by and wages are low, Fr Declan tells me. The island’s two big employers are the nuclear power station at Wylfa Head and the RAF’s Valley base, which employs about 500 civilians. The recent closure of a chemical plant brought the loss of 100 jobs.

Perhaps it is fitting, then, that the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate minister to the poor. Over 4,500 Missionary Oblates work in 71 countries. They educate children in Haiti and shelter tsunami victims of all faiths in Sri Lanka. Their ministries, they say, “are a testament to the profound effect God’s love has on the communities they serve.”

The order was founded in 1816 by St. Eugene De Mazenod, a French nobleman who became a priest. French members of the order came to Anglesey in 1903. “They spoke Breton which is close enough to Welsh for the locals to understand them,” says Fr Declan.

Fr Declan, who is from Westmead, Ireland, was ordained in 1977 and in his 31 years with the order has been in many places from Christchurch to Wetherby, and in Amwlch for seven years.

Fr Declan sees great benefit in the fact that the order covers the whole of Anglesey. Much can be planned island-wide. When the Order appointed a pastoral associate, Pauline Thomas, Fr Declan spotted the potential of her husband Chris who had taken early retirement from teaching. “I thought, ‘he’ll need something to keep him busy’,” says Fr Declan, “and he became our project coordinator.”

So far £150,000 has been donated by the government agency Cadw, which looks after Welsh historic monuments, and £200,000 by the Order. They have found a worthy architect in Mike Taylor, who has worked on restoration at Lincoln cathedral and is the cousin of a parishioner. “It’s good that he’s a Catholic – he understands the liturgical needs of the building,” says Fr Declan

“Our plans have been approved by Anglesey council. They include running a lift up from the ground floor hall into the church, which will give disabled access. We’ll start by stripping everything right back to see what is there. We don’t know what colour the church was originally painted inside, for example.”

So now perhaps the best thing they can do is pray.

Just before I leave, Fr Declan shows me the little chapel upstairs in the parish house. It has a window overlooking the ocean. “When the bishop visited he came up here to pray, but when I came up he was sitting looking out of the window. He told me he couldn’t. ‘That view is better than any prayer,’ he said.”

Perhaps those who hold the purse strings at the National Lottery Heritage fund can be enticed to look at the view from that window before they make their decision.

The church is featured in A Glimpse of Heaven: Catholic Churches of England and Wales.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

St John the Baptist, Brighton

Blackpool is “noted for fresh air and fun”, Skegness is “So bracing”, Brighton… well, in the words of Keith Waterhouse: “Brighton looks like a town that is helping the police with their enquiries."

It has had a reputation as a place of sensual pleasures ever since the Prince Regent had John Nash build him a pleasure dome here in 1815. It became synonymous with the dirty weekend, a town where News of the World reporters made their excuses and left, and where those who wanted a divorce would arrange to be caught in flagrante.

In the Royal Pavilion, one big gold-leaf and blood-red boudoir of a place, I pick up brochures that offer tours of the town built around the racy lives of its most colourful inhabitants: from decadent fin-de-siecle Aubrey Beardsley to cheeky chappie Max Miller via Maria Fitzherbert, the secret wife of a king.

And yet the only shocking thing about Mrs Fitzherbert’s story – in Brighton terms – is that she refused to become mistress to the Prince of Wales, later Prince Regent and George IV, insisting instead on marriage. Their 1785 wedding had to be secret because it was illegal. It violated the Bill of Rights, whereby anyone marrying a Catholic was excluded from the succession, and the Royal Marriage Act, under which any descendant of George II was forbidden to marry under the age of 25 without the monarch's permission.

But while the British Constitution would not accept the marriage, Pope Pius VII declared that Maria and George were married in the eyes of God. George went on to marry Caroline of Brunswick, who became his queen, but never divorced Maria.

Mrs Fitzherbert is well remembered in Brighton, and nowhere better than in St John the Baptist, the city’s mother church in Bristol Road, which she helped endow and where she is buried.

My train has made me late for Mass and I sprint there, past the pavilion and, a couple of doors away, 55 Old Steine where Mrs Fitzgerald lived and where she and the prince would sit on the balcony, acknowledging the passers by. It is now a YMCA homeless hostel.

I must hurry the half mile up hot, dusty St James Street toward the church. Brighton it just stirring; the crocodiles of French schoolchildren vying for space with the crusty cider drinkers with dogs on strings. The freshly moisturised gay couples are preening in pavement cafes, lattes reflected in dark glasses, and the bars are being slooshed out ready for another day’s drinking.

I slip into the cool dark church with a minute to spare. It takes my eyes a while to adjust but when they do I find a church of baroque opulence, the painted reredos gleaming with gold and large canvases of the life of St John on the walls.

I discover I have chosen a pew beneath the white marble memorial to Maria Fitzherbert. In it she kneels before a Bible open at Acts XX 35: “It is a more blessed thing to give than to receive.” On her finger are three gold wedding rings to denote her three legitimate marriages – she was widowed twice. Beneath is a tribute, placed there by the daughter that she and the Prince adopted - Mary Seymour, known as Minnie. It reads in part: “One to whom she was more than a parent has placed this monument to her revered and beloved memory.”

Rejected by the establishment, Brighton adopted her. The woman who attended her sea bathing – taking to the waters brought Brighton its early fame – called her Mrs Prince. She was the unofficial Catholic Queen of Brighton.

Before the town had a church of its own, she had a priest say Mass at her house, and invited local Catholics.

Two years before her death in 1837 this elegant church was built, only the fourth in England since the Reformation, to replace a more modest one in High Street.

As I go up for Communion I step over the plaque to Maria in the central aisle, above the vault where she is buried. It is a plain lozenge of stone that reads simply :
“Maria Fitzherbert

After Mass I speak to the parish priest, Fr David Foley. It is clear Mrs Fitzherbert is held in great affection in the parish and the church. “We have one or two of her things in a safe,” he says, “a brooch, a soup tureen, cutlery: a few little items.”

The parish priest in her day, Fr Cullen, said of her: “She felt for the necessities of all and amply contributed to their relief. The sick, the helpless, the young, the aged experienced her benefactions, but what she favoured most was our little Charity School.”

This is a thriving Catholic community. To one side the Sisters of Mercy run a home for the elderly, on the other is the Fitzherbert Centre in a building that once housed the school but is now a day centre for Brighton’s homeless and lonely. Each day of the year the Society of St Vincent De Paul organises a soup run with 60 ecumenical volunteers.

There have always been a lot of poor in the parish, says Fr Foley. “A census in the 19th century found 30 people living in a small house. This was always a mixed parish, from Mrs Fitzherbert down to beggars and vagrants, then the rich built another church, St Mary Magdalen, to get away from them!

“Today we have a lot of immigrants, we have a welcome sign in the 40 languages that are spoken in the parish. If you get the 37 bus through Kemp Town and the Bristol Estate you won’t hear a word of English spoken. There are many east Europeans; Africans, Brazilians, Argentinean, Filipinos.

“I’m getting old but the Filipinos have been wonderful for my social life. They love parties and invite me to them. They make me feel young again.

“We get a few holiday makers, not many. I was in Eastbourne before and there visitors would increase the congregation by 200 per cent. When I came here 14 years ago it was the same, but not any more. People now come mostly for day trips, and those who come for the weekend don’t come to go to church!”

Fr Foley has spent half his tenure as a priest inland, half at the seaside. “I am originally from West Cork and I like to be beside the sea. It is always changing, the sun on the sea, the cloud formations: never two days the same. I missed that inland.”

I say goodbye to Fr Foley and take a walk around the block, and pass the homes of a cross-section of Brighton’s distinguished former residents. In my circuit down to the seafront and back I find the homes of Sir Terence Rattigan, Lord Olivier and Max Miller.

I pause to peer down from Marine Parade to the seafront and Brighton’s dull strip of shingle, a miniature tourist train and a few fishermen’s huts. In the middle distance is the pier, its once rather grand wooden pavilions replaced with a fun fair. Somehow the seafront seems like a very minor side show to the real charm of Brighton - its mix of the shabby and genteel, the edgy and the established.

Two doors along is the egg yolk and mulberry painted Hand in Hand brew pub with the sign above the door: “You are Entering the Free State of Kemp Town.”

Sitting in the Free State with a pint of Kemp Town Bitter I ponder something Fr Foley told me about two pages cut from the baptismal records. “Why are they missing,” he had asked. “Did Mrs Fitzherbert and George have children? There are tales that they did and that they were sent away, but it’s all stories.”

I look it up in the booklet he has given me, Three Wedding Rings for Mrs Fitzherbert of Brighton, by Robert Bogan. It confirms that the pages covering entries for 1800 were neatly sliced away, and recounts the rumours that a second adopted daughter, Marianne, was actually the child of Mrs Fitzherbert and George IV, and that there may have been a son as well.

Even if true, it’s hardly something to scandalise Brighton, whatever impact it might have had on the monarchy. “Woman has husband’s child” would never have set a Brighton pulse racing.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

St Mary's, Burnham Deepdale, Norfolk

Norfolk has never quite forgiven Noel Coward for his jibe about the county: “Very flat, Norfolk.” Locals will insist it’s simply not true. Now, if he had said “Very round, Norfolk church towers” they would have had no argument with him.

Norfolk is a treasure house of churches, and the round church tower - so rare as to be almost non-existent outside East Anglia - is a particular local feature. Of 175 surviving examples, 124 are in Norfolk, 38 in Suffolk, six in Essex, three in Sussex and two each in Cambridgeshire and Berkshire.

Round towers, with their heavy flint construction, often with battlements and tiny windows placed high out of reach, make the churches they adorn feel like places of physical as well as spiritual sanctuary.

The Reverend Lawrence Campbell has two round towers among the six Church of England parish churches he is rector of on an idyllic 15-mile stretch of ash-blonde sandbanks and moss-green salt marsh between Old Hunstanton and Burnham Deepdale.

St Mary’s at Titchwell has a tower topped with a charming spirelet pointing elegantly heavenwards from a churchyard that grows daisies and mole hills. Inside, children from the local Brancaster C of E Primary School have left a scrapbook of their researches into the church’s history.

At Burnham Deepdale the tower is one of a trio of treasures. The second is a Norman font carved with representations of the farmer’s year – including weeding in June, threshing in September and feasting in December. The third is a rich and varied collection of medieval glass. While the Victorians were throwing it out, the then vicar here was collecting it, grouping fragments as best he could. The window in the round tower shows Mary Magdalene holding a scroll and above her an angel pulling the chains of a censur. In the porch is a delightful medieval face of the moon; the sun that would have been its counterpoint substituted by the face of a cherub.

The many memorial plaques, and the plants for sale in the porch, are testament to the fact that this is a church well-loved and tended by its parishioners. Such love is evident in all of Mr Campbell’s churches, nowhere more so than at St Mary the Virgin in Old Hunstanton; a great, soaring lead-roofed ark of a place across the duck pond from the rectory. Hand-embroidered kneelers dot the pews with bright patches of colour, and there is one for the rector, in shades of green, boldly embroidered “VICAR”.

All six of his churches are wonderful, historic, and, says Mr Campbell: “extremely expensive to maintain. There is a constant fund-raising effort.”

Along with Old Hunstanton, Titchwell and Burnham Deepdale the rector serves Holme-next-the-Sea, Thornham and Brancaster.

Six parishes is a challenge. “I have to spread myself more thinly than I’d like. There are things I can’t do; for instance support the many local charities, but we have a service in each of the six churches each Sunday, and keep them open. I have a retired priest who helps, plus local teams who can take morning prayers and deliver a homily.”

All the churches’ congregations are swelled by summer visitors, who come for the sailing, the bird watching and the general beauty, peace and quiet. A lot of people have second homes that they either visit themselves or rent out. There is a newsletter that goes out to all in the parish including camp sites, hotels and holiday homes where visitors will find them.

The round towers bring visitors too. But why are there round towers? There are a number of theories, some more plausible than others
The most fanciful, prevalent 150 years ago, was that they were actually the shafts of wells. A great flood washed away the soil and left the shafts standing proud, to which enterprising locals added churches.
Others have believed that the towers echo the circles of ancient pagan cults. Heathen temples were round, so was Stonehenge, hence the tower was the circle and the ceremonies took place outside it.
Some have been convinced that the round towers were used as defence or watch towers during the time of the Viking raids.
One of the more mundane, but plausible, explanations is that there was no dressed stone available in East Anglia and it was much easier to build thick round walls of flint and undressed stone, avoiding corners that would be hard to construct with such materials.
But it was not until a chap called Bill Goode undertook an exhaustive 20 year study of the churches in the final quarter of the last century that they began to give up their secrets, and were properly dated. They had long been thought of as Norman, but Mr Goode concluded they were built by the Saxons; not for defence but added to existing churches as bell towers.
And why were they built? Many, perhaps, because King Athelstan, first king of all England, decreed in 937 that a bell tower be built “on the land of every thegn [a man granted land by the king]”. Whether for religious or defence considerations is unclear, but Bill Goode dates some 97 of East Anglia's round towers to around this time.

So enamoured of the round tower churches was Bill that he wrote a book about them and, when no publisher would touch the project, used his savings to print 500 copies. They sold out and he used the funds to support the Round Tower Churches Society, of which Prince Charles is now patron.

I ask which of the theories is the rector’s favourite. “I like the idea that they were easy to build because they were round, with no corners to cut stone for, but that you could only do a few courses each year because you had to wait for the mortar to dry, so they took a long time to construct.”

Originally from the northern Irish seaside town of Portstewart in County Londonderry, Mr Campbell served as a Navy chaplain for 16 years, and has been here since 1983. He liked the idea of raising his two children in the peace of the Norfolk seaside, away from then-troubled Londonderry, and of ministering to a place where the congregation would be swelled rather than depleted each summer.

If there is a problem to contend with in the parishes it is the cost of housing in this idyllic spot, fuelled partly by the demand for second homes, which prices locals out.

One initiative -- the church is not formally part of it but the committee members are all parishioners -- was to create Deepdale and Brancaster Housing Society. “It started out helping the elderly, “says the rector. “If you worked on a farm the cottage was tied to the job, so once you retired you needed a home, but it has since expanded to build affordable housing for local families.”

Mr Campbell clearly has great affection for his parishioners. “The people here are proud and independent. In Deepdale they were traditionally farmers, in Brancaster fishermen. The two are quite distinct, and there was some rivalry between them, but we hold a Sea Service each July or August with appropriate readings and hymns that is popular with everyone.”

So far on my visit I have been neglecting the sea but, with the churches explored, I turn to the coastal footpath that links the parishes. Their shores are as distinct as their churches and traditions. Close to Burnham Deepdale I find Brancaster Staithe, a natural harbour filled with yachts, their tenders and a couple of fishing boats. The lawns of the village houses run right to the water’s edge, and the coast feels more like the Broads than the shoreline as I look out to where I know the open sea must be over the salt marsh.

A few miles on, I cross reedy dunes that feel like a dried-out seabed and reach the sandy outcrop at Brancaster Beach. Here I get the strange illusion that the land is actually lower than the sea: I seem to be looking up at the breakers rolling in over the perfect sand. But, looking back to land, I recover my perspective, helped by glimpses of the string of church towers like God’s bright beacons strung along the Norfolk shore.