Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Sacred Heart, Blackpool

There aren’t many masses at which Elvis gets up to perform O Lord My God, or where Nora Batty’s husband has handed round the collection plate. But then, there aren’t many towns like Blackpool or churches like Sacred Heart.

Each September this church, in the shadow of Blackpool Tower and a hundred yards from the promenade and the North Pier, hosts the Catholic Stage Guild’s Mass; a thanksgiving for the summer season attended by performers who have packed the pavilion on the North Pier, the Grand Theatre and the Winter Gardens all summer

For Canon Ned Carey it’s part of a long tradition of links between Sacred Heart, established by the Jesuits in 1857, and Blackpool’s showbiz community.

“It’s a solemn Mass right up to after communion and then between that and the final prayers they do their show,” he says.

Over the past 50 years the list of performers has included Eamon Andrews, Winifred Atwell, the singer and vocal impressionist Joe Longthorne, the comedians Jimmy Cricket and Lenny Bennett, the Elvis impersonator Clayton Mark, circus performers and a huge range of those appearing in the town that year.

The Mass was the brainchild of Joe Gladwin, who played Nora Batty’s husband in Last of the Summer Wine, and who died in 1987, passing on the organisation to the musician Mike Gannon.

Canon Carey clearly loves playing host: “The congregation is big for it, they are getting a show, and you should see their faces. I watched one lady as she looked up to see the man bringing the plate around, a tall thin actor called Tony Melody from Bergerac and her hands went to her face: she was amazed.”

Even the church’s organ began its life in showbiz – at Blackpool’s Waterloo Cinema. When, in 1935, the talkies rendered musical accompaniment redundant, an enterprising parish priest bought the £3,000 organ at auction for £150.

"They had a recital to mark its installation,“ says Canon Carey, and they had the organist from Lancaster Cathedral, Dr Reginald Dixon, come and play. But the thing was there was another much more famous Reginald Dixon, ‘the Wizard of the Blackpool Tower Mighty Wurlitzer’, and there were an awful lot of disappointed people who thought they’d come to listen to that one.”

The church itself feels theatrical. Just before the high altar the nave opens into a wide octagon that rises to a lantern through which the summer sun streams down. The sanctuary juts out into the nave like a thrust stage in a theatre, and the pews form a semi circle around it, bringing priest and congregation together.

I attend Mass at noon on a Thursday, and find I am one of 65 – an average turnout for one of the two daily weekday masses, I later learn. Canon Carey spreads his Irish charm and warmth in this beautiful church, designed by Edward and Peter Paul Pugin and Grade 2* listed. As the Mass ends he says: “May you have a happy and beautiful day.”

Yet, away from the light of Sacred Heart, Blackpool often doesn’t feel like a happy and beautiful place. While the bright flyers in the tourist office offer Bobby Crush’s Liberace Live from Las Vegas at the North Pier Theatre, Canon and Ball’s Comedy Bonanza at the Opera House, and Roy Chubby Brown at the Grand Theatre, to walk the streets around the church and these theatres is to experience the seamy side of Blackpool.

Sacred Heart, in Talbot Square, is right at the heart of an area of poverty, crime, drug addiction and rough sleeping. Across the street is a Yates’s Wine Lodge, near it a cut price drink store and a club called The Sanctuary (which looks anything but).

Canon Carey came here in 2004 when the Jesuits left. “I was at Our Lady Star of the Sea down the coast in Lytham St Annes, all gin and Jags,” he jokes, “and the bishop, who is a great fellow but a Cork man and therefore devious, said to me ‘Ned I want you to do me a big favour, can you give me two years, just to go and tide over and ease the shock.’ Well I’ve done three and in September I shall be retiring.”

He talks of the great challenge of following the Jesuits, “wonderful people, a legend, great intellects”, and of his determination to open Sacred Heart for all.

“I said to John [Fr Winstanley who works with him and is hospital chaplain] the first thing we are going to do is nothing, to give them time to see we aren’t complete idiots.

“I wanted to make the church a haven for visitors, an oasis of prayer in a rough inner city area.”

Each day from 9 to 12 the solid green doors of Church House, next door to Sacred Heart, open and a volunteer, Edwina Toner, distributes warm clothing, blankets, food and toiletries - donated by parishioners - to a succession of the needy.

Edwina can’t be with us but Canon Carey hands me a note she has written, (“She’s always running out of socks, that’s the one thing”) in which she writes movingly of her mission: “In the 10 years I have been at Church House I have seen a huge increase in homelessness … alcohol dependency, poverty and mental health issues. We are a lifeline to these poor people.

Blackpool has a high transient population; they … think the streets are paved with gold and that they can walk into a home and a job.

“A lot of people ask me if I am not frightened meeting these people. I tell them I have met at least eight murderers at the door but never once have I been assaulted…I see Our Blessed Lord in each and every one of them and remember the words ‘There but for the grace of God go I’.”

It is a situation that troubles Canon Carey: “I sometimes ask one of them ‘why are you not working? You should get a job, not be taking handouts’ and they look down at the floor and say ‘can’t, can’t get a job’ when of course a lot of people are coming here because there is work. A lot of the problem is drugs

“Big strapping lad and can’t get a job. It makes you feel inadequate as a priest.”

Canon Carey, who was ordained in 1957 and came to the Lancaster Diocese as a young priest from Limerick, talks of the halcyon days for the churches in Blackpool. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, he says, congregations queued round the block for Mass. There were the Scots’ Fortnights when much of industry north of the border shut down and whole towns would descend on Blackpool and other northern resorts. Today there are still holiday makers, and also many transient workers – Poles, Filipinos and Indians.

Another problem is the drinking culture that blights Blackpool as it does many town centres. “At 2am it’s heaving outside here, the place is alive, the bars are turning out and people are going to the fast food places down the road. I sleep through it all but John who is called out to the hospital at all hours goes out in it and he tells me you see all sorts. Most are fine but some can be very drunk.

“It means we can’t hold events at night. After early evening they won’t come out to anything because they are frightened.”

In June, Canon Carey celebrated his Golden Jubilee, and he will be retiring in September at about the time of the Stage Mass. I’m sure Blackpool’s summer show stars will give him a rousing send off.

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