Thursday, 23 August 2007

St Hilda’s, Whitby

It is 9 a.m. on a summer’s morning that promises much, and in Whitby the first bright yellow open-top bus of the day is grinding uphill to the abbey; the ruin which looks over the town from the western headland and that plays a supporting role in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

At the railway station The Whitby Enterprise has steam up and will soon chuff backwards over the moors, taking tourists to the living film set of Goathland, the fictional Akenfield in Heartbeat, the long-running ITV nostalgic drama series. Goathland station is also where, in the movies, Harry Potter alights on his way to Hogwarts.

Both places are in Fr Neil McNicholas’s parish of St Hilda’s, which encompasses Whitby and a good deal more. If one were to seek out a place that typified modern, post-industrial Britain, his parish offers a perfect case study. Once, this area was sustained by fishing, mining and sheep. Now tourism is king – particularly TV tourism.

But the area’s Catholic heritage brings something far more powerful to this beautiful slice of the North Yorkshire Moors than any fictional garnish can.

The ruins of the 12th century abbey stand alongside the site of the Saxon monastery, And while many visitors might take the 199 stone steps up to the ruin thinking of Bram Stoker’s great black beast of a dog that bounded up them, they might better think of the far more compelling story of the remarkable St Hilda, abbess here, and among whose monks was Caedmon, the first English-language poet. This was where, in 664, at the Synod of Whitby, it was decided to follow the Roman Catholic church instead of the Celtic church in setting the date of Easter.

And while visitors might enjoy a pint in the real pub that doubles for the Akenfield Arms, and buy fudge, tea towels, fridge magnets, thimbles and much else bearing the Akenfield imprint in the gift shops that have squeezed out the village stores, they might rather seek out the remarkable story of Nicholas Postgate, beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1987.

Fr Postgate travelled this coast and the moors in the 16th century, disguised as a gardener and taking shelter in priest holes in the country houses of recusant families. He carried with him a slate altar, and celebrated Mass in secret across the area. Sheets would be laid out in fields to indicate that he was on his way. Fr Postgate was martyred at the age of 82 after being arrested performing a baptism in Sleights, where Father McNicholas’s other church – English Martyrs - is situated.

So, while the surface offers many jolly distractions, there is much of far greater resonance here.

I ask Fr McNicholas for his portrait of his parish, which has an average congregation of 300, swelled in summer by a substantial number of visitors.

“It’s a big parish”, he says, “from Sandsend in the north to Ravenscar in the south and inland to Goathland; a big triangle, but most of the parish is moors.

“Whitby grew up around the harbour, the local economy relying on fishing, boat building, and the export of alum [used to fix the dyes in cloth]. Over time there was a gradual move of more middle-class families to the west cliff, a development encouraged by the construction of more expensive housing, the arrival of the railway and the growth of Whitby as a resort town. The River Esk still creates a physical divide even if there is no longer the same social division of the town.

“The churches used to reflect the east/west split. There was St Hilda’s here on the west of the river, and St Patrick’s on the east, but that was closed in 2004 after the parishes were merged.”

I ask if Whitby is a particularly religious town.

“There are five churches in this one street. You might say that’s because risking their lives every day at sea, as the fishermen did, brought them closer to God. Catholicism has always remained strong in the moors communities – there were one or two notable Catholic families who kept it alive.

“When the railway came, and the mines, I suspect that brought a lot of Irish families to the area.”

In my early morning tour around the town, also famous as the place from which Captain Cook sailed, on ships built here, Iwork up such a head of steam in my descent of the west cliffs, winding down the crammed streets, that my momentum powers me past a sort of triumphal arch made from whale bones, over the iron lifting bridge that unites the town and east up the steps to the abbey church’s grand roofless nave and soaring south transept. None of the monastic buildings remain but, beside the ruins, are Saxon tombstones lying in a shallow ditch where they were found.

One local legend has it that when sea birds fly over the abbey they dip their wings in St Hilda’s honour. Another tells of a plague of snakes which she turned to stone and which became the ammonite fossils on the shore. The ammonite Hildoceras takes its name from St Hilda.

There are two churches named after St Hilda – the Anglican one with its solid tower up on the west cliff, and Fr McNicholas’s 1867 elegant gothic church, built from local Aislaby sandstone, in Bagdale [note to subs – this is the name of the street it is in]. The mission in Whitby was established in 1794 and served by French priests fleeing the French revolution. A chapel was opened in Walker Street in 1805 and the present church replaced it. In St Hilda’s, with its spectacular sky-blue ceiling studded with gold stars, there is a memorial to Fr Postgate in the English Martyrs’ chapel.

Later I go up on to the high heather covered moors where the villages huddle in the sharp valleys by the Esk and Eller Beck. The road up from Whitby takes me first to Sleights, scene of Fr Postage’s capture.

Further up the Esk valley are two places where he is particularly remembered.
Every July since 1974 an open air service has been held – alternatively in Egton Bridge where he was born, in 1596, and Ugthorpe where he lived – in honour of Fr Postgate. This year’s was at Egton on July 1, and around 1,000 attended.

On the southern lip of the moors is Pickering and there, in St Joseph’s church, is kept his portable slate altar.

I have come from Blackpool, and this is quite a contrast. I ask Fr McNicholas, who was ordained 13 years ago at the age of 40 and spent most of his ministry in the industrial areas on Teesside before coming to Whitby two and a half years ago, if there are any particular problems in his parish.

I ask Fr McNicholas, who was ordained 14 years ago at the age of 45 and spent the early years of his priesthood in Teesside parishes before coming to Whitby two and a half years ago, if there are any particular problems in his parish.

“No, he says, “The parish is fairly quiet compared to my previous ones. I think Whitby is probably a healthier place to live.”

Born in Redcar, he considered the priesthood at 18-19 when working in the ICI chemical factory at Middlesbrough, but decided he was not ready. Instead he followed a mixed career, including four years as a lay missionary in Zambia, before he felt he was ready for the ministry.

“It was a conversation with my parish priest back in Redcar that made me decide it was the time,” he says, adding: “God gets you in the end!”

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.

Saturday, 11 August 2007

St Ives, Cornwall

“Rain?” said Fr Tony Delsink. “We don’t have rain in St Ives. It’s liquid sunshine!”

I wish I had spoken to him before taking my stroll around the town. The positive attitude of a man who has spent most lf his life in the kinder climate of South Africa would have helped me put mind over soggy matter.

It certainly had been wet. The narrow one way street that threads down to the harbour front was jammed with traffic; the pavements full of visitors in damp macs locking golf umbrellas as they struggled through. [opt cut]My summer sandals threatened to float off my feet at every step, and I had to walk with a scrunch-toed crab-like gait to keep them on.[end opt cut]

Alongside its visitors and smart restaurants, St Ives still has a fishing fleet of sorts. At low tide a shoal of tiny boats lay at anchor. On the harbour arm, stacked with lobster and crab pots, is the old St Leonard’s Chapel. On the wall was a roll call of boats with names - Gratitude, Fortitude - that underline the struggle with the sea, and a verse, which reads in part:

“At Chapel, prayer or out to sea

Sweet Christ the fisher comfort me

Suffice for me my daily bread

Some fishes and a dry safe bed.”

The town has its patron, St Ia, from which St Ives derives, and two churches are named after her. She was an Irish missionary who came to Cornwall in 460 A.D. and built an oratory in St Ives, where the 15th century Anglican church now stands, complete with an 80ft granite tower that guides the boats home. The Catholic church of Sacred Heart and St Ia, opened in 1908, stands at the top of Tregenna Hill. Fr Delsink describes it in a leaflet as “this beautiful church in a damp north facing position.”

Damp today, certainly. The walk into town had been like sliding down a Centre Parcs water chute, and the struggle up again was like wading up a waterfall. The church is a haven. I light a candle and notice the match box has come from a local bar. On the reverse is printed CALL ME! in bold red capitals with spaces underneath for “Name…. Number….” Designed to facilitate petitions of a decidedly secular nature, it seems as well suited to aid spiritual ones.

In Fr Delsink’s office, overlooking St Ives Bay, the parish map on the wall reveals the extent of his responsibilities. As well as St Ives he looks after the neighbouring parish of Hayle, a total area of 22 miles from east to west and 16 miles from north to south, but has a deacon and team of Eucharistic ministers to assist him.

Proposed reorganisation could bring in a third parish, meaning that the whole of the Cornish peninsula from just west of Camborne to Land’s End would be covered from here.

In the winter, Fr Delsink has a small St Ives congregation of around 90-100, but that can almost treble in the summer.

I ask him about his parish. “All parishes are more or less the same,” he begins, before going on to capture the particular flavour of St Ives. “Many people have holiday homes here, and they come maybe three or four times a year. It can be quite disconcerting, especially at first, knowing who is who. Regular visitors expect to be treated as regular parishioners and they want to take time to chat after Mass. It can be worrisome.”

It is clear that the high number of visitors gives St Ives a particular complexion. The money and jobs are welcomed, and there is no antipathy to visitors in Fr Delsink’s view, but other repercussions are not always positive.

“Three quarters of the town is now second homes,” says Fr Delsink, “and those houses are empty for much of the year. The price of houses has been pushed up to above London levels; £400,000 for a two-up two-down fisherman’s cottage, which puts it out of the reach of locals. It makes life very difficult for young families.”

One of the great draws in St Ives is the branch of the Tate, which sits on the shore like a bandstand stuck on the front of a bingo hall. Fr Delsink believes it has exacerbated the second homes problem: “It’s been going on for a while, but the opening of the Tate gallery in the nineties boosted it. Even to rent a one room flat in St Ives is £125 a week, and the wages here are 20 per cent lower than the average.

“My view is that people renting their holiday homes are running a business and should pay business taxes.“

On the outside wall of the church I noticed a plaque to John Payne, “who died to defend the Catholic faith in the Western rising, 1549.” Fr Delsink tells me the story.

In 1549, parliament passed the Act of Uniformity enforcing the use of the Book of Common Prayer, a simplified form of service in English instead of the old Latin Mass. In Cornwall, few spoke English, and the move was seen as a threat to the continuation of the Cornish language. Towns including St Ives rebelled, and retained the old Mass.

In response, the Provost Marshall came to St Ives on behalf of the Crown and invited John Payne, the Catholic mayor, to lunch at the George and Dragon. During lunch, he asked Payne to have the gallows erected. Their meal finished, the provost marched Payne to his death.

I ask whether the story has resonance today, but Fr Delsink thinks not.

I ask because of an experience that made me wonder whether Catholics here still feel embattled. Earlier, in Anglican St Ia’s, with its barrel roof, medieval painted figures of saints and angels and sandstone pillars that veer disconcertingly away from the vertical, we had received a surprising response when asking the attendant for directions to the Catholic Church:

“I don’t think there is one,” he said.

When my wife assured the man that there was he snapped: “Well I haven’t heard of it.”

In all other respects, the Anglican St Ia’s was a welcoming place. At lunch time an organ recital was underway, and in the Lady Chapel a sign beside the Barbara Hepworth Madonna and Child invited visitors to have their children run their hands over the smooth marble of Jesus’s head. This was in stark contrast to the admonitions on the sculptures in the garden of Hepworth’s former St Ives home – now administered by the Tate – where touching was strictly forbidden.

Fr Delsink will not be drawn into such speculation, but he does say that there are few native Cornish families who are Catholic. The last native Cornishman to join the priesthood did so 40 to 50 years ago, he believes.

Talking to Fr Delsink I have been intrigued by his South African accent, and am keen to know his story.

“I am a very oddball priest,” he says with a smile. Born in Holland, his family moved to South Africa when he was 12. He was sent to an English school without a word of the language – “I learned the hard way”.

He worked for 36 years in a division of Barclays bank, since renamed First National, where he was in charge of fraud and forgery and physical security, and retired in 1999. He became a deacon in the Johannesburg diocese in 1992 and was ordained a priest in 1997. His wife died 19 years ago – he has a grown up son and daughter.

Life in South Africa became very difficult. “There were repeated armed robberies at the bank, you were constantly under threat, you had to have heavy security at your home, out walking you had to constantly vary your pace to ensure no one was following you. I felt I had given enough to Africa and it was time to move back to the First World.”

He jokes he interviewed five or six bishops, and settled on Plymouth. He has worked in various parishes including Torquay and was at one time chaplain to both Dartmoor Prison and an 800-pupil girls’ school. He expects to move on from St Ives in 18 months, when he will have spent about four years in the town.

Adapting to life in peaceful Cornwall was hard at first. “I went with friends for a walk on Dartmoor and they left the car in a lay-by. I thought ‘You’re going to leave the car there?’ because in South Africa it would have been stolen. As we walked back to it I was looking ahead to see if it was still there, or if the wheels were still on it.”

When I get up to leave the rain has stopped, and a strong south westerly is pushing a Morse code of broken cloud and sunbeams across the bay. I say I mustn’t forget my umbrella, and Fr Delsink tells me: “It’s not an umbrella, it’s a Cornish parasol.”