“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, StIa, 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 StIa, 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 familymoved 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.”