Wednesday, 10 September 2008

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.

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