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.

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