A Life in Churches
Updated: Jun 22
For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Matthew 18:15-20
The Importance of Sunday Mass
Covid has made us reassess the value of every day things. For a Catholic, physically going to Sunday mass again reconnects us to how we were used to expressing our faith. It means being able to meet our maker in the setting, day and time where we most intensely experience His presence during our week. Sunday mass.
It also means seeing friends and family for the first time in many months, celebrating the mass, reflecting on the gospel readings and bidding prayers and saying the Our Father out loud in communion with them. Speaking our intentions and prayers to God silently, in their presence.
Online masses and even a Tuesday morning mass before a game of golf, although good and peaceful are no substitute for the usual Sunday service. Oh how The Hub has missed this!
Last Sunday was The Hub's first recent attendance at Sunday evening mass at St Joseph's Catholic Church, Epsom. Before Covid, a routine weekly event.
So this weekend on a family trip to Cambridge, preparing to visit old-favourite Our Lady of the Assumption and The English Martyrs, The Hub is reflecting on the relationship all Catholics have with physical churches, congregations and parishes, past and present. By presenting his Life in Churches.
Beginning with Baptism
Picture: The front of Pro Cathedral on Marlborough Street, Dublin 1.
Cradle Catholics' first relationship with a church is where they were baptised as babies. The Hub's baptism was at St Mary's Pro Cathedral in Dublin, on Marlborough Street across from government buildings and at the back of The Gresham Hotel on O'Connell Street.
Once you are in the Catholic club you are on the books for life. The Hub went back to St Mary's decades later to get a copy of his baptism certificate for the offspring's entry into the church. The woman behind a counter punched some details into a computer, looked up and asked: "Were you Confirmed in Mid-Glamorgan, South Wales?" Spooky, yet comforting at the same time!
The Pro Cathedral website declares:
Few buildings have such a close association with significant moments in the political and religious history of Ireland as the Pro-Cathedral. Presidents, governments and foreign ambassadors come on great national occasions. The people of Dublin know it affectionately as the ‘Pro’. Every day there is a constant stream of people dropping in to light a candle and say a quiet prayer.
Not a bad place to start! You can read about the history of St Mary's Pro Cathedral and the background to the statement: "At last an edifice worthy of the loftiness of our creed stands in the centre of the metropolis. Our religion has at last lifted up its proud and majestic head." here.
Picture: Our Lady of The Assumption, Booterstown Avenue, Co. Dublin
Our Lady of The Assumption, Booterstown, Co. Dublin serves a suburban, professional commuter community on the outskirts of Dublin. The church is tucked half-way up the long rising length of Booterstown Avenue, connecting the sandy beaches of Dublin Bay overlooking Howth peninsula with a route that will eventually take you to the expansive wilderness of the Dublin mountains.
If baptism is the church's welcoming embrace to the infant then Holy Communion unlocks the sacred sacrament of the mass to the self-aware child. The Hub's Holy Communion was the most significant day of his under 10 life. School Catechism laid out the theological significance of the occasion and on no other day was The Hub such a singular focus of the church or of all the important people in his life.
Our Lady of The Assumption was the site of The Hub's first Confession and Holy Communion. To there he was released from class at St Mary's Boys National School at the bottom of Booterstown Avenue, across the road from the sea, to serve as an altar boy at week day services.
Services at nearby St Michael's, south along the coast at harbour town Dún Loaghaire, were memorable for the innovation of closed circuit black and white screens streaming the mass live as a solution to the many broken sight lines to the altar due to the Victorian pillars.
Picture: Congratulations - The 2019 Leaving Certificate Class of St Gerards School, Bray at a celebratory mass in the school chapel. / stgerards.ie
From Dublin's North Inner City to the suburban seaside of County Dublin, to the bucolic splendour surrounding St Gerards School, nestled in the Wicklow mountains above the seaside town of Bray, Co. Wicklow.
The Hub spent a year boarding at St Gerards in the early 70s, the first of three Jesuit schools he attended in three countries. RTE's broadcast of one of the school's Sunday morning services on national radio was an exciting event for all!
Faith No More?
What was it David Cameron said about his relationship with his Anglican faith? It was a “bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes.”
Shortly after arriving in England, The Hub's Catholic faith took a decade and a half sabbatical. It is hard to explain why. Certainly there was something different in the water in the new country. A half-hearted Christianity in the dominant Anglican culture in such sharp contrast to 70s Ireland where Catholicism was so pervasive you breathed it in.
YouTube video: The Big Match ITV - Highlights of the 1976/77 Division One game between Spurs and Manchester United.
The breaking point seems trivial now. But to a young boy sport was serious stuff. The Hub realised his faith had gone when his resentment at having to miss live Division One soccer on The Big Match meant he no longer wanted to go to Sunday mass.
On reflection, the "just do as I say don't think for yourself" attitude of the day compounded the situation. The Hub prefers to thrash things out, argue passionately from both sides, and then come to a considered view.
To be fair, his step-mother tried to counter his doubts with, "Who do you think makes the trees, the beauty in nature?" That didn't make sense at the time. Later, his psychiatrist father would explain his own faith by saying: "People need to believe in a higher being. It is good for them psychologically." But again, it took some time to understand this statement.
So he continued in the Catholic school system in a foreign land, no longer of the faith but still culturally Catholic. He would enjoy the calm and peace of the Jesuit school chapel services at Campion Grammar School, Essex and soak up tales of English Martyrs like Edmund Campion.
To The Tropics
Picture: St Martin's School, Nsawam, Ghana / www.schoolsingh.com
Then, after a year in South Wales he moved to Ghana, his father's country, to board at St Martin's a Jesuit school up country. Here he joined the Legion of Mary despite declaring his atheism to the veteran US priest running the group who welcomed all who engaged in the group's good works.
So The Hub joined in the prayer and hymn singing sessions and the trips to the local village to support community schemes and welfare activities. He recalls the unquestioning Christian faith in southern Ghana at the time, reminiscent of his native Ireland. Disconcerted school pals would ask: "How can you not believe in God?! You westerners were the ones who brought Christianity to Africa!"
On holiday from school staying with relatives in the capital Accra, The Hub would attend Sunday mass at Holy Spirit Cathedral when staying with Margaret, his Catholic aunt.
Picture: Confirmed - The modernist interior of St Mary's, Bridgend, South Wales built on the site of the earlier church / stainedglass.llgc.org.uk
Speaking of that Confirmation in South Wales, it was at St Mary's Catholic Church in Bridgend town, not St John the family's parish church in Aberkenfig village. The family's peripatetic travels meant The Hub successively missed out on the Confirmation years of the schools he attended.
So, he finally becoming an adult in the eyes of the church, more to appease his parents than due to his own conviction. The abiding memory of that day was standing, at near adulthood, head and shoulders above the early teens boys and girls alongside!
Back to Dublin
Picture: From Above - an interior view of St Francis Xavier Gardiner Street Parish / gardinerstparish.ie
Thinking of visiting churches on trips back to Dublin starts with the family church, the Jesuit St Francis Xavier, Gardiner Street Parish in between Mountjoy Square and Dorset Street, Dublin 1.
A beautiful, well maintained "classic Irish" church, with a vibrant parish life, it is a regular haunt for The Hub for services and family occasions where a roster of dedicated and talented Jesuits have served as parish priests over the years.
If you are shopping on teeming Grafton Street over on the south side and fancy a moment away from it all you can pop into St Theresa's, the Carmelite church on Clarendon Street. But don't assume you'll be alone! The Hub has enjoyed many a moment's calm there alongside a church full of fellow contemplators-in-prayer outside normal mass times.
The Irish Times dubbed St Theresa's "probably Ireland's busiest church."
London - Away from the Bustle
Picture: The interior of St Patricks Church, Soho - "...not a conventional parish" / The Architect's Journal
The Hub lived in London for a quarter of a century, a stay intended to last two years. A love-hate relationship with the city was alleviated by dipping into a network of favoured churches in and around the city centre.
St Patricks on Soho Square stands out, for its location on a calming square of green framed by Oxford Street, Charing Cross Road, Soho and Wardour Street. And for its brilliant exterior and interior design.
At one point work would regularly take The Hub to Holborn for coffee and indulgent cakes with favoured contacts, office meetings, or to use The German Historical Institute as a central work station. When not being distracted by the library of German history books and the first floor view onto leafy Bloomsbury square!
On these trips a moment's prayer in the oasis of The Church of St Anselm and St Cecila on hectic Kingsway would place things in perspective before or after a work assignment. St Mary's Moorfields served a similar purpose when working in and around the City or Liverpool Street.
The Hub has fond memories of attending historic St Etheldreda's, off Holborn Circus, for a candle lit All Souls' Day evening service filled with City workers anxious to attend the Holy Day of Obligation before the commute home.
Picture: The Chapel of St Patrick and the Saints of Ireland and left, the exterior of Westminster Cathedral / Westminster Cathedral and Church Services TV
Whenever The Hub has visited Westminster Cathedral, on not delightful Victoria Street, he has been awed by the majesty of the individual chapels alongside the main altar. There is always too much to take in. On reflection, it would take a week's retreat visiting each chapel separately by day to begin to appreciate what is on offer.
Such as the Chapel of St Patrick and the Saints of Ireland where: "In the chapel, which awaits completion, green is the dominant colour, with much of the marble originating in Ireland. Celtic designs are inlaid on the floor and at the foot of the altar."
Thankfully Cultural Wednesdays blogger Catherine Boardman has provided a brilliant introduction "Inside Westminster Cathedral" for your next visit.
The Hub recalls seeing Cardinal Basil Hume on an early cycle past the cathedral looking out from a third floor balcony on a red brick block of flats.
Picture: St John the Baptist, King Edwards Road, Hackney - a replacement for a war damaged church designed by Archard and Partners circa 1956 / londonchurchbuildings.com
As grand as these central churches and cathedral may be, it was at the more humble St John the Baptist in Hackney, stewarded by dedicated parish priest Fr David Evans, that The Hub had the deepest relationship.
Sometime in his late 20s the radio signal to God started crackling again. Broadcasting particularly strongly in times of need and leading The Hub naturally to seek solace and contemplation in the familiar and comforting setting of a nearby church.
At some point the signal became clear and constant and The Hub began a new adult relationship with God based on the revelation: God is Love. Our Lady of Hal, in bustling and needy Camden Town, became a place of irregular worship.
Becoming a parent and realising he had a responsibility to give a new generation a chance to know God drew him to regular worship in a new parish in Hackney. Here both children were baptised and the eldest made her Holy Communion.
The Hub was a not-brilliant children's liturgy leader, joined the Sunday morning after mass tea roster, became a parish council member and later a school governor at the parish school. It is not the bricks and mortar but the people and community that have stayed in the heart.
Picture: The Hub (left) with fellow parishioners Theresa Park, Teddy Totman, Colette Totman and John Flood at St Joseph's Catholic Church, Epsom, May 2021 after a Tuesday morning service. / Credit: The Hub
In 2010, The Hub and family left the familiarity of Hackney, St John The Baptist and St Elizabeth's RC Primary School to decamp to Epsom on the outskirts of London and the calming countryside of the Surrey Hills. It can take a while to become part of a new community, but school, church and social clubs can help create new anchors.
Over ten years on and St Joseph's RC Church and Primary School, and now St Andrew's RC Secondary School have been key to settling the family in to a new life. The integral relationship between St Joseph's Church and school gave the children a solid foundation from the start.
Similarly, The Hub joined Catholic men's social group, The Catenians, via the church website and that church-Catenian friendship group nexus has become a seamless anchor in day-to-day social and parish life.
St Joseph's is a vibrant, friendly parish with a dedicated parish team of Canon Bill Daverne, Fr. Ruslan and previously Fr Simon Hall, with the input of now-retired Srs Margritte and Finoula still felt, whose value has only been underlined during Covid.
Picture: Buckfast Abbey, Devon / www.cartwheelholidays.co.uk
The Hub has enjoyed long weekends on retreat at both Buckfast Abbey in Devon and The Friars, in Aylesbury, Kent. An impromptu visit to Walsingham Abbey returning from a family holiday made for an enjoyable two hours.
The Benedictine Buckfast Abbey beside the bubbling river Dart, on the south side of Dartmoor, was an alternative family church in the early 80s and has since been a frequent tourist trip stop off. Recently, The Hub has had an introductory meeting with Fr John Seddon at nearer-to-home Benedictine Chilworth Abbey and is looking forward to future visits.
He Leadeth Me
Picture; The Cambridge Chorale performing at Our Lady of the Assumption and English Martyrs Church, Cambridge / Credit: @CambChorale
And finally... that visit to Our Lady of The Assumption and English Martyrs in Cambridge. The Hub has been to many services there on family visits over the years, particularly enjoying the sung Latin mass on Sunday evenings.
This Sunday, the assistant priest Fr Alan Hodgson acknowledged the hardships endured under Covid but drew a contrast with the experience of Fr Walter Ciszec. During the Second World War Fr Ciszec was accused by the Soviets of being a Vatican spy and was sentenced to twenty three years in a Siberian labour camp - simply for being a priest.
In his book He Leadeth Me, Fr Ciscek recalls how prisoners used to get up early, depriving themselves of much-needed sleep, to celebrate a secret mass with him. Fr Ciscek knew they were in danger of severe punishment because of the many informers in the camp. Yet still they came. Perspective is everything!
The Palestrina Choir
Pro Cathedral has a world-renowned choir, The Palestrina Choir, that sings at cathedral services and has sung at the Vatican among other locations. You can listen to the choir's music via the link below.