If we are renowned as a nation for a singular, almost obsessive, interest and topic of conversation it has to be that of the weather. For those not born on our shores it is just another aspect of our culture that they look upon as being quirky, but also endearing, as the subject matter is totally non-threatening, nor objectionable, and quite neutral. The weather is something that we have no control over, and all either benefit from or have to suffer, depending on individual preference. I for one have been offering a daily prayer of thanksgiving for the diet of weather we have been fed since Lockdown began, as I contemplate the alternative – standing in the supermarket queue in the rain and wind. The subject of weather has been in my thoughts over the last few days. Not necessarily the daily climatic conditions which greet me as I throw back the curtains each morning, but instead what the weather was like on Monday 1st June 1914. Born under the Sign of the Twins, I have a natural tendency towards an active, if not random, thought process. At least that is my excuse.
Gathering the threads of my fertile thought-pattern together, is the fact that this coming Monday marks the 106th anniversary of the laying of the Foundation Stone of the Church of the Holy Spirit by the ‘Children’s Bishop’ Robert Cowgill of Leeds. Despite all that is fed to us about our climate, based on recorded data, the question is rarely asked: when did records begin? Surprisingly recently, is the simple answer! Meteorologists would set the date of the beginning of national weather records in this country as being as late as 1910. Prior to this there were numerous local records, but beyond those used for maritime navigation, there was little joined-up record keeping. Aware of this nugget of more recent history, centuries before Christ, the Egyptians were keeping their own climate-related records with the development of a means of accurate measurement, the name of which gives its purpose away: the Nilometer. From the time of the Pharaohs the water level of the Nile was measured during annual floods in order to predict the success of the harvest and compute the tax rate for a particular year. The journey made by Jacob’s sons in order to purchase grain, reflects the success of the prudent land-husbandry of the Egyptians who earned themselves the nickname of being the Bread Basket of the ancient world. It was as a result of their shopping spree that those who had sold their brother, Joseph, into slavery came face-to-face with him again, no longer a captive, but Pharaoh’s Vizier, the highest official in the Egyptian Civil Service.
As it is this year, so June 1st 1914 was Whit-Monday. From 1872 it was a Bank Holiday, which formally acknowledged a long held practice enjoyed by many working people. The local press of the time answered my climate-based question. Unsurprisingly the weather was typical of many a time of rest: varied! On the final day of May, Whit-Sunday or Pentecost as we known it, the weather was decidedly chilly, reportedly affecting the attendance and offertory at a concert given by the Cleckheaton Temperance Brass Band in West End Park. They were booked to lead the Whit-Tuesday Catholic Procession in Batley and between these two engagements, supported by the Boys’ Brigade Band from St. Paulinus Church (Dewsbury), they headed the procession of children and others connected with the Roman Catholic Church in Heckmondwike, from St. Patrick’s School in Darley Street, to the Bath Road site, where a large crowd assembled at 3.30 to witness the ceremony of blessing and laying the foundation stone. Despite the uncertainty of the weather, people turned out in great numbers.
A part from the fluttering banners of church Guilds and Societies, the bright liturgical garb of the Bishop and other clergy, and a gathering of children and adults in their new and smart Whitsuntide clothing, the visuals of the occasion were limited. In fact they stood in strikingly stark contrast to the participants and on-lookers. As well as a site marked out for the continuation of construction work, the features of the day were the Foundation Stone and a plain wooden cross [which] was erected on the site of the high altar. The latter bore the hallmark of Calvary, a meeting place between the sacred and temporal. As the Bishop sprinkled the entire site with Holy Water, these words were sung: How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord, (Ps.83:2) giving an insight into what the on-lookers anticipated seeing one day, echoing the words of an old hymn: Beneath the Apostle’s crowing dome, the golden roof, the marble walls. It was to be Fr. O’Connor’s legacy to ensure that successive generations have benefitted from both a dome and fine marble columns!
The wording on the Foundation Stone is no longer legible, erased by familiar collaborators, time and weather. The original, simple, inscription read: Deo Paracleto Sacratum Posuit Josephus Robertus E.P. Loid Cal Jun MCMXIV (Sacred to God the Paraclete, Joseph Robert, Bishop of Leeds, laid June 1st, 1914.) The first words Sacred to God, define the purpose of any church building. To refresh the memory that all that is good, or that which has potential for good, comes from God. What takes place in our liturgical celebrations refreshes and refines that definition. Hence, at the beginning of life we bring children for Baptism, sanctifying them for the purpose of discerning, embracing and living out God’s will on life’s journey. At their Marriage, a couple invite the presence of God into their shared journey, praying earnestly that through their love for each other something of God’s eternal love maybe glimpsed not only by their partner, but amongst those with whom they share their lives. At the end of life, we hand back to God, the holiest element of loved ones, that which bears the image and likeness of the Trinity, their souls. Although we may regret the weather-damage to our Foundation Stone, from the moment the church was opened its function was complete, its work over. That which was Sacred to God could be seen entering the building, and leaving. Each one different and changed by what had taken place on the altar within its hallowed walls and given the mission to go out and share what they had been gifted with.
The hope of those witnessing the spectacle around Cemetery and Bath Road on Whit-Monday 1914 was that they would be able to move out of a cramped worshipping-space in Darley Street to their new church by Easter 1915. It was not to be. In late-summer the country benefitted from its longest ever Bank Holiday, which extended from Monday 3rd – Thursday 6th August 1914, days in which the declaration of a war to end all wars would be made by Morley-born Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. At that moment the world stood on the cusp of irreversible change, the enormity of which was beyond imagining. On the site adjacent to Fieldhead House building work on the Church of the Holy Spirit continued, albeit it at a necessarily slower pace than anticipated. Priorities had shifted. Eventually the new church opened on Wednesday 29th September 1915, by which time at least one of those made Sacred to God in his Baptism in the Darley Street premises had paid the ultimate price in the name of King and Country. More would follow. Ironically, given the significance of the date spurring these lines, that first casualty was Thomas (Tom) Hirst who for several years had acted as banner carrier at the school festivals at Whitsuntide.
St. Patrick’s school-chapel in Darley Street had served its purpose for many years, but with a swelling congregation it was gradually found to be less and less convenient. The vision for a new church belonged to Fr. Russell, who spoke at the end of the Foundation Stone laying ceremony. On ground bought in 1871 a school-chapel opened in 1872, during which time the Sacramental life of the Catholic community moved from the living accommodation of Fr. Dolan in Brighton Street to rented rooms used for the education of the town’s Catholic children during the week, and at the weekend for Masses, Devotions and catechesis. It was when the improvements demanded by the educational authorities to St. Patrick’s were carried out that intolerable discomfort began to be felt by those who gathered there for Sacramental sustenance. The baton for a new place of worship was by this time thrust firmly into the hand of Fr. O’Connor, and what a tremendous legacy he ultimately left for us to benefit from.
Each of the successive worship spaces has fulfilled the purpose of being identifiably Sacred to God, and offering a Sacramental life that has sustained generations. A Baptism taking place in Fr. Dolan’s home was no less meaningful or profound than those which continue to take place beneath our golden dome! Whilst Baptisms were conducted shortly after Fr. Dolan’s arrival in 1871, no doubt in various locations, it wasn’t until 1875 that the first Marriage was celebrated. This was due to the fact that legally only a permanent building could be licensed for the celebration of weddings. With its origin in the waters of the Jordan (and more locally, according to St. Bede, in the River Calder) there has always been an element of flexibility in baptismal sites. I can say this with some authority as I once celebrated a Baptism on a Presbytery dining table due to there being a gas leak in the adjacent church! Perhaps baptized in similar surrounds, on 23rd July 1871, were Oliver Coghlan and James Edward Prendergast, the first Catholics to receive this Sacrament on Heckmondwike soil, possibly since the time of the Reformation. Parish registers record that decades later in the school-chapel James Edward Prendergast married Anne Shannon in 1895. The first wedding in St. Patrick’s was between Thomas Carty and Ann Broderick on 5th January 1875. This couple enjoyed a twenty-two-year-long marriage broken when Thomas, a Labourer died in 1897. Ann Carty lived latterly at Globe Yard, Millbridge, until her death in 1913 at sixty. She was clearly a beloved figure, who, although without children herself, opened her home to two of her great-nephews, who worked at the neighbouring Strawberry Bank Colliery. One of whom, James Broderick, was to be killed in action in 1916 at the age of twenty-one. The first child to receive the gift of Baptism amidst the marble of the new Holy Spirit Church was Helena (a Latin umbrella name used for names such as Ellen, Eileen, Nellie etc.) Cadden on 10th October 1915, and the church’s first bride was Bridget White, who married Patrick Lydon on 20th November 1915. I’m sure that if these latter names ring bells in the memory-bank of any readers of this, then information about them would be welcomed.
For those, a little over a century ago, observing the scene on the building site which one day would be transformed into the Church of the Holy Spirit, their longing was for its completion and to see its doors open. Currently, many continue to pass our churches and observe with heavy heart the fact that our doors have been necessarily closed for the well-being of us all. It is uncharted water, removing that which has been for centuries a place of sanctuary and prayer when crisis faced both individuals and, as a collective, our nation. However the original purpose of our buildings continues in the daily celebration of that which is most Sacred to God: the Mass. It is a stark experience these days, devoid of distraction brought by our usual colourful and lively congregations, but it is also a singular point of focus and purpose for me as its humble celebrant. It is akin to the presence of the cross on the site of the High Altar on Whit-Monday in 1914, which stood almost as a sign of contradiction amidst the celebratory nature of the day replete with bands and banners, new clothes and smart hats!
What is Sacred to God however continues to thrive albeit in new surroundings. This was something that struck me profoundly last weekend, when I phoned a parishioner, who at the beginning of our conversation mentioned that I had interrupted her Mass! No, we’ve not yet got female priests, but we clearly have a community who take their participation in Sacred matters very seriously. Like many of you, this lady, takes time each weekend to open her Missal and pray the Mass, aided by the altar that she has created as a focal point. This reflects the incredible fidelity of God’s people, the Church, in a present time of crisis, and also our ability to adapt in the face of change. Church doors may be closed for the moment, but hearts continue to be open to the on-going act of acknowledging what is Sacred to God. In the eyes of our God, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, there is nothing more Sacred than ourselves.
Hopefully it will not be too long until we can fling wide our church doors as an outward sign that what is Sacred to God continues to take place, even if in the first instance we are limited numerically by health and safety guidelines, separated by markers denoting social distances, and even being asked to wear gloves to distribute the Sacred Host. In the meantime, come sunshine, showers, wind or even a late frost, may we remain faithful and faith-filled, God’s own people in name and reality.
Finally, on a slightly lighter note I return to the subject of the weather. Prior to my move to Cleckheaton I was shown a Victorian postcard of the town’s Providence Place (Congregational) Chapel, now the Aakash Restaurant. On the reverse of which was written: We come here when it’s raining! Presumably a reference to the journey they made to their usual place of worship, some distance away, in all climatic conditions, and the fact that when they arrived, in damp and wet clothes, they would have to remain in them … praying for a short sermon, and a swift retreat to the comforts of home!
May the Sacred place that you’re longing to return to always feel like home to you, and in the features of your current Domestic Church may a Sacred place exist where God is a welcome guest, able to feel at home with you. At Mass we pray words which almost seem to be a protestation: Lord, I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof … In these days we have the rich opportunity of finding the Lord knocking on the door of our hearts, seeking admittance into our homes. Ours is a simple task: to let Him in!
Be assured of prayerful and affectionate remembrances,