Ode to Autumn
ON A CLEAR autumn morning, the journey to Worcester is a delight. Stubbled fields of corn glow gold and amber in the warm sun; hedgerows, fit to burst with blackberries, trace meandering lines of green and crimson across the landscape. It is breathtakingly pretty an inspiration to the 19th Century artists who painted the fruits of autumn on Royal Worcester's famous china.
The parish of St George is at the heart of this great Cathedral City. The church dates from the early 19th century but there has been a Catholic place of worship in Worcester since 1680. This was Jesuit territory. The Fathers and Brothers of the Society of Jesus came to Worcester and Warwickshire in 1622. St Nicholas Owen, master builder of priests hiding holes, and Blessed Edward Oldcourne served this "college of St George".
In 1686 the Jesuits built a small chapel on land laid waste by Cromwell in the Battle of Worcester; King James II served at Mass here in 1687. A replacement chapel was built near the present church in Sansome Fields in 1764. The Jesuits tactfully commented that they had "opened a new shop". In the age before Catholic emancipation discretion was still the better part of valour. St George's opened for worship in 1829 with an unassuming exterior of red brick. In 1880 the church was extended and an elegant stone facade added. The Jesuits left in 1990 when the parish was entrusted to the Archdiocese. It is a church of history, a church of elegance. Parish priest Fr Brian Doolan still can't quite believe he is here: "I was dumbstruck when the Archbishop told me I was to be parish priest. It is a great joy; a great privilege".
Fr Doolan was received into the Catholic, Church in June 1994. He was 25 years an Anglican priest. "I was at Oscott for 18 months on the 'recycling' course; those of us over 50 got six months remission for old age" he laughs. The transition was easy and welcome and he pays tribute to the students of Oscott. "The age gap didn't seem to matter, we were all friends together. I experienced a great sense of home coming".
The ordination of women was "the straw that broke the camel's back" but the decision was made far earlier: "My Anglican Bishop sent me on sabbatical. I did a 30 day retreat with the Jesuits. I knew at the end that I wanted to be a Catholic". The Bishop came to his ordination as did his curate. Fr Gerardo Fabrizio was then Diocesan Master of Ceremonies at the Cathedral. "Little did I know that Brian was going to be my PP. What a combination Italian, ex-Anglican and Birmingham-Irish".
"Irish nuns are always telling me it must be in the blood," quips Fr Doolan. "Gerardo, have you noticed anything about me that tells you I'm not a lifelong Catholic?" Fr Gerardo is looking non plussed "No not really". "Oh good, it's very comforting, very cheery". Fr Gerardo is a priest of hidden talents. As editor of the Birmingham Catholic News for two years he provided the culinary inspiration for a cookery column. "I cooked for Rabbi Lionel Blue when he came to Birm ingham Cathedral: I was in the kitchen for 12 hours with just a break for Mass". What did he cook? "Fettucini Napoletana, aubergines stuffed with capers, olives, garlic and tomatoes, roasted peppers and artichoke
hearts, baked alaska and homemade trifle". A veritable feast. "In my retirement I intend to become Gerardo's curate so I can live in the manner to which I have become accustomed," laughs Fr Doolan.
Mass attendance is 1000. "We offer a varied liturgy. This is the true genius of the Roman Rite" says Fr Doolan. "It is as the Council intended, a truly pastoral liturgy; it can be celebrated totally effectively and beautifully in a range of styles".
"The Catholic Church has this wonderful heritage and tradition which is still a living tradition. The level of commitment here, the clear quality of the spirituality, is very moving. People really do pray the Mass; there is wonderful devotion".
We walk through to the church. Edward Elgar was choirmaster and organist here from 1885 to 1888, composing works first played at St George's. Eigar's organ is still here, imposing in the wide oak choir loft.
The Sacred Heart shrine stands to the rear of the church. 'We implore the grace to love thee more and more' gilded letters carved into the dark oak. The wood of Christ's cloak is painted to resemble jacquard a shimmering cloth of gold. Polish and lilies soften the air.
St George's has been reordered but the high altar and reredos were left in situ. SS Francis Xavier and Ignatius, Oswald and Wulstan look down on the sanctuary. Angels in gold, blue and ochre adorn the panelling. Briars redolent of the Worcestershire hedgerows twist and twine at their feet. Cherry red carpet covers the floor contrasting with the green, gilt and ivory of the carved ceiling and columns.
To the side, Our Lady's chapel is sunlit. The statue is beautiful, pale and translucent in the natural light, head bowed with arms outstretched. The detailing of the marble canopy, angels and curlicues, contrasts with the simplicity of the figure.
The carved stone and marble pulpit is adorned with an eagle: "The concept of the eagle spreading its wings to the far corners of the world became a symbol for the Gospel the Word of God. It features often in the English Medieval tradition."
We climb the steep wooden stairs to the small loft high above the church. Fr Doolan opens the shallow drawers of an oak chest and pulls out 19th century copes and chasubles of wonderful colour and intricacy. The embroidery is stunning: cloths of amber and gold, ivory and green and claret red the curlicues of the damask picked out in fine gold thread. "These vestments fit this church, and yes we, still wear them on special days".
We leave the church, walking out into bright Autumn sunshine. Fr Doolan pauses. "We are never allowed to forget as priests that our vocation is to serve the people. We are totally open here to the life of this city, at the very heart of Worcester".