When Hurricane Fifi swept through Honduras last month, leaving thousands dead or homeless, £4,000 worth of medical equipment was rushed across the Atlantic by the parish of Our Lady of the Wayside in Shirley, Warwickshire. MICHAEL DUGGAN went to find out how an ordinary parish became involved in medical relief, and spoke to the parish priest, Fr PATRICK O'MAHONY
Travel by road from Birmingham to Oxford and you will pass the Church of Our Lady of the Wayside in Shirley, Warwickshire. To judge from the spire, the neat lawns and the modern stained glass windows it is like most other ecclesiastical buildings in suburban England.
But appearances are deceptive. For the sacristy floor in this church is piled with multivitamin tablets and in the grounds an old garage is crammed with packing cases which contain bandages, blankets, water purifiers and other emergency needs,
Fr Patrick O'Mahony, the parish priest, says it all started in the early 1960s. Parishioners doubted if they were right to build a new church when so many people in the world were poor. The building plans went ahead. St Aidan's Church in Withal! was finished in 1965 with the aid of voluntary labouu at a cost of £4,000.
But soon pressure of numbers again raised the question of a new building, The parish committee — so called, says Fr O'Mahony, because "council" smacks of "big hats and brass buttons" — concluded that in Britain's climate they could not worship in a field. So they built another church, dedicated to Our Lady of the Wayside.
In both cases the original plan to build was followed through. But the value of the
parishioners' selfquestioning became evident when a member of the parish found himself in Calcutta faced with the problem of feeding several hundred people a day.
"We decided to involve ourselves with the needs of the developing world," recalls Fr O'Mahony. "We preached it. We discussed it. We tried to avoid any patronising relationships because we had to learn that we received as much from them as they from us."
In 1967 the Calcutta food programme started. Wooden collecting boxes were placed at the church entrance on Sunday mornings. For many parishioners voluntary selfdenial replaced the dying practice of Friday abstinence and the proceeds went in the box.
The parish priest tells of one man who regularly drank two pints of beer. Now it's a half
pint and the cash difference goes to India. Another parishioner cut down from 30 cigarettes to 15. A third elected to use only one of two cars at the weekend.
The results were startling. Since the end of 1967 £30,000 has gone to India from this one parish and the money is now feeding 6,000 people a day. Of this sum £300 a year is sent to an orphanage in Madras where Hindu, Moslem and Christian children are cared for and taught a trade.
Fr O'Mahony emphasises that it is not just a question of almsgiving. "This is an attempt to educate people in the fact that they are members of the planetary society; that we are world citizens; that internationalism rather than nationalism is the hallmark of the Church.
"Very few people are aware of the fact that poverty up to a few years ago was commonplace, widespread, not only in the developing world but also in the western world."
It didn't stop at food. Contact with the Madras orphanage made the Catholics of Shirley realise that better medicine for their Indian friends was an
urgent priority. This led to the medical project.
The parish committee at Our Lady of the Wayside saw that there was much waste in the British medical world. Pills, tablets and other medicaments in perfect condition were left on manufacturers' shelves when doctors switched to new improved brands. Samples sent to general practitioners decayed unused in consulting rooms. Outdated hospital machinery was pushed into the nearest outhouse, Parish representatives wrote to hospitals, medical firms and to several hundred doctors in the Birmingham area to ask for
co-operation in making the best possible use of unwanted medicines and equipment. The response was on such a scale that in two years more than £250,000 worth of medicines have been sent to 34 countries in the Third World. As Fr O'Mahony puts it: "It was probably the biggest thing we did."
. Since the scheme started the parish has been given special facilities by governments and shipping lines. Two emergency loads of equipment stand ready for immediate transport to disaster areas — such as ,Bangladesh and Honduras.
Up to 300 people — not only
Catholics ,---help to collect and pack the medicines. Every Monday and Wednesday even
ing a specialised team of nurses and pharmacists come to classify the products. Then these are sent to qualified personnel abroad.
"This is certainly one way of developing a positive and correct attitude to the terrible wastage that exists in our western society," explains Fr O'Mahony. But even freeing people from hunger and disease was not enough for the Catholics of Shirley. They saw that freedom of conscience was just as important.
In collaboration with Amnesty International they began to write to foreign governments on behalf of prisoners of conscience. And at Christmas 30 prisoners in all parts of the world receive several thousand cards.
Two years ago in a Greek prison one inmate received 100 Christmas cards which he shared with his fellow prisoners — a great boost to morale. The family of a Spanish prisoner, jailed for trade union activity, were financially supported by the parish until the prisoner was released. Although he was very poor he wrote asking the parish to use the money "for someone 'who needs it even more than I,"
Half a dozen prisoners in all have been released following pressure from Fr O'Mahony and his parishioners. Letters sent to heads of state are always firm but extremely courteous — even if countries such as the Soviet Union, Brazil and Rhodesia never reply to letters expressing concern.
Fr O'Mahony says he has noticed changes among his
parishioners since all this work began. "It has given them an outward-looking approach and a universal concern with humanity" he comments.
"I think people are certainly more aware that all this Rule Britannia and colonisation stuff is no longer a relevant factor in their lives. They also realise that we live in a throwaway society and that this little planet which is so very beautiful and very small — can be destroyed by selfish attitudes among the human family.
"The Christian idea of stewardship — that everything we have is on loan — is certainly more realistic in their living and consequently they see things more globally and more generously.
"Above all their attitudes to people of other cultures and indeed religions seem to emphasise the unity of the human race rather than the multiplicity of races. There's no room for master races in this humanity, if we're going to preach the Mystical Body and implement it." He and his parishioners have constantly lobbied MPs and Government ministers to press for improved aid and better trade relations with the Third World. "These projects are not so important in the help that they give their recipients.
"They are fundamentally important in the awareness they create from local comm the very y level. Consequently beginning we have seen it as an important part of our activity to introduce a political Fr O'Mahony added: "I can't
see how you can talk about the food problem today without also talking about reduction in
Local needs in the parish are not ignored. The parish organises a car service for the physically handicapped, helps with ecumenical visits to the sick and keeps 150 pensioners supplied with food parcels. But the Warwickshire parish priest is not without his opponents. "One of the most vicious receptions I got was from a Catholic organisation which invited me to speak on the Third World," he says. "Some even left the room."
He sums up the reason for their reaction with the single word: "Pockets". Members of the organisation realised that new trading terms and the stabilisation of prices paid to Third World countries would make the rich countries poorer. "People won't put their pockets where their mouths are", says Fr O'Mahony, But 80 per cent of his parishioners — not to mention the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development and Archbishop Dwyer of Birmingham — give him their full support. And a new pamphlet called: "One Parish — One World" by Fr O'Mahony has already sold 5,000 copies.
A number of people have written to Fr O'Mahony after reading the CTS pamphlet asking how they can do similar work in their own parish. Perhaps they instinctively realise that, as Fr O'Mahony puts it: "Only by lifting up broken humanity, from sickness, from disease, from oppression, can we apply the
iesteoms to ourgourrisoowcieetry
"One world" by Mgr Bruce Kent — p5