Mary Kenny The hell-and-brimstone sermons only came with the annual parish mission, when visiting priests came to give them all a dose of 'gloom and doom'
We have so often been given unhappy, even brutal recollections of childhood days under the influence of the Catholic Church: by contrast, it was cheering to hear a friend of mine, Joe Steeples. a writer and television scribe, recalling his happy life as an altar boy in Croydon, South London, in an Irish Catholic community of the 1940s and 50s.
Joe was eight years old when he became an altar boy at St Mary's Church in West Croydon. There were three priests at St Mary's: Canon William McLaughlin, Father McKenna and Father Knight. Priests were usually Irish, though Father Knight was English.
'There were about eight or nine Masses on a Sunday, plus Benediction. The first Mass was 6.45, and then one almost every half-hour until midday. All were packed. It was a huge Catholic parish, made even more so because there was a teaching hospital in Croydon, the Mayday. There were thousands of Irish nurses there. "These were still in the days of fasting from midnight. The nurses would get off a night shift at about half past six in the morning, so Canon McLaughlin used to say to me: "Joseph, there are some girls here who have been working all night [and fasting from midnight]; make sure the Mass is said reverently but quickly so that they can all go off and have their breakfast. That would be 6.45."
At eight years of age, Joe thought nothing of walking a mile and a half to the church at dawn, alone. He liked the responsibility. "I'd have to get the altar ready: make sure the candles were lit. Sometimes there were two or three altar boys, but you always preferred to do it on your own, because then there would be no difficulty about who was going to ring the bell. The main reason to serve a Mass was that you had the privilege of ringing the bell!
"And there was a certain element of dressing up that you enjoyed. In those days, every priest wore a biretta going out on the altar — he would give you the biretta. There were ways of taking the biretta — it's like a threecornered hat: there's a bit you can hold.
"Of course, it was a chore for small boys learning the Latin. We went to classes on a Saturday morning to learn the responses. Some of the boys could be rough — this was a working class part of South London. There might even be fighting on the altar! "Father McKenna was a kind of Bing Crosby figure who rode a motorbike — very dashing. Canon McLaughlin was an Irishman of some means and I think he put a lot of his own money into the adjoining primary school. He was a lovely man who, in his declining years, would forget vast tracts of the Mass, and you'd have to prompt him.
"At the end of the Mass there used to be the Last Gospel, after the Prayers of Thanksgiving. That was always from St John's Gospel: 'In the beginning was the word ...' After that they had prayers for the conversion of Russia. So the Mass was theoretically much longer. But Canon McLaughlin and I, at our peak, would say Mass, with sermon, and loads of communions, in 20 minutes. There would be a homily, but quite short."
Joe remembers with fondness preparing for the Mass in the sacristy. "These priests were just nice, good Irishmen. In between our religious duties there was normal conversation, often about sport. They channelled a lot of their energies into sport."
Joe never saw any glimmer of sexual involvement among this celibate clergy, arid never saw any hint of paedophilia. These priests were very much part of the community life. They would visit the homes of their parishioners, and knew them all well 'They would always recognise you in Confession, that was the other thing. You would go in with your dark and deadly sins — they'd always know it was you! They were very workingclass people; they were close to their flock. (It came as a shock to me, later on, to see how posh, by comparison, Church of England vicars were.) "They would treat you as a normal person — not as a parishioner or a sinner."
The hell-and-brimstone sermons only came with the annual parish mission, when visiting priests — probably Redemptorists — came to give them all a dose of "doom and gloom." These were more like Dr Paisley than the ordinary parish priests, in Joe's recollection — everyone was going to hell was their theme: nobody was going to heaven.
But what he remembers most is the warmth of Church life, the normality of relationships, and the sense of fulfillment when himself and Father McKenna would say Mass for serried ranks of nurses in their starched uniforms.