Fr Michael Hollings rich legacy
THE WIDE SWEEPING porch of St Mary of the Angels church in West London symbolises its bracing welcome to a wide-ranging community, knitted together in 19 years of tireless work by the late Father Michael Hollings.
With large Irish, Portuguese and Afro-Caribbean communities filling the pews, as well as the influx of young, affluent couples into the gentrified parts of Bayswater, it is a parish of contrasts. This vibrancy is celebrated at the Carnival Mass, the official service which kicks off the Notting Hill Carnival.
"It's a fascinating parish to work in," said parish priest, Father Mark Langham. "The houses just opposite the church have been done-up into fashionable new flats but at the end of the road is a poor housing estate."
With such a cultural mixture to represent, it is an extremely busy parish. My visit coincided with the final arrangements for a St Patrick's day "knees-up" in the Parish Hall, just one event in an endless round of drama rehearsals for the parish primary school, prayer groups, yoga classes, and RCIA meetings attended by the five converts who will finally join the parish at Easter. Masses on Sunday reflect the cultural diversity, with music ranging from the guitars of the folk Mass to traditional hymns and occasionally the calypso vibes of a steel band or the monastic echoes of a sung Latin Mass.
The fact that it is such a friendly community is a testament to Father Michael.
"He touched so many lives in the parish that at the memorial service held here, there was very quickly standing room only," said Father Mark.
"He showed the human face
of the Church. Whatever your
problems, he had a way of including you."
Fr Michael Hollings worked especially hard to include the "men of the road" of Bayswater, in keeping with the spirit of St Francis of Assisi. The saint of the poorest died in a chapel in Assisi, the Portiuncula, now encased by the church from which the parish takes its name.
Until recently, the doors of the Bayswater presbytery were always open for the homeless to come out of the cold for a meal or a cup of tea.
Because of security fears, the "open door" policy has had to be stopped, but the "men of the road" are not forgotten.
"We feel we can do the same work in a different way. When Father Michael died, we spon taneously decided to set up a centre for the homeless," said Father Mark. He hopes to open the Father Michael Hollings Centre in the basement of the old parish school in Artesian Road. Kitchen facilities are already in place, volunteers at hand to run it and £7,000 was collected at Fr Michael's funeral which will pay for the necessary renovation.
Brought in six months ago to work with Father Michael, Father Mark now finds himself with a tough act to follow but his open, friendly features show no sign of strain. "People say we don't expect you to be Father Michael, but some of them actually do. I see this as a new chapter in the life of the parish and I can only be
myself," he said.
His vision of this new chapter includes drawing in more of the abundant artistic and musical talent from the area, which may help to attract more young people to the parish.
APORTRAIT of Cardinal Manning, the first rector of St Mary of the Angels from 1851, painted by Father Mark himself, adorns his office. "He's a great example of Victorian churchmanship and a great hero of mine. St Mary's owes him a great debt."
Entrusted by Cardinal Wiseman to re-establish the faith in London, Dr Manning as he was then and his staff of 20 or so Oblate Fathers, were the "shock troops" of this plan. Organised as a religious order but with the freedom to roam, they set up parishes, as the fields east of Marble Arch developed into an urban sprawl. "Their work made St Mary of the Angels one of the Mothers of the Church in London," said Father Mark.
A chapel dedicated to the Oblate Fathers' 16th century inspiration, St Charles Borrommeo is to be found on the left side of the church. Its wooden panels open to reveal relics of one of Italy's most popular saints. A beautiful chasuble and the cushion upon which he prayed, acquired in Rome by Cardinal Manning, are preserved behind the glass.
Other treasures abound in this large and imposing church: the huge alabaster altar; the original stained glass windows illuminating a gallery of saints, and the chapel of St Francis of Assisi behind the last pew.
The statue of the saint in prayerful repose inspires the present day "shock troops" of the parish to embrace the homeless and needy.