Is Hard Hit By Flight
From The Land
By GERRY SHERRY What struck me most about Mgr. Leo Parker, Bishop of Northampton, when I spoke with him last week on the problems of his diocese, was his tremendous spirit of optimism. Optimism despite the many difficulties which are apparent in this far-flung diocese.
His main problem, he told me, was the frustration he encounters owing to the difficulties of the times, which prevent him carrying out many of the things which he wants to do to provide for his flock.
Seated in a large but plainly furnished study, the Bishop unfolded his story and in a very business-like manner went through each point in turn.
" To undersand the problems of this diocese," he said, " you must consult a map. It covers seven counties: Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Norfolk, Northamptonshire, and Suffolk.
" The distance from the western edge of the diocese to the east coast of Norfolk, is further than from the western edge to the Welsh criast. Apart from the few induetrial centres which have concentrated groups of Catholics, many of the faithful are in small groups in the rural areas which form a large part a the diocese.
" Take for instance," he said, ' East Anglia, where the special difficulty of the work of our priests arises from the extraordinary low density of the population.
" We often think of Wales as a wild and lonely country; yet taking it as a comparable area of land, it has rather more people to the square mile than we have in East Anglia, East Anglian soil is not specially fertile and there are large areas of forest and heath.
" Although we may hope for a revival of arable farming, the need for labour with increased mechanisation on the land will diminish.
"This is certainly missionary country," Bishop Parker declared, " and it is only when you try to cover it, that you realise that. All those isolated groups require the Mass which means that a great number of priests say three Masses on a Sunday, and travel miles.
NO PARISHIONERS "It is not so much a shortage of priests, but the lack of parish life to support one. In previous times, many of the landed gentry built churches, and gave generously for their upkeep. Most of them have now sold up their estates, and we have some beautiful 'churches with hardly any parishioners and no income to maintain them."
I said that this was the first time in THE CATHOLIC HFAALD series a Bishop bad said he had churches he did not want, but the Bishop pointed out that he did not mean he had a surplus of buildings—far from it. He wanted to build where they were most required. but found great difficulty in obtaining licences and building materials. He wanted to use ex-army huts for temporary churches, but not only were they hard to get, but extremely expensive. Also, many sites had yet to be purchased and here again high costs prevailed. "Of course." Mgr. Parker added, " another problem is the decline in the rural population. Apart from the European Voluntary Workers, there is a tendency to move away from the land. and this, you must keep in mind, is a great agricultural area.
" Therefore my plan is to erect as many temporary bui'dings, as possible and when things are more settled to get on with the job of permanent churches and schools."
On the question of schools and education in general, the Bishop said that the authorities were some times far from helpful. There are only 25 small rural schools; there is only one Modem Secondary School, at Norwich. Many maintained schools are becoming rapidly overcrowded.
At Corby, a growipg industrial area, there was a child population of some 1,500 which required schools immediately—to be built entirely at the parents'. expense ! With the decrease in religious vocations, seven convents had recently left the diocesebut eight others had been established. At Slough, in Buckinghamshire, the need was also for more schools. At Luton there is yet no publicly maintained Catholic school.
The total amount of money that would be required for Catholic schools was going to be very high; in many areas no grants would be forthcoming, to name but Luton and Corby, and the whole cost would have to be borne by the diocese.
I asked the Bishop had he any solutions for the problem of bringing the Mass to the small and isolated groups of rural Catholics.
He replied that he intended to start a diocesan Travelling Mission, on the lines of the Southwark Travelling Mission, and hoped it would be in commission by about the end of the summer.
" It is not so much a motor mission we require, or missionaries for non-Catholics, as priests, who will be able to get to the people and provide Mass for them as frequently as is possible."
Of the European Voluntary Workers and Irish workers, the Bishop said that he welcomed them to his diocese and hoped that if they stayed they would allow themselves to be absorbed into the ordinary parish life.
" I do not think it wise to have separate national communities and I trust that it will be possible to have them work with us. There are very many Catholics among these voluntary workers, and they have few priests of their own. It is therefore our responsibility to fit] the gap."
Their education was also a concern of the diocese and there was a magnificent Polish orphanage and school at Pitsford Hall, Northants, which was run by the sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth. A new Polish Girls' College has been opened at Grendon Hall. Others Were to he opened shortly.
There is no diocesan seminary as there are not sufficient students to justify one, but students go to seminaries at home and abroad, and there are some forty-five studying for the priesthood at present. Of organised Catholic Action, Mgr. Parker said, " On a diocesan level it is difficult to have a central organisation. Distances are great, and it would not be possible to call diocesan conferences.
'However, on a parish level It should run well, and we have associations of Catholic trade unionists in some of the industrial centres. it is very important work and 1 encourage all to take part in it.
YOUTH CENTRES " Youth organisations are also important, and we have various youth centres and clubs. As soon as I can release a priest for this work, I shall do."
The Bishop also mentioned his plans for the proposed completion of Northampton Cathedral, which it is estimated will cost some £50,000. Special collections are to take place on Trinity Sunday of this year, 1949 and 1950 for this purpose.
In 1950 the Northampton Diocese will celebrate its centenary, and it can be very proud of its achievements since it came into existence. In 1851 there were only 27 priests and 26 places for Mass; to-day there are 115 secular and 66 regular priests and over 189 churches and Mass centres. In the days of Bishop Keating (1908192t) the Catholic population was 12,000, to-day it is well over 45,000.
I should think that my interview was typical of this Bishop's working methods; he was prompt and courteous but businesslike. He had prepared statistics and data and a sketch map to help me to get a clearer picture of his sprawling diocese. He had everything at his fingertips.
His final words were pointed: " We are very scattered, but we get around to all as often as possible. Difficulties were made to be overcome."