Page 5, 24th December 2004

24th December 2004
Page 5
Page 5, 24th December 2004 — Tales from the riverbank

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Locations: Manchester, Bury, London, Rome


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Tales from the riverbank

This was supposed to be an interview with a reclusive author; a heart-to-heart with a writer of uncommon talent. But sadly, Miss Mac, the church cat, no longer stalks the furrows of Dunsop Bridge, in the Trough of Bowland.

The beck that runs at the edge of the presbytery garden bubbles solitary now, where once the black and white cat used to trip across the stones and sniff the air for the scent of prey.

Fr John Chaloner, parish priest of St Hubert’s, was Mac’s owner. He recalls the last day that he saw her, in August this year, sitting imperiously on the wall opposite the grey stone church.

“It was just after the book was published,” he says. “It was a summer evening, warm and still light. I remember thinking it was too early to make her come in.” As is often the way with modest writers who shun the limelight, Mac disappeared that night, as mysteriously as she had first arrived at this remote parish in the heart of rural Lancashire.

“She was with me for five years and one day,” says Fr John. “The house really did feel empty the day she didn’t come home.”

The story of Miss Mac. The Church Cat, is now a best-seller for Redemptorist Publications. A slim paperback volume, the book contains the thoughts of “Miss Mac” with neat pen and ink illustrations by her scribe, Fr John.

For this is an autobiogra

phy: a view of religion and faith from a definitely feline point of view.

Mac’s arrival at St Hubert’s, in 1999, was dramatic. She was found, caught in a hedge, just up the road from the church. This is wild country – fell and forest – remote and beautiful, not the sort of territory where cats just casually drop by.

The family who rescued the kitten had a dog and couldn’t keep her. Fr John had cared for a succession of cats with unusual names and unfortunate endings: Grosvenor, Bunthorne and Cholmeley, named after Gilbert and Sullivan characters, had all had an untimely demise. There were close encounters with fast cars; one was shot.

He says now he didn’t want to put himself through the sorrow of losing another pet. But then, the morning he met Mac, for some reason, he found himself buying petfood in the supermarket and before he quite knew why, he was knocking on the door of the farmhouse to enquire about the kitten.

At that stage the cat was a “he”. The priest named it “Macavity” on the recommendation of a neighbour who said it was a mystery cat, a cat that came from nowhere. A visit to the vet established Mac’s true identity and she became Miss Mac. But really, Mac she remained. A true female heroine; one of the boys.

The tales tell of Mac’s discovery of the faith. As a cat she is privy to the secrets of a stone angel, a stained glass saint and, of course, the ponderings of local wildfowl and fellow felines. She discovers the true meaning of Christmas and of the Holy Spirit and, in common with all cats, suffers the inadequacies of mankind.

It is a quirky book that works on different levels, but then Mac was blessed in her choice of writer. Fr John is a great observer of human and animal kind, and a wicked mimic with a sharp eye for caricature.

I suggest that priests have to be observant – it’s the God-given talent of vocation to know more from what is unsaid, to understand the silence – but he is too modest to agree.

The crafted simplicity of the book belies the intellect of its “author”. Fr John is a canon lawyer who makes regular trips to the dicasteries in Rome to discuss developments in Church law. For many years he worked in Bury, serving on the diocesan marriage tribunal board.

The book, which took just four months to write, was a respite from the finer points of contra bonum coniugum.

Cats, he insists, are a great aid to mental prayer. “Animals take life as it comes, far better than we do. They are not fazed by things. They put life into perceptive – this, here and now, is what matters.

“When I walked with her by the river, I felt very much part of everything. I felt that God was close.”

Fr John is 64 next March and has been ordained for 32 years. At 19 he felt drawn to a religious vocation and joined the Servites in Newbury, but he could not settle. He became a policeman and for eight years walked the beat in central Manchester. He claims, with his sergeant, to have held back hundreds of screaming Beatles fans at the ABC Theatre, Didsbury, armed with just a bicycle. At 29 he went to the Beda in Rome. He does not regret his time in civilian life. “I think you need to know what people’s lives are like,” he explains, “to understand the struggles that they face.”

One of the main characters in the book is Philonius, a pheasant with the red eyes of a “whisky drinker”.

Pheasants are abundant here. Within minutes of our arrival, Fr John kicks off his shoes, pulls on a pair of battered green wellingtons, and strides out purposefully into the garden with a bucket of corn meal. Birds appear from among the trees – pheasants and grouse, bluetits and chaffinches – it is a mini Eden, a cat’s idea of heaven on earth.

Mac, Fr John admits, was an accomplished hunter who would regularly bring live rabbits into the house. She was following the path of her ancestors: Bowland, or “Boland” as the locals say, was an ancient royal hunting forest.

The church was built by the Towneleys, an old English Catholic family which once owned great tracts of this moorland country. They had a hunting lodge in Dunsop Bridge and St Hubert’s was built with the proceeds of the 12-1 Derby winner of 1861, Kettledrum. The Pugin-designed chapel was dedicated, appropriately, to St Hubert – the patron saint of hunting, who converted to Christianity after he saw an image of the crucified Christ between the antlers of a stag. Fr John retrieves a large plastic torch and shines the light up into the roofspace of the sanctuary to reveal images of horse and drum. Tiny horse heads are carved on the reredos.

“And the lion shall lie down with the lamb,” he intones, recalling the Advent reading. Animals are impor

tant here.

Mac was a very holy cat; she loved the rituals of parish life: the weddings, the baptisms and the funerals. She liked to sit in front of the altar at Communion, forcing the congregation to side-step her as they made their way forward. She would lap holy water from the ancient stoop by the front door and sleep curled in the straw of the Christmas crib. But she was, primarily, a priest’s cat, a companion cat, who took a keen interest in the writing of her memoirs. “She used to sit on my notes, sit on my lap when I was typing,” says Fr John. “I still have her pawprints on my papers.” In the evening she would walk with him, beside the beck. He fell in once while carrying her across to the other side. He is, he admits, terribly accident prone in much the same way, I think, as St Francis might have been. When you have the wonder of creation to look at, it is easy to lose your footing.

He has broken his ankle mowing the lawn and regularly falls into the river when the village holds its annual fundraising “puddleducks” day – a sophisticated version of Pooh sticks with plastic ducks.

“There goes’t priest in’t river,” he says.

Do cats go to heaven? “I very firmly believe God has created such beautiful little creatures he’s not going to let them go into nothingness,” he replies.

“The things we love on earth will be there in heaven. Animals have a spirit – they are made by God and everything made by God has an eternal value.” He pauses. “Heaven would be a poorer place without Miss Mac.” No one really knows what happened to her. Fr John found a small bunch of flowers on the wall opposite the church a few days after her disappearance. He thinks she may have been run down and the driver was too distressed to tell him.

The children of the parish have their own version of events. One little boy said she had turned again, like Dick Whittington and his cat, to London “to seek her fortune”.

John Lingard, author of the hymn “Hail, Queen of Heaven”, was parish priest at Dunsop Bridge. You can see what inspired him. This beautiful place with its dramatic skies and wide sweeping moorland touches the firmament.

Christ came not from a city decked in gold, but from the countryside, from people who worked hard and knew the land. From a rural place, with honest values.

Fr John is nodding. “The great things in life seem to come from the little places,” he says.

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