It could be you...
IWAS HALF expecting Dartford to be at the other end of the Dartford Tunnel, like some forgotten crock of gold at the end of the rainbow. It is, in fact, nestled in suburbia, past
the urban sprawl of 1930s London, in a settled landscape of privet and playground.
But placenames along
the route conjure up a different past. Falconwood, hidden from the platform in a tangle of briar, hints at a noble history. The sport of kings.
The church of St Anselm's is on the outskirts of Dartford town centre opposite the stately Victorian frontage of the boys grammar school. The taxi deposits me outside the brick tepee, so beloved of modem ecclesiastical architects. The church appears to be part of a wider housing complex and with no discernible signs of a presbytery I ring the nearest doorbell.
Wandering, lost with a notebook, I'm at risk of being mistaken for a party candidate or worse a pollster, but Sr Ursula opens the door and I am welcomed in to meet the flock.
Presbyteries tend to look like hospital waiting rooms circa 1970 but this is bright and comfortable; it looks and feels like a home. Fr Bill Saunders, the parish priest, introduces Maurice the permanent Deacon and Philip, "our new, semipermanent Deacon". Fr Vincent Flynn is also in residence. Philip was ordained to the deaconate on 1 March and arrived here at St Anselm's on St Patrick's Day. He is suitably complimentary about his new placement: "The people are very friendly."
This place never stops.
The telephone rings wconstantly, people wander in an out. Sr Ursula is the beacon of calm midst the storm. Thirty-plus years in education have left her with an unflappable side. She smiles when I ask what her role in the parish encompasses: "Oh, I run the baptism course, sacramental preparation for children who do not attend Catholic schools, the RCIA course and chaplaincy to a local hospital." This morning she is helping with the regular CAFOD service and fund raising lunch.
Why did she leave education? "The changes, the stress and uncertainty. When I left the school I spent a year on a counselling course. I wanted skills that would be generally useful in a parish." She misses the children.
Fr Saunders shows me a list of Catholic pastors in Dartford back to pre-Reformation days. Dartford has its own litany of Catholic martyrs and also a Protestant Christopher Wade burned at the stake under Mary's reign. A memorial to him was erected in the town as an anti-Catholic protest at the restoration of the hierarchy in the 1850s. "I think the Millennium should be marked with a service of peace and reconciliation," says Fr Saunders, "to mark the way forward". Relations today are friendly? "Oh we're very ecumenical here. The local vicar came round last week and a bit of his shoe was falling off and I said, 'you've finally lost your sole in the Catholic Church'. It amused him no end."
TfE PARISH MISSION dates back to 1851 when Capuchin rairs travelled from Northfleet to Dartford to minister to a Catholic population swelled by Irish immigrants. A chapel was established in 1866 in Gieenhithe, followed, in 1900, by the first parish church, built in Spital Street and opened on 8 December by Bishop Bourne.
The old church was vacated in 1975. "We needed more space and there was a new town centre development planned." The site is now occupied by a branch of McDonalds though the parish retains a pastoral room close by which serves as an oratory: 'We have exposition of the Blessed Sacrament there every Tuesday and Thursday, and pray the rosary."
Fr Saunders has been at Dartford for three years. He was based previously at St Thomas More, Dulwich. "Mrs Thatcher lived in the parish when I was there..." I
thought she never actually made the move south of the river, heading for Chelsea after the wilds of Westminster? "Oh she did. Perhaps I should have dropped in for a pastoral visit," he muses. I hope he's joking.
"[The church] was built to resemble a tent, drawing on the idea of the Israelites camping in the desert...There are references throughout Scripture to God pitching his tent among his people..this building represents the pilgrim Church where the people of the Covenant met God."
His first major task as parish priest was to deal with renovation problems and launch a restoration fund. He beams at me. "There's a great story here." He retrieves a 'Christmas Envelope' addressed simply 'to St Anselm's'. "A parishioner gave me this at Christmas. It contained one lottery ticket. It was the draw after Christmas and I was standing over there," he gestures to the dining room, "and I said `I'll just catch up with the lottery' and then the numbers started to come up". Five in total. They won £1,372 which went to the restoration fund. News in itself.
"Only a few weeks before I had bought a pair of shoes and one of the shoes was a little bit 'marked' (a pigeon had indelicately found its way into the shop). The manager reduced the price of the shoes and said it was good luck, so I said 'well you'll be reading about me when I win the lottery'. And I met Anthea Turner (then the leading light of lottery nights)
when our primary school went along to GMTV to sing carols before Christmas." This is stretching belief but he disappears off to produce the evidence. La Turner with Fr Bill.
Did the lottery win pose a dilemma?: "I don't actually agree with the lottery," he says. "Poor people are spending money they can ill-afford on tickets. But this was a gift."
He leads me through to the church. It is an unusual building, hexagonal in shape, with a floor that slopes down towards the altar, reminiscent of a modem theatre. A building of wood, light and warmth. The architect was Ralph Lovegrove who restored the barns at Aylesford Priory. In designing the church he used the natural slope of the hill.
"It was built to resemble a tent, drawing on the idea of the Israelites camping in the desert. The Ark of the Covenant was kept in a tent the 'Tent of Meeting'. There are references throughout Scripture to God pitching his tent among his people. In many ways this building represents the pilgrim Church where the people of the Covenant met God."
Fr Saunders points out pictures of Saints, edged in gold, that bring colour to the brick walls of the sanctuary. They came from the old church as did a carved, oak altar panel which today is hidden by the Easter banner. To the side a modem pipe organ is decorated with symbols that link the modem parish with the ancient past of Dartford; a lineage of saints and princes.
Doves carved in lime wood soar high above on the organ pipes. On the opposite side is the baptistry with its long windows of blue and green. Candles flicker in the sunlight that casts watery shadows across the polished font.
I liked this church very much. There is a simplicity and honesty in the design, a sense of community and spirit. As I turn to leave a parishioner talks of the history of Dartford and the Catholic pilgrims and martyrs who have left their impact on this place. "I think," she says softly, "they are still praying for us".