The story of St Boniface's church, Shirley, is a tale of continuities. It is surprising therefore, that my first impression as I approach the church along the High Street is of discontinuity. Amid the long chains of suburban shops and houses that line the road there is a robust red-brick tower reaching almost 80 feet into the sky. Below it is a mass of earth-red tiles, sheer arches and patterned bricks. A colonnaded façade supports a life-size white stone statue of the church's patron saint. The elaborate Romanesque building contrasts strikingly with the workaday greyness of its surroundings. Seeing it is rather like noticing a cardinal in full regalia walking through town.
Yet St Boniface's church benefits from this basic discontinuity with its environment. Passers-by cannot fail to notice its existence as they hurry past. It has been a cynosure since its erection in 1927. From that time it was known locally as "Shirley Temple", in honour of the Hollywood starlet then filling local cinemas. The name probably also referred to the church's exotic design the striking campanile and unusual octagonal lantern dome which have lost none of their freshness in the 70 years of their existence.
The same may be said, by way of compliment, of St Boniface's parish priest, the Reverend Canon Dermot MacDermot-Roe. Fr MacDermot-Roe was born just six weeks before the completion of the present church in October 1927. From this detail alone it is evident that there is a close and enduring connection between priest and church. Fr MacDermot-Roe recognises that the singular building presents an important message to visitors to Shirley: "It's a landmark, a sign of the presence of God in the secular city."
The interior of the church is plainer, but no less impressive. Set out in the form of a cross, the building curves over the pews into a smoothly arched ceiling. Along the nave walls are coloured relief stations of the cross, each donated originally by individual families to the church. Between the nave and the sanctuary is the octagonal lantern with small windows that let in weak rays of light. The pure white marble altar rises high above eye-level and is embellished by a reredos of receding marble columns.
Aside from its visual impact, St Boniface's is "very well situated to serve Shirley's estimated 2.500 parishioners". It is also notable for the close affinity between priest and parishioners. Fr MacDermotRoe stresses the activism and thoughtfulness of his congregation. He ascribes the remarkable fact that St Boniface's has had only three priests in its 70 years to "the wonderful support and devotion of the people to their priests, which creates a great bond with the priest". Fr MacDermot-Roe has been struck on many occasions in his 30 years of service by the depth of the lay commitment. "I have had many tangible signs of their love and affection, most of all when I was ill four years ago." At almost
70 years of age, Fr MacDermotRoe's continued vigour is due in no small part to "the many, many willing hands who support him in so many ways and thereby fulfil their baptismal vocations".
The strength of lay participation is evident from the number of active parish groups. There is a Union of Catholic Mothers, a St Vincent de Paul Society ("which keeps a discreet eye out for the needy in the parish"), a Children's Liturgy Group and a non-denominational nursery school programme respected widely in the local community. Additionally there are connections with the Scout, Guide and Brownie movements.
The sacramental activities of the church are supported with no less verve. Church members help with first communion, confirmation and marriage preparation groups. Twenty-five ministers of the Eucharist take communion to the infirm and the housebound each week. "The parish priest is blessed with having a very devoted community, who share his ministry in many ways," remarks Fr MacDermotRoe. Catechists aid the Father with a simple course of instruction on Catholic belief and practices called "Pathway to faith", which is based on the RCIA. Through the course, the parish seeks to draw nonCatholics and "out-of-touch" Catholics into the ambit of the Church. Fr MacDermot Roe is particularly dedicated to reaching out to inhabitants of Shirley who have had some contact with Catholicism in their lives, but now live apart from it. He candidly admits that St Boniface's "has suffered from a loss of Sunday Mass-going Catholics, which is an ongoing sorrow for many parish priests".
However, "there is an ongoing effort and longing to win them back again which is one of the foremost hopes and prayers of the parish for the millennium".
A vital aspect of preparations for the new millennium is the Church's "covenant with the poor" which was made last Pentecost Sunday. On that occasion, St Boniface's made a commitment to a church building programme in Bamenda, the Cameroonian twin of the diocese of Portsmouth. This is in addition to an ongoing commitment to a mission hospital in Masaka, Uganda. Members of the congregation have recently visited Cameroon and priests from the Africa diocese have studied theology at the local college of higher education, La Sainte Union (LSU). The congregation seals this international connection with the generous support of Cafod.
St Boniface's has also been at the forefront of ecumenical ventures in Southampton. The church enjoys very good relations with neighbouring Christian Churches and was the host church for the united service in January. On that occasion, the new Anglican bishop of Southampton, Jonathan Gledhill, was the guest speaker. The parish continues to deepen its ecumenical contacts through the Churches Together Programme.
St Boniface's has proven over the past 70 years that it is more than simply a splendid, eye-catching building. It has been the mother of two daughter churches ( in the neighbouring areas of Millbrook and Lordswood) and has been connected with three local Catholic schools Springhill Primary School, St Anne's Convent School and St George's Boys' School. It is an abiding presence in the townscape of Shirley and a potent sign of God's concern for all of its residents.