A Special Report by MICHAEL DUG(AN
MOON STREET, in the North London borough of Islington, is a dingy terrace of nineteenth-century houses whose front doors open on to the red brick wall of a disused chemicals factory. Beyond the backyards the towers of a Post Office headquarters rise, prisonlike, over the lines of washing. The boundary wall is marked: "Property of the Postmaster-General."
To the residents of these houses, hastily erected to shelter the new townsmen of last century's Industrial Revolution, Moon Street means Home. It is a place where you do not need to lock the door when you go out.
But for Fr Oliver McTernan, curate of St John's Church, the street is an embarrassment. He has discovered that 15 of the 17 houses are owned by the A. M. and G. Property Company. The chairman of the company is the Most Reverend Thomas Ryan, Bishop of Clonfert, Ireland,
As a non-shareholding director. the bishop has no personal gain from the company. It is believed that proceeds go towards the training of priests. But although the rents are reasonable by London standards — around £5 to £8 a week — many of the houses have serious deficiencies — a leaking roof here, a rotting window frame there.
Fr McTernan, who comes from Ireland, does not believe that "all property is theft", but he does admire the recent Irish Bishops' Pastoral Letter, which, in paragraph 37, stressed the duty of a Chris.: in to press society into providing proper family living conditions and adequate housing. "I would say the houses in Moon Street are not 'proper family living conditions,' " says Fr McTernan.
As co-founder in 1974 of the Angel Housing Advisory Centre, to help residents of South Islington, Fr McTernan takes a close interest in housing problems.
Bishop Guazzelli, Auxiliary of Westrhinster, is a patron of the centre, whose voluntary advisers hold "surgeries" once a week in St John's Primary School.
Since November more than 60 cases have been dealt with, says Fr McTernan. "We've got people out of the most appalling conditions."
But one of Fr McTernan's central embarrassments in his contacts with housing workers is the image of the Church. He says well-informed officials find it an "utter contradiction" that he, as a priest, should be involved in this work when they believe that the Churches generally are "up to the collar" in property speculation.
Since not all Catholic dioceses give details of their investments it is difficult to ascertain the full extent of the Church's involvement in the property market. But' the Islington priest wants to sec a "real rethink" on ownership and the use of property.
He complains that while the Angel Advisory Centre is doing its best to help the badlyhoused, properties occupied in the arca by the Catholic Church are wrongly used or under-used, He points to the Marist House a few doors from his presbytery as an example. Although 13,000 families are on the Islington housing list, Fr McTernan says that for most of the year only three Marist brothers live in this 14-bedroom house. Adjoining is a hostel run by nuns, which provides a useful service for the working girls who live there. But Fr McTernan thinks the hostel is not really serving the local community since he says, most of the girls are not from Islington and do not work in Islington.
It would he better to let local teachers or social workers live in the hostel. he believes.
The problem is frequently one of adapting to modern needs, which are different now than when the buildings were erected. "We've somehow failed to adapt ourselves to this change." says Fr McTernan.
To say that the Church should not own property such as churches and schools would be "totally unrealistic," he adds. But he thinks that the Church should not own property merely to preserve the value of Church funds in the face of inflation.
Last year there was an outcry in Islington over the slum conditions of a local family with an invalid father. The landlords turned out 10 be the Archdiocese of Westminster, Fr McTernan is not asking the Church to sell property to another landlord in order to keep ecclesiastical hands clean. He would like Church-owned land and buildings to be employed in the service of the community.
in the case of Moon Street this could mean the formation of a tenants' co-operative to buy the houses from the Irish diocese — if the Irish diocese will agree.
Improvements to the property could he carried out by bricklayers, carpenters, painters and electricians who live in the street.
At a time when the community is under threat from property speculation and new developments, Fr McTernan believes that the Church could he a "natural nucleus" in building up new communities and snuintaining those which exist.
"I think it's tragic that the Church is selling property," he says. "We should keep it and make sure it's used for the community."