Towards the Millennium
THE VicrotuAN church looks dilapidated and forgotten. No parish notices, no activity. Have I got the right church? Traffic rumbles past but there are no pedestrians. I walk further round and find a building marked presbytery.
"When the Provincial wrote to me," says parish priest Fr Conor Murphy OW, "I didn't even know where Christchurch was." The location is beautiful; bordered by sea and marsh, Christchurch nestles between Bournemouth to the east and Lymington to the west. This is a close knit community of comparative wealth, a complete contrast for a priest who has lived and worked with people in the deprived inner city, who has faced real poverty on a daily basis. "It took me 12 months to come to terms with the difference these people have souls too." And then there was the small matter of building a new church.
Angela Burgess and Reg Peckham stalwarts of St Joseph's meet us for coffee. "The old church was too small for the congregation. People were forced to stand outside; you actually had to be there early to get a seat." No slipping in during the first hymn.
The ground work had already been done an adjacent property purchased and outline planning permission granted. But ask any congregation what they want in terms of design and surely you'll get a difference of opinion? If in doubt, say no. "I think it helped that our architect was also a member of the congregation," says Reg diplomatically. Has the new church brought parishioners to St Joseph's? "In many ways it was the other way round," says Angela. "We ran a parish mission and the people who came forward to help were not the regulars". Can this be a problem within a parish that a dedicated team of people can uninten tionally put others off from helping out? They laugh. Fr Murphy it seems has delegation down to a fine art. "If we are the ones to run a project then we must make the decisions," says Angela. "And some of us don't run fast enough," interjects Reg.
The ALPHA course, described as an "ecumenical introduction to Jesus", has made an impact here. Started at Holy Trinity, Brompton, the course starts with a shared meal and a speaker followed by discussion groups. "It's very powerful, very motivating. It helps to bring people together as an outreach to Catholics in the pews, to non-church going parishioners and to those considering RCIA." They are expanding the series to enable mothers with young children to attend during the day time. The parish will provide crèche facilities. It's all well planned, well thought-out.
You sense a collective responsibility here for the events, the organisation, the day to day running of parish life. They are involved in the 'Called To Be One Movement' dedicated to bringing the churches together, and are supporting the 'Bible Experience' a week's exhibition which will be held at Christchurch Priory in April. The aim is to provide information about the Bible, to teach people the history and heritage of their faith. The 900-year-old Priory was the obvious location. I make a mental note to visit on my way back to the station.
Back to 20th century design. We walk through the presbytery to the new church, smuggled in behind. Brick built and angular. All modern churches tend to remind me of the extension they built at school but I am pleasantly surprised. To the side of the porch is the Blessed Sacrament chapel which is always open. "We have exposition of the Blessed Sacrament here every Friday," says Fr Murphy. Three women kneel before the monstrance. Candles flicker illuminating the tabernacle. The soft tap of rosary beads. There is tremendous peace and simplicity.
The church is fan shaped, the brick and polished wood of walls and ceiling, softened by the expanse of blue carpet underfoot. Natural light predominates. Three steps lead up to the main sanctuary area focused on the crucifix and the plain stone altar.
The wood and gilt Stations of the Cross were a gift from St Joseph's Convent in Bournemouth. A statue of Joseph as carpenter, rather than saint, with his plank of wood and box of tools stands beside a sampler commemorating the consecration of this church on 19 March 1993. "Despite the dedication to Our Lady, the church is always known as St Joseph's". We discuss the Teams of Our Lady. "A priest established the organisation in France at the end of the war," says Reg. "Married couples come and meet each other to pray and share a meal and scripture, to support each other". Pro-acue rather than re-active .
We walk back via the old church. It is cold and musty in contrast to the warmth and light of the new building. Boxes of things for the church bazaar line the sanctuary steps. "We used to sit with our feet on the pipes," muses Reg. A melodramatic mural decorates the wall painted by the dramatist Frederick Rolfe who styled himself Count Corvo and lived in idiosyncratic splendour with local nobility. "They performed Pope Adrian VII in Wimborne last year; a few people turned up here to see the painting," says Fr Murphy.
I can't leave without seeing the Augustinian Priory; the carved stone Jesse screen is worth the trip alone. A most moving and tangible expression of 14th century faith. From the old to the new. Christchurch truly lives up to its name.