A new cause for optimism
were very precise and, urning left at the traffic lights off the Oxford road from Cowley, I made my way along Hollow Way towards the church of Our Lady Help Of Christians. The overall scene was that of the classical suburban street but where was the church? A minor panic began to take hold, surely I hadn't taken a wrong turning. Then without warning the row of houses on my left dramatically cut away to reveal a huge statue of Madonna and Child framed by the steeply climbing roof and bell tower of a church. The suddenness of its appearance served to emphasise the strength of the symbol.
Fr Ivor Petto SDB greeted me at the door of the parish house and I was soon enjoying the warmth of his laughter and a mug of his coffee. A tall man, he sat easily in his chair beside one of the largest rubber plants I have ever seen. The parish, he explains, exemplifies a connection with the Salesian Order in Oxford which dates back to the 1920s. The present church was built in 1962 as a result of the fundraising efforts of parishioners.
As we talk the shadows of the rain-clouds outside seem to pervade the room for a time as Fr Ivor describes the industrial devastation that befell Cowley in the early 1980s. The home to Morris, Pressed Steel and the Maxwell publishing firms, the area was a mecca for migrant workers from all over the United Kingdom. Now these and other companies have all gone and the landscape provides the patchwork evidence of factories now demolished and sites awaiting new industries to fill them. It is within this context that the present day parish operates. Like so many others it has had to come to terms with falling Mass attendances and the collapse of community infrastructure.
So how, I inquire of Fr. Ivor, does the modern parish cope with these changes? He tells me a story which involved an older member of the parish who was expressing unhappiness at the loss of the old faces from the parish and the lack of numbers at Mass. Another senior member of the parish listened and then replied "Well, we may not have the quantity but the quality's better than ever".
This is what Our Lady Help of Christians is about and it reflects the character of its parish priest. Born in India of Portuguese-Indian parents, he came to this country in 1956. In turns a scientist, a musician, a theologian, teacher a linguist and canon lawyer, he is above all a pastor. For Fr Petto, the lessons of Don Bosco are paramount. In the great Salesian tradition he recognizes the crucial nature of youth development in the Church and the importance of building informal relations which encourage the faith. It is disappointing to him to mark the failure of his local deanery to appoint a fulltime youth development worker. The instruction of first communicants, the teaching of the children during the Sunday morning Mass and a holiday scheme for disadvantaged children are all run by the laity of the Parish. In Fr Ivor's own words if there had been more than just one priest working in the parish then the parishioners would have had a good excuse not to help themselves , but now they don't.
For the 400 or so parishioners who attend the Saturday vigil and Sunday morning Masses the message from the pulpit is one of enabling them to play a full part in the church's life. On asking for a photograph of the church for this article, Fr Petto is reluctant to give one because "a church should have people in it" and he has no such photograph. This is the basis of the liturgical approach in the parish which stresses the joyous nature of the celebration and the emphasis on the church as an enjoyable place to be. Music is paramount to the liturgy and the involvement of the parish in it is an indication of health.The ethnic diversity of the modern parish also has to be reflected and encouraged. At Pentecost last year he tells me that the first Reading was read in five languages.
Our discussion is punctuated by the constant daily chores of the modern parish priest. There is a cheque to be made out, a surprise party for one of the parishioners to be arranged, work to be organised. It is in the middle of one such break that I take the opportunity to spend some time in the church and marvel at its sparkling, marble altar which beckons the weary soul to come to a better place. Standing gazing at the lines of its salmon coloured marble, there is a sense to be had of the ultimate peace beyond the despair which the vivid crucifixion scene above the altar illustrates.
With Fr Petto again we discuss the news which has just broken of the £400 million investment to be made by Rover/BMW at its Cowley plant.
At last there may be some cause for optimism in a parish which has every right to be cynical. This is the abiding impression of pastor and parish, that things can change and that it is the quality of the input from everyone concerned which can make things better not the quantity. Fr Ivor's guiding principle throughout is the opportunity which challenge brings. When on pastoral duty in Co. Laois in Ireland in 1969, he was discouraged to find that RTE coverage would not carry the actual moon landing in the early hours of the morning. Undeterred, he calculated the wavelength of the BBC transmissions and built his own antenna to receive the historic event.
It is this sense of challenge which bursts from Our Lady Help of Christians and, as I made my way home from the parish, some of the rain clouds still hovering overhead somehow seemed a little less dark.