Too near the fire
ON A BITTER JANUARY afternoon, the train cut through flat, cold countryside: brown fields, ploughed bare, scorched with frost; frozen streams with shiny coats of thin, black ice and the stubbled, hurled tracery of ancient trees, stark silhouettes against a cold, teal sky. Black crows stalked the furrows like sentinels, surveying their wintry domain with a beady eye. Everywhere a cold, grey aching emptiness. It was a landscape worthy of Ibsen.
In Cambridge, the snow was falling soft and feathery, frosting the war memorial on Hills Road. The wind gusted in short, sharp, arctic blasts, taking your breath and stinging your eyes. Pushing open the church door, it takes a few seconds to adjust from the cold to the quiet, warm darkness within. Pale candles flicker, the scent of polished wood, glimpses of curled gilt, iron and carved stone.
Our Lady & The English Martyrs was built in 1890 in classic neo-Gothic style. It is a grand and elegant structure but bears witness to an angry past.
Cambridge in the 16th century was a focus for Lutheran thinking, seceding to Protestantism more rapidly than anywhere else in the country. The area had strong trading links with Germany and the Netherlands and the 'new' theories and teachings had a profound influence. In time the University became the main centre for the training and teaching of Protestant doctrine.
The only place in the county to maintain the 'ancient faith' was Sawston Hall; the chapel here, in effect, is the 'Mother Church' to Our Lady's. Repeated efforts to establish a mission were thwarted. In 1804, Lady Jerningham, a Norfolk recusant, wrote to Lady Bettingfield: `I do not think Cambridge a place for a Catholick priest, it is sitting too near the fire'.
In March 1841, Fr Bernard Shanley arrived from Paris to minister to the spiritual needs of Irish harvesters. He decided to build his community a church and a site was finally acquired in Union Road. There was open hostility from other religious bodies: "The Church of Rome is actively engaged in disseminating her pernicious superstitions," railed a local vicar. Bigoted crowds attacked the site. Records show that on 5 November 1841, a large body of students assembled to tear up the foundations but retreated "at the prospect of an encounter with a body of burly Irishmen". The church survived.
As the congregation grew, a larger and 'worthier' church was needed. Canon Scott, Vicar General of the Diocese, instigated the purchase of a new and prominent site and secured funding from a generous benefactor Yolande Marie Louise Lyne-Stephens, who had enjoyed an illustrious career as the leading French ballerina of her day. She married the wealthiest commoner in England and endured the social ostracism and hypocrisy of Victorian England critical of her 'stage' connections. As a wealthy widow she determined to give her money to good causes and on the Feast of the Assumption 1884 promised to build the church. Her Pontifical Requiem Mass would be sung here 10 years later.
Yolande's church is beautiful. An intricate wrought iron screen separates the ante-chapel from the apse; stained glass and painting commemorates the English martyrs; amongst them, St John Fisher, the learned and pious Chancellor of the University. A rood screen supports Christ, depicted as the Eternal High Priest, Our Lady and St John; beyond, angels in adoration climb towards the apex of the baldechino. A modern altar has been brought forward but the high altar remains; the tabernacle clothed in gold. Polished oak box pews march towards the altar rail.
It is a church of interesting corners and perspectives. Quiet side chapels with flickering candles and holy pictures, ancient statues; the warmth of the oak floor and the cold step of terracotta, ivory and black tiles. Above all it is dignified, prayerful and peaceful. "This is a house of prayer," says assistant priest Fr David Jennings, "There is never a moment when there are not people coming in to pray."
Fr Jennings has been in Cambridge for three years. He enjoys the "unique" nature of the parish there are 8 Masses over the weekend, including services in Latin, Italian and Polish: "We have all the social conventions of a cosmopolitan parish," he says. "The parish is transient with visiting language students, people doing doctorates from other countries and medical students from overseas training at Addenbrooks. It is changing all the time. It is our task to give people a share of the community and make them feel at home."
Our Lady's attracts a large number of young people, especially for the 5 pm Sunday Folk Mass. Fr Jennings is heartened by their enthusiasm: "A Lutheran Minister came to Our Lady's to preach on Unity Sunday. He was amazed at the number of young people at Mass. We value very much the contribution they make to the parish."
He is adamant that the Church must be flexible: "Christ spoke to everyone. No one was excluded. I don't believe it when they say religion is dead. Sometimes we just have to speak a common language. It's just a question of communication. To see young people's thirst for God in this University City is very inspiring. The challenge is to meet their needs."
Together Fr Jennings and Mgr Tony Rogers, the parish priest, have responsibility for all parochial duties. But Our Lady's is also home periodically to priests studying at the University. It is a busy parish and the schedule, especially with the number of weekend Masses, can be hectic. Fr Jennings laughs: "We have here, what we call 'Holy Hour', watching 'Star Trek', when we are not to.be disturbed!".
A supportive Pastoral Parish Council and a responsive laity help: "The age of the laity is upon us. There is a generosity of spirit here that we can tap into". That sense of community, vital to the spiritual and material well being of a parish, begins with the family: "If a child is not valued early on how can he begin to value later? The Church builds on that goodwill and the Gospel makes it real."
Fr Jennings is keen to involve parents in their children's religious life: "This is not just something they are observing; it is something they are part of." He fees strongly that, in turn, children should not be excluded from the ritual and ceremony of the Church: "Children are great perceivers of truth. Death is part of life and at whatever age, children perceive it on their own level. They should be allowed to attend a funeral in the same way they are an integral part of a marriage ceremony, a baptism or a confirmation."
His cosy study has a distinct feel of 'academia'. Barley coloured walls, a gas fire set in an old wooden surround, a framed print of the Pope, a caricature of Fr Jennings with a slightly `punIty' haircut and books icons, Michelangelo and scripture. In the distance church bells pealed and children ran out into the cold winter afternoon, laughing and shouting as the snow drifted silently past the long window.
He proudly shows me a framed photograph of his two young nephews who live in Canada: "He's absolutely lethal," he laughs pointing to an impish face. "I broke my collarbone last summer, chasing them playing tag in the garden." Fr Jennings is a natural with children who relate to his enthusiasm and kind, open manner. I ask if it is hard today, with abuse stories dominating the headlines, for a priest to relate to his parishioners. He pauses: "I think you have to know yourself very well. Remember, people are a moment of grace. In every human being we encounter Christ".