In my blog on St Michael, I suggested that you may like to remember how things were in 1959 ..... and then I remembered that a lot of people wouldn't be able to remember 1959 because they weren't around at that time. So here are some of my memories.
I was ordained in July 1959, and I was sent as a curate to a new parish at Pennywell, Sunderland. The church, St Anne's, was newly built, quite utilitarian. At first, no presbytery: parish priest, housekeeper and curate all lived in a semi half a mile from the church. The area had some nice houses, but in the main the parish comprised of several housing estates. But each Sunday the church was full - - three Masses each Sunday morning. We even had to arrange extra seating down the side aisles. The same was true in just about all the other parishes in Sunderland: churches were full each Sunday, new parishes were being created and the faith was booming. Yet sometime in the early '80's, I attended an official reopening of St Anne's after it had been remodelled. The sanctuary had been extended into the main part of the church, to get the forward-facing altar closer to the congregation because there was so much emptiness in the church due to a decreased congregation.
I went from Pennywell to a similar sort of parish, North Kenton, in Newcastle in 1965. A big church with a large and regular congregation. Just about this time the Second Vatican Council was well under way and changes in the liturgy were beginning to happen. The very first change was the insertion of the name of St Joseph in the Communicantes! But I was enthusiastic for all the changes, and can remember parading up and down the centre aisle of the church encouraging the congregation to sing up, sometimes to the sound of a twanging guitar! I even scripted a sort of docudrama about the Vatican Council. However, I should make it clear that the lay-people were not enthusiastic for the changes and saw no need for them, for the most part; it was the bishop and the clergy, in obedience, who drove things along. The church at Kenton was still full when I left in 1971 to go to Consett. The parish of St Patrick's Consett, led by Father 'Sam' Hardy, was unbelievable: the crowds in church even during the week, the endless Confessions, the processions round the town, the Benedictions! This knocked most of the Modernism from my system! Then in 1978 to St Patrick's Ryhope Sunderland, with an average Sunday congregation of almost 600 out of twelve to thirteen hundred parishioners. By 2001, when I left, the numbers had dropped to about 400 each Sunday. The latest figures I have now are down to 200. In 2001 I came to Barnard Castle, and whilst I cannot speak from experience about church-going twenty years ago, when the sanctuary was remodelled several benches were removed from the front of the church and the altar-space moved forward.
Until the bishops and other church authorities accept that the Church 50 years ago was a strong and confident Church, although with some faults, then we will have great difficulty in bringing the Church back to that state.
In my next post, I will deal with the official statistics of the diocese for the same period.