Old Days in an Old Church

I remember well the old days in the early 1950s in Manchester as a Catholic.  Half the population seemed to be of that ilk.  The Church was the centre of our lives, not the alternative add-on it is today.  Then the Church was the centre of  our lives, everything revolved round it and we lived our lives through it.  We were all totally God fearing, poor, but we seemed to have a mighty spirit and generosity.  Everything seemed to be shared and we enjoyed living our strictly controlled secular lives.  There seemed to be no sullenness around as there appears today.  The parish priest was treated like God and in our case it was Fr. (later Canon) Vincent O’Shaughnessy, a large Irishman, and the parish priest of St. Robert’s, Longsight from 1938-1961 and the bane of all who could not conduct themselves well.  He was a demagogue, haranguing and ordering the poor parishioners like Winston Churchill did to the nation during the war, but they felt better for it, it was of its time, and anyway he always had a string of curates willing to go out of their way to calm the souls of the afflicted with their clerical version of the good cop/bad cop routine.

Five masses every Sunday and they were all packed to the door, four masses every weekday, Confessions on a Wednesday and Saturday nights with the church full of waiting and shuffling people.  There was always Benediction on a Thursday night and Sunday afternoon, except in Lent when the Stations of the Cross took over. There were retreat weeks and Rosaries galore and at Easter and Christmas we virtually lived at the church.  The priests must have been busy men, I know I was and I was just an altarboy, from the age of seven until I resigned my position at 16 to study for examinations.

If parochial life was not enough, my mother, who had been brought up in solidly Catholic North Manchester used to take me and my brother  back to her old stamping grounds to view the  churches built mainly by the post famine Irish immigrants in the mid 19th century.  We never went anywhere with her without visiting a shrine, a convent or a church.

Every Easter time we did the Seven Churches, starting at the Italian church of St. Michael’s in Ancoats, on to St. Brigid’s in Bradford, and from there to Corpus Christie Church on Varley St. Miles Platting, St. Patrick’s on Livesey St. in Collyhurst, St. Edmond’s in Harpurhey, St. Malachy’s just off Rochdale Road and finally a good walk across to St. Chads on Cheetham Hill Road, the parish for whom my grandfather carried the banner at the Whit Walks for years. That was some walk for a six to ten year old, especially when we said a decade of the rosary at each church.  It used to take the best part of a day.

I have great recollection of the Whit Friday Walks, it was the highlight of the Catholic year, this was the biggest expression of faith our beleagured religion allowed us.  Being in St. Robert’s parish, we were outside the Pale so to speak, as it was at this time only the inner city parishes that were allowed to take part.  (These were the original parishes of the town and they had been celebrating the Walks since 1846.)  We, the Catholics, had Whit Friday, whilst the Protestants who had been celebrating this feast longer, had Whit Monday.  Lancashire always played Yorkshire at cricket and Manchester Races at the Irwell track took up most of the week.  What a Feast. The processions were held in high esteem by everyone, and it was thought of as the St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York is today.

All the parishioners involved would congregate at their parish churches early in the morning of Whit Friday and walk in procession to Albert Square.  My mother and her twin could have walked with Corpus Christi but chose to watch from the steps of the Wesleyan chapel on Mount St.  An ecumenical statement if there ever was one.  We used to catch the 85 bus from the Co-op on Slade Lane at about 8.00am that morning, meeting up on the steps with my Aunty Kath and cousins and other women and children of our aquaintance.  We brought our own little stool and flags.

The excitement as the hour approached, with the noise of the various bands warming up in the Square, was something else.  Each parish always had one band, some had two.  There were brass bands, pipe bands, fife and drum bands, all guaranteed to make you stand proud.  The bishop set off first with the high ranking clergy of the diocese, wearing top hats,  bowlers, and sashes, similar to the Orange marches but without the menace. The Bishop’s party set the pace for all the parishes with the vibrant hymn Faith of our Fathers being bellowed out by everyone; last out was St. Michael’s with its large contingent of Italians and 20 or 30 men carrying a massive statue of the Madonna on a large dais surrounded by thousands of lilies.

Each parish had contingents of priests, altarboys, guides, cubs, scouts, women’s guild’s and men’s confraternities.  Then the sound of the McSweeney Piper’s came out of the Square playing The Wearing of the Green and these massive kilted men in the black and green of the Terence McSweeney Pipe Band complete with great big bearskin hats, came marching past with their leader tossing his staff in the air, giving St. Patrick’s parish pride of place in the procession.  This band was named after Terence McSweeney, the heroic Lord Mayor of Cork, who was captured by British forces in 1920 and was incarcerated in Brixton Prison.  He went on hunger strike because of not being treated as a prisoner of war but as a common criminal.  He lasted 74 days before dying in September 1920.

Each parish had the better of the others in some shape or form.  One parish had a bigger contingent of women; another had a greater collection of priests, this was normally Corpus Christi with their Norbertine monks, but the Jesuits of the Holy Name vied with them on this matter.  The Holy Name men’s society was always the largest, hundreds of men in overcoats and hats, some twirling umbrellas, marching past, their army training during the war standing some of them in great stead.  They were led by a brass band and they certainly put on a show of manly vigour.  My father and my Uncle John always marched with this cohort.  The last parish, St. Michaels, always came out of the Square with a band and every body singing,

O Mary we crown thee

With blossoms today

Queen of the angels

And Queen of the May

What a day!  Each parish had their own special pubs to go to when the Walks ended in Piccadilly Gardens.  We used to go looking for my dad and uncle John.  The twin sisters went inside whilst Kevin, my cousins and I stood outside drinking lemonade.  The day was rounded off for the men folk with a trip down to the races in Salford.  You were mighty glad to be Catholic, Mancunian and Irish.

What a change to the defensive stance the Church is taking today, with bishops meeting in bunkers in Maynooth and the Murphy Report on everybody’s lips.  By the way I reccommend that everyone reads the Murphy report, it is long but by no means boring and can be read on line if you click here and click on Part 1 and then Part 2.  It is even more gruesome than you can imagine.

A different Church in different times, alas.

4 thoughts on “Old Days in an Old Church

  1. Oh what memories – I walked the last 3 years that the Walks existed when St Roberts finally joined in the procession, my friends and I led the womens section and the Chief Constable and the Bishop taking the ” salute” at Piccadilly/Portland Street, were heard to remark, ” my my !! look at those hats” !!!!!

  2. I was interested to read this post. I’m doing some family tree research, and my Great Great Grandfather, William Baker, used to lead the Whit Walks from St Chad’s Church, Cheetham Hill, then when he died in 1873 his son (also called William) carried on the tradition until he died in 1940. I’ve got a newspaper clipping from when the younger William Baker died. Apparently he and one of is brothers helped to found the church choir at Corpus Christi in the late 1800s. My Great Great Grandfather was apparently the oldest cotton waste dealer in Manchester when he died in 1873.

    1. Thanks Carolyn for your comment. Just think, my grandfather and your great grandfather would probably have known each other 100 years ago. What stories they would now be able to tell.

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