An historic Preston church is enjoying a new lease of life 10 months after it was shut down. But while Indian Catholics now worship at St Ignatius, locals have taken their campaign for an English Mass all the way to the Vatican. Brian Ellis reports.
As the priest who led his flock into the heart of a bitter ecclesiastical squabble, Fr Matthew Choorapoikayil is doing his best to play peacemaker.
While local Catholics claim they have been unceremoniously thrown out of their own church, Fr Matthew celebrates Mass there twice every Sunday for a 250-strong Indian congregation aware their presence is more than a little controversial.
Preston’s Syro-Malabar community is the first in Europe to have its own church.
But while the locals are happy to embrace their eastern cousins and genuinely wish them well, the fact that St Ignatius Church is open again for business, yet still seemingly out of bounds to them, remains a thorny issue, one which has gone all the way to the Vatican.
“I don’t want to have a conflict or break anything,” said Fr Matthew in the sparsely decorated sitting room of the Presbytery he now calls home.
“They are welcome here – all are welcome to our services. I have talked to them, I know some of them. But I am not the person to solve their problems.
“The pastoral care of the local people is up to the parish priests of the different parishes nearby.”
Only a handful of the locals have tried the Syro-Malabar Mass in the six months since Fr Matthew’s church began renting St Ignatius. But language issues mean it is unlikely to become a permanent arrangement – at least for the foreseeable future.
Some have asked why, if the historic building is now open again, can they not return for an English Mass in between the two Indian services at 9am and 5.30pm on a Sunday?
Fr Matthew insists that is an issue to be decided by the Diocese, not its tenants who are just happy to finally have a home after a nomadic life sharing premises with other churches.
The community has been expanding in Preston since 2000 due to an influx of Syro-Malabar Catholics recruited to work in the city’s main hospital. They have previously been lodgers at St Ignatius, St Joseph’s and St Maria Goretti.
“The Bishop of Lancaster has given us a base for our community here at St Ignatius and we are very grateful to him and to Canon Tony Walsh who is the parish priest,” said Fr Matthew.
“In some ways it is us supporting each other because the church has to be kept as a worshipping place and we were looking for our own space.
“The local parishioners are happy that we are using the church. It has not gone out from Catholic Christian worship.
“But I am not the one to make any decision about that [locals having their own English service]. We are not the people to answer that question. We are renting the building and that is all.”
St Ignatius, which has been used for worship for almost 180 years, was controversially shut by the Diocese last December as part of a re-organisation of the Catholic church in central Preston. Falling attendances and a shortage of priests were two reasons cited for the closure.
Less than a month later the head of the Syro-Malabar Church, Major Archbishop George Alencherry, approached Bishop Michael Campbell to enquire about using the building as a base. Agreement was reached and the community took up its tenancy in April.
For the past 10 months local parishioners, angry at being dispersed to different churches by the closure, have been fighting to return, even appealing for Papal intervention. But, until now, they have assumed the door was firmly closed to them.
Fr Matthew, while not in a position to offer them their own services again, admits the future may not be quite as bleak as it seems.
He insists the church is open to everyone for prayer and worship. And the language barrier may not be insurmountable forever.
The Syro-Malabar Church, he says, is contemplating converting its services to English to help the younger members of its congregation, many of whom were born here in the UK.
“Eventually we may also use English as our liturgical language,” he revealed. “The new generation we have are not very fluent in our mother tongue, so they are used to the English language.
“It is still a separate rite, but at the same time it is a Catholic rite. So they [the locals] may come then, although I can’t say how long that will be.”
St Ignatius was packed to the rafters recently when Archbishop Alencherry and Bishop Campbell marked the official opening with a special Mass. It was a colourful occasion and Fr Matthew described it as “an historical moment for our church.”
In the congregation were a number of the locals who had not set foot inside St Ignatius since in December.
“The local parishioners are happy that we are using the church,” said Fr Matthew. “Many were here and were enlightened by the decoration that we had and the procession that we had.
“This is the first church base for us in the whole country, in fact the whole of Europe. Prior to this we have always shared church premises. Now we have our own space and the congregation are very happy.”
But he insisted he had no knowledge of what caused the closure of St Ignatius last year. “All events have personal costs,” he said. “Any movement of the church will affect people.”
Yet for those affected by closure last December the fight goes on. Letters have been exchanged with the Vatican and one prominent campaigner revealed: “We are happy for the Syro-Malabar community. They are lovely people and we are delighted they have found a home at last.
“But we won’t rest until we are allowed back into our church.