Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Landmark Closes: My final visit to St Peter & Pauls Church, Wallasey - September 2008

The green-domed church at the top of Atherton Street, in Wallasey, is a major landmark in Merseyside, a prominent sight for those approaching or leaving by ship. For me, it represented a different kind of landmark, in my childhood. When it was announced, following much rumour and a long campaign, that this would definitely close on August 17th 2008 (bar a wedding later in August), I determined to visit this for one last occasion.

Much ambivalence surrounded this visit. My Mother was (and is) a Roman Catholic, from a family that was so rigidly Catholic that her own mother was reluctant to talk to people who were Protestants. Marrying my father, who was CofE, she talked about this as a “mixed marriage”, and some of his family had opposed it for a time. It did matter more in the 1930s and 1940s, when separate education was a critical issue, and when the founding of the Irish Free State, explicitly Catholic, was a recent event. For my grandparents, it was important to identify themselves as Irish in some way. However, my grandmother was born in 1890 in Barnstaple in Devon, as her father was a customs officer), and my grandfather some years earlier in Liverpool. My sister, the family genealogist made one amusing discovery – that it was likely that one of them was descended from Irish Protestants…happily a long time after both had died. But the divisions, and the identity, were strong. My father collected rents in parts of Liverpool Walton in the 1950s, and recalled asking one tenant if she or he knew a tenant in the adjacent street. The reply was that they never went into that street, because its inhabitants were of the opposite religion. It was only slum clearance in the 1960s that scattered “communities” that were in fact extremely divided and exclusive; I recall reading in the 1960s about a Protestant Party that had council seats, and indeed this party won its last seat in 1973 before it was dissolved and absorbed into the Conservative Party.

As a boy, I was told that I was a Roman Catholic, and attended the relatively modern churches at English Martyrs (which my Mother still attends, and where she reads the lesson), and the later one in Leasowe Road. Sometimes, we went to St Peters & Pauls, partly so that we could visit my other (Protestant) grandparents, who lived in Wellington Road. This was much more ostentatious, built in 1935, and bigger than some cathedrals. Despite confirmation, I had given up my involvement with the Church by the age of 18, and have since moved into a different religious affiliation; both my weddings were conducted in register offices. My differences with the Catholic Church are many and continuing, but these are not for discussion here. My concern is my feelings over the loss of a personal landmark.

My sisters had been married in the Leasowe Road church in 1981 and 1982, and I had attended English Martyrs for my grandmothers funeral in 1974. I had returned in 2002, to attend a requiem Mass for my first wife – an odd occasion which again belongs in another essay. My previous visit to St Peters & Pauls had been to my cousin’s wedding there, about 1979. When in 2006 , it seemed to be under threat of closure, I photographed the exterior, but on 5th July 2008 it was announced that the church doors would close on Sunday August 17th (when I would be away), and this presented a final chance to photograph the interior.

It had not really occurred to me that I would be re-visiting the church service as well as the church, until I was inside the building. It seemed inappropriate to walk in, camera in hand, at the end of the service, and so I walked in and sat on the one of the same wooden pews that I had sat as a child. On the way in, a group had handed out what I assumed to be an order of service, but which was in fact a letter of protest. It would be odd to watch the priest come in at the front of the church in the knowledge that protests were being made at the back.

I had read that the whole place was falling down, with estimates of over £1 million to repair it, yet, apart from signs of a leaking roof, it seemed in better order than it had been in the 1960s and 1970s. It was odd to sit there and see that the space itself, and its embellishment, had not changed. Somehow I had thought that the whole place could be in ruins.

I could recall services being in Latin, before this was set aside after the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. Sadly, the service in English held little meaning for me now, but it brought back memories of endless chanting and responses. I remembered an elderly priest droning on with sermons that I could not hear through the amplification. The present priest, however, made a short sermon that could be heard, in a familiar Merseyside accent – something that I did not recall from the rather prissy priests that I encountered in childhood. His sermon made sense, simply expressing the conclusion, from a short New Testament passage, that God is nearest when people are still rather than manifested in storms. This was closer to my current religious affiliation, and I would ponder this when I attended a very different service two hours later. I was not sure what the reaction would be if I was to relate what a Catholic priest had stressed, so I was to keep quiet.

Sadly, the service mostly raised memories of the sheer boredom of childhood, sitting hoping the whole thing would end. I did note the grilles in the floor of the centre aisle – still there, of course – and wondering whether anyone ever dropped money down them. Then, in a departure from my previous experience, almost the whole congregation queued up to go to the altar for communion. These included wafers and wine – the latter something I would have had to refuse, as I am strictly temperance. In my childhood, however, you could only attend communion if you had previously been to confession, which involved a small lone child telling a single man about all the sins that he had committed. I remain glad that this practice has been set aside.

After the service, I gingerly waited for most of the church to clear, and took a few digital photographs. I expected someone to object, but then noted that someone else was taking photographs, so took some more. And then I walked out, for the final time, with a gathering sense of loss. I have photographed many places that might disappear, or even when the bulldozers were already on site, but this represented more than just architecture. The inability to return to that building, to rekindle the contact enabled by that last visit, reminded me of the finality of much loss. More importantly than my sense of loss, my Mother later told me that, attending the nearby convent, she was there when the foundation stone was laid and when the church opened in 1935. And she was there, later on in the month, the night before it closed. It holds a very different meaning for me, but I can sympathize.

The affairs of the Roman Catholic Church should really be of no concern for me. It could also be said that the buildings with which it is encumbered do not represent the religious message and the pastoral care that a church should provide for its members. I have been involved in other churches in which the buildings seemed like expensive millstones, getting in the way of the religion that they supposedly housed, and a more radical view of the purpose of religion is more likely to attract my sympathy. With falling numbers of priests (one priest now services three churches), falling congregations, and shifts in personal and social morality, the Church has more to contend with than buildings that were developed for a different approach to church authority, involvement and liturgy. The lack of democracy has upset many local Catholics, although autocracy is the principle on which the Church operates. And yet – I cannot help feeling that for many people, another part of their past has been uprooted, another partial sense of homelessness has been evoked. I feel this visiting many churches – their congregations and buildings represent some kind of community that could and should exist, not for the reproduction of arcane religious principles, or for domination and repression, but for the benefits that community and belonging, at their best, can bring. Ironically, the Church facilities are to be shared with the nearby CofE church, All Saints. My father’s funeral was conducted there, with my Mother’s approval. This is, happily, a far cry from the kinds of division between Catholic and Protestant that characterized many parts of Merseyside.

My wife Sara said tonight that to stay in the same place, to walk through the same park, along the same streets, and indeed visit the same church (had my religious views not changed), might be seen as failing to progress. In many ways I agree. Both my parents, born in the 1920s, lived in Wallasey all their lives, as did my first wife. So many landmarks from my earlier years have disappeared – the cinemas, the Victoria and Grand Hotels, the Tower, both Piers, both open-air swimming pools and the theatres. My old primary school is round the corner from where I live, as is English Martyrs Church. The removal of landmarks has hardly taken away facilities or features for which I cared; indeed in some cases, these represented places that I despised. The loss is of places that might have held meaning, for the landmarks that could have existed and could have provided a sense of belonging. To leave Wallasey would be to make a new start, but to regret the loss of an obscure potential. Such, perhaps, is the ambivalence of space that we could inhabit but can no longer.

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