Wednesday 8 March 2017

Learning from St Joseph`s, Benwell

On Sunday evening I was delighted to entertain some old friends who used to work in Newcastle but now work in Berlin. They are Evangelicals and very involved in their local Lutheran church. On Sunday morning they had been for the Sunday service at St Joseph`s, Benwell, Newcastle. That may sound strange as Evangelical churches are not normally dedicated to St Joseph. You`ve probably guessed: St Joseph`s until recently was a Catholic church of the diocese of Hexham and Newcastle. In fact it still features on the Taking Stock website as a Catholic church. I`ve never been inside but had always thought it would be worth a visit one day but never made it. The design is unusual for a Catholic church in the North East with its large dome. On Sunday they were celebrating their first anniversary as an Evangelical place of worship. ( No mention of Lent on the service sheet.).

The last Catholic parish priest of St Joseph`s was Fr Jim O`Keefe. From what I heard the parishioners were told that their church needed urgent rewiring which would cost £40,000 and as they had no money it would have to close. It was sold to the Evangelicals for £1. Fr Jim has been leading our diocesan review Forward Together In Hope since then which has just concluded its three year review of the diocese, looking at how we manage decline. 

St Joseph`s, Benwell, as it now is

The Evangelicals were from Jesmond Parish Church which has long been a flourishing community. Technically they are part of the C of E but the links seem rather complicated. Nonetheless JPC set about planting a church in Benwell at St Joseph`s. They had already done this in Gateshead in St Wilfrid`s parish where they built on the work of an independent church in the Old Fold to create Holy Trinity parish where they have built a new church. My guests told me how one hundred or so members of JPC were sent to get St Joseph`s off the ground. They worked hard and by what they called `sacrificial giving` raised over £1 million to restore the building. Through hard work and professional skill motivated by faith they have made St Joseph`s into a flourishing community with a congregation of nearly three hundred.

Meanwhile FTIH seeks to review the Catholic situation in the North East. The talk is of building flourishing communities and supporting smaller communities. I suggest we have something to learn from JPC. I have a small parish in a challenging area of Gateshead in St Wilfrid`s parish. There the small congregation have been following closely the developments of FTIH worrying that they may be earmarked for closure. No closures were announced at the big meetings to conclude the process held on 9th February but the threat is still there. Could we ever imagine a large, prosperous Catholic parish such as St Charles, Gosforth or the cathedral sending a hundred parishioners to St Wilfrid`s every Sunday to help revive the parish and start `sacrificial giving`? They would have to start a programme of evangelisation which means we would have to know and love the Catholic faith and have a zeal to pass it on to others. That would mean absorbing the Catechism of the Catholic Church and using the means that have been produced to teach it in an appealing way. It seems unlikely at the present despite the efforts of the diocesan evangelisation team. The reported remarks of the new Superior General of the Jesuits about how he hates to hear talk of doctrine summed up the problem. All we seem to hear about is decline and the goal seems to be to remove priests from their role as pastors and reinvent them as chaplains to lay-led communities. I don`t understand how that will create flourishing Catholic communities. As I heard said at the last deanery meeting we are moving the deckchairs on the Titanic as the band strikes up "All are welcome".

If the Catholic church was a business seeking to promote itself (wait a minute though, the diocese of Hexham and Newcastle is now a limited company: that sounds like a business!) surely we would play to our strengths. What has the Catholic Church got to offer that is unique and appealing? Things like an unbroken tradition of teaching from the age of the apostles, having been the religion of this land down to the Reformation, timeless beauty in its architecture, art, music and liturgy, the lives of its saints come to mind. For my point of view promoting the appeal of the Mass of the Ages as found in the Extraordinary Form should be a major part of this. It`s not going to go away and despite the lack of promotion or even mention of it in diocesan circles the Extraordinary Form continues to attract. The congregation here at Gateshead continues to impress by its steady growth and the number of young people who attend. Our Ordinary Form Mass on a Sunday has benefited from immigration too with parishioners from Roumania, Hungary, Israel, Mexico, Nigeria, the Philippines, China, India, Slovakia, Poland and Germany. St Wilfrid`s does have a flourishing Sunday community of nearly two hundred people in the weekly Polish Mass.  They don`t seem to have been involved in the FTIH process but they are young and keen. We could learn from their enthusiasm to preserve their Catholic culture too. 

What JPC has done in Benwell surely has something we can learn from. I hope our Catholic communities will indeed flourish but they can only do so if they are well-formed in the faith as handed down from past generations.


  1. Father,

    You have summarised the thoughts of so many of us.

    Terry Middleton

  2. St Joseph's was my church when at St Joseph's School just across the road. The old tin church was my parent's church when they lived in Benwell. It was the parish of myself & my late wife when we lived in Benwell under (the never to be forgotten) Fr Milroy. It was a lovely church where I made my First Communion & was Confirmed. Then the sanctuary was splendid but later on it was enclosed from the church by a huge glass screen which rather spoiled the look. I haven't been in since it was sold by the diocese.
    As you say our Catholic communities will only flourish by the Faith handed down from past generations, certainly not (IMHO) the 'pap' they are fed today.

  3. It was clear at the outset that FTIH was doomed to failure. I was told by a priest 10 years ago that the clergy were being instructed on how to manage decline. No one can move forward simply in hope. Hope in what? Hope cannot be something in isolation, it has to be linked with the other two theological virtues of Faith and Charity. Unless the faithful are being taught the faith (in school and in church) and charity abounds towards all in this diocese then it will be a complete waste of time and effort. In fact it will be so ineffectual that it will be dispiriting and doomed to failure.
    The leaflet published at the start of this 'journey of renewal' was an indication of the shallowness of thinking. It began by saying that the diocese is founded on an immensely rich Christian heritage that has thrived and flourished over hundreds of years despite the many difficulties it has faced. This is true up to recent times. We are then informed that the number of priests in the diocese is reducing in number and over the past 40 years has fallen from 340 to just over 100 today. Attendance at Mass has also dropped significantly from about 100,000 to fewer than 40,000. After reading this litany of rapid decline we are then informed "As we move into the future we will continue to flourish although we will all need to think about our diocese in new and creative ways."
    Continue to flourish!!!!! The leaflet clearly sets out that the diocese is dying on its feet.

    Instead of instigating a three-year programme it would have been simpler, and quicker, and cheaper, to examine why the diocese had thrived and flourished over hundreds of years despite the many difficulties it has faced, and why such a disastrous decline set in about 40 years ago. The answer is blindingly obvious: the two foundation stones of Catholic doctrine and Catholic liturgy were jettisoned in favour of practices that have stripped the RE courses in schools of nearly all Catholic content, and have turned our parish churches into meeting places for the assembly (Good morning everyone, thank you for coming, have a nice day).
    Is it any wonder that our children leave school with no knowledge of the faith? Is it any wonder that Ushaw College has closed it doors because numbers declined so drastically? And is it any wonder that our parish churches are in rapid decline because the liturgy on offer is no longer worthy of the name Catholic?
    Our priests desperately need help as more and more work is being piled on to fewer of them. They need the help of younger priests coming through but where will we find them? Nothing will improve until the catechism is restored to our schools as the basic building brick of RE lessons. Nothing will improve until the liturgical abuses are rectified and standards imposed and Mass is celebrated according to the norms laid down. This would at least be a start in creating "a flourishing and viable worshipping community" as desired in the FTIH leaflet.

    Was it Einstein who said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? I do not question the good intentions of those promoting this FTIH initiative, I just happen to think it is completely the wrong approach because it is simply more of the same ideology which has had such a disastrous effect since 1970. "Open to change?" Not for me. We have had nothing else for 50 years and are now witnessing the wasteland this has brought about. Go back to what worked is the solution. It really is that simple and would be a start but it will take a great deal of soul searching among those who have been committed to, and driven the changes which have brought us to this sorry situation.

  4. The more I think about this, the more angry I become.
    St Joseph's was built in 1903 to serve a thriving Catholic population in the West End of the City. Like St Michael's, built by the "pennies of the poor". It was always an important church, not just for its fine appearance, but for a succession of renowned PPs - notably the famous Fr Milroy.

    I would have thought that such a decision, to flog off the church to Evangelical Anglicans, would have been of interest to more than just local parishioners, but to a much wider body of Catholics throughout the Diocese.

    Now, correct me if I am wrong, but I don't recall any mention of this in the Northern Cross. I know that churches are assets vested in the Diocese, but they are of interest to Catholics generally. But obviously the "pennies of the poor" aspect means absolutely nothing to those of our "leaders", who are looking at the bottom line of an account sheet. But even then - £1 !!

    What chance St Michael's?

    By the way, good luck to the Evangelicals.

    Terry Middleton

  5. sorry to read this
    Why not a policy of encouraging people to "keep Churches" warm through regular celebration of Morning / evening prayer adoration of Blessed Sacrament, Stations of the Cross etc

    and encouragement and training to catechise and visit the housebound ?

  6. The difference between Protestant sacrificial giving and Catholic sacrificial giving is ownernship, as has been clearly demonstrated in the last 50 years. My grandmother, along with many other parishioners who hadn't much to spare, walked for miles to collect
    pennies and halfpennies to give into the hands of Fr Costelloe (a saintly priest), to pay off the mortgage of St Patrick's, but Catholic churches ultimately belong to the diocese (in effect the bishop and his advisors) and therefore the laity have no stake in the future of the parish church. Hence, the "re-ordering" of Catholic churches by bishops, at HUGE cost, including the disposal of costly furnishings gifted by pious parishioners. Not so in the Protestant case, which is a completely lay-led organisation, and owned by them. They have a stake in their buildings; we do not.

    Pat Turnbull

    1. Pat, I think you hit the nail on the head. People have to feel ownership before they will make sacrifices. I can understand sacrificial giving for the FSSP or SSPX because you know what you will get. However in the diocese things can vary a lot and a new parish priest can take a parish down a very different path to the previous one.

  7. I'm an ex-pat of H and N and I was horrified when I read this. Although originally from 'south of the river' in Co Durham, I visited St Josephs many years ago and was staggered by its beauty. To read that it was given away for £1 is appalling.
    But hasn't something similar also happened to that lovely little Church in South Moor? St Mary's was built in the 1930s, I think, and it was the parish of my grandparents and, hence, my mother and her siblings. My one remaining aunt in her late 80's (also an ex-pat) is heart-broken that St Mary's has been closed and, presumably sold off for some sort of development. They had the decency (?) to dig up the two parish priests buried outside St Mary's (Fr Pickering and Fr Scriven) and re-house them at Stanley - but, in a sense, that only added to the anguish of my aunt. Like St Joseph's, there's been nothing about this in Northern Cross.
    What on earth is going on H and N? Where is the Faith? Where is the programme for encouraging vocations? I know there are some good priests like Fr Brown there still, who do sterling work. But I have serious doubts about those 'running the show' in H and N.
    Thankfully, where we live now, we are spoilt for choice in the availability of EF Masses and attend High Mass every Sunday and Holyday. Would that others were so fortunate. Thank God that Fr Brown is able to provide similar Mass at Joseph's in Gateshead. God bless your endeavours, Father.

  8. I had commented earlier (not published) on the subject of St Joseph's. as a boy I attended St Joseph's School opposite to the church & made my First Holy Communion there 7 was Confirmed there too. My parents lived in the parish as did my late wife & I.
    The church was under Fr Milroy & was the most unusual church in the diocese with its magnificent dome over the sanctuary. Later this was ruined by a glas screen cutting off the sanctuary. As fad as I can recall everything was done to retain the church by the parishioners including a Catholic club in the crypt to keep funds rolling in. As Terry Middleton has pointed out the present building replaced the old tin hut & was built by the pennies of the poor, including my parents. It was maintained by the parishioners for many years, including my family.
    There seems to be nothing in hand to protect what we have by way of buildings & Catholics & (IMHO) FTIH is going to plan for a much depleted Church instead of planning to RENEW the Church to the days when Catholics attended Mass & not just the 'social aspect' of the NO. This is so obvious if you walk into a church before & after a NO Mass & before & after an EF Mass. There is little, if any, respect for the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle & chat goes on to distraction.
    As has been said, the churches built by the pennies of the poor become simply an entry on the balance sheet of the diocese. God forgive those who make such decisions!!

    1. Sorry David. I thought I had published your first comment. As your new one makes extra points I have published them both.

  9. I'm appalled by my spelling mistakes - sorry!!

    1. And you an Old Cuthbertian! See Fr Cassidy immediately.

    2. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!! Can I see Fr Daley instead??????

  10. The situation at St Joseph’s in Benwell is simply the latest in the distressing events which have afflicted numerous parishes in this diocese since the late 1960s. In pursuit of an ideology completely foreign to the Catholic faith, beloved and beautiful sanctuaries erected for the holy Sacrifice of the Mass have been vandalised and replaced with soulless alcoves for the leader of the assembly. Protests from families who had spent their lives supporting their parishes were brushed aside and were told, in effect, to shut up and pay up for work that they fought against. The net result is that the disaffected just gave up and stopped attending, probably to be lost to the Church forever along with their dependants.
    Diocesan statistics show that the period from WWII up to the Second Vatican Council were ones of expansion and growth as new churches were being built up to the early 1960s. Mass attendance was rising, as were numbers of marriages, baptisms, confirmations, and all such indicators of healthy Catholic life. And then the liturgical ‘experts’ gained the ascendancy and started introducing changes supposedly in the name of Vatican II and the cause of ecumenism: centuries-old Catholic practices were jettisoned and replaced by Protestant ones. The priest had to turn around and face the people, altars were destroyed, the universal Latin was ditched, receiving holy Communion kneeling and on the tongue was virtually banned and replaced by the Protestant practice of receiving standing and in the hand. Female altar serving was introduced and the boys left in droves thus losing a potential source of vocations. Proven ‘Catholic’ RE books were jettisoned in favour of bland courses empty of any real spiritual content and as a consequence our children have not been taught the faith. It is inconceivable to sever the traditions of centuries, embark on a completely new venture, and expect life to continue with equilibrium. Life is simply not like that.

  11. Diocesan statistics show that since 1970 Sunday Mass attendance has dropped catastrophically and inexorably year on year from 120,000 to a paltry 33,464 in 2015 as the faithful have clearly rejected what has been forced upon them against their will. More than 86,000 souls in this diocese have been lost since these changes were introduced and yet we hear that we will move forward and continue to flourish!! Compare this with the diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, which really does have a blueprint for success [ ]. This diocese, with a Catholic population of only 97,000, has in 2015 and 2016 ordained 17 men in a 24 month period. There are 167 priests serving 134 parishes. There are 40 seminarians in the diocesan seminary. There is also a female religious seminary. There is no permanent diaconate in the diocese. Many schools are staffed by female religious and there are 141 sisters from 14 different orders. All schools have at least one priest on the staff and all newly-ordained priests can expect to teach high school for at least 5 years. Currently there are 48 priests and 37 sisters who are teaching. High school theology classes are taught only by priests and sisters. The diocese is the only one in the USA to maintain an altar serving policy of boys only and also has a policy of installed acolytes and lectors. Mass attendance is nearly 90%. The faithful receive under only one species. Lincoln has also avoided the hostility towards tradition that afflicts so many in authority. In the 1990s the then bishop invited the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter to establish a seminary in his diocese. A number of diocesan priests celebrate the traditional Mass and more are learning it, especially the younger ones. The seminarians from both the FSSP and the diocesan seminaries mingle freely together in exchange visits. The rector in the diocesan seminary offers the traditional Mass once a month for the seminarians and the current bishop and the retired bishop both offer the traditional Mass regularly. During Advent the bishop offers Sunday Mass ad orientem and encourages his priests to do likewise.
    The Forward Together in Hope leaflet states that “As part of this journey of renewal we will explore together what makes for a flourishing and viable worshipping community.” May I suggest that a pilgrimage to Lincoln diocese may be a good starting point. I have had the privilege of visiting this diocese on two occasions in recent years and it is a shining example of a Catholic diocese.


Anonymous comments will not be published. Please give yourself some kind of name at least.