From Yorkshire, Hanna Hart writes about what it is to share in ministry to a changing landscape
At the southern end of the Diocese of Leeds, by the eastern edge of West Yorkshire, on the last of the rolling moors before the Lincolnshire plains, lies a small town called Hemsworth. Some 15 years ago, Fr Robert and I were called here to serve the people of the town, offer worship in the parish church, and raise our family in the red brick rectory next door.
– Now then, Father, said Gordon the churchwarden and retired butcher, as his wife put down her tea tray on the nesting tables.
– …are you a member of SSC?
Having shown us around town, the church and the rectory, Gordon had brought us back to his house to conduct the final interview before making his decision. Cath, his smiling wife, was kindly chatting away to me about how the smallest bedroom would make a lovely little nursery. In my confusion I managed not to spill my Yorkshire Tea on the spotless carpet but I failed to explain that the presumed pregnancy was just the result of an overindulgent Christmas Octave and a pair of ill-fitting trousers.
– Yes, said Fr R.
– Will you say daily mass for us, Father?
– Yes, said Fr R.
– Will you take us to Walsingham?
– Oh yes, said Fr R.
– Well then, Father… I don’t see any problems. When can you start?
As we drove out of town Fr R stopped in a lay-by on the Pontefract Road and dialled Wakefield diocesan office.
– Well, he said, we’re happy and the wardens are happy, so what’s next?
– We just need to organise the collation, said the archdeacon.
– Does the bishop not want to see me?
– Oh no, he says he knows you…, doesn’t he?
– Yes, Father, said Fr R.
We looked at each other in astonishment and set off towards the M62.
So, when the clergy lined up for the procession on a balmy Tuesday evening in June, the bishop looked around and noticed a few more birettas and spade-end stoles than he had anticipated. He was sure that the obliging youth of fresh complexion, who he knew as the errand boy to the secretary of the Liturgical Commission, would be just the right person to bring Hemsworth into the fold. After all, the young, married curate wore a pleasingly high collar with his jet black stock and had shown a keen interest in the liturgical arts and practices. The bishop took a second look at the order of service on the vesting press and there they were; those three offending little letters. He had never taken the time to notice the little gold cross on the lapel of the young man’s clerical suit.
– Robbie, said the bishop in disbelief, it says here that you are a member of SSC. Is that true?
– Yes, Father, said Fr R, as the bell tolled and the congregation rose for Lift High the Cross.
Hemsworth was once a prosperous mining town. Its young were educated in the grammar school and the boys sent down the pits in the surrounding villages, or to the head office if they were clever. The girls would go on to pack chocolates at Terry’s or work in the knicker factory before marrying at the church and giving birth at the cottage hospital where Nurse Haywood walked the corridors carrying three or four new-borns at a time in her ample bosom. The YMCA was full of the Boys Brigade and St Michael’s, the chapel of ease among the terraces had a thriving crowd of children whom Miss Howard, the Sunday school teacher, inspired to grow ever more faithful. Barnsley Road and Market Street were lined with shops, butchers and bakers, cafés and clubs. At Christmas Cooper’s grocery shop would send for bottles of champagne and luxury goods from Leeds or York and the children would want for nothing.
Now the mines are closed. The air is clear and the spoil heaps are green. The men no longer cough and their wives no longer worry. But with the colliery went both the salaries and the spirit. The high school lets out crowds of listless youths in ill-fitting uniforms. The factories are no more. The YMCA is quiet and the hospital long gone. The streets are dirty and the chippies and betting shop windows are grey and tatty. Teachers and doctors travel in from afar. Even the police station has closed. The only face everyone still knows, is the Rector’s. He still blesses and baptizes, marries and buries, and hallows the lives and times of the town.
North of the town square, on the top of Cross Hill, the small medieval parish church of Saint Helen digs its heels into the soil not to slip down the slope in the rain. It digs in its heels against decay and deprivation, against poverty and ugliness. The last standing historic walls in Hemsworth still house the living stones of the Church of God. On the outside it looks as grey and drab as all the other buildings, but when you walk through the doors something happens. It’s bright and lofty, it’s warm and full of life. There are colourful statues and images, glittering lights and fabrics. The beauty of heaven in a little snow globe reminding us of him who came to us from above, who came to show us the way to that beauty. And there are people inside. There’s Pam, the industrious verger who greets everyone with a smile and a kiss, and there’s John the sacristan and retired teacher. He spent his whole career teaching the children of Hemsworth in the church primary school. Between the two of them, what they don’t know isn’t worth knowing about Hemsworth and its inhabitants and parishioners.
One of them is ‘little’ Billy Cooper, the son of the late Mr Cooper, the grocer, who spent his life behind the counter of his father’s shop. To this day he will never be seen without a coat and tie. Now, he walks the mile into town from Archbishop Holgate Hospital – the almshouses where he resides – to get his daily bread from Tesco, and to attend mass. On his way home he stops to have a drink in the Working Men’s Club. He is small in stature. He smiles but rarely speaks. When he does, you need to be a third generation Hemsworthian to understand!
Patrick, the soft-spoken policeman, is usually there as well. He was prepared for confirmation a couple of years ago and now he marks the beginning or end of his shifts with morning or evening prayer or mass. Ever since he found himself in church one especially difficult day, his daily dealings with suffering and misery are now sustained by his Lord and Saviour. When work patterns stops him from attending on Sunday morning he sends a message and humbly asks to be given communion after Evensong. Sometimes he goes to mass elsewhere during holidays, but always comes back with a heartfelt Nay, Father, it wun’t like ‘ere!
Late one evening, a few weeks after the collation, the Rectory phone rang.
– Is Father there? He’d better come. It’s Eva, she’s not got long.
Miss Eva Howard, the beloved Sunday School teacher, lived in a nearby nursing home and now she needed the last rites. The Rector buttoned on his collar, put on his raincoat and picked up his sick communion kit. He ran across to church to bring the Blessed Sacrament and with his flat cap in this pocket set off on his first callout. Having not heard anything from the nursing home staff by lunchtime the next day, the Rector phoned up to see if he needed to start planning the funeral.
– Oh, nay Father, she’s sat up in bed eating fish and chips!
With just a soupçon of pride in his healing handicraft the Rector retold this to John, the sacristan, in the vestry while getting ready for the evening mass.
– Oh yes, laughed John, that’s our Eva! She’ll never die! Your predecessor gave her the viaticum a half a dozen times already!
The Rector kept visiting Eva often, giving her communion and getting a lot of inspiration in return. She had never stopped teaching the faith and encouraging everyone around her, even after Saint Michael’s closed and the children grew up, many of whom still come faithfully to mass and have brought their own families. Every time the Rector prayed with her in her nursing home room she added her own prayers of thanksgiving for the wonderful staff and praying by name for them and their families and any other resident who needed a special mention that week. When, after another couple of years and another half a dozen callouts, Eva was finally allowed to end her long ministry and go to the heavenly retirement home, the people of Hemsworth were all astonished that she had actually died.
But before long they were much less surprised when, after the longest human pregnancy ever known, I finally gave birth to our son, who still resides in what was the lovely little nursery in the smallest bedroom in the Rectory.