The knock on the door was followed by the shout above, shouted because the boy was halfway down the path on his way to next door. It was always boys who went ahead of the priest one each side of the road.
‘The priest’s coming’ would be relayed inside.
When I was a child the Friday afternoon collection helped fund parish activities, but my parents had been donating for decades and helped fund the building of the huge St Christopher’s church. Speke on the outskirts of Liverpool was one of the largest council estates in the UK, at one point I believe 20,000 people lived there. The estate was fairly evenly split between catholic and protestants. I guess the ‘knockers’ for the priest must have had a list of the Catholics with house numbers for each street because I can’t imagine our protestant neighbours would have reacted well to this announcement.
If my dad was at home he would get out of his chair and move toward the downstairs toilet, grabbing the newspaper on his way.
Mum’s “Where are you going?” as she scrabbled in the sideboard drawer for the little brown envelopes, was pointless and never answered. She made the quick decision on how many coins to drop inside, weighing the envelope in her hand before sealing it. It was never said, but as a kid, I could feel an air of resentment, she needed the money. With eight kids there weren’t many spare coins around. Of course, any resentment would never be spoken, like the dead, speaking ill of a priest shouldn’t happen. When Father Cunningham or Montgomery stood in the middle of the living room to ask everyone present if they were going to mass that Sunday, everyone said ‘yes father’. Although Father Montgomery was short with a round kind face and smiling eyes, there was something weird about another adult from outside the family taking centre stage in our living room.
It wasn’t just the money, I think my mam came to resent the moral judgements of these outsiders who knew what was going on in every house, in every family.
In later years the word among kids was that Father Cunningham was an alky. and was in the parish social club every night drinking our parent’s hard-earned contributions. True or not, he did become a regular in the club, his demeanour was altogether sharper often unshaven with dark piercing eyes and a gravelly voice. I served at mass for him, just once or twice. I think he liked me. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was my inquisitiveness. Religion was my favourite subject at one point and I found the bible stories fascinating. I volunteered with a few other boys one summer helping to do maintenance work at the youth club, to be fair Father Cunningham seemed much more open and friendly in those days. My summertime volunteering stopped shortly after I nearly cut another boys thumb off. We were clearing away a mound of earth that had somehow built up at the side of the club. I was digging breaking up the earth and he was scrabbling the muck away as I broke it with the spade. An enthusiastic plunge of the spade and suddenly there he was with his thumb hanging off and blood pouring out. The priest reacted quickly and I think the thumb was saved, but the DIY works were suspended.
The younger kids were sent to mass on a Sunday, masses were every hour from eight till eleven, the huge church with row upon row of pews was fairly crowded for each service, and although sent, most of us stopped going to Sunday mass around at the age of nine or ten. The hour would be spent in the park or the other end of the street and we would report which priest said the mass to Mum on our return. She never checked, and by the age of twelve or thirteen, the whole pretence was dropped. As we grew older it seemed the priest came less often and when he did we no longer lied about attending, instead of direct questions it became a hopeful appeal ‘to see you in church soon.’
Although my parents’ lives were framed by Catholicism, they attended church at different rates through different periods in their lives. The principles and traditions rather than the letter of church laws were followed. As I grew up and away, the priests became somewhat forlorn figures. Father Cunningham propping up the bar at the social club, and Father Monty’s ever more desperate appeals. I wonder if keeping the congregation’s secrets, and acting as the moral police of the estate wore these lonely men down? Church attendance dropped and the once vibrant building became increasing cold and empty, until many years later the decision was taken to demolish the church to save on heating bills. My mum wasn’t best pleased, ‘we paid for that place’ she would say ‘they had no right knocking it down without our permission.’
My parents are both dead now, no doubt Father Monty and Cunnigham are too, there were no scandals or crises in Speke that I am aware of, just a thinning out of the congregation and faith over time until the huge fortress-like structure that was the centre of our catholic life was demolished. It has since been replaced by a much smaller construction, no doubt easier to keep warm.
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