I’m seventy-seven today. It’s Sunday and I went to online Mass at St Pat’s at ten. Fr. Phil wished Happy Birthday to everyone who has one today. I have flowers and cards and John’s making a modest chocolate cake, so I’ll get a wish. To be honest, I can’t believe I’m still alive. Eric and Ella stopped by on their way to the park to give me their card and my birthday book – called ‘A Monster Calls’.
St. Pat’s is Our Lady and St. Patrick Roman Catholic church in Oldham. It’s a ‘gem church’. And it is. Fr. Phil knows I hover over it as a closet Catholic.
When I was eleven, I asked me Mam and Dad if I could become a Catholic. My friends and primary school playmates of many young days all went to the RC church on London Road and I used to wait at the entrance gate for them to come out – wondering about the mystery of Saturday evening confessions. My Dad didn’t mind one way or the other, but me Mam climbed up on to her Methodist wagon roots and said a firm No. So that was that. My first taste of anti-Catholic bigotry.
At fourteen, I was given permission to join the C of E and was duly confirmed in Blunham village church by the Bishop of St Albans. It’s amazing what ‘passing the scholarship’ can do for a mother.
And so it was that I stopped going to the C of E after my divorce years later, as divorcees were not welcome. Living on Langley Estate in North Manchester with my children Ria, Dom and Chris, I took to going back to a C of E church – All Saints & Martyrs – where I was lucky enough to get to know the curate, Fr. Alan Cooke. I used to ask him to read through my essays – part of my induction to the Y.M.C.A., my employer – in Manchester. He was always helpful and positive. We’d have a coffee and a few fags and a good natter. He’d visit us at home and loved my children.
When I married John in 1982 and came to live in Oldham, I lost touch with him. Yet lo and behold, some years later, glancing through church notices in the local paper, I found that St Mark’s C of E in Chadderton had a vicar called Fr. Alan Cooke!
I found the church, with vicarage alongside and walked up the path to the huge wooden front door – loving the climbing plants around the garden – and knocked. The door opened slowly and that familiar face smiled at me. He asked me in for a cuppa and showed me his front room, with two sofas, bookshelves and fireplace. Then to his kitchen, a minimalist, simple area to cook and eat. I recognised again the monastic qualities in the man.
From 1990 and for twenty five years or so, St. Mark’s was where I went to pray and contribute to it’s small community. There will be many people, dear Reader, who have never known the blessing of a good priest. Fr. Alan was much loved by local people. He walked in streets whenever he could, rather than take transport and was not short of the abuse some wretched souls save for the clergy.
I discovered his lively interest in the Arts – a lover of music and poetry and a man who could write and deliver a sermon which meant things to those people lucky enough to hear it. A Mancunian, born and raised in Droylsden and familiar with Rome, where he trained as a Roman Catholic priest at the English College for some time. After this came a decision to work for C of E.
He prepared Dom and Chris and Hinnie for confirmation and was there for us all when Dom died. He and his friend Fr. Paul Plumpton, led Dom’s funeral in 2011 and stayed close to us throughout.
Like me, he is retired now. He lives in Sliema, Malta. We write to each other from time to time and he probably meets up with old parishioners when their cruise ship docks in Valletta. He is happy there, with Fr. Paul and their adopted son Matthew.
I still miss his ministry. And I hover over St Pat’s and Fr. Phil because I still haven’t found the courage to become a Roman Catholic. It would be a treat to land in Malta, find Sliema and knock at his door again.