Now, as I am back home at our friary in Manhattan, I am reflecting upon what I witnessed on my recent visit to my fellow Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in Bradford. They had asked me to join them not only to celebrate the feast of St Francis on October 4, but also the reopening and rededication of a church the following day.
From other visits, I was well familiar with the empty church of St Patrick adjacent to the St Pio Friary in the Westgate section of the city. The parish built by Irish immigrants was canonically suppressed in 2009, but both local clergy and the friars provided worshippers with one hour of Adoration and Confession, followed by Holy Mass. During my past visits to Bradford, I too had an opportunity of serving the few but faithful – let’s call them “the retired remnant”. Not only were they present every day, they were also praying every day – especially when it was rumoured that the friars wanted to “do something” with their now cold and empty church.
Curiously, it was the BBC that recorded the drama of these first hopeful stirrings in a wonderful documentary, From Bronx to Bradford. The film, released during Holy Week 2017 and viewed by more than a million people, put the friars and the abandoned church at Westgate in the national spotlight. I happened to be in England that week and had to get used to the honking car horns and “thumbs up” sign – offered by enthusiastic Muslim neighbours. Do view the video online and see how they captured the hope of the humble. You can’t help but admit, the Word of God is indeed very true: “The Lord hears the cry of the poor” (Psalm 34).
Diocesan archives tell us that the foundation stone was laid in 1852 by Bishop John Briggs, the church being dedicated to St Patrick and the Holy Spirit. Evidently the sale of the property for the building of a Catholic church raised the ire of much of Bradford’s population. After many years of robust parish life and countless confessions and Holy Communions, in 2009 the parish unceremoniously became a mission of the adjacent parish of St Joseph. In view of the diminishing numbers and the condition of the church, the doors of St Patrick’s were closed to the remaining faithful in 2012. They had to move next door to the presbytery, where their last refuge was a makeshift chapel just down the hall from the kitchen. Meanwhile, the pride of Bradford’s Catholic community stood silent and bereft – the only activity in the old church was peeling plaster.
However, in 2017, Bishop Marcus Stock of Leeds and the friars of St Pio Friary discovered that they shared a wonderful dream – making St Patrick’s not a mission of St Joseph’s but a mission to all of Bradford. Two years later, it was done.
On October 5, Bishop Marcus Stock of Leeds stood before a packed congregation to celebrate the opening Mass in the newly renovated St Patrick’s Mission Church. At the conclusion of the Mass, the jubilant bishop made it quite clear to all that the reopening of the church was not a “hearkening back to the past” but rather “a push into the future”. As I sat in the sanctuary filled with local clergy, I looked out and saw some familiar faces scattered in the dense crowd. There they were – teary-eyed but very happy – the “retired remnant”.
As I waited in the processional line before entering the church, my imagination took me back in time. No doubt, the momentous occasion of the church’s consecration in 1903, by the cardinal archbishop of Armagh, would have begun with a procession just like today. While the structure of the two processions would be the same, not so its composition. At the turn of the 20th century both the clergy and crowds would have been almost exclusively from Ireland. Not so the second: the 21st-century procession would include altar servers from Africa, religious from America and clergy from England. Evidently, relationships between churches have warmed more than a bit as our procession also included Dr Toby Howarth, the Anglican Bishop of Bradford. The dissimilarity between the two events was underscored by seeing the friars’ Muslim neighbour smiling ear to ear as he captured the mysterious but beautiful event on his phone.
Although the parish built by poor Irish immigrants is closed, the doors of the church are now wide open. It still has need of a few finishing touches and will need steady financial support; but already the “remnant” has not only increased in number but has also decreased in age. Rumour has it the friars of St Pio Friary have some wonderful events hidden up their tattered habit sleeves. These include extended times of Eucharistic Adoration, days and evenings of recollection, reconciliation and healing services, Scripture study, discipleship training and more. I wouldn’t be shocked if the docket included a Charismatic prayer meeting followed by an Extraordinary Form Mass.
The friars also hope their work of arousing spiritual renewal among the laity will spill over into an even greater outreach to the needy, not only in Westgate but right into the very heart of Bradford.
Fr Glenn Sudano is one of the founding members of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. He lives at St Joseph’s Friary in Manhattan