My flock at the edge of the world

Fr Hugh with parishioners on the Falklands

When having my hair cut, I like the barber to get on with the job and let me go home as quickly as possible. So it’s always a trial when they say “What do you do for a living?” You know this is the opening to polite chit-chat.

When I was asked the question recently, I said: “I am the Apostolic Administrator of the Falkland Islands and the Superior of the Ecclesial Mission sui juris of St Helena, Tristan da Cunha and Ascension Island.” A bit cruel perhaps, but the poor man was stunned into silence. Bliss!

Last October I was entrusted with the pastoral care of the British Overseas Territories in the South Atlantic. The area covers around a sixth of the surface of the earth – 99.8 per cent of that is water, but the larger bits of land all have Catholic communities striving to live the Gospel in far-flung places. Living in the UK, my task then is to ensure the communities are cared for and to visit them at least once a year. This is no easy thing to do. To get to St Helena or Tristan da Cunha takes a six-day voyage from Cape Town. So far I have spent time on the Falklands, Ascension and St Helena. In September I will make my first visit to Tristan da Cunha.

The numbers of people involved are relatively small. In the parishes which our community serves in Chelmsford, there are more people at weekday Mass than attend the parishes on those islands. Still, each soul is precious. When I travel to the islands, I keep in mind the heartening words of Our Lord: “For where there are two or three gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

The Falkland Islands are perhaps the most well known of these territories, sadly in large part due to the invasion 35 years ago. The parish is cared for by Fr John Wisdom, a priest from our Norbertine Priory. He initially went out there to look after the parish for six weeks. Two years later, he is still there. The parish has a beautiful church which features on most postcards from the islands. On top of his parish duties, Fr John is building a good relationship with the garrison at Mount Pleasant.

Ascension Island is an extraordinary place. It is a volcanic rock in the middle of the ocean, but at the centre of the island is a lush green mountain. The outskirts of the island look like a lunar landscape, and then the centre is a little paradise. The chapel is a grotto located on the American airbase. It is looked after, although when I arrived to say the first Mass there in a very long time, I had to empty the chapel of some wandering goats, and clean up the little offerings they had left behind.

Ascension Island (Photo: Hugh Allan)

Directly opposite the chapel is the entrance to a lava tube – good for sermons on heaven and hell, I suppose. When I arrived on the island, I was told there were only a few Catholics around. After a few days, I had discovered a couple of dozen, and managed to book a baptism and a wedding for my return visit.

St Helena is famous as the “prison” for Napoleon after his defeat at Waterloo, and it is certainly a captivating place. There hasn’t been a resident priest on St Helena for many years, but the church is lovingly cared for by the local community.

It takes forever to make a simple trip into the centre of town – everyone enjoys having a little chat. When I arrived, I was told that one of the ministers of a church in Jamestown was disliked because he never waved at people when driving around. This led to me waving at everyone I met. I probably looked like a maniac, but it led to many good conversations about Jesus and the faith.

Thank God, from September they will have a new parish priest. Please pray for Fr David Musgrave, a Schoenstatt Father, who has volunteered to minister on the island.

Tristan da Cunha is my next island to visit. There are 263 inhabitants. About half are Anglican and half are Catholic. The parish is looked after by three catechists but each year a priest travels to be there for the month of September. The island is, of course, an active volcano. As one parishioner said to me in a recent email: “When you live on a volcano, it is not a good idea to be an atheist.”

For the people I met in these communities, God is someone immediately connected to their lives. The remoteness of the place seems to open their hearts more to the presence of God. On St Helena, despite the prolonged absence of a priest, I met so many incredibly kind and loving souls.

Talking about God and their faith was not awkward or difficult. One man greeted me every day by saying “God is alive.” Of course, the islanders all face difficulties, but there is a kindness and calmness that radiates Resurrection joy.

The author visiting the Falkland Islands

We are in the process of setting up a charity based in Britain to support the work of the prefecture. We are also looking for priests willing to spend three weeks on one of the islands, allowing the clergy there to take some time away and visit their families. Above all, we need prayers for the good people serving the Lord in varied ways here.

My first year as Apostolic Administrator has allowed me a glimpse into the lives of the people whom it is now my privilege to serve. On these islands, God is alive.

This article first appeared in the August 18 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here