Monday, 15 August 2011

Ite, Missa Est

On this blog, in which posts are mostly triggered by distant memories of childhood, I've not written in any meaningful way about the role of religion in my upbringing. For a Pole, religion by default means Roman Catholicism, wherever he may be brought up in exile. Though theologians dare not call it so, Polish Catholicism is a very specific sub-set of the Church of Rome, with its Black Madonnas (Mario Królowo korony polskiej, módl się za nami) and national martyrology ("Boże, coś Polskę...").

My own childhood, however, was tinged with Catholicism but not the mainstream Polish sort. By virtue of the fact that we lived much closer to the (Irish) Catholic parish of St. Joseph the Worker than to the Polish church (Św. Andrzeja Boboli in Hammersmith), my family would alternate between the two, so my childhood view of Catholicism diverges from the usual Polish UK emigre experience. My First Holy Communion was at St Joseph's, the catechism book I learnt my prayers from was in English (well do I remember the colour illustrations of biblical stories); I was instructed by English-speaking (Irish) nuns. Yet my brother was christened at Andrzeja Boboli. I shall no doubt past again about the specifics of the Polish parish.

Above: I'm getting a signed reproduction of Leonardo's Last Supper as a souvenir of my First Holy Communion. Hanwell, spring, 1965.

The old St. Joseph's church reeked of incense. It was dark; its nooks and crannies filled with statues of saints, and of Jesus baring his exposed heart to one and all, or nailed, bleeding, to a cross - quite scary for a small child. Outside of Mass, the church resonated with silence; one's footsteps echoed around it. Votive candles burned on black cast-iron framed holders that could accommodate 30 or so candles ('small candles 3d, large candles 6d'); when all were ablaze, they gave off much heat and light (pleasant on winter afternoons).

Above: not County Limerick, nor a suburb of Dublin - this is Hanwell, 1965. Note the hats, the clothes, the advert for Sunblest Bread, a branch of Halford Ltd, the sunshine. That's me in the foreground (face turned away from camera).

It was demolished and replaced by a new modern-style building in 1967. I remember when it was a building site, grey concrete pillars and scaffolding; I remember the first Masses in the new church.

In my childhood, Mass was said in Latin in both churches, which made me feel that the Catholic Church was one great, universal religion, and not splintered by nationalist divisions. "Dominus vobiscum" the priests, Irish or Polish, would intone. "Et cum spirito tuo", the faithful would respond. I still recall much of the Latin mass, and in a way am sorry that it has gone, a layer of mysticism and magic stripped away in a global trend of dumbing down.

By 1969, when I started at Gunnersbury Roman Catholic Grammar School for Boys, Mass was said in the vernacular. Father Gilligan and Father Doyle would celebrate Mass and Benediction in English. Months later, we moved to West Ealing, to worship at the Polish Catholic Centre (POK) on Courtfield Gardens. And here, Mass would be said in Polish.

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