Our Lady Help of Christians,
Introduction. The parish of Our Lady Help of Christians began in 1873 and the present church was built in 1891. The parish is blessed with excellent facilities – a beautiful church, a large presbytery, a parish hall, a parish meeting room (the Angelus room), extensive properties (formerly used for the orphanage but now leased out for offices) and Park House which has served as the residence for the Bishop of the South East Area for many years. There is also a spacious garden and a good area for parking which is used during the week by the companies who rent office space. The property and the garden are well maintained and well used. The garden especially is used as an area where families meet after mass on Sundays, after special celebrations and during the summer and it serves as a play area for families. It includes goalposts, a slide, a small trampoline and in the summer a small swimming pool.
Whilst there has been no major housing development within the Blackheath parish in recent years some of the neighbouring parishes have seen extensive re-development eg Kidbrooke, Lewisham and Charlton. Under the leadership of Msgr. Nicholas the parish has, on the one hand maintained a strong sense of identity serving as a spiritual home for families and people who have lived in the Blackheath area and attended mass in Our Lady’s over many years, but has also created a warm welcome for many new families that have arrived in the area in the last decade. The result is that mass attendance on Sundays has increased since the last visitation eight years ago despite the fact that there now fewer masses at the weekend. In recent years there has been a significant increase in the number of young families attending the 9.30am Sunday morning mass with result that mass attendance now averages between 650 and 700 people every Sunday. The fact that Msgr. Nicholas is fluent in both French and Spanish has certainly attracted an increasing number of parents (especially from Spanish and French speaking countries) to the parish.
Our Lady’s is a very well organised parish where lay people take responsibility for parish activities and play a very active role in the leadership of the parish community. There is an active parish council, finance and property committee, an active justice and peace group and an excellent parish magazine. Since the last visitation the Sisters of St. Andrew have moved to their new home at 99 Belmont Hill and their ministry of providing retreats and opportunities to grow in prayer is much appreciated by parishioners. The parish has a very clear and robust safeguarding policy.
Sunday Liturgy. Parishioners are very aware of the importance of the Sunday Liturgy as the focal point for the parish community. There are now four Sunday masses in the church – the Saturday vigil mass at 6.30pm and the 9.30am and 11.00am morning masses as well as the 7.30pm evening mass. The mass attendance at all masses including the 7.30pm mass on Sunday is good.
Whilst each mass has it’s distinctive atmosphere parishioners do experience a very strong sense of welcome and belonging at all the Sunday masses. This is most obvious by the large percentage of young families with children attending the Sunday morning 9.30am mass. This sense of belonging is due in no small part to the welcome that Msgr. Nicholas extends to everyone and especially to the fact that they feel that he knows them personally. This welcoming atmosphere is helped by the availability of tea and coffee after the 9.30am mass on Sunday morning in the Angelus room and by a variety of parish social events including trips to Vallodolid.
Parishioners participate actively in all the liturgical ministries – as readers, servers and extra-ordinary ministers of the Eucharist – and are involved cleaning the church. Parishioners normally lead a Eucharistic service on Tuesday and Thursday mornings at 10.00am. The Liturgies of the Word for both the younger and older children at the 9.30am mass are well attended, well prepared and well organised. The Christmas ‘Mystery Plays’ are a special feature of Christmas at Our Lady’s as is the annual Advent Service and are good examples of how creative and prayerful liturgy can engage young and old alike. Likewise the music and the choirs at the 9.30am and the 11.00am Sunday masses deserve special mention both for the quality of the music and the numbers of adults and children involved. Both choirs contribute significantly to the sense of celebration and prayerfulness of the Liturgy.
Formation in Faith. The sacramental preparation programmes for Baptism, First Communion, Confirmation and Marriage function very well. The number of children presented for Baptism has risen in recent years and now averages over sixty per year. Msgr. Nicholas has for some years taken on the key role in preparing families for the Baptism of their children. The fact that he is able and willing to celebrate baptism in English, French and Spanish is very much appreciated by parents.
The number prepared for First Communion has in recent years risen to about forty. Confirmation takes place every second year and is led by an excellent team of lay people. A special feature of the parish is the very large number of couples who present themselves for marriage and who are prepared for the celebration of their marriage both in Our Lady’s (about 20) and overseas (about 20) every year. The time given by Msgr. Nicholas in accompanying these couples preparing for marriage is, I know, much appreciated by the couples. The parish also provides a number of other opportunities for adult parishioners to explore and grow in faith eg a parish library, parish retreats and in the past pilgrimages to Taize. The number of receptions into the church varies but usually averages about four or five every year.
The involvement of parents in the First Communion programme is also worth noting. The First Communion programme which consists of ten sessions (each lasting two hours and led by different teams of parents) takes place on Saturday morning. The programme itself is family centred and is aimed at engaging parents in the complete formation process – catechesis, liturgical celebration and family prayer. One of the suggestions I would make, however, is that one or two people be designated as the leaders with overall responsibility for the First Communion programme and for liaising with Catholic Formation Centre. This will be very important in maintaining continuity when the time comes for Msgr. Nicholas to retire and hand over to a new parish priest.
Reaching Out in Mission. There is a very strong sense of mission and outreach in Our Lady’s with the result that many parishioners are personally involved in and generously support a variety of charitable organisations and activities in the Church and the South London area eg CAFOD, the Manna Centre, the Deptford Churches Centre, helping the chaplaincy at HMP Bellmarsh. There is a very active, well informed and committed Justice and Peace group in the parish that raises awareness regarding a variety of issues to do with justice and peace.
Msgr. Nicholas leads by example when it comes to care for the elderly and the sick. Parishioners are very aware of and sensitive to the needs of the elderly, the sick and the disabled. Parishioners often go out of their way to bring people to mass. The pathway to the Angelus room provides excellent and easy access to the Church for anyone who is disabled or in a wheelchair. Within the parish boundaries lies Morden College – an institution established over 300 years ago dedicated to caring for the elderly and infirm. The College provides care for over 200 people of varying degrees of need on the Blackheath site alone. Fr. Malcolm King a priest of the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton is a resident in the College and celebrates mass every Saturday evening and brings communion to any residents who are unable to attend mass.
Another aspect of this communal parish outreach is the good relationship Our Lady’s has with other Churches in the area. There are a number of ecumenical services in Blackheath during the year and the Good Friday walk of witness and the Christmas Eve procession are important events not only for the Christian Churches in the village but for the whole community.
Resources: human, financial and material. The parish of Our Lady’s is blessed with many resources human, financial and spiritual. The required procedures for health and safety and safeguarding do seem to be in place eg there are signs and notices in the garden, the Angelus Room and the hall stressing the point that parents must responsible for their children. This applies especially when families are using the play area in the garden.
The number of highly qualified lay people is extremely high. Msgr. Nicholas and the parishioners have a strong sense of responsibility for the buildings and fabric of the parish and as a result all the properties are very well maintained. Our Lady’s is in a very strong financial position. This is due to the generosity of parishioners past and present, the significant income from rents but also to excellent stewardship of Msgr. Nicholas and the parish property and finance committee. Lay people are involved in carrying out an internal audit, coordinating the gift aid scheme, recording income and expenditure, paying bills, helping draw up a risk register. It is clear that any future parish priest of Our Lady’s will have to be a person of proven administrative and pastoral ability.
Msgr. Nicholas’ contribution to the Church at local, diocesan, national and international level over many years has been immense. He represents the Church and serves the Church as a trustee, a governor, a member of committees in different organisations, schools and Local Authorities. He brings to this work many years of experience, an expertise in administration, finances and investments and a network of relationships that is going to be very difficult to replace. Nevertheless, it would seem to me that at local, diocesan and national level we must initiate some form of succession planning and begin now to look for suitable people and put in place necessary training or mentoring so that this good work can continue into the future.
Conclusion. Our Lady’s is a strong and vibrant Catholic community with many young families but also a significant number of people who have lived in the parish for many years. Part of its appeal is the strong sense of belonging and inclusiveness that people experience in the parish especially at the Sunday Liturgy. Perhaps it’s strongest feature, however, is the way the parishioners take responsibility for all aspects of parish life – social and spiritual, practical and liturgical, mission and outreach. Msgr. Nicholas has over the years quietly encouraged and enabled the laity to use their many gifts in the service of the Church and so I extend my gratitude and that of the Archdiocese to him and all those who help in any way to make Our Lady’s the warm, welcoming and prayerful parish that it is.
___________________________ . Date. ______________.
Rt. Rev. Patrick Lynch SS.CC.