A Jesuit farewell
IN THE EARLY 19TH century, the steps of St Mary's swept down to the quayside; the elegance of the classical facade a dramatic backdrop to the labour of stevedore, fisherman and sailor. In 1896, the quays were covered over, the cobbles and harbour walls a distant memory. Today, the church maintains an imposing urban presence, to cast a cold stone eye over the rumble of traffic on Colston Avenue.
I arrive in a week of mixed emotions. The departure of the Jesuits from Brist al, after more than 200 years, has just been announced; they will leave in September. The departure is inevitable: in 1963 there were 997 Jesuits in this Province, today numbers are down to 340 only 40 priests are under the age of 65.
The Jesuits first came to Bristol in 1 790 and established the Chapel of St Joseph. St Mary's was built originally in 1840 by the Irvingites, an early Pentecostal group. This community went bankrupt and the Bishop stepped in to purchase the church for the Catholic diocese. In 1861, the Jesuits were asked to take over the parish, their chapel became the parish school,
One hundred years on, the parish has effectively `disappeared', with the parishioners dispersed to outlying areas of the city, but the spirit of St Mary's remains. Over 500 people attend Mass here on Sunday and the weekday lunchtime Mass is popular and well attended.
Parishes run by orders have an indefinable quality; the spirit and ethos of the founding fathers pervades their work. St Mary's, as an inner city church, has touched the lives of many people in Bristol. Confession is very important here. Parish priest Fr Claudio Rossi and Frs David Kay and Oswald Earle explain the unique nature of Jesuit practice. "The Jesuits undertake a special training and examination for hearing confession Ad Auds. People relate to that, they are entitled to skilful treatment. I think many people prefer the anonymity of a parish that is not their own."
Fr Rossi leads the way through to the church; we dodge the speeding traffic on Colston Avenue "for a better view". His enthusiasm and halianate zest for life are infectious; his passion is art. "There's a French term, pritre marquee, for someone who aspires to be a priest. I guess that makes me a prate artiste," he laughs. We admire the classical proportions of St Mary's but have a sneaking regard for the fine art deco building next door.
Tie has fought his own battles with the modernists and has reintroduced "angels and saints" to the church. He rails against the destruction of Catholic iconography: "In the last 30 years we have built so many ugly churches. We have torn down images loved by the laity in the name of progress. In such a visual age it is madness to see such destruction. I long for an age of renewal. I am in complete agreement with Mgr Peter Elliot; we need to bring the sacred back to the litany."
This grand building retains an intimate scale. Impossibly high ceilings, golden Corinthian columns, a wide and generous space do not detract from the prayerfulness and quiet solitude.
Vines and grapes, silver against a powder blue background, sweep the sanctuary wall, in contrast with the rich red and polished wood of the stepped floor. A carved canopy of blue and ivory, marble and alabaster centres the High Altar. Engraved above the tabernacle is a pelican spreading golden wings: "Legend says the pelican fed its young by pecking its own breast. In Medieval times this became an important symbol for Christ and the Eucharist".
Golden angels adorn the reredos. A previous parish priest had removed them. "I found one in a junk shop," says Fr Rossi. "We had it copied; the angels were restored on Christmas night 1991." The church is open throughout the week for daily exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. Do they have problems with vandalism? Fr Rossi shakes his head: "Not really, I like to think that our angels keep watch".
Candles flicker in the soft shadows of the Sacred Heart Chapel; the air is cool and fragrant with flowers. To the far side is the Lady Chapel a sunlit, dappled space. Our Lady's cloak is decorated with the stars of heaven; painted side panels of azure and gold complement vases of deep blue iris and pale oriental lilies.
Statues of St Ignatius and St Anne decorate the corners. The figure of Our Lady's mother is stylised, crafted in the naive art tradition; a small jar of bright yellow daisies have been placed at her feet. She is the Saint of married women desiring children and links the church back to pre-Reformation times; from 1250 to 1539 there was a chapel and Holy Well dedicated to St Anne in the woods of Brislington.
Michael Clark, part of the Eric Gill movement, sculptured the stone statue of St Joseph. It is a strikingly strong figure, simple in design and form but conveying a great humanity and quiet strength. He is very much the carpenter, the working man's saint.
Fr Rossi grew up in Port Elizabeth, in South Africa. When the Jesuits leave Bristol he will go on sabbatical to Rome and then to his homeland. He hasn't been back for over 13 years. "I grew up in the worst period of apartheid," he says. "Black aspirations were derided as a communist threat. Until the 1960's the Catholic Church went along with this. It was the missionaries who helped and the Anglicans Trevor Huddlestone and the Jews Helen Suzmann and Helen Joseph who were very brave".
His eight years at Bristol have been years of hope and optimism. "Two things have profoundly touched my life as a priest: the charismatic movement the importance of the Holy Spirit in our lives and the intercession of Our Lady." He has been to Medjugorje eight times; initial scepticism has been replaced with a deep belief and commitment.
'We could get very depressed about our world and the way society is going but I have this profound belief that God, through Our Lady, will bring us out of this spiritual and moral crisis. She will show us the way forward. To see the people at Medjugorje, the many, many young people, you just know that God is at work that there is a greater plan. Remember Jesus is the Lord of history; it is His world".