How immigration has led to the rebirth of the Catholic Church

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ENGLISH churches have been worrying about plummeting attendance figures for years. But in a rapidly developing Peterborough, in which about 100 languages are spoken, foreign workers, asylum seekers and refugees have seen the city's Catholic church go from strength to strength. Jemma Walton reports.

ENGLISH churches have been worrying about plummeting attendance figures for years. But in a

rapidly developing Peterborough, in which about 100 languages are spoken, foreign workers, asylum seekers and refugees have seen the city's Catholic church go from strength to strength. Jemma Walton reports.ASH Wednesday is one of the busiest times in the Christian calendar. And yet, around the country, vicars would be lucky to see more than a few members of their flock make time to come to a service.

But this is far from the case qt Peterborough's St Peter and All Souls' Church, in Geneva Street. The church's 10am Ash Wednesday Mass was packed to the rafters, standing room only.

Catholics of every age, colour and nationality stood alongside Peterborough-born believers to listen to the words of Father David Jennings, who is in charge of the church during a period of huge expansion.

The church is currently in the middle of what might be called a boom period. Peterborough's Catholic church was built in 1896 to hold 200 people. Fifteen years ago the number of people regularly coming to Mass was about 700. The figure is now closer to 1,450.

This is because St Peter and All Souls is enjoying a rebirth. The influx of Poles, Lithuanians and Latvians which the city experienced when the European Union expanded in 2004 all hail from fiercely Catholic countries.

In Poland, for example, up to 95 per cent of the population are church-attending Catholics.

And this isn't just happening in our city.

A report from the Von Hugel Institute at Cambridge University suggested that Roman Catholicism is set to become the dominant religion in Britain for the first time since Henry VIII's Reformation because of massive migration from Catholic countries across the world.

As the church's priest, Father David is, for many of the newcomers to the city, the first port of call.

A tall, charming 49-year-old with a joke and kind word for everyone – and a wicked twinkle in his eye – he is currently in his fourth year here. He previously spent five years in a middle-class, Vicar of Dibley-ish parish in Norfolk.

"The difference was a bit of a shock at first," he smiled. "But what Peterborough is going through at the moment is nothing new.

"If you look into it, the history of the city over the past 100 years is tied up with migration. At the turn of 19th century, Irish Catholics came to the city, followed by Belgium refugees during the First World War.

"Post-1945 we had Italians and Polish people coming in, and then it settled down until about six years ago when the European Union expanded. Since then we have seen an influx of Polish people, Lithuanians, Slovakians, Latvians, Czechs and one or two Russians.

"As well as this, we have had two groups of Catholics from India. The first are from Kerala, the second are from North India – Daman and Dui, an old Portuguese territory.

"After the Second World War, there is one reason why people come here: in search of a better life."

The wide range of languages spoken in church has led Father David to organise Masses in different languages.

At the moment, the church's Father Piotr Redlinski conducts three Masses in Polish a week, Father Petrus Tverijonas comes from London to lead a Lithuanian Mass once a month, Father Benny comes from Northampton to lead Syro Malabar rite (Indian) Mass once a month, and Father Tony Philpot leads a Portuguese Mass on the second Saturday of each month.

On top of this, Hoan Minh Nguyen – better known as Father John Minh – helps out. He was born in Vietnam during the war. He came to St Peter and All Souls for a pastoral placement in 1996, and was ordained here in 1999. After almost four years at a parish in Cambridge, he was transferred back to St Peter and All Souls, and has been Father David's right-hand man ever since.

As to why Catholicism is so strong in the immigrant communities, but has been on the wane in the UK, Father David said: "If you look at a country such as Poland, it has suffered a Nazi invasion followed by Communism in the 20th century alone.

"The Catholic Church is the only constant they have had in their lives, offering a clear anti-Nazi, anti-Communist moral stance."

The Von Hugel report claimed that the Catholic church was the first place many immigrants headed for when they found themselves in difficulty, which, in Father David's experience, is true.

He said: "There are a number of challenges facing us as far as immigrant Catholics are concerned. First, many of them arrive expecting work to be ready for them. We have to introduce them to the methodology of finding work.

"Second, we try to see that they are not getting ripped off in England, that justice is done and they are paid the minimum wage and aren't exploited by landlords.

"And it's very important that we don't maintain a ghetto, and that they integrate with the community around them. Most do, but they want to become part of English life without losing their own cultural identity."

He added that his church had strong links with the Home Office-funded new arrivals centre, New Link, in Lincoln Road.

Father David said that most foreigners enrich the parishes they join, and brought a wealth of experience and diversity. They also bring their own customs, which he describes as "joyful".

He said: "Czech people have a custom of pinching a baby's bottom when the priest pours water over its head when it's being baptised, to make it cry.

"I think it's to do with chasing evil out with the baptisement. And Polish people bless their Easter eggs. Different customs like that are interesting, lovely."

The church is set to expand even further in September, when the Fletton-based Italian Mission is due to close, with the Italian Catholics who currently worship there joining the Geneva Street church. This will swell Father David's congregation from 1,450 to almost 1,800.

He said: "The biggest challenge we are facing is that the church was built to hold a couple of hundred people, and is now bursting at the seams. We are overwhelmed with children – we've got 150 preparing for their first Communion at the moment.

"We're looking at developing accommodation at the back of the west end."

Father David sees his church as very much at the centre of the city. "Fifty years ago, the Catholic Church was only interested in itself," he said. "But now we are very involved with all of the issues affecting the city, including, of course, migration."

Father Tony learnt the language

FATHER Tony Philpot spent nine years in sunny Rome, but retired to Bretton and now carries out Portuguese Mass once a month.

He worked as the spiritual director of of the English National Seminary, a training college for new priests, for nine years, and when he reached retirement age was offered a home by the Catholic church in Bretton.

He said: "I realised that there were a lot of Portuguese immigrants in East Anglia, but the church was having difficulties finding a Portuguese-speaking priest to look after them.

"I thought that was a job I could do in retirement, and so spent a year studying the language, and a month in a Portuguese parish last summer. But I don't speak the language all that well."

Father Tony also speaks French, Italian and Spanish, and helps at other catholic churches in the area when they need him. Peterborough is the only city in which he holds Portuguese Masses, which have been running for the past three months, and attract about 60 people.

He said: "I think the Polish community is having the biggest affect on the Catholic Church in East Anglia. They are very traditional churchgoers, whereas not all of the Portuguese people are churchgoers, and many of them have to work difficult hours."

Prayers from across world

DESPITE two years of medical school, Pole Babara Kiepura couldn't find a job that put her talents to best use.

She heard from a friend of a friend that there were better opportunities in Peterborough, and came here three years ago. The 25-year-old now works at the Clair Francis Retirement Home, and attends St Peter and All Souls.

She said: "My parents took me to church and I find it helpful in my life. I enjoy coming here because it is more cheerful than at home, more open.

"There are a lot of nationalities here, and that makes it easier to fit in. We all talk to each other and get along very well."

Babara is just one of the many foreign faces currently brightening up St Peter and All Souls, one of the hundred or so people who went to the Ash Wednesday 10am Mass.

Recruitment office worker Savio Noronha (33) has been in the city for five years, and lives in Buckle Street with Rosetta Brown and son Aidan (2). He hails from India, but is


He said he came to Peterborough in search of a better future, and took time off work to attend the Mass.

"I come along to all the services, and particularly enjoy the ones held in Portuguese once a month," he said. "It's a joyful, lively place and we are lucky to have found it.

Father David makes everyone laugh.

"It's nice to be Catholic. I had a very good family who showed me how to live a good life, and I've always been religious."

Fidelia Ajifowobage (45), from Stanground, came from Nigeria to Peterborough four years ago and is a care worker. She said: "You know that wherever you go in the world, the doctrine of the Catholic Church is the same.

"I go to the Polish Mass and I can't understand what is being said, but I can follow the service because I can follow the sequence. I like doing that, and I like meeting new people from different countries."