January 26 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


The Catholics of Corby: there’s more to the English town than a trouser press

In his latest pilgrimage series, ROSS AHLFELD finds a Coatbridge native in Corby and looks at the Scottish connections to the town, and its links with a saintly campaign in Glasgow - By ROSS AHLFELD

Like most of us, I often seek good counsel from our clergy and I can often hear one particular priest’s wise words in my head every time I’m engaged in any type of Justice and Peace work. Even now, the priest’s advice rings in my ears, reminding me of the fact that involvement in things like geo-politics, eco-theology and mission statements are all well and good, but don’t overlook the faithful quietly carrying out pastoral works of mercy in parishes all over the country.

Specifically, he always encouraged me to be open to seeing the small but vital acts charity happening all around me, especially those being carried out by the well established and perhaps less glamorous, parish associations, such as the SSVP, Legion of Mary and the Knights of St Columba.

I’m eternally grateful to this priest, as without his firm guidance I might never have noticed one of the most profoundly beautiful but small and often overlooked moments during Mass.

For example, at a parish nearby (and I’m sure in your area too) there are wonderful people from the Legion of Mary and other lay associations, who after Holy Communion, go quietly and almost unnoticed to the side of the altar to receive the host, which they then take out to the housebound and infirm of our parishes.

One particular Eucharistic minister takes the host from the priest and clasps the small pouch tightly with both hands, holding it with deep reverence, as if it were a precious jewel in the palm of her hand and she then carries Jesus from the tabernacle and into the homes of our brothers and sisters.

Every Sunday, as this little moment of beauty is played out, I think on the theologian Dietrich Von Hilledebrand who describes as the Eucharist being a ‘source of grace emanating into the world.’ Most of all, I think on the hymn to our patron Ninian of Galloway; ‘Born of our Scottish race, God led thee forth by grace to find in Rome, that pearly so richly priced, that faultless creed of Christ, and bear it home.’

It’s not all comfort and warm feelings though: I’m also challenged by this sacred act and it often does us good to feel some discomfort.

Specifically, I’m challenged by the thought of these faithful servants of the Church continuing to do God’s work, long after the Mass has ended, in and out of houses and up and down closes late into the Sunday afternoon

Meanwhile, I’m at my Mum’s munching a slice and tattie scone roll, watching the football and endlessly debating politics with my brother and my dad. Equally, I’m slightly discomforted by the thought that these holy ladies are good enough to carry out one of the most important ministries in the Church but they cannot consecrate the Eucharist beforehand.

Yes, of course I understand and accept all hermeneutics and theological reasons for why this is the case and perhaps this is a discussion for another day. Yet I have to be truthful and say that I remain nonetheless, challenged by the reality of their devotion, and gladly so.

Similarly, it’s not just the Legion quietly carrying out these wonderful work of mercy—the exact same can be said of another well established (and often overlooked) parish institution: the good old Knights of St Columba! I recently made a flying visit to the town of Corby in Northampton, at the kind invitation of from the Knights in Corby.

I know what you’re probably thinking; the post-industrial town of Corby isn’t the first place which springs to mind when discerning holy places to go on pilgrimage to. Yet it’s not all about grand cathedrals and relics. As the 12th century Franciscan friar Thomas of Celano once wrote “God alone is the ultimate destination, so that all things should sing of pilgrimage and exile.”

Perhaps when you hear the name Corby you think of the famous Corby trousers press you used to get in most hotel rooms alongside the Holy Bible. Fact: the Corby trouser press isn’t manufactured in Corby.

Despite the prosaic images Corby may conjure up, there is a lot more to the town that you might think.

For example, Corby is home to a huge Scottish diaspora. As Coatbridge-born Damian Reilly from the Knights of St Columba in Corby tells me, many Scots came here in the 1960s for the steel works which once employed 28,000 people. As such, Irn Bru sales are high in Corby, there are Rangers and Celtic supporters clubs and even such a thing as the ‘Corby accent’ which apparently has more than a hint of Glaswegian about it.

Quite a few Scots have played for the local non-league side ‘Corby Town FC’ too, the most famous being the Rangers legend Eric Caldow, who had a short spell as player-manager in the 60s. In fact, when my uncle was captain of the Scottish juvenile team, they once toured and played Corby Town in a pre-season friendly. He says Corby had just as many Scots in their team as Scotland and the Corby side hammered them.

Sadly, the steel works went into decline in the early 80s alongside the rest of our heavy industries all across the UK. The closure of the steelworks was a massive blow to the town and an especially hard blow for all the Scots who’d moved there in the 60s to work in the industry.

That deep sense of loss experienced by the Scots of Corby in those difficult years is captured perfectly in a song about Corby by the Scottish rock band Big County called Steel Town: “I came here with all my friends; Leaving alone in a flood of tears; We built it all with our own hands; But who could know we built on sand; But now it’s barren all to soon; Out of the yards and dry docks; The call of the steel that would never stop; There was a refuge for those who dared.”

The story of the Scots in Corby is one we can all relate to, I certainly can. Many years ago, I worked in a job centre and I would often encounter once proud tradesmen in their 60s who had retrained in the 1980s to work in the electronics industry after the shipyards eventually all shut down. Now unemployed yet again, these highly skilled workers were being ‘retrained’ for call centre work.

At the time I used to get infuriated with government officials who described these men as ‘unskilled workers.’ In doing so, they placed the blame for their joblessness on the workers themselves, rather than the irrational cycle of the capitalist system.

To be honest, I still get infuriated by politicians who espouse this kind of rubbish and all of us Catholics should too. Especially since, according to our Catholic social teaching, individuals are not to be treated as disposable commodities; despite the fact that our endless boom and bust economy constantly devalues the human dignity of all. Fortunately, there are always those like the SSVP who are always ready to pick up the pieces and discreetly support families’ experiencing the hardship of unemployment.

The good news is that the town has now regenerated and is thriving again! More so, Corby is a place where another hidden precious pearl of the Faith is being preserved.

Mr Reilly tells me that the Knights are sharing the story of the St John Ogilvie Statue Campaign and are raising funds for the campaign alongside the parishioners of St John Ogilvie Church and the other three Catholic churches in Corby. A while back, the Knights of St Columba in Corby even gave a presentation at St John Ogilvie Church on the aims and progress of the campaign.

To my mind, there is no better expression of true community and faithfulness to tradition than the Knights and the good folks of Corby’s support for the campaign for a public memorial to our great saint in Glasgow.

Yet, as the Ogilvie campaign continues to moves forward, I have to say that my family, friends and I are also backing another campaign to erect a statue to honour a very different Glasgow born hero of the Scottish Catholic community. The Gorbals born, flyweight world champion boxer Benny Lynch is perhaps a fallen and deeply flawed hero but Mr Lynch is a hero nonetheless. In my opinion, it is quite right that there is a campaign to erect a statue of Benny in the city, alongside St John Ogilvie. Mr Lynch was loved by the people. My grandfather and my great uncle Benny saw Lynch box at the old Kursaal in Gourock in 1935. Apparently they had queued for hours to make sure they got in and people were turned away.

Perhaps, for every pound we give to the St John Ogilvie campaign we might also consider giving a pound to the campaign for a statue of Benny Lynch too. Or perhaps you might even want to give to the campaign for the statue commemorating the Great Famine?

Whatever you do, try to look out for all those little hidden pearls all around us and pray for all those quietly preserving a precious jewel somewhere in the Church and in society, especially those within the more traditional parish groups. Groups like the ‘Knights’ in Corby who are preserving the memory of St John Ogilvie and Scotland, and the Legion of Mary and the SSVP in all our parishes. Try and seek out these hidden lights in this often dark world, or, as the late, great Big Country frontman Stuart Adamson once sang: “Like a flower in the desert, like a garden in the forest that the world has never seen.”

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