November 16 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Gourock Rocks: the small town that illustrates our Catholic education heritage

As Gourock prepares to celebrate 100 years of Catholic education with the opening of the new St Ninian’s Primary, Ross Ahlfeld finds much to admire in his home town, and the men and women who have helped maintain a proud Faith there.

IT has been suggested that St Ninian’s in Gourock may have been one of the few parishes in Scotland which might have had some sort of school before it even had a Church building. According to the official parish records, the school came later, yet this interesting claim has often been repeated and relayed to our current parish priest Fr Gerry McNellis on more than one occasion. Fr McNellis is himself, a self-confessed staunch Portonian who swears blind that Port Glasgow is so important that the town features prominently in the Old Testament—and yet even he was impressed by this fact about our parish.

It is also a little known fact that Fr McNellis’s earliest predecessor and first resident priest at St Ninian’s was a Welshman from St Asaph called Fr David Morris. I like this wee fact because one of my favourite poets is Dylan Thomas and one of my favourite films is John Ford’s sentimental masterpiece How Green Was My Valley. The iconic scene in which the miners sing ‘Bread of Heaven’ perfectly captures the interconnection between landscapes, class, community and Christianity. Yet perhaps we should not be so quick to make the association between place, belonging and Christianity.

For example, some theologians believe that we Christians must resist from forming strong emotional attachments to the places where we dwell. We are, after all, supposed to be resident aliens, called out from among them, to be a people set apart. To a certain extent, I too buy into this idea and yet at other times I feel more like the Rev Jenkins from Under Milk Wood, written by Dylan Thomas, who dearly loves his little town but admits, ‘I know there are Towns lovelier than ours.’

I happen to believe that the universal truths of all humanity are to be found in the ordinary lives of ordinary folks in small towns and communities all over the world.

Similarly, Rudy Wiebe writes about life growing up in a remote Mennonite community in Saskatchewan: “Small as it may be, write your own place, write your own people.”

In the same way, our famed Orcadian Catholic poet, George Mackay Brown has been described as a man who loved just one island, drawing his inspiration from the lives lived in and around the narrow lanes of Stromness.

For my part, Gourock is the entire world. My parish in the town consists of Irish Land Leaguers, lads of St Ninian’s who died during the Second World War, Poles, Italians, Gaelic speaking Highlanders, and German and Welsh priests all coming together as the body of Christ.

It has much to teach us today. Indeed, I believe that the history of our congregation provides a microcosm for the entire Catholic restoration in Scotland.

The story of our community begins in 1880 when St Ninian’s Church was formally dedicated along with a day school roll of 47 children and by 1910 a school building had been built. The building which was the old school house is now our social club where I like to watch the football and enjoy a pint with my good mate Hugh O’Donnell. Interestingly, Martin Brennan, the current provost of Inverclyde, attended this school as did his depute provost, Ronnie Ahlfeld—my dad. Eventually, another larger St Ninian’s School was built on Staffa Street, which my brother Robert and I both attended, as did our own children.

As such, we are all very much looking forward to Bishop John Keenan coming down to Gourock later this month for the official opening of our brand new St Ninian’s Primary School.

This event will take place on the centenary of the law allowing the state funding of Catholic schools. The Education (Scotland) Act 1918 received Royal Assent 100 years ago on November 21.

In formally opening the school, Bishop Keenan will be honouring the memory and sacrifices of priests, pupils, parents, parishioners and teachers who have built up our school over the past 100 years. At the same time he will be celebrating the bright future of pupils at St Ninian’s in their new home.

Indeed, one can only imagine what those early pioneers who were originally taught in a single room would make of this shiny new state of the art £9.2 million school. Could they have ever dreamed of laying the foundations for a 13-classroom school with a gym, dining hall, music room and a library over two storeys?


An Adventure in Faith

The answer has to be no, if you’ve ever read our dear Canon Bernard Canning’s fine history of the parish, An Adventure in Faith.

In his book, Canon Canning (who also faithfully served here before retiring to the Little Sisters) mentions an entire week of anti-Catholic riots in 1851 which culminated in one Gourockian called Charles Duffy being dragged from his home and thrown into the Clyde off Gourock pier.

The mob demanded that Charles recant his Faith or face drowning, which he refused to do before being rescued.

Today, we might say that such hardships have been vindicated and are redeemed by the happiness of our children at St Ninian’s School today.

Even so, this incident aside, it would be hugely unfair to paint Gourock’s non-Catholic population as anything other than welcoming and respectful towards its Catholic population over the last 100 years. In truth, we have prospered, in no small part, due to the especially close relationship which we’ve always enjoyed with our dear friends in both the Episcopal and Presbyterians Churches in Gourock.

Even in the early days of ecumenism in the years following Vatican II, Fr Durcan encouraged this close relationship.

So, while it would be fair to say that our school has made a positive contribution to the wider community, so too has the wider community supported the success of the school.

The high point of this unity has been the joy we felt in having Canon Drew Sheridan from St Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, lead our Stations of the Cross at St Ninian’s during Lent. More so, many of us here in St Ninian’s will be celebrating the 175th anniversary of the nearby St John’s Church of Scotland alongside our Presbyterian brothers and sisters.

Like some of my own forbearers, the early parishioners appear to have come mostly from Donegal and some seem to have been associated with Fr James McFadden, the famous ‘fighting priest of Gweedore’ who championed the cause of the Irish Land League and was imprisoned in 1888 for encouraging tenants not to pay rent. The following year, the parishioners at Gourock were involved in launching a ‘Defence for Evicted Tenants Fund’ to support the Irish Land League in helping the poor farmers threatened with eviction.

Its seems that the Gourock branch of the Irish Land League was called the ‘Thomas Sexton branch’ which met in the Gamble Halls, with a parishioner called Hugh Kelly as its first president, numbering about 40 members.

Almost a century later, our own parish produced a different Fr McFadden, but unlike his notorious aforementioned namesake, our own former altar boy Mgr Andy McFadden is now the principal Catholic chaplain to the Royal Navy and source of great pride.

There was also Mgr McFadden’s cousin Fr John McFadden (who I’m told was a fairly aggressive player for the school team) as well as Fr Brian Fulton who sadly died some years ago while carrying out missionary work in Cameroon.

No history of St Ninian’s can be given without mentioning the remarkable Slaven family who gave the parish its first headteacher, Anne Slaven, and Anne’s son Archibald Slaven who also became headteacher at the school alongside his brother Fr Thomas Slaven who became a priest, as well as Sr Magdalene Slaven who also became a headteacher.

Similarly, some mention must also go to the German priests who served at St Ninian’s such as Fr Ludger Kuhler and Fr Peter Hilgers from Gelsenkirchen who took over from Fr Morris in 1897.

Fr Hilgers left his mark by extending the schoolhouse and in doing so, helped move us to where we are today.


Recent years

In more recent years, the parish has been blessed with many other fine women and men, quietly doing great service for the entire community, especially at St Ninian’s School. There is my old primary school teacher, Pat Connelly for example, who retired a few years back, after 37 years’ service. Mr Connelly not only taught us Maths and English but he also taught us about virtue, values and the Faith.

He introduced the first computers into the classrooms and after the home time bell Pat would stay on to take our school team training and in the evenings he coached us again at the local Gourock Youth Athletic Club. Then on Sunday, there was Mr Connelly again at Mass working with the SSVP, as he still does.

Humble men like Pat of course shrug off such praise. Instead he points us towards his friend, mentor and inspiration; the late Moira Flanagan who also taught my dad and eventually retired after 30 years when I was in primary seven in the late 1980s.

Ms Flanagan was born in Ireland and she was entirely devoted to her school and church where she would play the organ every Sunday. She also loved all the very many children she ever taught.

I know this because Moira Flanagan was a close friend of my grandmother, and when Moira died, it transpired that she had been praying for us all over many years.

As such, when the new school is opened I will be thinking of Moira and giving thanks for her life. Most of all, I’ll be thinking on St Paul’s letter to the Philippians, ‘God is at work in you, both to do his will and to work for his good pleasure.’ For it is in this letter that Paul tells us of God calling on them to ‘rejoice’ in being His divine representatives in the world. I believe that teachers such as Moira Flanagan, Pat Connelly and others faithfully lived out this commission as best as they possibly could in their lives.

In truth, the opening of the new school also provides everyone with a much needed reason for a celebration near the end of what has been a sad year for the community. A few months back, we tragically lost a much loved parish stalwart after a period of illness at the age of just 41.

In his fine homily, Fr McNellis described my old school mate Christopher Stevens as a successful and highly intelligent family man who was always easy-going, good-natured and unassuming. For me, Chris was typical of the St Ninian’s spirit in that he just got on with the business of serving and helping others without fanfare.

Chris especially loved scouting, which he remained involved with, and supported over many years. St Ninian’s has always had a thriving Scout Troop attached to the school and parish. Over the coming years, as the boys and girls at the new school make their way into the 10th Gourock, we will all continue to remember Chris and give thanks for his contribution.

All those parishioners who’ve gone before us remain with us as long as we continue to listen to their warnings from history; the voices of those Irish Land Leaguers calling us out of our complacency and affluence, to continue to organise and speak out against injustice, exploitation and oppression.

Indeed, if we want to understand some of the contemporary attitudes towards Faith-based education then we would do well to study Bismarck’s Kulturkampf against the Church in mid-19th century Germany.

This is especially true of the alliance between the Liberals and Lutheran Prussians in the Berlin Reichstag Parliament, against the Rheinish Catholics. To my mind, this alliance is highly analogous to the alliance against our schools coming from both the older anti-Catholicism and the new ‘progressive’ secularist anti-Catholicism, in modern Scotland today.

Finally, I’ve promised I’ll not go overboard fawning about Gourock. I’ll simply repeat Fr Eli Jenkins’ prayer in saying ‘Every evening at sundown, I ask a blessing on the town.’ So please raise a glass and bend a knee for all those who’ve gone before us, to all those who belong to St Ninian’s parish triumphant in Heaven and here’s to us in the hurly-burly on earth. We will all meet again on the resurrection morning, but until then; here’s to the new school and the next 150 years of adventures in Faith!

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