As we're approaching the thirtieth anniversary of my priestly ordination and the founding of this parish, I'm going into “nostalgia mode,” as I tend to do when important anniversaries roll around.
My mind wandered back to the first parish I served as an Anglican, St. Stephen Southmead, in Bristol, England. Sometimes when people hear that I had served in a parish in England, the picture that comes to them is that of a lovely medieval stone church on a village green. That definitely wouldn’t describe St. Stephen’s.
Southmead as a government-sponsored “council housing estate” began in 1931, when 1,500 houses were built by the Bristol Corporation, partly to take families cleared from the slums of central Bristol and partly to address the housing shortage of the time. A further 1,100 house were built after World War II. Greystoke Avenue was the “great divide” between the pre-war and post-war sections of Southmead. Both sections had serious social problems and a high rate of crime, although the pre-war section was always just a little more “troubled.” The parish of St. Stephen included both sections, with a population then of about 15,000, and included the huge Southmead Hospital, which had begun in 1902 as a workhouse for the poor and sick, but as the area grew it developed into a full-fledged teaching hospital.
Life in the parish was always interesting, but difficult at first for us as American transplants. There was a natural suspicion of anyone “foreign,” although a bit of time cured that. We lived very much in the midst of the people in a second floor council flat with only one small coal-burning fireplace for heat. Because these homes were built to withstand the rough use they would have as public housing, the floors and walls were painted concrete. The coal bin was just outside the front door to make it easy for the coal man to deliver. Electricity for lights was on a pre-paid meter, and if we didn’t have the necessary coins, it meant there would be candles for light… nice at supper, but not so easy to read by.
Many of the people were awfully nice, many of them were not. I learned politely to decline a seat in those places that were obviously lice-ridden, although there were many homes where I could look forward to a bracing cup of tea on my afternoon rounds. All my parish work was done on foot, since I owned no automobile. Actually, this was an advantage because I was able to get to meet many more people than if I had been driving through the streets. Usually my presence was welcome; sometimes it wasn’t. In some sections of the parish I could see all the curtains moving as I walked by, as they looked at what was (for them) the odd site of a cleric in cassock. In fact, in some places it was so rare that I would be asked, “Who died?” They couldn’t imagine anyone venturing into some of their back streets unless it was for an unavoidable reason. There were times when stones would be thrown at me, but I didn’t take it personally.
I never went into the local Catholic church. It was a short distance from St. Stephen’s, but there didn't seem to be any reason to go in. After all, we Anglicans were “the Church” as far as we were concerned. I spoke to the pastor there once, but he wasn’t terribly friendly. He was an Irish priest posted in a sea of Anglicans, and apparently he wasn’t happy about it. In fact, he started the practice of letting his particularly nasty little dog out of his rectory yard when he saw me coming. Apparently the animal had never seen a cassock, because he used to delight in barking like crazy and sinking his teeth into it, thinking he’d gotten me, I guess. This seemed to provide some entertainment for the priest who would be looking out the door, so I made it a point to walk that way fairly often, just to keep him amused. Perhaps walking by there so often was part of my “walk towards Rome…”
St. Stephen’s itself was a good parish by the Anglican standards of the day. Those who attended were deeply faithful people, and it was a pleasure and a privilege to minister to them. The church wasn’t especially attractive, as you can see from the picture I’ve posted. The style was what we jokingly called “Fifties’ Firehouse.” Churchmanship was fairly middle-of-the-way, with an emphasis on the Parish Eucharist. The vicar with whom I served was an eccentric bachelor who had served as a curate in the great and venerable St. Mary Redcliffe in downtown Bristol, which had been called by the first Queen Elizabeth, “the goodliest parish church in all the land.” He had gone to Southmead, I suppose to work with the poor and downtrodden, but he seemed to have become somewhat downtrodden himself after a number of years.
It was in Southmead that I moved a bit towards a devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. There was a Lady Chapel off to one side, with a very lovely icon of the Mother and Child. We celebrated the Eucharist there during the week, and the Offices. As a chapel it was rather sparse, but that seemed to set off the icon to advantage.
We spent three years in Southmead, and our first two children were born there. When I look back on those years, I can see they were formative for me, and a good preparation for the work of founding this parish. I knew then what it was to “make do” with very little, as was the case when we began the work here. I also had practice in being a foreigner, which any non-Texan is considered to be in these parts. And above all, it taught me complete dependence upon God, which is a lesson I always need to learn.
It was rather bittersweet to remember those years. I’m glad I was there, but I’m extremely grateful that I’m in this place now.