My childhood church, is the church of St. Matthew in West Derby Liverpool.The building is listed as Grade II, and the interior architecture has the appearance of a downsized basilica.
Its bell tower is tall, and points to the heavens like the finger of a saint; it has long been a local landmark.
I remember how the iron cross laid in the main road nearby reminded men to doff their caps in reverence for the Lord as they passed by.
The place was always full on Sundays, at all four masses, and there was always a priest on hand if needed.The Choir loft held the organ that had the most imposing sound which rung the rafters along with the congregation. No faint-hearted crooners here!
Gradually, as time passed, the bells in the tall tower that had reminded us it was the Lords day, and a day of rest became silent. Muted by a growing number who preferred to not be so reminded.
Along with Sunday Mass my parents (and grandparents) would encourage us to attend the parish retreats. I remember well the tale of eternity which used the image of a sparrow brushing its wings against a great rock. All through my youth and childhood, my family had attended the weekly Novena to Our Lady of Perpetual succour. This is a particularly powerful Novena - ( if I may put it that way) and the devotion in our family had spanned three generations at the church of St. Matthew.
The words of the prayer were a catechesis in itself, about the relationship of Mary to her son, and our own call to personal holiness. They seemed to sink deeply into my heart as I gazed at the Icon of Our Lady tenderly holding her son, and flanked by attending angels.
The opening prayer began like this:"
"Dear Mother of Perpetual Help, throughout your life you were open to Gods Holy Spirit: faithful in prayer, wiling in obedience, and generous in love. Pray for us that we may be open to God's word, and filled with the Holy Spirit....."
We listened to scripture, and prayed the psalms, the poetry of which was music to my ears. And when the priest lit the incense, we knew that soon Jesus would be tangibly present on the altar, splendid in his monstrance throne; our time of silent audience with our king and saviour had arrived.
We would sing the Magnificat and Salutaris, the vowels of the latin like rounded sweet favours in the mouth rose up and swelled like perfumed smoke.
When the service was over and we walked the mile and a half home, we felt we carried something away with us. We had felt loved, and listened to and thereby strengthened on our return to the outside world.
When my dad was eventually ordained as a Deacon of St.Matthews, it meant a great deal to him to be able to continue the Novena by which our family had received so many graces. I remember the day when my dad told us that the Lady chapel was to be re- ordered. After three generations of our family attending the Novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, it was suddenly axed.
It had been decided that this devotion was less necessary to the parish than a room for the folk group to practice and somewhere for tea and biscuits to be consumed.
The Lady chapel was sealed off from the main church by means of a huge white wall. It cut through the red brick rhythm of Byzantine arches like a cold hearted bully, demanding attention.
My father had worked as a humble plasterer most of his life; but occasionally he was called to restore architectural plasterworks in older buildings. This disregard for integrity of a space did not sit well with his sense of aesthetics, and he rightly wondered what else was to come.
The row of "confessionals" (like sentry boxes for the guarding of souls), morphed into a single room. The baptistry, once housed at the far end of the lady chapel was uprooted. It re-appeared at the entrance to the church; and to accomodate the change, benches which had once been filled by parishioners to "crush level" were removed.
It seemed to us that there was a direct correlation between cutting off access to the view of the confessionals, and Our heavenly mother's, Lady chapel; to the fall in parishioner numbers.
This came as a painful blow to us on several levels;
Historically, the original Icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help had been placed in the church of St. Matthew in Rome by Our Lady's request, and the first copy of this icon came to Bishop Eton in Liverpool, on April 26th 1866.
From there, it was a natural progression for this devotion to come to the church of St. Matthew in West Derby, because the church was built partly as a memorial to the Liverpool architect Matthew Honan who was killed in 1916, and who left over £14,000 towards the building of a church.
The generosity of Matthew Honan who enabled the building of the church, and to whom we owe a prayer for this gift, has not been memorialised - even with a small plaque.
With the Marble altar and its tryptich hidden; the Blessed Sacrament would no longer be adored there. Children would no longer have the experience of gazing through that golden "window to heaven", The Icon of Holy Mother Mary who holds a frightened child, and will hold us too if we but ask.
The adage "out of sight, is out of mind," holds true for Matthew, and even more so the presence of Our Lady.
To ease the blow, I painted my first Icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour for my father. He retired early from the diaconate, plagued by a long illness related to heart problems and cancer. He offered his suffering for fallen away Catholics.
And so, in thanksgiving to Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, and in memory of my dad, I have Our Lady of Perpetual Succour on my logo, - may she continue to pray for us.
Lewis and Lewis
is a Catholic family run business: specialising in statue restoration, and church interior projects.
Jeanette is a professional sculptor/fine artist and designer; husband David is a traditional upholsterer/technician.
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