Seaham Part 6 A Catholic Education
Being a Catholic wasn’t a choice. Like being ginger or ugly, you either were or you weren’t.
I was. (Catholic that is, not ginger. Although I was definitely ugly)
Born to a Catholic mother and nominally Church of England father (a mixed marriage! The horror!) the Catholic side of the family prevailed and I was a regular attender at Sunday Mass at St. Cuthbert’s, New Seaham from being a few weeks old. To those of you not of a religious bent, that’s the tall modern church just behind the Mill Inn. We start our indoctrination early, us Catholics. Next to the Church stands St Cuthbert’s Primary School. Or to give it its full title, as the Bishop would have known it, St Cuthbert’s Roman Catholic Infant and Junior Mixed (Voluntary Aided) School. That’s quite a mouthful. To everyone else it was just “Cuthies”.
Just across the car park from the church was the Parish Centre, the legendary Catholic Club, beloved by those of all religions and none. The beer was cheap and it always smelled of alcohol, tobacco smoke and those things you put in toilet cisterns to make the water blue. Every Saturday night it was packed out. People would come straight from Saturday night mass and queue up outside to guarantee their usual seat.
Growing up in Seaham in the 1970s, religion was still A Big Thing. You were either Catholic, Protestant (a Proddy) or if your family were somewhat strict you might be a Methodist or a member of the Salvation Army. There wasn’t anything else. Those were your choices. Not that choice ever came into it. Schools were either Catholic or Church of England. This was a time when people still went to church; heaven forfend if you stopped attending, especially if you were “one of us”. The women of the Parish would stand in the queue at the butcher’s, gossiping in hushed tones,
“Here, you know that Marjorie?”
“Which Marjorie? The one with the lisp or the one with all the horrible kids?”
“The one with the lisp.”
“I haven’t seen her at Mass for months.”
“Well. You won’t have. I hear she’s LAPSED!”
Try saying that with a lisp. Ah, the shame of the Lapsed Catholic. We bear our Catholic guilt for a lifetime, believe me.
My education continued when I started attending St Cuthbert’s in September 1974, at the age of not-quite-five. I remember my first day clearly – the tiny blue and pink chairs in Mrs. O’Neill’s classroom, the little wooden desks, the smell of disinfectant. We were each given a piece of paper and told to draw a picture. As small children are wont to do, the girl sat next to me drew a house with a stripe of blue sky across the top of the page. I helpfully pointed out to her that actually the sky goes all the way down to the ground. She was not impressed. I’ve always been a pedant.
Mrs. O’Neill was a formidable and mildly terrifying woman. I was petrified of her but loved her at the same time. St. Cuthbert’s was a fantastic little school (it still is) and I adored every single day of my seven years there.
We said a lot of prayers. And I mean A LOT. Every morning before lessons began, we would stand behind our chairs and say morning prayers. When the bell rang for lunch (and it was an actual hand bell – rung vigorously by one of the older children around various parts of the school) we would then say Grace before trooping off to the main hall that served as a canteen, classroom, gymnasium, theatre, occasional cinema and assembly hall. Just before the home-time bell rang at 3.30, we would say evening prayers. And if you failed to say your bedtime prayers at home on a night, be sure that God, Father McArdle the Parish Priest and your class teacher would know about it. An eternity of fiery damnation beckoned.
As well as “official” prayers three times a day, we would also have religious instruction, during the course of which we learned all about baby Jesus and the Nativity Story, stories from the bible, the Crucifixion and Resurrection, lives of the Saints, how to say the Rosary, the Stations of the Cross, and of course our catechism (when we would recite various tenets of the Roman Catholic faith), although that seemed to go out of the window after about 1977. We had a school Mass in the hall once a week too. And then of course there were Saints Days and Holy Days of Obligation when we had to attend Mass regardless of what day of the week it was. Joyful was the day when a Holy Day fell on a Sunday. Two birds. One Stone.
Our whole school year revolved around religious festivals. Every Lent (the six weeks between Ash Wednesday and Easter) we would have to “give something up”. Usually chocolate or sweets. We were also encouraged to raise money for Catholic charities – we were given a card divided into squares, and every time we donated 10 pence we were given a stamp to stick on the card. On each stamp there was a small portion of a face. By the time you’d raised a pound you had a whole Pope. On Ash Wednesday we all took great delight in parading in front of our non-catholic friends to show them the smudges of ash on our foreheads. “Just LOOK at how holy I am. I’m practically a saint.”
And then there were the Processions. How I hated the Processions. These were held in the month of May, to honour the Virgin Mary, but there was also one in June, on the feast day of Corpus Christi. Processions usually involved the entire congregation following a statue around the church car park, wearing a white dress and a veil (only if you were a little girl, obviously) while singing hymns and attending a Very Long Mass. Religious spectacle, ceremony and indoctrination at its finest. Bizarrely, we also got to attend a lot of funerals. As the school was next door to the church, the Priest would often ask for the older school children to sing in the choir. By the time we were all about eleven, most of us had already attended at least four or five funeral masses.
However. Nothing compared to the biggest event of the year in any Catholic primary school – First Holy Communion. Generally, you make your First Holy Communion in the third year of infant school, when you’re about seven. Such is the importance is bestowed on the occasion that you feel your entire life has been a preparation for it. Mrs Morgan, the third year infant class teacher, was in charge of the organisation and special training that each of us required. God how I loved that woman.
With an incredibly loud voice, the disciplinarian attitude of a master from a Victorian Boys’ Reform School, and a heart of gold (buried beneath a very stern exterior), I credit Monica Morgan for detecting very early on that I had the potential to “go far”. She told me I would eventually go to University, when I was just seven. There was no “if” or “maybe” about it. I would go, and that was that. She made sure that I was provided with an endless supply of books – I was given the same reading material as the boys and girls in the “top class”, four years older.
Mrs. Morgan organised First Holy Communion Day with military precision. We were told when to walk down the aisle, how fast to walk, where to stand, when to sit, when to kneel, what to say, what to wear. I distinctly recall us all kneeling in a long row in her classroom, while she played the role of the priest; instead of communion wafers (which were too precious to be spared for such an exercise) she walked down the line bobbing a paintbrush on the tips of our tongues.
“Body of Christ”
We all got the same paintbrush. Health and safety wasn’t a thing back then.
Before you were allowed to make your First Holy Communion, you had to make your First Confession. I used to hate Confession. I always felt really guilty even though I’d never done anything and was one of the most well-behaved children ever. I stopped attending confession years ago when I realised I was telling the priest exactly the same sins I’d been telling him since I was seven.
“Bless me father for I have sinned. Please father I have …(long pause while I thought of something)… not done as I was told at home and said something nasty about somebody. And forgot to say my prayers on holiday.”
That doesn’t really wash when you’re thirty four. Plus I worked on the basis that God knew full well what I’d been up to and I didn’t need an intermediary. The whole concept of Confession fascinated our non-Catholic friends.
And that was another thing. All the ridiculous rules and regulations. There were so many of them. You weren’t allowed to eat for an hour before receiving Holy Communion. If you missed Mass on Holy Day or a Sunday you had to go to confession. I now know this was all just method of control, established in medieval times to increase the power of the Church and to strike fear into the populace. You weren’t allowed meat on Ash Wednesday or Good Friday either. My mother actually made me go to confession after I accidentally ate a bag of pork scratchings one Good Friday.
On the day itself, always a Sunday in June, the entire parish would cram into the Church for the Mass at which we would all receive Communion for the first time. The boys all wore grey trousers, white shirts and red ties; the girls white dresses and veils. My grandmother made my dress. It was beautiful – plain white satin, covered in dozens of tiny white flowers, each one of them stitched on by hand. I had embroidered silver shoes. Afterwards we’d all assemble in the school hall for a special “breakfast” of party food – sausage rolls, crisps, sandwiches, trifle, jelly and ice cream, and have a group photograph taken with Father McArdle.
I recall every one of my Primary Teachers with great affection. There never seemed to be any particular curriculum, beyond reading, writing and arithmetic, and yet we learned ALL SORTS. I learned about snakes and fossils and trees and ice hockey and Vikings and Christopher Columbus and the Beaufort Scale; I could identify most of the countries of the world on a map and knew how to write a proper letter. I knew my times tables inside out, the intricacies of English grammar, and had a wealth of general knowledge. I could recite most of the Pied Piper of Hamelin and The Lady of Shallot. I could sew and I could embroider a table cloth.
I was taught by Mrs O’Neill in infants, then Mrs Foreman, Mrs Morgan, then Mr Bartram (he was big on sports and arty stuff – I liked that), Mr Bowden (with his tales of living in Canada as a young man), Mrs Hill and then by Mr Morgan (husband of Mrs), the headmaster, in top class. Lots of people were terrified of Tony Morgan, who was also a local magistrate. Corporal punishment was still allowed in those days and if you were one of the “bad lads” who went down and played in the beck (the stream that ran along the edge of the school field) at lunchtime, you could expect a caning, or the ruler across your hand at the very least. I adored him. But then again I never got the cane.
“What shall we do today?” he’d say. “Maths? Or shall we go outside and read our books on the field?”
However, I could never forgive Mr Morgan for the arrangements he made for the school trip. In our final junior year, when we were all eleven, it was announced that we would be having an annual outing. We all tried to guess where it might be – Lambton Lion Park (again?)
“Our trip this year will be to Roker Park!”
I could barely contain myself. I’d been an obsessive Sunderland supporter for as long as I could remember and was desperate to visit the hallowed old stadium. I was ridiculously excited.
“And the girls will be going to Thorpe Maternity Hospital.”
I beg your pardon? The injustice still rankles. I was seething. I still am. I didn’t even like babies. I’m still not that keen.
Every year there would be a school play. My favourite was when we performed “Paddington” ( the bear not the station) and I played the part of Judy. My friend Christine played Paddington himself and she was fantastic. I can still remember her in that duffle coat. I saw her a couple of weeks ago and as we went our separate ways in the car park at the bottom of Church Street, I thought of Paddington and it made me smile. She’ll probably hate me for saying that.
Being a Catholic school, the nativity play was always of great importance. Every year the cast announcements would be made, and every year I’d be the sodding Angel Gabriel. Apparently the decision was made on the basis that I was “blonde, pale and very well behaved”. Two of those things are still true. I used to dread it. There is only so long you can stand with your arms outstretched, bedecked in one of your mother’s bed sheets with a circlet of itchy tinsel plonked on your head.
“I bring you glad tidings of great joy!”
I can still remember the words. That’s the thing. You can always remember the words – of the hymns, the prayers, the liturgy. No matter how long it is since you went to Mass, I can guarantee that it’s all still there, deep in your memory banks, etched into your brain.
Despite my Catholic education, I haven’t been to Mass for years. Our current Parish Priest is a lovely man, but organised religion is no longer for me. I’ve finally begun to shake off my Catholic guilt. I have fallen by the wayside. Like Marjorie, I am now “lapsed”.
Or “lapthed,” as she would have said.
My first book, The Horsekeeper’s Daughter (2017) tells the true story of a young Seaham woman who left behind the mining villages of County Durham in 1886, to start a new life alone in Australia. Read more here.
My new book, Above Us The Stars: 10 Squadron Bomber Command – The Wireless Operator’s Story will be published in Summer 2020, and is now available to pre-order. The book tells the true story of a Seaham family, the Clydes, during the Second World War, and follows the fight for survival of 19 year old RAF wireless operator Jack Clyde and his bomber crew.