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The Widower Who Made it out of Grief’s Darkest Wood

When Joseph Luzzi suffered an unthinkable loss, he found his solace in two people: his Catholic mother Yolanda, and an Italian poet who lived 700 years ago. Joanna Moorhead tells his story.

Joseph Luzzi, professor of Italian literature, was teaching his class at the university when a security guard came to the door. ‘My first thought was, I’ve done nothing wrong,’ remembers Joe. He hadn’t; but he was about to go through one of the hardest human experiences it is possible to imagine.

That morning, Joe had kissed his pregnant wife Katherine goodbye and headed into work. An hour or so later, she left the house too, on a shopping trip. It should only have taken her a short while, and then she would have returned to their home and to getting things ready for the nursery and the imminent arrival of their first child.

lead 1_2But as Katherine pulled out of a petrol station near her home in upstate New York, her car was in a collision with a van. When paramedics found her, she was huddled over her belly, as though trying to protect her child. She was rushed to hospital, where doctors did all they could to save her. They also carried out an emergency caesarean to deliver the baby girl she was carrying – so soon after Joe was being given the terrible news at the university that his wife had been involved in a horrible road accident, his daughter was unbeknown to him born. ‘Forty five minutes after Isabel was born, Katherine died,’ says Joe. ‘I had left the house at eight thirty; by noon, I was a widower and a father.’

When Katherine was buried, a week later, Joe says he felt as though part of himself was going down into the ground with the wife he had loved so much, and who had always been so full of life and fun. But one thing he knew was that he couldn’t give up: he had his baby, Isabel, to live for. But living with a small baby, who he had no idea how to look after, was going to be very tough indeed.

Joe grew up in the US, but his family’s roots go deep into the countryside of Calabria in southern Italy, the land his parents left soon before his birth, but the place they were always connected with by an invisible umbilical cord. He had been raised, he says, in a Calabrian village that just happened to be in New York state; and in the unbelievably shocking circumstances in which he found himself, that village rallied round. On the day he was able to bring Isabel home from the special care unit, his four sisters and his mother went with him to collect her. And a few months later, when he decided to leave the home he and Katherine had set up, and to raise Isabel instead in Rhode Island, he wasn’t alone: with him as he made the drive, sitting in the back seat next to the baby, was his elderly mother Yolanda. As they drove up the highway, Joe recalls, his mother was holding Isabel’s tiny hand, singing to her in a Calabrian accent he could barely understand: ‘Chi e sa piccerella, sa piccerella bella?’ she was saying. Who is this little girl, this beautiful little girl?

Co-parenting his child with his mother, when he had expected to be co-parenting with his beautiful young wife, was far from easy, Joe admits: but he knows, too, how absolutely fundamental his mother’ contribution was to getting him and his daughter through the roughest of times. In many ways, he says, Yolanda’s whole life had been preparing her for this task: she had been raised on a farm in Italy, had fallen in love with and married Joe’s father aged 15, and had six children. The family’s move to the US had been the biggest shift of her life, but it had prepared her for the unexpected final act of motherhood that Katherine’s death would press on her. The day she heard what had happened, says Joe, his mother knew what she had to do.

Yolanda, says her son, is the kind of Catholic whose faith is so connected to her culture and her life that it is impossible to distinguish it from the rest of her existence. Her faith, and her spirituality, is simply part of her: and it was a part she was able to draw on now to help her son and her granddaughter. And the strange thing, Joe admits, is that while he had spent much of his life trying to run away from his family’s traditional ways, he now realised how deeply he and his child needed the deep wells of nourishment and love that Yolanda brought, and which were rooted in her background and her faith and her past. ‘What had been oppressive to me in my youth and earlier adulthood was now bounty for me and my daughter,’ he says. ‘I was finally able to embrace the gift that was the centuries of Calabrian maternal wisdom Yolanda Luzzi carried in her five-foot, two-inch, one-hundred-and-ten-pound frame.’

But while Yolanda and centuries of Calabrian mothering were providing a cocoon for Isabel, Joe had to look somewhere else to assuage his grief. As an academic he had long specialised in Italy’s central poet Dante, and in the emotional mayhem of the months and years after Katherine’s death, he threw himself into his work. He expected Dante could help him by providing him with a distraction, an absorbing other life in which to bury himself while he tried to heal from the grief of losing his wife; but instead, something remarkable happened. Dante, whose great poem The Divine Comedy tells the story of the soul’s journey towards God, became not his distraction but his salvation. ‘I had turned to books about death and loss but nothing I read really spoke to me,’ he says.

lead 1_3‘And then I realised that Dante had gone through exactly what I was going through. His muse Beatrice dies, and she becomes his guide in the Divine Comedy. He lost his great love, and I lost my great love. And where Dante truly spoke to me was where he writes about the experience of exile: in the middle of life’s journey, he says, he finds himself in a dark wood. He was a guy who had everything: he was a leading poet, a politician, he was living in one of the most exciting cities in the world, and then suddenly he was kicked out and his name was defamed. For the last 20 years of his life he wandered around Italy, banished from his beloved Florence. And that’s exactly what the loss of my wife felt like: I felt I was being banished from the life I was expecting to have, cut off from it just at its most wonderful moment.’

For a long time, says Joe, he was where Dante was in his poem: in the dark wood, buried in grief, unable to see the light for all the branches. But eventually, led by Dante, he realised that in order to move on with his life he had to accept that nothing could ever be the same as it had been, either for him or for his child, now Katherine was dead. ‘I realised I had to let the person I was, or at least a part of him, die along with Katherine, and then I had to build a new life,’ he says.

It took Joe a long time to get out of his dark wood, but with the help of his daughter and his mother, he did. And then, four years ago, a new woman arrived in his life, an English musician called Helena; taking her to meet Isabel, then three years old, was he says the most momentous introduction he ever made in his life. At last, from within the dark wood he was starting to see a clearing. Dante, he says, had taken his journey to the underworld on Good Friday, implying that his life too would be resurrected by Easter time. As Christ said, if the kernel of wheat died, it would bear much fruit. For a long time, he had watched his life follow Katherine into the ground, wondering whether it would ever bear fruit: now, suddenly, that time had come.

Today Joe and Helena are married, and as well as seven-year-old Isabel they have a new baby, seven-month-old James. Dante, says Joe in his recently-published memoir, ‘taught me that you can love somebody without a body in a certain way, but that you must reserve your truest love for somebody whose breath you can hear and feel, your child’s, your wife’s and that you may visit the underworld but you cannot live there.’ He has left the trees behind him, although he knows how easily any of us can be pulled into their darkness; and every day, he says, he is truly thankful for all that he has, and for making it through.

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Sea Sunday: Cruise Chaplains

July 12 is Sea Sunday, when the Church asks us to pray for seafarers and support the work of Apostleship of the Sea, whose chaplains and ship visitors provide practical and pastoral help in ports around Britain.

Being a chaplain on a cruise ship might sound a cushy number. You can spend your days sitting in the sunshine by the swimming pool on deck, eating in restaurants, and going to a show in the evening.

But the reality is very different, as Apostleship of the Sea (AoS) cruise chaplains will tell you. And this month [July], the Church celebrates Sea Sunday, when we are asked to pray for seafarers and support the work of AoS.

At one time, cruise ships were synonymous with luxury and associated with royalty, Hollywood stars, and the super rich. This was captured in the 1997 blockbuster movie Titanic, about the sinking of the world’s biggest ship in 1912.

But nowadays many people of more modest means are opting to take a holiday on a cruise ship. According to Cruise Lines International Association, a record 23 million passengers are expected to cruise during 2015, a 4% increase on 2014. There are now nearly 1,000 cruise ports around the world. The Caribbean is the most popular destination followed by the Mediterranean.

Last year cruise company Carnival asked for a team of ten AoS cruise chaplains to work on their ships over the Christmas and New Year period. Their presence on board is recognition by Carnival of the important role chaplains play with both passengers and the crew.

Father Alan Griffin, a member of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham in London, made his first cruise as an AoS chaplain on board the Queen Mary 2 from Southampton to the North Cape.

‘All aspects of parish life can be found at sea – the regular round of Masses and other sacraments: marriages performed by the captain, occasional deaths, sickness, pastoral emergencies and opportunities, anniversaries and celebrations,’ he said.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHe added that he had a real sense of being the ship’s chaplain, with a ministry to the whole community aboard. ‘The patterned nature of life aboard a ship makes it seem much more like a ‘religious community’ than a parish at home.’

‘A cruise chaplain needs to make himself visible on the decks and he also needs to be available,’ he explained. ‘One is ‘‘on show’’ every waking hour and likely to be approached by passengers as a ‘‘friendly face’’. I think it is wonderful for non-Catholic Christians to meet and interact socially with a Catholic priest, often for the first time. This can lead to good pastoral contacts and also to some very slight irritations (‘More tea Vicar?’ palls after a time!).’

Cruise ships have rightly been likened to small towns. The larger ones may carry up to 4,000 passengers and have a crew of a 1,000. On many cruise ships you’ll find everything from shops and bars to spas and nightclubs. And you can eat in numerous restaurants, some bearing the name of TV chefs such as Marco Pierre White or Saturday Morning Kitchen presenter James Martin.

‘The passengers are mostly retired people, many of them travelling alone. But there are also lots of families with children. There is something for everybody on a cruise and I can see why so many get bitten by the cruise bug. And yes I’ve got it too, even though for me it was work and at times very demanding,’ said Father Angelo Phillips, who describes himself as an active retired priest, helping out in parishes in the diocese of Leeds and on the Isle of Wight, where his sister lives.

His first cruise was around the Caribbean at Christmas 2010. Following a briefing from AoS, he flew out to Barbados, where he boarded the Ventura, one of P & O’s largest ships.

A cruise chaplain – classified as an ‘entertainer’ by shipping companies – is there primarily for the crew, not the passengers. Many of the crew on cruise ships are Catholic, often from the Philippines and India, and they are away at sea for long periods.

‘The crew miss their families a lot. They can receive low pay and rely on tips to make up their wages. They save most of what they earn to send back home,’ said Father Angelo.

UnknownOne time, when a young Goan member of the crew heard that his father had died of a heart attack, Father Angelo said Mass for him and several of his friends attended. It’s small gestures like this, chaplains say, that makes their work on a cruise ship valuable. And if a cruise chaplain is concerned about anyone on board, he will often inform the AoS chaplain in the next port, so he can visit and offer help.

Entertainment is a big part of a cruise and Father Angelo has enjoyed meeting a number of famous faces, including comedian Tom O’Connor, Rabbi Lionel Blue and Ray Lewis, the former lead singer with The Drifters.
However, he has also witnessed another side to being on a cruise ship: coping with the unpredictable sea. When he served on the Oceana from Southampton to the Canary Islands, he got a taste of just how unpredictable and dangerous it can be.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA‘We sailed away to the delightful voices of a local school choir singing carols and a band playing festive music on the quayside. But within a few hours we were caught up in a fierce storm as we headed through the English Channel towards the Bay of Biscay. Thirty feet waves tried to tear up the deck. The storm lasted for 48 hours. This was truly the cruel sea in action. This beautiful huge ship was bobbing in the ocean like a toy boat in a bath tub.’ He said, ‘Being a chaplain on a cruise ship is all about being present, just being seen around the ship. As the captain of the Ventura said to me,’ Father, just having you present on the ship gives us all reassurance that we have God’s blessing as we cruise from country to country.’

Father Gerard Fieldhouse Byrne, director of St Luke’s Centre in Manchester, which provides therapy for clergy and religious, made his fourth cruise as an AoS chaplain last Christmas.

‘Before I started as a chaplain I was told how important faith and having the sacraments is to the crew members, most of whom come from India and the Philippines. I was somewhat sceptical given what I knew of the busy workload for the men and women working on cruise ships,’ he said.

‘I have to say that I have never met such Gospel greedy people in any other aspect of my 18 years of pastoral ministry. Most of the men and women working on the cruises I have served on have been Roman Catholic and it is clear that this is more than just a cultural identity – they want to practice their faith and it clearly supports them during the long months away from home.

‘All this means that when they have a priest on board they truly welcome him as a spiritual father. I have felt so affirmed as a priest doing this specialised chaplaincy work that I am choosing to go back this Christmas because having a priest and the sacraments is so important in the lives of the crew that I cannot turn my back on it.’

Unknown-1Shift work can make it difficult for some of the crew to attend Mass. Chaplains often celebrate Mass in the crew mess late, down in the bowels of a ship, at night, after their evening shift ended. Even then, however, some of the crew are still on duty in the casino, bars and dance venues till the early hours of the morning.

Father Gerard added that despite the holiday atmosphere on board cruise ships, he has dealt with difficult pastoral situations.

‘I have had some of the most meaningful and significant pastoral encounters of my priestly life as an AoS chaplain. It is pastorally challenging given the complex and diverse context of passengers, entertainment crew, officers, and general crew members.

‘AoS chaplains are always mindful that we are there to serve all on the ship – regardless of creed. Personally I love this part of the ministry. It keeps me on my toes and makes me think about my ministry in new and challenging ways.’

For more information please visit:

Written by Greg Watts


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How One Man and His Shed Fed a Million Hungry Children

A few years ago a fish farmer called Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow started a charity from his garden shed in a remote corner of Scotland. Today, as he explains, it is making a huge difference to countless communities thousands of miles away.

Magnus Macfarlane-Barrow outside the ageing shed in the village of Dalmally, Argyll, where it all began.

Magnus Macfarlane-Barrow outside the ageing shed in the village of Dalmally, Argyll, where it all began.

I am writing this in my father’s shed. An east wind is blowing from behind Ben Lui, whose snow-powdered flanks I can see through the window above my desk. Some of the cold air buffeting and moaning around my corrugated-iron shelter has found a way in. There is a draught gnawing my feet. I can hear someone using a power saw in the distance, perhaps my brother in law, and every so often a tractor chugs down the track towards the farm.

We moved to live here, in Dalmally on the west coast of Scotland, in 1977, and the shed was already here and had been here a long time. Initially it served as Dad’s garage and workshop. Later it became a playroom, and one Christmas my parents opened its doors to reveal a magnificent pool table. Later, the shed became the venue for teenage parties; sometimes, beer would be smuggled in.


Picture Copyright Chris Watt 07887 554 193

Picture Copyright Chris Watt 07887 554 193

Later, after we had left home and my parents’ house, Craig Lodge, had become a retreat centre, the shed became a little ‘rosary factory’, where members of a resident youth community made prayer beads of various styles and colours. Then, in 1992, I asked Dad if I could borrow this shed to store donations of aid that were arriving in response to a little appeal we were making for the refugees in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Of course he didn’t hesitate in saying yes. Indeed, he and Mum were doing most of the work involved in collecting and preparing the aid. Even if he had known then that he would never get his shed back, I know he would still have agreed.

 Picture Copyright Chris Watt 07887 554 193

Picture Copyright Chris Watt 07887 554 193

Eventually, after serving for some years as a storage space for parcels of clothes, food, toiletries and medical equipment, the shed became our office, first for me as the sole employee of the charity, before I was joined by my sister Ruth and eventually a team of five. At this stage it was so cramped that some, without desks, worked with laptops on their knees. And so at this point we had an amazing purpose-built timber office constructed; it is a thing of beauty and extremely practical too. But when the time came to move into the bright new office, I chose to stay here, in the old shed. This was a good decision. To some it may seem odd, perhaps even stupid, to retain the HQ of a global organisation in this lopsided and tired-looking shed, in a very remote part of Scotland. But being here helps remind me how and why we began this work. Besides, I know some people, living in poverty, who would be deeply grateful to have a house as large and secure as this for their family to live in.

Picture Copyright Chris Watt 07887 554 193

Picture Copyright Chris Watt 07887 554 193

Indeed, among the collection of photographs and notes stuck to the wall above my desk is one of a family who lived in a house as small and more sparsely furnished than this. My meeting with them in 2002 during a terrible famine in Malawi, ten years after we had driven that first little collection of aid to Bosnia-Herzegovina, changed my life – and thousands of others – forever.

In the picture six young children are sitting beside their dying mother. She is lying on a straw mat. I remember it being unpleasantly hot inside their mud-brick house. My shirt was drenched and even though I stooped, my head rubbed their low ceiling. I felt awkward; like an oversized intruder in their tiny home at the most intimate of family moments. But they had welcomed me in warmly and so I squatted down beside them to talk. My eyes, with the help of some light that was seeping in through a small glassless window, had adjusted to the deep gloom inside the tiny space and I could see that Emma, the mother, was wrapped in an old grey blanket and was wringing her hands continuously as she spoke to us.

Picture Copyright Chris Watt 07887 554 193

Picture Copyright Chris Watt 07887 554 193

‘There is nothing left now except to pray that someone looks after my children when I am gone,’ she whispered. Her husband had died a year previously, killed by AIDS, the same disease that was now about to steal her from her children. Beside her was Edward, the oldest of the children; he sat straight-backed, as if wanting to appear taller than he actually was. He told me he was 14 years old and explained that he spent most of his time helping his mother in their fields or in the house. Maybe I was just desperately grasping for a chink through which something brighter might steal into our depressing conversation, when I asked him what his hopes and ambitions were. I was certainly not looking for an answer that would change my life and the lives of hundreds of thousands of others.

‘I would like to have enough food to eat and I would like to be able to go to school one day,’ he replied solemnly, after a moment’s thought.

When our conversation had finished, and the children followed us out in to the scorching Malawain sunlight, those simple words, spoken like a teenager’s daring dream, had already become inscribed in my heart. A cry, a scandal, a confirmation of an idea that had already begun to form, a call to action that could not be ignored; his words would become many things for me. The horrible family tragedy unfolding in that dark hut had synthesized a multitude of sufferings and intractable problems with which I had become closely acquainted during the previous ten years. And his words authenticated an inspiration recently shared with me; they were the spark that ignited the already smoldering notion that became Mary’s Meals.

Today on the shed wall behind me, a poster, headed boldly, proclaims our vision statement:

That every child receives one daily meal in their place of education, and that all those who have more than they need share with those who lack even the most basic things.

With every passing week, in the years since my encounter with Edward, that vision has grown ever brighter and the belief it can be realised proclaimed more confidently. We have seen repeatedly that the provision of a daily school meal really can transform the lives of the poorest children by meeting their immediate need for food, while also enabling them to enter the classroom and gain the education that can be their escape from poverty. And the number of those daily meals served by local volunteers to hungry impoverished children in schools around the world has grown in an extraordinary manner. Today over a million children in more than 1200 schools across four continents eat Mary’s Meals each school day.

Today there are new pictures on the wall of my shed, drawn by some of those children. The extraordinary ways in which all this has grown and developed have continually surprised me and filled me with a sense of mystery and awe. It would not be true, though, to say I never expected our work to grow so big. I have long felt that the vision of Mary’s Meals is so compelling, and people of good will so numerous, that it must be fulfilled. That is why we are celebrating this landmark as ‘The First Million’. The fact that there remain many more millions without daily meals, and that thousands die each day because of hunger, is a scandal that screams this mission of ours has only just begun.


817YkcfYQVLThe Shed That Fed a Million Children by Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow is published by William Collins, £12.99.  For more information on Mary’s Meals and how to support it, see

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How Gregory’s Girl Grew Up

She’s been a movie star, a pop star and now she’s a children’s author. But life has dealt Clare Grogan a few tough blows along the way – and, she tells Liz Smith, she’s come through.

Clare Grogan is a bit of a Renaissance woman. She’s been a film star (Susan in the 1981 cult musical Gregory’s Girl – remember her with John Gordon Sinclair in the lying-down dance scene?), a pop star in Altered Images and now she’s a writer of stories about teenage girls that draw heavily on her own past and her days as a girl at Notre Dame High School in Glasgow, the city in which she was raised.

Notre Dame, she says, has been much in her mind these last few months, as she’s been working on the third book in her trilogy on the life of Tallulah Gosh, a young girl who feels invisible to the world…except for when she’s in her bedroom, pretending to be a world famous pop star. It was all very similar to Clare’s own past. ‘There are those popular girls at school, and then there are the rest who seem to just fade into the background,’ she says. ‘But the funny thing is that those girls sometimes go on to do something more interesting when they grow up. And sometimes the ones who everyone aspires to be, they don’t necessarily do anything all that interesting.’

Gregory-GirlShe isn’t making judgements about anyone else, she says hastily; and she doesn’t need to. Because the fact is that Grogan went on to do some very interesting things in her life, whether or not she was the coolest girl at school. And her school – which was run partly by nuns, and partly by lay teachers – was a nurturing part of her life, and gave her the opportunities that made all the difference to her life later on. ‘I loved the music, the singing, the choir and the drama opportunities,’ she says. ‘School gave me exactly what I needed, and I’ve been very grateful for it.’ And the nuns, in particular, had that drama and spirit around them that sat well with a girl who would go on to a career in showbusiness. ‘I remember one nun, scary Sister Margaret, who used to say when I was talking that if I didn’t keep quiet she’d get out her tongue-shrinking pills. And I wondered if she really did have pills that did that!’ Overall, she says, her memories of the nuns is that they were warm, and characterful, and friendly. ‘I remember once in primary school, sitting on the headmistress’s knee and feeling so comfortable and safe engulfed in all the fabric of her habit,’ she says. ‘I saw a huge amount of kindness in those nuns.’

The nuns must have been as surprised as Clare’s parents and two older sisters when, soon after leaving school and still aged only 18, she was catapulted to stardom in Gregory’s Girl. What was all the more remarkable about it was that she was waitressing in a restaurant in Glasgow at the time: she still remembers the day when one of the customers asked her if she’d be interested in a part in a film he was hoping to make. The customer was film director Bill Forsyth, but the streetwise Grogan took a while to be impressed. ‘I was like, whatever,’ she says. ‘I definitely wasn’t giving him my phone number: I said, if you want me you know where to find me.’

Fortunately for cinema history Forsyth made sure he did find her, and encouraged her to trust him that she’d be great for the movie: but before filming could start, disaster struck when Grogan was hit in the face by a bottle when she became caught up in someone else’s fight. Her cheek was heavily scarred, and Forsyth came under heavy pressure to recast her part – but he refused, although she had to be shot almost entirely in profile so her scars didn’t show.

91QNF+vrYRL._SL1500_   What is strange says Clare, looking back now, is that Tallulah – the character she has recently invented as the protagonist of her book series – already existed back then, as her alter ego. In fact on a clearout of her parents’ home a few years ago she unearthed her original script from Gregory’s Girl – and there on the front was the name she’d given herself, Tallulah. In real life, as in the books, Clare moved on to being a pop star, fronting the band Altered Images which had a string of hits in the early 1980s including Happy Birthday, Don’t Talk to Me About Love, I Could Be Happy and See Those Eyes.

Altered-Images-resize-2And there was personal happiness too: in 1994 she married a member of the band, Stephen Lironi. Today the couple live in north London with their daughter Elle, who is exactly the right sort of age – 11 – to be enjoying her mother’s books. And there is no doubt, says Clare, that Elle was the person who most spurred her on to write them: not only does her daughter keep her in touch with the reality of pre-teen girls, but she also sharpens Clare’s idea of what the message of the books is all about. ‘I want to say to her and other girls like her, just go for it,’ says Clare. ‘Absolutely go for it. Find something you’re passionate about, work really hard and believe in yourself; and you can do anything, anything you want.’

Like all the best writers, she’s practised what she preaches: because despite being such a successful film star and singer, life has brought its fair share of downs as well as ups in Clare’s life. Her Catholic faith, she says, has always been a quiet source of sustenance and comfort, but there were tough times like her mother’s illness and then losing her, and her husband has also been through a period of ill health. But up there with the hardest parts of the journey was her discovery, after a long time of hoping, that she wasn’t ever going to be able to carry a pregnancy to term and give birth. It was, she says candidly, a shattering moment.

But in true Tallulah style she picked herself up, determined to find another way. That was via adoption: Clare and Steve went to various adoption agencies, including Catholic ones, and after a long search they made a mock-up flyer listing exactly what they had to offer as parents. They sent it to every social worker and adoption agency with which they had had dealings, and that led to a phone call from a social worker who said: ‘We’ve got a baby girl here, and we want you to have her.’

Clare was by this stage well versed in the ups and downs of life as a would-be parent, so she was determined not to get her hopes up too much: but the second she saw the baby on the video screen she fell in love with her and knew this was her child. And bringing Elle home, which she was able to do soon afterwards, made her feel everything she had gone through had been worthwhile. ‘If I hadn’t gone through all that, I’d never have had Elle. And she is the right child for us; she’s the baby I was meant to have.’
Today the family’s life is very much centred, as Clare’s own family life in Glasgow was, around her local Catholic parish, and Elle is at the parish primary school. In a couple of years she’ll go on, as her mother did, to a Catholic girls’ secondary. ‘It wasn’t an easy decision, because in a perfect world I think education should be about unity not division – but as soon as I stepped inside our Catholic primary I was impressed, because I know it’s all about looking after each child’s individual needs. And particularly when you have an adopted child, you really want a school that you know is going to cater for them as a whole person.’

p01kfhs9At the moment she’s hard at work on the third novel which she says, deals with life not always going the way you’d expected it to. ‘It’s very important for young people to know that you can have difficult times, but you will get over them. No matter what life has thrown at me, I’ve always been able to find the joy in it again…and that, I hope, is the message of the book.


Clare Grogan’s first two books, Tallulah and the Teenstars and Tallulah on Tour, are available as ebooks on Amazon. Her new book Tallulah in Tears will be published early next year.

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A Cathedral For Our Time

Most of the great churches we visit were completed generations ago. But the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is a cathedral-in-progress, a new basilica for a new age. Joanna Moorhead went to visit.

It’s a sunny weekend in early spring, and I’ve just flown across Europe to visit a building site. But I’m in good company: in 2010 Pope Benedict did the same thing. He was charmed by what he saw amidst the blocks of stone and cement mixers, and I’m expecting to be charmed too. Because this is Antoni Gaudi’s magnificent Sagrada Familia, the continent’s most significant religious work-in-progress.

The first stone was laid here in 1882, and back then the surroundings were green fields and country lanes. In one of the earliest photographs taken here there’s a flock of sheep and goats passing by as the workers are laying their bricks. Today it’s very different: the great Mediterranean city of Barcelona has lapped its way to the cathedral door and beyond, and Gaudi’s masterpiece is very much caught up in the hustle and bustle of the city.
It is a masterpiece: there’s no doubt about that, more of which later. But what is most striking about visiting the Sagrada Familia for the first time is the realisation that this really is still a work in creation: you see the cranes stretching up into the deep blue sky above it long before you reach its breathtaking, almost molten, complicated façade. After all, in the cathedral-building timeline 133 years isn’t much of an age. Most cathedrals in the world – think Canterbury, Rennes, St Peter’s – took centuries to complete. Milan’s Duomo, begun in 1386, was finally finished in 1965. How often have you looked round a cathedral and read, in the guide book, that it was built across a couple of centuries? And this is how it is in Barcelona, right now, at the Sagrada Familia. We’re witnessing not the end of a story, but somewhere still before the beginning. And that’s awe-inspiring.
And what’s particularly awe-inspiring it is that Gaudi knew it would be like this. The Sagrada Familia is, more than anything, a tribute to his faith: but it was his faith in human beings, as well as his devout faith in Jesus Christ. Gaudi was raised in Reus in Catalonia, the youngest of five children born to the town’s coppersmith and his wife. After school, he moved to Barcelona with his brother Francesc in 1869; but a few years later his life was shattered by the deaths of both Francesc and their mother. The young Gaudi sought refuge in his architectural studies, having recently graduated after taking an architecture degree: his first project was for the lampposts on a square in the city centre in Barcelona, but soon he was moving on to grander projects, many of them inspired by his deep and devout Catholic faith: chapels, a college, the crypt of a church.
But then in 1883 came an extraordinary opportunity. The previous year, the first stone of a new cathedral had been laid: the Basilica of the Holy Family, or Sagrada Familia. Its original architect, though, had resigned from the project, and now it was offered to the young Gaudi. It was clear to him from the start that this was his lifetime’s work and, moreover, that it was not a work that could possibly be finished within his lifetime. His task, he knew, was to build as much of it as possible, but to give as much of a steer as he could to the architects and designers who would take the project over when he eventually had to hand it on.

Gaudi completely changed the plans for the cathedral, and he worked hard on it – despite, at the same time, revolutionising the architecture of the whole of Barcelona. Walk around the city today and it is dotted with a whole series of extraordinary buildings that owe their existence to Gaudi: the Casa Mila apartment building, whose roof is dotted with chess-like pieces of sculpture, and which hasn’t got a single straight wall in its entire construction; and Casa Batllo, another extraordinary undulating building which is especially striking floodlit, by night. Outside the city centre, meanwhile, he was working on the Park Guell, which was a kind of new vision for a town within a town, and is dotted with little invocations to the Virgin Mary. Gaudi lived at Park Guell, and his former home there is now a museum which tells the story of how his life was dominated by prayer and fasting, almost monk-like.

Gaudi’s other work is profound and it changed the way Barcelona was regarded by the rest of the world: he was the leading figure of a new art movement, Modernisme. But from 1915 he decided to put all his energies into just one project: the Sagrada Familia. He moved out of the Park Guell to the cathedral itself, living on his building site so that he could give all his time to his work there.

The logical thing might have been to have built the lower parts of the cathedral and to leave the upper elements to the generation who would come after him: but that wasn’t Gaudi’s way. He decided to complete one entire front, from the three that would eventually be finished, Sagrada Familia. The Nativity façade, which was the section he concentrated on, has doorways which represent Faith, Hope and Charity, and scenes from Christ’s birth and childhood are ranged around them, embellished with detail and symbolism.
La Sagrada Família
For the rest of the cathedral – the other two facades were to be dedicated to Christ’s passion, and to his glory – Gaudi left detailed plans, taking into account that the architects and builders of the future would have new tools not available to him, and would also want to incorporate their own ideas. His ambition was to have at least the nativity façade finished by his death: but fate intervened. In 1926, on his daily walk to a nearby church for Mass, he was hit by a tram; several cab drivers, believing him to be a vagrant who wouldn’t be able to pay his fare, refused to take him to hospital. Eventually he was taken there, but he died a few days later. The streets of Barcelona were lined with people for his funeral procession, and he was buried where he had lived, in the crypt of the Sagrada Familia.

In the years that followed, the faith Gaudi had that his cathedral would be finished was to be severely tested. A few years after his death Spain was torn by civil war, and part of the basilica and Gaudi’s workshop and plans were destroyed by Catalan anarchists. For a while the project was put on hold: it was also unclear whether there would ever be enough money to finish it. But, as Gaudi once apparently said, his client was in no hurry: and the project, always funded by public donations, eventually became popular again. The Barcelona Olympics in 1992 helped put it back on the map and raised a lot more funding for it, and the team of architects and builders who work on the basilica today do so with the aid of the most up-to-date computer-generated technology. Gaudi’s belief has paid off, and the current aim is to complete it by 2026, the 100th anniversary of his death.

Visit it today and it’s almost impossible not to be moved by its drama, its intensity and – perhaps most of all – by its sheer audacity. Gaudi was inspired by nature, and standing in the nave feels almost like being in a clearing in the middle of a deep forest, surrounded by the tallest of concrete trees – the cathedral’s columns, which rise and branch off at the top to form the arched canopy of the ceiling above. The nave is dominated by the stained glass of the windows: warm reds and yellows on one side, cool greens, blues and turquoises on the other. The choir loft is perhaps the most imaginative of any church in the world: it’s a simple balcony, ranged around the entire perimeter wall: a kind of human surround sound. Everything about the building suggests breath and life, a tribute to the spirituality, in the widest possible sense, of humanity.
Back outside, one of the most striking features of the ornate building is the sight of fruits and vegetables atop the spires: this was Gaudi’s way of giving thanks for the basics of life. His vision, which once must have seemed so unlikely, is now a hair’s breadth from coming to fruition. Pope Benedict, on his visit here in 2010, consecrated the altar: it’s almost certain that whoever is Pontiff in 11 years’ time will follow in his footsteps, and say the inaugural Mass when the cathedral is finally complete. Gaudi, meanwhile, is being talked of as a possible saint: perhaps one day his beatification will take place in this very building he devoted his life to, and bequeathed as his gift to generations to come.


Toni Mascolo
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A Hair’s Breadth From God

The man behind the hugely successful Toni & Guy’s talks to Liz Smith about faith, family, and his rags-to-riches story.

Visit Toni Mascolo at his home in leafy Surrey, and you could easily be forgiven for imagining you’d taken the wrong turning and pitched up at the convent next door. Off to one side of the sweeping driveway sits a life-sized Lourdes grotto, and in the grand hallway with its sweeping staircase there’s a huge statue of Christ in an alcove. In the rolling back garden, meanwhile, there’s a chapel, complete with stained glass and a mausoleum.

But this definitely isn’t the convent. It’s the home Toni, who’s 72, shares with his wife Pauline, 68. They’re both stalwarts of the local parish church, where Pauline sings in the choir, and in March 2013 they received one of the church’s highest honours, a Papal knighthood from Pope Benedict XVI.

Chances are you’ll never have heard of Toni Mascolo. But you’ll definitely have heard of the eponymous business he founded back in the sixties with his brother Guy – and indeed, you’re quite likely to have been a customer of his at some point. There are more than 230 Toni & Guy salons across Britain, and another 175 worldwide; according to Toni’s autobiography, out this spring, the company turns over £175 million annually.

No-one could possibly have imagined, back in the 1950s when an Italian barber called Franco Mascolo decided to move his family to the UK from just outside Naples, that this would be the backstory to a hairdressing empire. Franco and his wife Maria had four sons – a fifth arrived after they moved to London – and the eldest, a boy called Giuseppe, would often help out in the shop. They settled in Islington, conveniently close to the Italian Catholic Church which was at the heart of their community, and Franco worked at a hairdresser’s in Knightsbridge.
05 Mascolo family Clapham
When the young Giuseppe left school and needed a job, hairdressing was the obvious occupation – and he showed a lot of talent, just as he had at school where he was especially talented at maths. The family was by now ensconced in a warm and happy home in Clapham: but in December 1962 tragedy struck when Maria Mascolo died. The loss of his mother hit the young Giuseppe – now renamed Toni by a fellow hairdresser who said it was a better name for the job – very hard. His mother was the heart and soul of the home, and the youngest of the brothers, Anthony, was only five years old.
10 cutting hair age#301082B
Work became the refuge for Toni and his brothers in the months and years after their mother’s death, and the following year he and his brother Gaetano opened their first salon together. Life at the salon, as at home, was tough without Maria holding it all together: but there was a young trainee hairdresser in the salon, Pauline, who was clearly drawn to the motherless family and did all she could to support them, even cooking for them and helping with the younger boys at home. ‘There was only one problem,’ says Toni. ‘She was going out with my brother, Guy.’

The salon, though, was going from strength to strength: the Mascolos were clearly very talented at business, as well as at hairdressing, and in 1965 the brothers hit on an idea that was to help propel Toni and Guy to its huge success. They opened a new salon in Streatham, and this time it was for men as well as women, a revolutionary idea at the time. ‘It was at a time when everyone was becoming increasingly fashion-conscious and aware of their appearance and obviously there were lots of men who hankered after something more than the old short back and sides,’ says Toni in his book. ‘I think we were the first unisex hairdressing salon in the world.’

Pauline, meanwhile, had been to live in Italy for a while; and when she returned, Toni felt he could no longer ignore the fact that he was in love with her (the relationship with Guy had never been especially serious). He proposed, she said yes: and then came a problem. ‘We went to the priest at the Italian church, and he said I can’t marry you here because your fiancée isn’t a proper Catholic! And I said of course she is, she’s more Catholic than I am. What he meant was that she wasn’t an Italian Catholic, because Pauline’s family are Irish and British,’ says Toni. ‘Anyway, we found another priest who said he would marry us at Southwark Cathedral, and we had a wonderful wedding there, in August 1970.’

Over the years that followed Pauline raised the couple’s three children – as well as, when they were older, running a salon – and Toni forged ahead with the business, which was now hitting the big time: the Mascolo brothers were becoming known as ‘the Beatles of hairdressing’, and they were starting to expand their business interests abroad and had set up a hairdressing academy. The 1980s were a time of huge expansion, and today Toni and Guy is one of the most successful hairdressing businesses in the world, known across the globe and with many famous clients as well as countless ‘ordinary’ ones.

13 modern T&G salon

For Toni, though, business has never been the most important thing. ‘Family always comes before business,’ he says. ‘It was my love for my family that led to me setting up the business in the first place, because I had to help support my younger brothers.’ A few years ago he had a stroke, from which he is now completely recovered; but retirement, he says, isn’t even on the cards. For him and Pauline, life revolves around their children and six grandchildren, and around the bigger hairdressing family they have created across the world; sadly Gaetano died a few years ago at the age of just 65, a terrible blow.

Their faith, says Pauline, has always been at the root of everything they’ve done: which is why, when they built their house in Surrey, they decided to build a chapel in the grounds. When they have a priest staying, they have mass there: that, says Pauline, is always a lovely occasion. The house itself, designed by Pauline, was based on Gone With The Wind, her favourite film: she remembers seeing it for the first time and thinking how much she’d like to live in a house like it. ‘But I never thought I would,’ she tells me. ‘I’d have been happy with a three bedroom house provided I was with Toni and my family; I never expected us to live anywhere like this.’

20 with Pope Benedi#3010818

With its marble floors and leather sofas, the house is in some ways more reminiscent of Italy than Surrey: and it has a fully-equipped hairdressing salon where Pauline has often, through the years, cut the hair of the sisters at the nearby convent who are among her closest friends. She and Toni are both closely involved with the work of the Toni and Guy Charitable Foundation which supports, among many other projects including a children’s ward at King’s College Hospital in London, a hostel and apartments for needy people in a church-run project in southern Italy.

But proud as he is of his great success and wealth, Toni says he’s never been afraid of losing all he’s got. ‘Give me a glass of red wine and a bowl of pasta, and I think: what else do you need in the world?’ he says. He still cuts hair, on a Saturday in one of his central London salons: you can’t lose touch, he believes, with the bedrock of your business. His big ambition, meanwhile, is to meet Pope Francis. ‘He’s a real saint, and I admire him very much,’ he says.

Toni: My Story by Toni Mascolo with Stafford Hildred is available from Alive Publishing for £17.99. Call us on +44 (0)1782 745600

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‘The Odds Were Stacked Against us but I had Faith and I believed my Babies Would Survive’

Three decades ago Janet Walton became one of the most famous mothers in the world when she gave birth to the first all-female sextuplets. She tells Joanna Moorhead how her faith helped her through the long, anxious months of waiting for them to be born.

When Janet Walton found out she was pregnant, one of the first people she told was her parish priest. Partly, she just wanted to share her joy with an old friend: Canon Martin Kehoe had known the family for a long time, and had given Janet instruction and welcomed her into the Church a few years earlier.
There was more to it than that, though, because this was no ordinary pregnancy. An ultrasound scan a few days earlier had revealed something truly amazing. Janet and her husband Graham weren’t expecting just one baby: and nor were they having just two, or even just three. ‘I was expecting six,’ says Janet, 62, and even more than 30 years on, her eyes still light up with the joy and excitement of that unbelievable news.

The problem was that, though it seemed the answer to all their prayers – the couple had been hoping to have children for five years – no-one expected the pregnancy would work out. The odds on it coming to fruition, in fact, were a mind-boggling 104 billion to one against. ‘So you can see why I told Canon Kehoe,’ says Janet. ‘I knew we needed God on our side.’

Canon Kehoe, who has since died, later recalled that when Janet told him she was expecting six babies he was, understandably, shocked – and asked her what she was going to do. To which Janet replied: ‘I have faith and I am determined to have them all.’

Janet spent the whole of her pregnancy in hospital, being cared for by the team who had overseen her fertility treatment. She didn’t have IVF: instead, she was given injections of a drug to stimulate her ovaries, which had never worked properly. The treatment was gruelling, and Janet had endured 12 cycles of it without ever getting pregnant. In fact she and Graham had all but given up hope of her ever getting pregnant, and had approached the local Catholic children’s society in their home town of Birkenhead, in the hope that they could be approved as adopters. ‘We’d decided this would be our final attempt to have a baby ourselves,’ remembers Janet.

After the treatment was finished the Waltons went on holiday to Malta. They had been there the previous summer and Janet had even sat on a ‘fertility stone’ at the ancient temple of Ggantija on the neighbouring island of Gozo. This time around they spent most of their time looking around churches – but, says Janet, ‘every time we came out of one I’d be sick’. Graham was worried it was due to the drugs she’d been taking; but Janet wasn’t so sure. As the days went on and she didn’t feel any better, it gradually dawned on her that perhaps she might be pregnant.
On their return home the couple went to the Royal Liverpool Hospital where Janet had been treated, and a test confirmed she was indeed pregnant. Later that day, she was given an ultrasound scan: and that’s when she got the first inkling of what was in store. ‘The scan operator went very quiet, and then said it looked as though I was carrying more than one. And I thought: hurrah! It’s twins.’

The scan operator called a doctor and slowly, remembers Janet, the room began to fill up with people. ‘There was lots of whispering, and everything seemed to be taking a long time. Eventually I asked them what was going on and that’s when the doctor dropped a bombshell. He said, it’s definitely a multiple pregnancy. There are six babies.’

Janet was admitted to hospital the following day, and there she stayed. Sextuplets are extremely rare – at that time, there were only two known sets in the world – and a pregnancy involving so many babies is fraught with difficulties. It was perfectly clear, Janet remembers, that the chances were stacked against her and Graham taking any, let alone all, of their children home: and yet, deep inside herself, she always knew they would. ‘I simply didn’t consider an alternative. I vowed to be the best patient the hospital had ever had. I was determined to do absolutely everything I possibly could to help my babies survive.’

The weeks in hospital dragged and Janet, who says she ‘didn’t really fit anywhere’ as a patient, was on a general gynaecology ward full mostly of older women having hysterectomies; but she never minded. She had a constant stream of visitors, including her family and Graham’s, and many friends including Canon Kehoe. At first the goal was to get to 23 weeks, when the babies would have some chance of survival; then, it was to get to 25 weeks, then 28. ‘I was getting so big by this stage that I thought I was going to burst,’ she remembers. ‘Often I’d just lie there watching all these elbows and knees moving around in my tummy – it was extraordinary.’

At just over 31 weeks the doctors decided the time had come for the babies to be born. Now transferred to the maternity hospital, Janet remembers how peaceful her room was that day: but outside the door, all was mayhem. The team for her caesarean operation was made up of more than 30 people: separate teams of doctors for her and for each of the babies, and the special care baby unit was standing by with six incubators and three members of staff for each. It was November 1983: outside in the cold the world’s media was camped, eager for news.

Janet was given a general anaesthetic for the operation: she remembers coming round, and her first question: ‘Are they alive?’ And amazingly, they were: six girls, weighing between 2lbs 1oz and 3lbs 8oz. No all-female sextuplets in history had ever survived before, and Janet and Graham were warned that the first 48 hours would be critical. The hospital chaplain arrived to baptise them, and Graham went round each of them with him. ‘Father and father went from incubator to incubator, the priest on one side with his portable pouch of holy water and Graham on the other, for the first time experiencing the touch of each of his daughters,’ writes Janet in her book Six Little Miracles, out this spring.
Walton Family Sextuplets
A few hours later, she was well enough to be pushed in a wheelchair to meet her babies. Many of the staff had come to line the corridors as she was taken to the special care baby unit: everyone was thrilled that things seemed to be working out so well. Janet herself couldn’t think about anything but her babies: and nothing could have prepared her for the sight of six incubators lined up side by side. ‘It was the most beautiful view I had ever, ever seen,’ she says. ‘The babies were labelled ‘baby number one’, ‘baby number two’, and so on. But it was very important to me that, right from the start, we’d be using their names. So I said: this is Hannah; this is Lucy; this is Ruth; this is Sarah; this is Kate; and this is Jenny. I didn’t want my babies to be known as numbers: they were individuals, and I felt I needed to signal that right from the start. We didn’t know beforehand whether we’d be having girls or boys, so we had 12 names lined up, and we’d decided their names would be linked to their birth order.’

Two weeks later Janet was allowed home: within a few weeks the girls had followed. Bringing them back to their house in Wallasey in Liverpool was momentous, but also underlined how desperately they needed a bigger home. Help was essential too: both sets of parents pitched in from the outset – without them, says Janet, the early months would have been quite impossible – and the local authority sent nursery nurses. But how on earth could the Waltons cope with so many babies? ‘I’ve always been a very practical and sensible kind of person,’ says Janet. ‘But as with any mother, some days were definitely better than others.’ What’s clear, meeting the couple, is that Janet and Graham never let themselves be daunted by the challenge: they never let themselves forget how much they had longed for, and prayed for, a family, and they were determined to enjoy every minute of it now they had one. Staying indoors, even when they had no-one around to help, simply wasn’t an option. ‘We’d take a double buggy each, and we’d each have a baby in a papoose,’ says the can-do, unflappable Janet.
SOCIAL Waltons filer
Once the girls were home from hospital, and the family, aided by their helpers, had got into a routine, everyone started to focus on another date: their christening. Because they had been baptised in hospital in their early hours, this would be a service of blessing; but for the family it was a huge celebration, and the church was mobbed by both well-wishers and journalists. Canon Kehoe did the honours: Janet remembers how he wrote the names of three girls on one hand, and three on the other.

Today the Waltons are one of the warmest, as well as the most unusual, families you could meet. The girls are now 31. Only Hannah, a primary school teacher, still lives at home with her parents, in the seven-bedroom house where they spent their childhood; but four of the other girls live just minutes away, and Jenny – who runs a sweet shop – isn’t far away in Leeds. Lucy is now an airline steward; Ruth is a receptionist; Kate works in HR and Sarah at a medical centre. Janet and Graham succeeded in their aim to ensure their girls always felt like individuals: the only pictures ever taken of them wearing the same outfit, other than their school uniform, is one of them in their first holy communion dresses.
They’ve always been a close-knit family, says Ruth; in some ways, says Lucy, it’s been like always being at a party. Graham, who interrupted his work as a painter and decorator for a year so he could pitch in full-time, is now an after-dinner speaker: his topic, what it’s like being a man who lives with seven women. Now, though, there are some male allies, as some of the girls are in serious relationships, and Ruth is lined up to be the first to get married later this year.

A few months ago there was another magical moment for the Waltons: the birth of their first grandchild, a girl (what else?) for Sarah and her partner Kieran. Their ultrasound scan, says Janet, was very different from her own all those years ago, but it was every bit as special. And now little Jorgie is here, she can’t believe how much she is loving looking after her. ‘To have only one baby to care for seems really amazing,’ she says. ‘We really do feel very lucky, and very blessed.’

Mountain of Faith
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Mountain of Faith

A Lenten fast and time of prayer was at the centre of St Patrick’s life – and we can walk in his footsteps today, and learn from his example. Faith Today reports.

If Lent has a physical presence in our corner of Europe, a mountain in County Mayo in western Ireland would surely be that place. Croagh Patrick, which overlooks the Atlantic, is the mountain scaled by St Patrick in 441 AD, and legend has it that Ireland’s patron saint spent the 40 days of Lent there, deep in meditation, fasting and praying.

He survived, so the story goes, on faith alone: and it’s a faith that’s indelibly written in the paths up the mountain to this day, paths worn smooth by the centuries of people who have followed in his footsteps. Each year as many as one million pilgrims and visitors make the trek to pray at the stations of the cross at the top of the mountain; some of them even climb as St Patrick is believed to have done – barefoot.

Mountain of FaithBut Patrick wasn’t responsible for making this place a sacred site: that happened even earlier in history. Before the first Christians arrived here, the Celts regarded the mountain as the dwelling place of the deity Crom Dubh. It was also the focus of the harvest festival of Lughnasa, and was also an important place for women hoping to become mothers – they would sleep on the summit during Lughnasa, which took place in August, to encourage their fertility.

Croagh Patrick is the epicentre of Ireland’s homage to its most renowned religious figure, but long before he was a saint praying on an inhospitable mountain, he was a slave boy. His tale begins properly on another hilltop, the Slemish Mountain in County Antrim. Today the area is cloaked in a soft veil of russet and green, picturesque to the hilt; but it was a very different place to Patrick when he began his odyssey here at the age of 16. Whisked away from his family and home – experts differ as to whether he was originally from Scotland or Wales – he was taken to Ireland and bonded into slavery as a shepherd for a man named Milchu.

Alone and afraid on that mountainside, Patrick often turned to prayer. He also dreamed of an angel called Victoricus who urged him to escape back to Britain. And six years after he arrived, he did just that: he left his master, walked to the sea, and got a boat to England where he was able to rejoin his family and become first a priest and then a bishop.

Mountain of FaithWhat happened next is completely surprising, because you’d think the last thing he’d ever have done would have been to return to Ireland. Yet in the year 432 that’s exactly what he did, going back to the place where he had been enslaved and had known such great hardship. He had heard the voice of Victoricus again, and this time it had urged him to go to Ireland to preach the gospel: and that is what he did. As a result, the country was converted to Christianity: and what was remarkable about Patrick, and remains modern to this day, is that he respected the native Celtic traditions of the country. So it was precisely because Croagh Patrick was already a sacred place that Patrick climbed it; and in doing so, he Christianised it.

St Patrick toured Ireland for 30 years, telling everyone he met the story of Jesus. When he died in 461, the Irish mourned him as one of their own. The date of his death was the date of his feast day, March 17; according to legend, his body was placed on a cart and where the donkey and cart stopped would be his final resting place. Today that place is Down Cathedral, and a massive granite stone marks the saint’s supposed grave. It’s hard not to feel the rush of history as you stand amid the lush County Down countryside, looking at the same green fields and trees he once surveyed, and where he left his mark forever.

Where to find St Patrick

The city of Downpatrick, whose name pays homage to the saint, is a perfect place to find out more about him, and the best place to start is the Saint Patrick Centre, a museum dedicated to his story. Visitors enter via a ‘time bridge’ that takes them back to the world of fifth century Ireland, with all its unpredictability and dangers.

The main exhibit at the museum centres on Patrick’s Confession, an autobiography written in about 450. The book was fundamental to Patrick’s mission, and was widely read.

The rest of the museum explores Patrick’s legacy through the centuries, detailing how he helped inspire missionaries and found monasteries, and how his influence and faith-filled story spread across the world.

Outside Downpatrick lies the village of Saul which contains many memories of Patrick including an exquisite church standing on the church where the saint preached at his first Mass. Standing on a neighbouring hill is a massive statue of the saint – from its vantage point there’s a wonderful view of the rolling countryside of County Down.

Mountain of FaithOne more place well worth a visit is Struell Wells, a set of holy wells located in a serene valley two miles east of Downpatrick. The holy springs, which are sheltered by picturesque stone houses, have been associated with Patrick for centuries. According to legend, they were the first springs to be blessed by the saint, and the waters are thought to have the ability to heal both body and spirit.

St Patrick’s Day round the world

For a small country, Ireland reaches its way across the globe with the annual St Patrick’s Day celebrations on March 17. This year, the saint will be remembered as far afield as Sydney, Tokyo and Japan.

*New York is the setting for the world’s biggest St Patrick’s Day parade, with more than 150,000 people expected to join the march along Fifth Avenue on March 15, the Sunday before the big day.

*Boston, original home of the Kennedys and a thousand other Irish emigrant families like them, has a proud Irish heritage and events planned for St Pat’s Day include a huge flower and garden show and festival.

Mountain of Faith*Chicago goes green at this time of the year in recognition of its Irish links: the city’s river is dyed green in honour of St Patrick. There’s also a parade and the St Patrick’s Day Queen is chosen from unmarried girls of Irish ancestry aged between 17 and 27.

*Buenos Aires has a huge parade and festival centred on the aptly-named Plaza Irlanda, which is dotted with partygoers dressed in green.

*Munich has had an annual parade for St Patrick’s Day since 1996, complete with Irish music and dance and a ‘Paddy’s Night Out’.

*London celebrates St Patrick’s Day with a huge festival in Trafalgar Square, a parade and the now-traditional sight of the London Eye lit up in green.

*Sydney has marked St Patrick’s Day since 1810, and this year will be no exception: the usual form is entertainment, music and dancing on George Street followed by a parade and Irish bands and musicians.

*Tokyo has had a St Patrick’s Day parade for 22 years, with a parade, green-clad citizens and Irish music and dance. 

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When God Calls, How do we Answer?

On 25 March the Church celebrates the feast of the Annunciation. Lucy Russell explains how that moment in history speaks to her heart and her experience, and how her thoughts on it are helped by a piece of high Renaissance art.

‘The Angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the House of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. He went in and said to her, ‘Rejoice, so highly favoured! The Lord is with you.’ She was deeply disturbed by these words and asked herself what this greeting could mean, but the angel said to her, ‘Mary, do not be afraid; you have won God’s favour. Listen! You are to conceive and bear a son, and you must name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High.’
(Luke 1: 26-32)

Of all the famous paintings which attempt to portray this miraculous moment, my favourite is The Annunciation by Lorenzo Lotto. In this painting Our Lady appears to turn her back to God and his messenger. It is a fascinating piece that speaks to me of how Mary might have felt: surprised and utterly overwhelmed. There she is at home, going about her daily business, when an angel suddenly appears to her to ask her to be the mother of God. Italian art critic Giulio Argan writes: ‘she cannot even turn her head; her gesture, almost a defensive one, is that of somebody who is struck at the back by a sudden call.’ It is the most incredible and unexpected news. Lotto suggests that it takes Mary aback, she needs a few moments to assimilate it, before she can respond.
The Italian artist paints a scene set in a domestic environment, beautifully summing up the interruption to Mary’s life. Her home is tidy and clean, indicating a well ordered and organised life. Which has just been shattered. Whatever Mary was doing, she was not expecting a visit from a messenger of God. Whatever Mary was planning for her life, it was not this. In Lotto’s painting Mary seems scared, but she is not the only one. The angel also appears to be frightened by the enormity of what is happening; he has his eyes wide open in disbelief and is pointing to the God, the higher order which no one can escape – except possibly the cat. He is the only one in this scene who may be able to run away! Unhappy with all the fuss that has come to break the quiet routine of its life, he seems to be making a run for it! We know that Mary makes a decision, and then responds. In Lotto’s painting, you can almost watch Mary processing the angel’s message, and that decision forming in her mind.

In his book Real Presences: Is There Anything in What We Say?, The philosopher George Steiner writes about narrative in aesthetic form: pictures that ‘speak’. Lorenzo Lotto’s work spoke to me in a way which was beyond words, it conveyed a feeling of overwhelming emotion. Steiner believes that God is present and speaks to us through the arts and humanities. Aesthetic creation – the arts – exist, he says, because of creation. A similar notion about the link between the arts and God was noted by the character of Reverend Adam Smallbone in an episode of the BBC’s, Rev, ‘In a way all art is an attempt at some level to describe creation. So you could argue, that it’s always a religious act’ (Series 3, Episode 3). The art world is filled with the presence of the Virgin Mary: we have representations of Our Lady in different races, with her child, Jesus, and alone. The Virgin in Art (Kyra Belan) is a good starting point for those wishing to explore the meaning to be found in images of Mary, from personal interpretations to spiritual reflections.

If art is, as Steiner says, where we can find the Real Presence, then choosing to engage with these images is itself an act of faith. Steiner himself says, ‘[people] will elect bingo or the television chat-show over Aeschylus or Giorgione’. It’s true. Many of us often choose light entertainment, ‘bubble gum for the eyes’, over high culture. We all have the propensity to turn our back on God.

When God Calls, How do we Answer?But why? Perhaps because to engage with him is too overwhelming, too incredible, too mind-blowing. However, we can learn from Mary here, I look at Lotto’s Annunciation and understand Mary’s defensive gesture: motherhood and its prospect can be daunting for any woman, but to be asked to be the mother of God is breath-taking. I imagine the scenes which come next which Lotto didn’t paint: Mary taking a deep breath, and turning towards the angel. We know when we look at Lotto’s painting she is only moments away from positively responding to God and uttering the words that would be the foundation of our prayer, The Angelus: ‘I am the handmaid of the Lord,’ said Mary, ‘let what you have said be done to me’ (1:38).

The Annunciation is celebrated this year on 25 March, ten days following Mothering Sunday, so it’s a good time to think about the Mother of God, her life, and what we can learn from Mary in our everyday lives. Pope Francis has emphasised three aspects of the caring motherhood of Mary: ‘She helps us grow, to confidently face life, to be free.’

When God Calls, How do we Answer?My dedication to Mary has grown since I became a mother. When I held my first baby for the first time, such was the sense of awe and wonder I experienced, that I forced myself to think of something other than God and creation. I told myself to try and put off exploring the thoughts in my mind until I wasn’t so tired. I could sense God’s presence, he felt closer than ever before. It seemed as though suddenly everything made sense. I understood, but that understanding was too great to contemplate. James was a miracle and gave meaning to my life, I concentrated my thoughts on him. It was a very emotional time. As a writer my instinct was to try and put my thoughts into words, but I didn’t have the words. I was so overwhelmed I effectively turned my back on God and what he was trying to communicate to me, pushing these thoughts out of my mind until a later time when I thought I would feel able to cope with and contemplate them. But that time never came. Looking back, I see those thoughts not as something to be explored and organised but as a complete experience which transcended words. As James grew my initial excitement developed into a calmer and deeper faith. I understood God in a new way as James’ spirituality awakened. On trips to the beach in winter I found myself playing with James and racing the waves to the shoreline as I wondered at creation. It was when I recently came across Lorenzo Lotto’s Annunciation that I was reminded about those very early days of motherhood, and the feelings I experienced then.

All sorts of unexpected events surprise us as we go through life. The big question is, can we follow Mary’s example and, like her, respond by taking a deep breath and having the confidence to turn to God in prayer?

Forty Days and Forty Nights
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Forty Days and Forty Nights

Why do we fast during Lent? And what do the traditions of veiling icons and sprinkling ash signify? Hazel Sillver looks at the history and meaning of 12 Lenten customs.

The Judean desert, which lies to the east of Jerusalem, is the landscape of Lent: it is where Christ retreated to be alone with God, for 40 days and 40 nights. It’s a beautifully rugged countryside: not a flat plain of sand, but an area of escarpments and deep ravines. We seek to recreate this atmosphere of retreat during Lent: but that’s not all – we are party, too, to other Lenten goings-on, such as laying purple cloths on the altar, the marking of foreheads with ash and (very important) eating hot cross buns. So what are the origins of these traditions?

40 days and 40 nights

The Lenten period echoes the amount of time Christ spent in the desert: also, it’s exactly the same amount of time that Moses spent on Mount Sinai and the period between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. In many cultures and religions, 40 days has always been considered a holy length of time, representative of death, habit breaking and forming, and of initiation.

Forty Days and Forty NightsRetreat

It is said that God is most readily felt in wild, silent places. As we hear the voice of the Divine saying in Hosea (2:14): ‘I will lure her and lead her into the wilderness, and speak softly to her heart.’ The desert was not the only place Our Lord loved to retreat to – he often rose early and went up into the hills to pray alone. During Lent we follow his lead by retreating, perhaps to a monastery or to a hideaway in the hills, to be
with God.

Forty Days and Forty NightsPancakes

Shrove Tuesday (or ‘Pancake Day’) is the feast immediately ahead of Lent – the feast before the fast. In France it’s known as Mardi Gras (‘Fat Tuesday’). In the UK, Australia and Canada, stacks of pancakes are made with the ingredients that are traditionally given up during Lent (sugar, eggs and milk); yet the custom predates Christianity. In pagan traditions, the pancake represents the sun and is eaten to celebrate the lengthening daylight hours of spring. Today, in many towns, a pancake race is held in which contestants must run and flip pancakes at the same time! This fun harks back to a woman who lived in Olney, Buckinghamshire, in medieval times who was busy making pancakes when she heard the church bells ringing; not wanting to miss the service, she ran to church still carrying her frying pan.

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, when it is customary for Christians to be blessed with the ashes of burnt palm branches that were blessed on Palm Sunday. The priest will either sprinkle ashes on the crown of the person’s head or mark them on the person’s forehead in a crucifix shape, while saying the following, somber, words: ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return’.


Almsgiving is closely connected to the tradition of fasting. Traditionally, the money we save on giving up meat, alcohol and other riches during Lent is donated to the poor. Many Christian families have a Lenten alms jar in the kitchen that is gradually filled over the course of the 40 days. Some also donate unwanted clothes or ‘fast’ on leisure pursuits and instead give their spare time to help out a neighbour or a charity.

Hot cross buns

Traditionally eaten between Shrove Tuesday and Good Friday, the hot cross bun is lovingly toasted, drenched in butter and washed down with a cup of tea. There are umpteen superstitions associated with these humble fruit buns: for example taking one aboard a boat is said to guard against shipwreck, hanging a bun in the kitchen protects against fire and sharing a hot cross bun with somebody will ensure good friendship during the year ahead. It is also customary for Christians to kiss the cross of the bun before eating it, as a nod of love for Christ.

Forty Days and Forty NightsMothering Sunday

Mothering Sunday (also known as Mother’s Day) is a Christian celebration that falls on the fourth Sunday in Lent. Harking back to the 16th century, it started out as the custom of travelling to your ‘Mother church’ (usually the nearest cathedral) for Mass. People attended these Laetare Sunday services with their mothers and often the whole family. On the way, children would pluck wild flowers to give to their mothers and the church; eventually this developed into the now established practice of giving mum a gift on Mother’s Day.


Our Lord fasted in the desert and Christians go without certain foods during Lent. The custom came from the idea that doing without heavy, rich, soporific food aided prayer. Many Christians give up meat and alcohol during Lent; and some also forgo sugar, fat and all animal products (such as milk and eggs).

Forty Days and Forty NightsRoyal Purple

One of the most striking images of Lent is to see a sparse church brilliant with the purple vestments of the priest and the purple cloths of the altar and pulpit. Purple is the colour of royalty and thus represents Christ – when the rest of the church is bare (because many churches do not allow flowers or lit candles during Lent), our eyes are drawn to this blazing holy purple, reminding us to focus our hearts on Him and nothing else. Violet dye was originally garnered from the secretions of a type of sea snail. Being so hard to obtain and worth more than gold, it was associated with people of power and royalty, since they were the only ones who could afford it. Because the colour became synonymous with Lent, it gradually came to represent penance as well.

Forty Days and Forty NightsVeiling of statues

In some Catholic communities (particularly in Spain and South America), crucifixes, images and statues are veiled with purple fabric or removed from the church during the whole of Lent (or the last two weeks of Lent). There could be many reasons for this – some relate it to Jesus hiding himself as he left the Temple (John 8:59) and others with him being concealed from view in the desert; but could also be,  representative of us focusing our minds upon nothing but Christ during Lent; and of God protectively concealing us whilst we pray.


In many parts of Europe, Christians eat pretzels from Ash Wednesday to Easter. Despite its elaborate shape, the pretzel is a very simple bread made with water, salt and flour because eggs, lard and dairy products were once forbidden during Lent. It’s thought that pretzels were created by German monks in the fourth century and that, in times gone by, they were hidden for children to find, just as Easter eggs are today. The curious shape of the pretzel represents the arms of the devout crossed over their chests – the old stance held during prayer. The breads were thus known as bracellae, which means ‘little arms’ in Latin; this gradually became brezel in German, and then eventually pretzel. Over time, pretzels became symbols of good luck and were given to the poor during Lent.

Confession, penance and prayer

The word for the day before Lent, Shrove, derives from shrive, which means, ‘to confess or hear confession’. This is the start of what will be a 40-day inner conversation with God. The root of the word confess is com (‘together’) and fari (‘speak’); during the desert-like Lenten time, the ambition is to converse with God in the depths of our hearts.