The article on St Fergus mentioned that ‘popish rites’ continued well after the Reformation in Caithness. However this was very much a grass-roots activity – the clergy of the area had been enthusiastic supporters of the Reformation and there is no history of secret Mass centres or the equivalent of the ‘heather priests’ who worked in other parts of the Highlands. I remember speaking to an Australian visitor who had been assured by an ex-pat that she would not find a Catholic church in Caithness. Yet there is one in Wick, Thurso and not far across the border into Sutherland at Brora. How did this happen?
The oldest of these churches is St Joachim’s in Wick. During the 18th century, Wick was an important herring fishing harbour and the on-shore work of gutting, salting and packing was done mainly by gangs of women and girls, with the men either on the fishing boats or making the wooden barrels to store the fish. Many of these workers came from the west coast and islands and were Catholics. In the late 1820’s and 1830’s, Fr Lovi from Keth stayed in Wick for the six weeks of the height of the fishing season to serve these workers. He was the first resident priest in the area since the Reformation. In 1832 there was a cholera epidemic in the town. Anyone who could, fled the town for healthier parts (sounds familiar?), but Fr Lovi stayed behind to tend the sick and dying. In thanks, the town gifted him a site to build a church and in 1837 St Joachim’s was completed. It has had a chequered history, including being part of the Mission to the Arctic during the 1850’s and 60’s. The congregation rose and fell depending on the state of the fishing industry and the movement of army personnel, particularly during the Second World War. The establishment of the Dounreay Nuclear site greatly increased the population in Caithness and warranted a permanent priest in the area. This is still the case.
Brora was the next church to be built – well, not so much built as re-homed! The hydro-electric scheme near Lairg was being built with mainly Irish labour. As most of them were Catholics, they had an Irish priest with them but no church. The Capaldi family, who had links with both Brora and Wick arranged for the Church to acquire a site in Brora. The intrepid workers acquired a redundant hut from their employer and moved it to the site in Brora. Unfortunately, they did this on their only day off – a Sunday, thus upsetting their strictly presbyterian neighbours. Despite this hiccup, the parish received considerable support from local people and were able to replace the hut with a conventional church building in the early 1970’s. The various industries around Brora – fishing, hydro-electric work, mining, the woollen mill – have all ended and the congregation has dwindled accordingly but still warrants a resident priest.
The third church on our list is St Anne’s, Thurso. This has the most conventional history of the three. With the population of Thurso doubling as a result of the Dounreay nuclear reactor and a USA naval base along the coast at Forss (who also supported the church in Brora on their regular travels along the A9), the parish priest, Fr. Mario Conti (now Bishop Emeritus), decided that a church in Thurso was also needed. With the enthusiastic support of the newcomers, St Anne’s was built in 1960. In 1967 Fr Conti moved into the new parish house with adjacent hall in Thurso, which is still occupied today.
These churches have a common origin – the movement of people in search of work and the dedication of the priests who followed them so that they would not be denied the sacraments. St Fergus and his companions were bringing the Gospel to people who had never heard it. Fr Lovi and his successors were ensuring that people who knew the Gospel could continue to hear it. The ruined sites of the early mission centres and the modern churches both act as reminders of the importance of the Gospel message and of our role in passing it on. While most mass movements of people are caused by financial pressures, this can also serve God’s purpose by spreading the Good News. It would be interesting to explore this idea on an international level but perhaps it is even more interesting to look at our own travels, be they round the world or down the road to the local shop – do we take the Gospel with us? Do we search out others who are preaching the Gospel by word or example?