Cardinal Keith Patrick O’Brien, pictured after the Mass with l-r: Abbot Cuthbert Johnston OSB, Hugh McVey, Fr Christopher Wallbank M.Afr, Peter Jennings, Fr Donald MacLeod M.Afr, and Canon John Creanor. Picture by Stella Jennings
Cardinal Keith Patrick O’Brien presided at a special sung High Mass at Our Lady and St Andrew’s, Galashiels in Scotland on Sunday 26 August to celebrate the Centenary of the arrival of the Missionaries of Africa, White Fathers) in the UK. A former student at St Columba’s Junior Seminary, journalist Peter Jennings reports on the event and reflects on the anniversary.
The Missionaries of Africa, the White Fathers, have made a significant and vital contribution to the work of evangelisation, social and humanitarian work in countries throughout the continent of Africa since they were founded in 1868 by Cardinal Charles Lavigerie, Archbishop of Algiers and Carthage in North Africa.
The White Fathers arrived in the United Kingdom in 1912, one hundred years ago. Their first foundation was in the Diocese of Portsmouth at The Priory, Bishops Waltham in Hampshire. Initially The Priory housed only French students but later accepted young men from all over Great Britain who wanted to study for the priesthood and religious life.
During 1931, the White Fathers opened a small house in Melrose, Roxburghshire, in the Scottish Borders in the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh. Within a few years the first seminary in Scotland for the training of missionaries for Africa was founded under the patronage of the missionary monk St Columba at nearby Newtown St Boswells, in a beautiful setting overlooking the River Tweed with the Eildon Hills as a backcloth. The expansion of the missionary activity of the White Fathers into English speaking African counties heightened the need for proficiency in English. It was therefore decided in 1948 to move the final year of priestly training from Europe to Monteviot House at nearby Jedburgh.
During the ten years of the White Fathers stay in Monteviot the then Archbishop of Edinburgh, Cardinal Gordon Gray, ordained 149 young men from all over Western Europe as priests for Africa at the nearby Our Lady and St Andrew’s Parish Church, Galashiels.
Those of us who like myself, went to St Columba’s junior seminary in September 1959 knew that the Senior Seminary of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh was situated only a few miles away along the valley at Drygrange, on the way to Abbotsford, home of Sir Walter Scott.
It was at Drygrange in September of 1959 that the young man from Northern Ireland, Keith O’Brian, started his studied for the priesthood. He was ordained priest by Cardinal Gray in April 1965 and twenty years later Cardinal Gray ordained him to the episcopate as his successor of the Archdiocese. Archbishop Keith O’Brien was created Cardinal by Blessed John Paul II in Rome during October 2003.
It was therefore entirely appropriate that Cardinal Keith Patrick O’Brien Presided at a special sung High Mass at Our Lady and St Andrew’s, Galashiels, on Sunday 26 August, to celebrate the Centenary of the Arrival of the Missionaries of Africa in the UK.
Seven White Fathers concelebrated Mass, including Fr Paul Hannon M.Afr, Provincial Delegate of the Missionaries of Africa in Great Britain, together with Abbot Cuthbert Johnson OSB, the preacher, who began at St Columba’s College the same day that I did.
Canon John Creanor, Dean of the Scottish Borders, on his last Sunday after 16 years as Parish Priest of Galashiels, welcomed Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the White Fathers and the Pelicans - the old boys of St Columba’s Junior Seminary, as they are known - and their families. My wife Stella was with me as were other family members and friends.
Canon Creanor, who also began his studies for the priesthood at Drygrange, in September 1959, the same day as Cardinal O’Brien, has now been appointed Parish Priest of Our Lady of the Sea, North Berwick.
Before he gave the final blessing, Cardinal Keith O’Brien blessed a “Commemorative Plaque on the occasion of the Centenary of the arrival of ‘Les Peres Blancs’ (The Missionaries of Africa) in the UK: 1912-2012.’ This plaque on a wall near the sanctuary of Our Lady and St Andrew’s, Galashiels, ends with the words “Ad Salvandos Afros”, the motto of St Columba’s College.
It was a memorable, deeply prayerful, emotional and happy occasion, in particular for those of us like me who had begun studying for the priesthood in the Scottish Borders during September 1959.
In the bright late August sunshine after the Centenary Mass I met up with Pelicans who I had not seen for more than 50 years. Conversations and reminiscing continued over a most convivial Sunday lunch for about 100 people in Quins Restaurant near the Catholic Church in Galashiels. Then it was time to move onto St Columba’s College where in the small secluded graveyard Fr Paul Hannon M.Afr, Provincial Delegate, and Fr Christopher Wallbank M.Afr, Missionaries of Africa, Sector Secretary, London, led the prayer for the departed White Fathers buried there. A wreath of red and white flowers was laid. Grown men overcome with emotion wept silently.
I wiped away the tears from my eyes as we made our way back into the main building, now owned by Tweed Horizons. St Columba’s College, the White Fathers Junior Seminary closed following a major fire in November 1963 that did severe damage but fortunately did not cause injury to any of the staff or students at the time.
It was a glorious afternoon with the sun shining from a clear blue sky as I looked towards the old football pitch at the front, and saw the trees down to the valley and the River Tweed on the other side, with all the memories of years ago flooding back!
All this is put into context and given meaning, as Abbot Cuthbert Johnson OSB, recalled in his fine sermon that morning: “The founder of the Missionaries of Africa, Cardinal Lavigerie, who with prophetic insight, wrote: The missionaries must be mainly initiators, but the lasting work must be accomplished by the Africans themselves, once they have become Christians and apostles.”
Abbot Johnson added: “For Cardinal Lavigerie the work of White Fathers, Brothers and Sisters was simply to prepare the ground and sow the seeds so that as he often said: Africa will be converted by the Africans". He concluded: “Africa was once called the ‘dark continent’ because it was unknown and unexplored but thanks to the work of the White Fathers, Brothers and Sisters and so many others, the light of truth now burns brightly.”