another kid from Stoke

It was the 1970s. A concrete building in Stoke, where we traipsed in, children of a long tradition of religious adherence. Our parents, or mothers if only one, had listened through the Latin Mass, attended Catholic schools, married nice boys (or girls) and carried on the faith.

Of course it would be tempting to think that this concrete building, perhaps a contender for the least aesthetically beautiful church in town (particularly when you consider that beauty is allowed in Roman Catholicism), represented a challenge to those used to something more gorgeous. Yet in New Zealand, many many people worshipped in shanties and small wooden buildings unless they were in the centre of the larger cities, and I struggle to imagine the nineteenth century churches of rural and working class Ireland as places of physical grandeur.

The old timers talk of the beauty of the Latin Mass. Nobody talks about the buildings that I have noticed. The tradition was of belief through word and ritual, of faith and frankly, a lot of doing what you were told to.

People a bit older than me (relative springety chicken of the 1970s) talk of the stultifying uniformity of life in 1960s New Zealand. The late 1970s in Stoke wasn't a lot different. I grew up in a safe and loving home with meals on the table at regular times, stories at bedtime, Mum at home sewing and cleaning (and and and of course, but I didn't notice much as you don't), Dad riding his bike to the freezing works where the work was at least a little bit related to the farming life he had enjoyed until they moved to the city for the children. We played outside in our decent-sized kiwi backyard and learnt to garden and compost without thinking of it as anything special. Our grandparents had a farm and so we got to play in really big open spaces there in the holidays. There was a playground round the corner which we were taken to and once I was seven I started Brownies. We got colour television when I was six and I think the year before that, a stereo with ABBA as the first cassette tape we owned.

For all the conformity which the Catholic Church outwardly promotes, it was at Mass that I got a taste of something different. We used to sit up the front and Mum would answer my questions about the symbols on the altar. Incense was only on particular occasions but the smell I loved was as the candles were extinguished at the end of Mass, while we sang the last hymn. It was in the sermons that we were challenged to lead a different life, that ideas were put forward and analysed. I remember hymns such as Go Tell Everyone and the intoxicating and romantic stories of saints in the children's library. I think it was Bernadette of Lourdes who was so poor that they put newspaper between the sheets to keep warm. Then she saw Mary. It was the detail about being so poor which I remember most.

Like most of the children from the congregation at Stoke in the 1970s, I don't attend Mass regularly now. Like many others with historical links to the Catholic Church, I question much about the hierarchical structure of the church and the absence of radical action relative to the words of Jesus. Most of us stopped attending church anywhere. Many are angry and atheist and some found God in a formal Protestant setting, statistically likely to be one of the fundamentalist churches of rising popularity.

Although it is an inconsistent gift, I do have a startling memory for names and experiences from my childhood. Which is why I can remember well my First Communion, spilling the water as I carried it to the front, wearing a white dress and veil for the one and only time (I wore red to my wedding, nothing covering my face), only a couple of names from that class but including a boy whose mother's face I can just recall.

It's great to see that the social justice stuff rubbed off on another kid from Stoke. Bryce Edwards has written an excellent series of blogposts analysing class and identity politics in New Zealand over the past 3-4 decades. I highly recommend that every New Zealander reads them.


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