Diocese of Northampton



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Fr Bob McCormick and the Northampton Diocese Travelling Mission

Manuscript annotation: "Written by Michael Hazell in Summer 2006"

Fr. Bob McCormick and the Northampton Diocese Travelling Mission

Canon Anthony Hulme had begun the work of providing an occasional Mass in the more remote parts of the seven counties of the Diocese at the end of the '40s. He worked from a base in Burnham Beeches called 'Fox Den'. For a short time he had the assistance of Fr. Robert Manley who worked from his father's home in Ipswich. 

Fr. Bob McCormick joined the Travelling Mission early in 1959. Bishop Leo Parker gave Fr. Bob a fortnight to make up his mind whether to accept the job or not. He said he hoped his answer would be "Yes", but that if he felt Bob would go 'off the rails' on this kind of work then he hoped he would tell him so. After a year Canon Hulme was appointed to Bedford and Bob then worked the Travelling Mission on his own from 1960 until it was closed in 1975 shortly before the division of the Diocese and the establishment of a new Diocese of East Anglia in June 1976. 

Before the great influx into the Diocese of people from London and Birmingham, much of East Anglia was rural, parishes were relatively few and many small towns did not have their own Catholic church, and were frequently a distance from the nearest Mass on Sundays. The Mission work was aimed at making some provision for the Catholics who lived in remote villages and towns, and was done in consultation and cooperation with the local parish priests. 

The work revolved round a rota of 'quarterly Mass centres'. These were villages or towns in which Bob offered Mass each quarter and gave the local Catholics the opportunity to have their babies baptised and provided instruction for the children. Each Sunday he offered Mass in two, and very often three, such centres. He was only able to go to each of the centres once every three months because of the large extent of the Diocese and the number of centres he established. 

There were some people, (very often living on the doorsteps of their own parish churches,) who questioned the usefulness of having Mass on such an infrequent basis. Bob's answer to this was that it is always beneficial to get the local Catholics together for Mass in their own villages or towns because the quarterly Mass provided an opportunity for the people to talk to a priest. It gave them a realisation that the Church was trying to provide them with the means to be the visible church in their localities, get to know each other as members of the same Church and community. 

Bob used to spend a few days in each place he was to say Mass, staying with a local family. It often intrigued him that he was likely to receive more spontaneous hospitality from those who were not Catholic. He suspected that some Catholics thought a priest lives off a 'golden platter’ and so were somewhat apprehensive about offering hospitality in case they might not come up to standard. Non-Catholics on the other hand were more likely to look upon the priest as just another human being in need of bed and board. But he always maintained that once he was known in a district there was never any shortage of offers of hospitality. 

In the first years of his missionary activity, Bob used a great variety of places in which to offer the quarterly Masses. These included village halls, British Legion halls, public house rooms, private sitting rooms, stately homes, theatres, a boxing ring, and the open air. Later in quite a few places he was able to use the local Church of England churches. He would book each of these venues for two hours, allowing himself half an hour to get them ready – putting out chairs and kneelers, setting the large tape-recorder to play "holy music' until the Mass began, finding a suitable spot to display the large carved statue of Our Lady, giving out Mass leaflets, and finally giving the whole place a good whiff of Prinknash incense to smother any noxious odours leftover from the previous night's riotous sessions in village halls and pubs. He would then hear confessions for half an hour before the Mass which lasted half an hour, and was followed by the same period of time given over to packing up before moving on to the next centre. This, repeated three times each Sunday, made for a fair day's work. 

Bob used a Land Rover in which to carry his kit and travel some 35,000 miles around the Diocese each year. Whilst having a remarkable thirst for fuel this proved to be the best vehicle for the job. His kit weighed about 5 cwt, and this was carried everywhere he went, month in and month out. He used to pick people up from remote farms and cottages and bring them to Mass and take them home afterwards. The Land Rover was ideally able to stand up to this constant heavy usage without heavy repair bills. In the winter months the Land Rover came into its own because with its four-wheel-drive it was able to keep going when most other vehicles had stopped. He often felt that he did more good with the Land Rover pulling cars out of snowdrifts during the bad winter months than by several years of preaching! 

When Bob went to an area for the first time he would usually have a few addresses of known Catholics. Some of these would be supplied by the parish priest of the district, some by the Bishop who would pass on letters he had received from people in the area who had written to him about the difficulties they had in getting to Mass. He would then call at these addresses and often get more leads about other Catholics living in the area. The local vicar would sometimes be able to provide a name or two, as would the local shopkeeper. In these and other ways he was able to build up a comprehensive register of local Catholics. 

Cynical clerical colleagues would often wonder what he did during the week. He would remind them that four days were spent in the village areas where he had Mass centres finding and visiting the people, arranging instructions for the children, and smoothing out arrangements for the coming Masses. On the weekdays when he was in the villages he would have a morning Mass in the houses where he stayed. Two separate half days were spent travelling to and from the work areas. The other two days were spent at his headquarters in Burnham Beeches writing letters and Mass notices, and preparing the next edition of 'Travelling Mission News'. He would always have at least 75 outgoing mail items each week. 

Over the years there was a slow development in the Mass centres. Each year he would hand over about four of his quarterly centres to the parishes so that they could be more regularly served from there. He was then able to include another centre from his waiting list, and begin the process over again. The average attendance at these Mission Masses was 34. Over half of these went to confession and received Holy Communion. About a third of those who attended would have managed to get to Mass elsewhere on a regular basis when the Travelling Mission was not in town, but the rest were unable to go to Mass in these circumstances.

Canon Hulme also had a trailer caravan chapel which was almost unroadworthy when Bob took over the TM. Bob was very excited when a newspaper gave him to understand that they would through their columns fund a project for a custom-built articulated mobile church. When they soon forgot this idea he resorted to making a mobile chapel himself out of an old Leyland Lion single deck bus. This had a permanent altar, stained glass windows, organ, Stations of the Cross, a large collapsible canvas porch and a large painting of Our Lady and Child in the indicator board on the front of the bus. Each year he tried to get the services of a priest from one of the Religious Orders to give a week's 'Mission' in one or two of the villages where Bob had his quarterly Mass. The Mission was given in the mobile chapel which Bob parked in the village for the week. He also took his chapel to the country agricultural shows each year, and usually got a good attendance at the daily Mass as well as a great number of interested folks on board during these shows. 

In February 1961 Bob decided to produce 'Travelling Mission News', a quarterly news-sheet, price 2d. In this he would give the programme of Masses for the coming 
quarter and include other items of interest about postal instructions for children etc. 

This was the programme of Masses for the first edition: 

Sun. 12 Feb: Mildenhall, Suffolk  8.30am 
Fordham, Cambs  10.00
Burwell, Cambs 11.30
Sun. 19 Feb: Wickham Market, Suffolk  9.00
Saxmundham, Suffolk 11.00
Sun. 26 Feb: Woolpit, Suffolk  9.00
Bildeston, Suffolk 11.00
Sun. 5 Mar: Upwell, Norfolk  9.00
Eye, Northants 5.00pm
12 Mar: West Walton, Norfolk  9.00
Barnack, Northants 5.00pm
19 Mar: Eye, Suffolk  9.00
Long Stratton, Norfolk 11.00
26 Mar: Irthlingborough, Northants 9.00
Sun, 2 Apr: Welford, Northants  9.00
Lamport, Northants 11.00
9 Apr: Boxford, Suffolk 9.00
16 Apr: Aston Clinton, Bucks  9.00
Cheddington, Bucks 5.00pm
23 Apr: Holt, Norfolk  9.00
Blakeney, Norfolk 10.30
Sun. 7 May: Histon, Cambs  9.00
Caldecote, Cambs 11.00
Haslingfield, Cambs  5.00pm
(This list includes only those centres which had quarterly Masses. More Masses were said on some Sundays, but not on a quarterly basis). 

Subsequent newsletters would relate the story of other centres where Mass would be said, including a number which were destined to become regular Mass centres in the parishes. Amongst these were Barton-le-Clay, where 70 were present for the first Mass on 29 January 1961, Trimley-St. Mary in Suffolk, Yaxley in Norfolk, Mildenhall, Suffolk, Holt, Norfolk, Blakeney, Norfolk, Long Crendon, Bucks, Woolpit, Suffolk. 

Fr. Bob's Travelling Mission Report for 1961 described how 3 Masses had been offered on 19 Sundays of the year. In total 3341 people had attended the 110 Masses. 7 new quarterly centres were opened, 4 existing centres were handed over to parishes for weekly Mass, 300 children were provided with postal instructions by Our Lady's Catechists. Illustrated slide talks on the work and needs of the TM were given at Bury St. Edmunds, Princes Risborough, Ipswich, Cambridge, King's Lynn. The mobile chapel (“The Mobile Busilica') had attended the Suffolk County Agricultural Show at Ipswich and the National Caravan Rally at Woburn Park - where 180 caravaners came to Mass in a large marquee provided by the Caravan Club and arrangements for the Mass were organised by the club entertainment officer! 

Statistics for 1964 revealed that 5,820 people had attended the Mission Masses and that a total of £398.12.8d was donated to the TM through the collection allowed by the Bishop on Home Mission Sunday. 

On 15 July in that year Fr. Bob was delighted to receive the Apostolic Delegate, Most Reverend Igino Cardinale, at the TM headquarters at Fox Den in Bucks.

Later that year the TM Land Rover proved itself on Christmas Day in combating the hazards of heavy snow and ice in the roads of the Fen districts of Upwell, Newton and Sutton St. Edmunds. The mobile crib which was used on a trailer from the beginning of Advent until the New Year came to an untimely end when the figures broke up through the vibration of trailer wheels on the roads. Fr. Bob was a man of many gifts, and he repaired all the figures and presented them to the new parish of Dogsthorpe which was in process of formation in Peterborough. He replaced them with figures made of unbreakable material, and the three open sides of the crib were fitted with clear perspex sheets so that the illuminated crib could be left on the trailer overnight in all weathers.

Other centres which were to be opened and supplied with a regular Mass by the TM were: 

SUFFOLK: Framlingham, Acton, Bures, Debenham, Dalham, Glemsford, Ixworth, Long Melford, Monks Eleigh, Newbourne, Orford, Rickinghall, Stradbroke, Wickhambrook. 

NORTHANTS: Bozeat, Braunston, Finedon, Hackleton 

BEDFORDSHIRE: Bromham, Harlington, Hockliffe, Houghton Regis, Totternhoe. 

BUCKS: Stewkley, Stoke Goldington, Waddesdon. 

CAMBS: Bottisham, Burwell, Cottenham, Impington, Soham, Thorney, 

NORFOLK: Attleborough, Bracon Ash, Brundall, Burnham Market, Holt, Long Stratton, Reepham. 

LINCOLNSHIRE: Sutton St. Edmunds.

In August 1975 Bishop Charles Grant of Northampton closed down the Travelling Mission. He informed Fr. McCormick he had reluctantly decided to do this in view of the pending division of the Diocese in June 1976 and the setting up of the new Diocese of East Anglia with a new Bishop, Alan Clark. The news was met by great sadness in all the Travelling Mission Centres as well as by the Missioner. He had worked tirelessly for 17 years in this specialist work, and became parish priest of Diss. 

Hazell, Michael Rev (-2021)