A New Century
The quarter of a century that followed the death of Canon Van Stiphout saw dramatic changes that affected the life of the parish. The Depression of the Thirties was followed by the devastating Second World War and this created a need for post-war rebuilding that moved people away from the old centres of population. The response of the Church to these changes led to the creation of new diocese and Lanarkshire came under the Diocese of Motherwell. St. Margaret’s had two parish priests that guided the people through these changes.
St. Margaret’s new parish priest, Father Stephen Thornton, DSO, MC, was a complete contrast to his predecessor. Born in Glasgow, he had served in a number of parishes in the West of Scotland before he had volunteered as a military chaplain on the outbreak of War in 1914. He saw service in France and Egypt, and his conspicuous bravery in ministering to the wounded under fire was recognised by the award of the Distinguished Service Order, “for devoted attention to wounded under shell fire”. Quite exceptionally, he once took command of a unit when all the officers and senior NCOs had been killed and had taken a number of German prisoners. The Chaplains’ Department was furious at this action and reprimanded him, even threatening a Court Martial, but on the recommendation of the military, the King awarded him the Military Cross.
It was known that he had been wounded in the War and that he suffered from shell-shock, and it was believed that he had a silver plate in his head. This may have accounted for his somewhat unpredictable behaviour, including putting the belongings of one of his curates, Father Rooney, into the hail while the priest was out, as he had suddenly decided to rearrange the accommodation. A rigid disciplinarian, some parishioners believed that he still thought he was a Captain in the army, he was not slow to voice his opinion on many matters. He totally opposed mixed marriages and outspokenly condemned them, and was known to ridicule Christian names that he disapproved of, e.g. hearing of a boy who had been named “Clyde”, he remarked that he wondered at anyone naming a child after “a stinking river”.
It was his custom to lock the church doors at the start of Mass and not open them until the priest had left the altar, so as to prevent people arriving late for Mass, or leaving early. Like many people in this country, he had a fear and distrust of socialism, which he suspected was but a step removed from Communism, and he threatened to refuse the Sacraments to those who joined the Independent Labour Party. going so far as to name known members from the pulpit.
Yet, in contrast, he was loved by the children. He not only visited the school regularly. but insisted on leading the children in singing hymns at Mass. Waving his arms like an orchestral conductor, and jumping up and down in time to the singing, he was completely at one with his young parishioners, who, perhaps. better saw past the. strict front that their priest offered to the world, than the adults. He was the chief organiser of the yearly holiday at Langhank for the poor children, and raised collections in the church for funds for this event. Dean Thornton’s time at Airdrie coincided with the “hungry thirties” when the town was badly affected by the depression. which hit hardest those areas dependent upon the heav industries of coal, iron and steel.
Despite his vocal opposition to socialist ideas, he was acutely concerned about the welfare of his people, especially the children. Parishioners recall that on one visit to the school, he was shocked to discover boys with bare feet, and he went straight into the town and bought several pairs of shoes which he gave to them. What was not forgotten by many was his raising a collection in early 1928 to help the families of those miners who were still suffering from the General Strike eighteen months earlier. The church hall was fitted out to provide recreational facilities for the unemployed: billiards, solo, carpet bowls and a selection of newspapers was always available. Each day a large pot of soup was provided by the Dean so that the men could be guaranteed one decent meal. In addition, he organised a dance every Thursday, at a cost of 4d, and regular whist drives on Sundays. He founded a debating society that quickly became well-known and was invited to visit other parishes; this not only gave the unemployed something to do with their time, but it gave many young men the opportunity of learning the art of public speaking and encouraged them to take an interest in current affairs, including politics.
The smaller hall was used to provide committee rooms and here the Knights of St. Columba held their meetings until 1930. Until the ball was demolished, the Hibernian Insurance members met there to collect payments and give out payments. Rival attractions were offered by the Albion Hall after 1930, which had a boxing booth as well as games facilities. It became the centre for both the Foresters and the Hibernians, but due to its republican connections, was shunned by most of the clergy, particularly Dean Thornton. It was Father Thornton who brought about the most dramatic changes in the church itself and in its surroundings. The old mine workings under the building, that had given Father McNab problems almost a century before, had begun to weaken the structure and required urgent attention. In an effort to reduce the strain on the retaining walls caused by subsidence, the side galleries were removed. The church was redecorated and a frieze put round the walls where the gallery had been, and the frieze was decorated with shields. It is from this time that the two shields above the altar date. Father Thornton placing the Royal Emblem of Scotland on the left (Gospel) side of the altar, and the arms of St. Margaret on the right (Epistle) side. At about the same time, the ceiling was lowered to its present level. Miss Mulvey and Miss McGeechan painted the pictures that decorated the panels on the High Altar: the central picture shows two angels bowing toward the tabernacle, and the outer panels depict St. Andrew and St. Margaret. These last two are laid over older paintings of St. Patrick and St. Andrew.
In spite of his predecessors attempts to improve the houses in St. Margaret’s Place and Priest’s Loan, the buildings had become unsafe and were demolished. Several of the families who had lived there were forced to move. John Paul, the church’s gravedigger and rent- collector had stayed in Priest’s Loan and been famous for always giving back one penny for prompt payment of rents, was one of those who moved. Martin Malloy, the school janitor and organiser of the yearly picnic to Rochsoles, had a house provided beside the school. Many of the families moved to Coatbridge or new houses in Bore Road: but the Traynors sent their son Edward to school in St. Margaret’s, along walk, rather than change school.
In 1932, Dean Thornton arranged to have the Angelus rung for the first time, and employed a Mr. McCulloch as the bell-ringer. This caused annoyance to some of the townspeople who were still suspicious of Catholicism. Religious intolerance was dealt a serious blow when the Grand Master of the local Orange Lodge publicly thanked Father Thornton and the people of St. Margaret’s for praying for his wife when she had been very ill. Over the next decade, religious hostility was to die away. Five priests served in St. Margaret’s during Dean Thornton’s time, Fathers Edward Bradley, Jeremiah O’Sullivan and John Rooney had left by 1937, while Fathers John Wilson and James Fitzgibbon followed their parish priest’s example and became military chaplains. Both saw action in World War II, and Father Fitzgibbon is acknowledged to have administered more Last Sacraments on the beaches at Dunkirk than he had done in the previous twelve years of his priesthood. Father Wilson, it is claimed was among those troops who first entered Belsen Concentration Camp and saw the full horror of the Holocaust.
After ten years working for the people of St. Margaret’s, Dean Thornton died in 1937, and was spared having to live through another World War. His funeral was attended by the entire parish, local dignitaries and representatives of the armed forces. Local shops closed and as one observer put it, “The town was black.” The Dean’s medals were entrusted to Father Sheridan, a young priest who had been friendly with the Thornton family, and who was later to become parish priest in St. Margaret’s. Father Sheridan delivered the medals to Rome. For almost a year, Father Daniel McGlinchey, who had been appointed a curate in the parish in 1933, took over running St. Margaret’s until a successor to the Dean could be appointed. Father McGlinchey remained at St. Margaret’s for another eleven years.
Father James McKenna was born in Monaghan and educated at Maynooth College before serving in a number of parishes in Glasgow and Lanarkshire prior to being appointed to St. Margaret’s in 1938. For first part of his time in the parish, he devoted himself to the needs of his flock during the dark days of the struggle against Hitler’s Reich. For the second time in a generation, young men left the town to serve in the forces, and some did not return. Father McKenna made it a point to visit the families of the servicemen, encouraging them to pray for an end to the war: in particular he was mindful of those who lost loved ones in the conflict. Like most of his predecessors, Father McKenna was chiefly interested in the young, and was quick to show his parishioners that the 1944 Education Act gave opportunities that would enable the young to make a better life for themselves. The Archbishop was anxious that the religious life of the Catholic schools should not be neglected and appointed a number of religious examiners. Father McKenna regarded his appointment as one of the examiners as a pleasure rather than as a duty, as it gave him greater opportunity to visit the young. Even when he was made Missionary Rector, he saw his work with children and their welfare as being his prime task. He was greatly assisted in his work by the enthusiasm and special skills of his curates. Father McGlinchey set up a choir and a Study Guild, this latter being open to the young men who had returned from the War and was a means of involving them in the discussion of current affairs. Father John Cosgrove. who succeeded Father McGlinchey, developed the guild further and encouraged an interest in politics. Small groups accompanied Father Cosgrove to meetings and took an active part in debates, both in Airdrie and as far as Govan in Glasgow. It was the priest’s hope that some of the members of the Guild would take up a career in politics, and of the founder members, one, John Donnelly became a Burgh Councillor and later Provost of the town, and still serves as a Regional Councillor. Another member, Thomas Monaghan joined the Dominican Order, while the two other original participants, James Scally and Joseph McGlone were noted debaters. Father Peter Murphy, on the other hand, was deeply involved in work with the youth of the parish and encouraged them to take an active part in church life. Among them, they helped bring up a generation of Catholics who were more committed and concerned about society and the Church and prepared to play an active part in parish life and in the community at large.
The late ‘40s was a period of reconstruction after the War and Airdrie was to be changed as a result. The emergence of the Welfare State helped remove the worst of the social evils that had preoccupied previous parish priests — poverty, bad housing, illness and deprivation. In spite of post-war shortages, Airdrie, like every other British town saw the start of an enormous house-building programme that pulled down the 19th Century tenements and created new housing estates on the outskirts of the town. As the people moved into the new areas, so the Church followed and there was a period of church construction that was more rapid than anything that had gone before. 1948 saw the creation of the Diocese of Motherwell out of, what a century before had been, St. Margaret’s Parish. This recognition of the success of the Church in Lanarkshire was welcomed with pride by the people of Airdrie who realised that the success was due in large measure to the labour of the devoted priests who had set out from the town to establish missions and churches throughout the county. There was, however, a little surprise and disappointment that St. Margaret’s was not chosen as the Cathedral Church, as it had been common for this dignity to be given to the mother-church of the diocese. However, the first Bishop of Motherwell, Edward Douglas, on his arrival from St. Anthony’s, Govan, sought out a number of men to assist him in the task of establishing the new see, and turned to Canon McKenna for help, and appointed him Consultor — publicly marking his respect for the priest and for his parish. The early years of the new diocese was devoted to the creation of new parishes in the housing schemes to which many of the town’s Catholic population was moving, e.g. St. Andrew’s which opened in 1950.
In his twelve years in Airdrie, Canon McKenna witnessed a remarkable transformation in the town. The years of war had brought fear and terror, but it had finally killed the last traces of religious bitterness, except for a tiny minority of hardliners, whose views were repudiated by persons of all faiths. His parishioners had become completely integrated into the community, their “Irishness” a thing of the past, and willing to play a leading role in public affairs. Many long- established families were lost to St. Margaret’s as they moved into the new parishes serving the modern housing estates that were built in the late 1940’s. There remained, however, still around 4,000 in his care. Thanks to his efforts, educational opportunities were available and the Catholic ethos of the schools not in any way dimmed.
Canon McKenna’s death in 1950 was marked by public mourning not only in St. Margaret’s but in the neighbouring parishes which had come to know and respect a great friend and leader. At his death he had assured the future of the parish and sown the seed for future development.