The Age of Change

The last thirty-five years (at the time or writing) have seen the Church throughout the world undergo fundamental changes as a result of the Second Vatican Council which met between 1963 and 1966. In what was a testing time for Catholics in general. St. Margaret’s had three parish priests: Canon McCann, during whose tenure the Council met, Canon Sheridan, whose period in Airdrie coincided with the initial implementation of the decisions of the Council, and Canon Duddy, upon whom fell the burden of bringing the parish into compliance with the new regulations.

Canon McCann

It was appropriate that a Lanarkshire man should be in charge of the mother-church of the Diocese as the last stages in the expansion programme were completed. Father Thomas McCann was born in Hamilton and had served in a number of Lanarkshire parishes before being sent to Airdrie in 1950. He brought to his task an easy, out-going manner that made people feel at home in his company. He encouraged social evenings in the church hall, which he made a point of attending, and frequently contributed to the entertainment with his good singing voice, although he put up a show of reluctance when asked for a song. He had a passion for football and was a frequent spectator at reserve games, often in near empty grounds. He was well-known for his hospitality, and St. Margaret’s was a frequent venue for priests to have a get-together after Saturday football matches. His qualities of tolerance, patience and understanding were important as he saw more and more of his flock departing to the new parishes that were by then eroding the boundaries of St. Margaret’s. While he might have wondered if two parishes as close to his church were desirable, he gave his ready cooperation and financial assistance to the newest additions to the “family” of St. Margaret’s—St. Edward’s, opened in 1960, and St. Serf’s the following year.

Like those who had gone before him, Canon McCann as he became shortly after his arrival, was concerned with education and stressed the important part played by the Catholic schools in bringing up the next generation. While he was in the parish, St. Margaret’s School was upgraded to become a junior secondary, and he worked with the new head, Denis Harvey, who had taken over from Edward McNamara, and who was to supervise the new establishment. Pupils at St. Margaret’s were able to pursue courses up to the third or fourth year, but those pupils who wanted an education up to Higher standard were obliged to travel to Coatbridge to attend a senior secondary school. The Canon established a good relationship with the Headmaster of St. Patrick’s Senior Secondary, Mr. James Breen (son of the aforementioned John Breen). The two men became redoubtable defenders of the right of Catholics to have their own schools, in the face of strong criticism of what was referred to as “segregated schools”. James Breen went even further, and challenged the local banks when they did not notify him of vacancies, and as a result, a career in banking was opened to Catholics.

Canon McCann was ably assisted by a number of priests (see Appendix I), who contributed to the welfare of the parish in many ways. Father Charles McKinley (195 1-54) was, like the Canon, fond of music and organised concert parties that are remembered as occasions of great hilarity. To Fathers Kevin Rogers and Timothy Brosnan fell the task of trying to keep the parishioners informed of the decisions being reached in Rome. Very often working with only the barest details of the conclusions of the Council, both priests explained what changes were being planned and of the reasons for them. Father Brosnan states it was difficult as the clergy was usually “one page ahead” of the laity. Nevertheless, when it was decided to say the first Mass in the new rite, St. Margaret’s was chosen and priests from the Deanery gathered to hear Bishop Thomson serve the first English Mass in the Diocese.

The Canon was something of a traditionalist and was concerned that the changes would sweep away all that the ancestors of his parishioners had fought so hard to establish over the previous one hundred and twenty years. However, the changes were not in effect during his time there, and the good people of St. Margaret’s attended the Tridentine Mass, at which the Canon and his altar-server, Paddy McAvoy, gave a public performance that is still talked about today.

Although a victim of sciatica in his later years, Canon McCann fought to prevent the pain and crippling interfering with his duties. Despite his physical problems, he not only said Mass daily, but also made his routine house calls and took the Sacraments to the sick and dying. He was to be seen regularly driving his car about on his “rounds” — even through he had to use a walking-stick to operate the accelerator. However, his health could not sustain his efforts, and he was obliged to retire from active parish work in 1966. He spent six years in retirement before he was called to his reward in 1972. Again, the people of St. Margaret’s turned out to mourn the passing of a friend, and to attend what was one of the last Requiem Masses in Latin for a priest of the parish.

Canon Sheridan

In 1966, St. Margaret’s received its first English-born parish priest. Father John Sheridan, DD, PhD, MA, had been born In Manchester and educated at Eccles School, where he developed the interest in technical subjects that has stayed with him throughout his life, and which he saw as an ideal preparation for the study of philosophy. His family moved to Uddingston and became friendly with the Thorntons, and the young Father Sheridan was a frequent visitor to St. Margaret’s. When Father Thornton was there; indeed, it was he who was entrusted with the mission to Rome to give the Dean’s medals to the Scots College. Father Sheridan spent some time on the staff of Blairs College and at the University of Alberta, as well as in a number of parishes in Lanark. He has the distinction of being the only parish priest to have served as a curate in St. Margaret’s before becoming parish priest, he was there in 1949-50, when Canon McKenna was in charge.

His arrival coincided with the opening of St. Edward’s and St. Serf’s parishes, which marked the end of the period of rapid expansion of church building that had been a feature of the previous decade. With the loss of people to these two new churches, the Catholic population of the parish fell to around 2500. The main task facing Canon Sheridan, as he became, was to deal with structural alterations to the church. The timbers supporting the bell had rotted and they were replaced to ensure the safety of the belltower. However, his biggest task was in preparing the building for the changes that resulted from Vatican II. St. Margaret’s was an old edifice of a style similar to Presbyterian churches, and substantial changes were required to make it fit for the new liturgy. Like his immediate predecessor, the Canon was a traditionalist, and wished to ensure that the character of St. Margaret’s was not lost in the restructuring, and sought modification of the plans where he saw a threat. As a result, the final decisions were the product of compromises on all sides.

The age old problem of the stability of the foundations emerged once more to complicate the renovation work. It was discovered that the weight of the new altar that was to be placed in front of the old one, was too great for the foundations. Consequently, the floor was excavated and a concrete pillar set into the ground to take the weight of the new structure, during which time St. Margaret’s was more like a building site than a church. There is no evidence of recent subsidence in the church, but the Canon recalls that a hole appeared in the school playground in the 70’s and it was found to be the opening of another forgotten mineshaft. Canon Sheridan’s concentration on avoiding large-scale changes took up a great part of his time. Due to his opposition, plans to move the tabernacle to the side of the alter and “stick it up on a pole” were abandoned, as was the intention to remove the old High Altar, which was retained as a background feature. Designs to remove the paintings on the wall at the altar, met with resolute resistance as Canon Sheridan would not permit the destruction of the work of past parishioners. It was agreed that the central painting be covered over, but the Pictures of St. Andrew and St. Margaret, that had been painted at the time of Father Thornton, were retained and have been cleaned up for the 150th Anniversary. With the Canon thus occupied, it fell to his curates to inform the parishioners of the new liturgical changes and to introduce the first phase of these. Fathers Timothy Brosnan (1960-71), Gerald McColgan (1971-72) and Jeremiah O’Riordan (1972-77) led the transition from the Latin Mass to the “mixed” Mass, where both Latin and English were used. They were required to encourage the people to adopt the new rite of Communion in the hand, and, perhaps the most difficult, the Sign of Peace. Their initial instruction enabled the liturgical changes to be introduced without significant opposition. While this was a priority, the normal round of duties was not neglected, and the various church confraternities and youth organisations met and played an active role in the life of the parish.

The Canon was deeply concerned about the educational provision in the town and was delighted when it was decided to appoint Chaplains in the Catholic schools. Father William Dunnachie, a curate at St. David’s was appointed the first chaplain to St. Margaret’s J S School, and took responsibility for the Catholic life of the young people there. One of the problems facing the schools was that there was no longer a recognised R E syllabus, and like most chaplains, Father Dunnachie was preoccupied in supplying this need. The task was complicated when the school was redesignated a six-year comprehensive in 1973, and the needs of another age-group had to be taken into account. For another four years, the chaplain worked with the new Rector of St. Margaret’s High, Derek Fowles, before moving to the Motherwell R E Centre, where his practical experience was put to use in drawing up a Religious Education syllabus for the Diocese, and elsewhere. His replacement was Father Frank Halavage from St. Margaret’s who still serves in the school. The modern school represents the culmination of the work begun one and a half centuries ago, in Market Street by Mr. Delargy.

After eleven years of activity during the most dramatic and hectic period in the history of the Church in Scotland, Canon Sheridan decided to retire in 1977. He moved into the family home in Glasgow, and still says Mass regularly in the Convent of Our Lady of the Missions. He is more anxious to talk about the work of the nuns at the handicapped centre there than about his work and life. His retirement has brought him a new lease of life and an opportunity to meet with and speak to the less fortunate members of society, those for whom he has deep compassion.

Canon Duddy

It fell to Father William Duddy STL. who came to St. Margaret’s in 1978, to bring to function the recommendations of the Second Vatican Council. Born in Carluke, Father Duddy had spent his entire priesthood in Lanarkshire, the last 20 years in St. Patrick’s, Coatbridge though his name suggests that his ancestors came from Ireland, which would make him a typical representative of the people he was to serve.

Shortly after his appointment, he was created a Canon, the sixth parish priest at Airdrie to be so honoured. The last phase of implementing the new liturgy and the final alterations in the church were supervised by the Canon. It is to his credit that his attention to detail and patient explanation, with the enthusiastic support of his curates, Fathers Sean Mannion (1977-78),. Thomas Trench (1978) and particularly Frank Halavage (1978-1985) that his parishioners accepted them so completely.

Even those who had been brought up with the Tridentine Mass confirm that the new liturgy is more acceptable and that they like it. In spite of his failing eyesight and being less able to get about than he would have wished, Canon Duddy took an active interest in the life of the parish, and visited both schools and homes where he could. Regionalisation influenced not only the political life of Airdrie, but also removed control of the schools to the Regional Headquarters in Glasgow. However, the Canon was able to monitor progress in his school, through the new chaplain, who was one of his curates. Father Frank Halavage is descended from a Lithuanian family who came to Scotland early this century, and he brings yet another strand to the multi-nationality of the clergy who have served in the town, emphasising the true meaning of the word “catholic”

The highlight of the career of the Canon, as for most Catholics, was the visit to Scotland of Pope John Paul II in 1982. With his priests and parishioners, the Canon prepared for this great event, from organising meetings of the volunteer stewards to raising the funds to pay for the visit. A Papal Visit Committee was set up to help in the planning, and this group formed the nucleus of the present Parish Council. A significant change in the role of the laity was precipitated by the Pope’s arrival. It was agreed that each parish should appoint a number of lay-people to distribute Holy Communion, and four such Extra-Ordinary Ministers were installed at St. Margaret’s: Mrs. Christine Boyle, Robert Grant, William Liston and Alex Thomson. At the Mass at Bellahouston Park, Glasgow, on 1st June 1982, the descendents of the Irish immigrants of a century and a half earlier, lined the route the Pope was to take, distributed Communion to quarter of a million people and joined their spiritual leader in the Mass. Parishioners from St. Margaret’s also supervised one of the enclosures where people from all parts of the country gathered for the Mass, and they joined with them in singing “Will ye no come back again” as the Papal helicopter rose over the crowd at the end of a memorable day.

In 1984, Canon Duddy decided that the forthcoming one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Church of St. Margaret should be an occasion for special celebration, and set in motion plans for the event. The Parish Council undertook to organise the event, and set about discovering what was known about the developments of the parish since 1836. As a result of their efforts, this present account has been compiled. In 1985, Canon Duddy felt that his failing health was such as to hinder him in carrying out his duties fully, and he advised Bishop Devine of his wish to retire. The Bishop agreed, and Canon Duddy moved to St. Monica’s, Coatbridge, where he resided until his untimely death there on October 8th, 1986.