A Golden Jubilee in Rutherglen

By Fr. Christopher Wallbank WF

Reprinted with kind permission from
The WF & WS magazine, June - July 2003


Reading the minutes of the very first House Councils of the Rutherglen community of December 1953 we see that parish supplies were arranged; there was a meeting of the magazine promoters; and the community hosted a dinner to celebrate four members of the Parents and Friends Association being made honorary members of the Society. On a different note we read that permission had to be sought from the Superior to watch television or play billiards and a better system of heating was needed.

Over the last fifty years we have seen many changes but so many of the essential values of the house have remained. That tradition of being involved in the life of the local church has continued, in a variety of ways, and our close association and cooperation with lay people in all our missionary endeavours has been important to us throughout the life of this house and continues to be so. Permissions for mundane things are no longer needed from the Superior and even if there were a billiard table still in the house the old billiard room is just one staircase too much for most of us these days. The fact that the Superior has his office there is perhaps a sign of the times! And thankfully we no longer have to worry about the central heating.

At the beginning of 1953 the Society had only one house in Scotland, St Columba's College, in the borders and it was decided that we needed a base in the West of Scotland for our missionary outreach to the very strong Catholic community there. Consequently Fr Tom Conway was asked to begin the search and rather fittingly approached the Bishop of the new diocese of Motherwell who gave his blessing to the project. Fr Conway's first 'find' did not prove suitable but, much to his surprise, the key holder of that property suggested another, that his uncle might be selling a house, and directed his steps to Milrig Road. The then owners, Mr & Mrs McMahon, were indeed selling and by the middle of December the sale was completed. On 19th December the house was blessed in the presence of the new community; Fathers Tom Conway, Jimmy Hughes, Frank Ball, Stevie Collins and Nan McPhee, the housekeeper. Like so many other lay people after her, Nan was very much part of the life and the work of the new community. Fr Tom especially liked the rich blue carpet that covered the top and ground floors and has never understood why it was removed, but perhaps the Provincial thought it an inappropriate colour for a house full of supporters of a football team whose colours are not blue! It is a tribute to how well we are cared for that three of those founding members are still alive. Fr Tom in residence here; Fr Ball in Dublin; Fr Collins in London. Fr Hughes, later joined the Jesuits, and died while on missionary work in Zimbabwe.

Above (left to right) at St Columba's in 1950
Back : Fr Tom Conway, Fr Steve Collins, Brother Dunstan
Front : Fr Drost, Martin Hickey (student) and Fr Joseph Ryce

From those founding days in 1953 until 1976 there followed a period of great missionary activity. First among these was Vocation Ministry encouraging young people to consider the call to become missionaries. Countless visits were made to schools in all the dioceses of Scotland witnessing to the missionary work of the Church in many parts of Africa with personal stories and slide shows. During those years Vocation Exhibitions were very popular and the White Father's stand always attracted many equities. In order to keep in touch with these young men several small publications were distributed from the house. 'Kizito' gave news from the missions and the ‘Missionary Association of Prayer’ encouraged them to pray for the work of the Church in Africa.

In later years, in collaboration with our house in Sutton Coldfield, 'Contact' was distributed to young people in their homes and schools. From reading this, many young people got in touch with the Society and attended further days of missionary awareness and short stays with us during the summer holidays or ‘voc vacs' as they were commonly known.

NOTE : A copy of this promotional leaflet has been donated by Tony Smyth and is displayed in the Appendix.
Click here to view it

Contact with our benefactors was also important from the beginning and there was always a secretary or two employed to keep up to date answering the letters, and acknowledging all the donations and Mass offerings that came in. At one time the secretary also doubled as the afternoon help to the cook in the kitchen. Not any more!

In 1964 the Young Missionary Group was formed to bring together young adults interested in the missions and ready to help in our work in Scotland. It was, by all accounts, a very lively group and not shy to play a few pranks on members of the community. Their help in the office; printing, addressing envelopes and the like; was invaluable. After the fire at St Columba's in 1964 they spent many days helping to clean up what remained of the house and the property. Dances and other socials were arranged to raise funds and were much appreciated and well attended. Inevitably there was some matchmaking among the group, all with the blessing of the community. Today some of this group are still in contact with us.

Speak to any of the many people we meet in the parishes about former days and they will always remember the Garden Fetes held from 1954 until 1984. The idea came from Fr Collins, who arranged the first one, which raised the then princely sum of £300. After that there was no going back, the people would not allow it. Each year for the months leading up to the Garden Fete in August the house was like an African market place. People came and went with prizes for the raffles, gifts for the stalls, bottles for the tombola, and home baking which the community were ordered not to try! Stalls and tea tents were put up by willing volunteers on the lawns and on the waste ground beyond the garden wall.

On the morning of the fete the crowds began to assemble very early and by the time the gates were opened in the afternoon the queue stretched all the way down Milrig Road. The police were called in to direct the crowds. The fete not only a popular local event but a wonderful occasion to bring together the many people associated with the house; the co-workers in the house, the Young Missionary Group, and, of course, the Parents and Friends Group. Amazingly, according to memories, the weather always fine. The Rutherglen Reformer, however, in 1969 does tell us that in the three, weeks preceding that particular fete thieving and vandalism occurred almost every night and though the culprits escaped the 'show went on undaunted’.

(source of both photos of the fête : Tony Smyth)

The summer fête at Rutherglen 1968 (this and above)

No history of the community here would be complete without speaking of the Parents and Friends Association. Their story has been documented by Miss Thérese Donnelly in a previous article. (Click here to read this). As far as we can gather, their origins go back to 1934 and they were founded to bring together the families of White Fathers, the families of White Father students and to introduce them to prospective White Father students and their families. Since many of these new candidates for the junior seminaries came from the West of Scotland the Association naturally found a home with the new community. Each year they brought together the families of the current students with the new ones, often with a social event such as a meal and a dance. Among the more popular venues was the Grand Hotel in Glasgow and the Plaza Ballroom. A newspaper cutting from the Scottish Catholic Observer says that two hundred people attended the 1969 meeting.

Groups were set up in Motherwell, Paisley, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Port Glasgow over the years as the numbers increased. Thanks to their enthusiasm they also became involved in raising funds for the missions and were among the stalwart helpers and supporters of the Garden Fetes and other activities. In more recent times even though the number of candidates for the seminaries has decreased they have still organised an annual reunion and many other events such as bingo nights, dances, sales of work, coffee mornings and race nights.

(source: WF & WS magazine, Issue No. 370, June-July 2003)

Members of the Rutherglen community (May 2003), left to right:

Back : Fr James Barry, Fr John McLean, Fr Christopher Wallbank, Bro Raymond Leggett, Fr Patrick Boyd, and Bro Eugene Leonard.
Front : Fr Thomas Conway, Fr John McNulty, and Fr Thomas McIlveney

Amidst all this activity the community spent many weekends helping in the local parishes and often all but one would be absent for the weekend. They also accepted to be chaplain in the summer months to the then very popular summer camps for young people. With the beginning of the Missionary Appeal system in 1962 some of these ways of helping the local church had to be curtailed as the fathers went out on weekends to parishes up and down the country to speak of the missionary work of the Church in Africa and to raise funds. To this day these continue and the interest and the generosity of the people is amazing.

Is it any wonder that with all this activity the community were often out after the nine forty five curfew and found it difficult to rise at five forty five! At one House Council they are told they can go back to bed later in the day if necessary but most of them seem to have opted for the African alternative, a good siesta, a practice which continues to this day. Those permissions from the Superior to play billiards or watch television, when did they have time!

With the closure of the junior seminary system in 1965 changes had already begun to take place. A hostel for students had been opened at Ratho and the staff there were beginning to take responsibility for much of the vocation ministry. In 1976 the Society realised that it was becoming necessary to have a house in Scotland where returning missionaries could be at home and while retiring could still be an active part of the local church. For the Scottish confreres Milrig Road was a natural choice as it was from here that, over the years, missionaries had come and gone to their postings in Africa. Therefore the organisation of missionary appeals, the contact with benefactors, and vocation ministry was transferred to Ratho and later to Edinburgh.

While the community moved out of the house, Milrig Road was renovated and an extension with six further bedrooms added. From then on you might think there would be a change of pace and a lessening of activity. Not at all, the community continued until recent times to be active in helping out with supplies up and down the country and the house remains the headquarters of the Parents and Friends Association and their activities. The practice of offering Mass for the local community, which had begun in the fifties, continued but now with the option of a seven thirty and a nine thirty Mass. Those coming for the later Mass often began to join the community for coffee afterwards. Another service to the local community is the Piety Stall which going back to the fifties has been an occasion for people to visit the house, buy their Mass cards and arrange for Masses to be offered for their intentions. Briefly in the early nineties one of the Vocation/Promotion team moved back into the house and the community then welcomed meetings of the Vocation Group and a newly formed Justice and Peace Group.

By the late nineties we were, like so many other societies, feeling the pinch and could no longer keep open two houses in Scotland. It was decided it was time for all the promotion work to come home and in 1998 the house in Edinburgh was closed and once again Milrig Road became the centre for our activities in Scotland. Indeed, it is now the only centre. That year marked the end of a long association with the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh, going back to 1932, where at various times we had houses in Melrose, St Andrews and St Boswells. That heritage is not forgotten and on the outside wall of our house we have mounted the crest of the Society, based on that of Cardinal Lavigerie, that was once at St Columba's.

Of the nine members of the present community six are retired but the house is still a hive of activity, some would say a ‘whirlwind'. From the office in the attic we maintain a regular contact with a still large number of benefactors and organise the missionary appeals with help from our confreres south of the border. We no longer have an active vocation ministry but remain open to anyone who contacts us and are always ready to help them in choices and decisions. The Parents and Friends Association continue to meet here and we attend as many of their fund raising activities as we can. We can still cut a step on the dance floor and mark a bingo card! Their efforts each year raise something in the region of £6,000 for our work in Africa. No mean feat indeed.

Each year, usually just after Easter, we celebrate Mass for all our deceased Scottish White Father and members of the Parents and Friends Association. This and the buffet afterwards are always well attended. From time to time the Pelican group meet and we try to encourage them in their endeavours on behalf of the Society. People come regularly for daily Mass, only one now, and to visit the Piety Stall. In the past two years we have been involved in two new initiatives in Scotland for missionary awareness.

(Source: Eugene Macbride)

Pelicans' reunion at Rutherglen, October 1996 (left to right) :
Hugh Campbell, Frank Dillon, Fr Pat Boyd, Eugene MacBride, Jimmy Johnston, John Morton, the late Fr Dan Sherry,
the late Eddie Mulraney, John Kelly, Mick Creechan (on floor).

(Frs Boyd and Sherry taught Jimmy, Eugene, John Morton, Eddie and John Kelly at St Columba's 1949 - 50).

In the Diocese of Motherwell we are part of the new Missionary Awareness Agency and nationally we are involved in the Scottish Missionary Forum. Through these we try to play our part in promoting awareness of mission at home and abroad and helping to create dialogue and partnership.

In the midst of this we try to grow older gracefully and faithfully. The house has its quiet moments and we believe that it is an important part of our mission today to be an oasis of prayer in a troubled and noisy world. Each week we prepare a Prayer List which is distributed to our communities throughout the province. This serves as a reminder to us to pray for the intentions of our friends and benefactors, without whose friendship and collaboration our missionary work would founder.

Looking back over the last fifty years we realise that we have so much to be grateful to God for. Our missionary work from this house has made a contribution to the work of the Society in Africa from both the point of view of personnel and finances.
Thanks to the cooperation and openness of the local church we have been part of its missionary growth and are humbled by its generosity and concern. None of this would have been possible without the wonderful support of so many lay people; those who work with us in the house; parents; friends; benefactors; too numerous to mention. We thank you all and with you look forward to the future with faith and hope.

Have any photos or memories relating to this article please ?

Return to top


1. Vocations Promotion

Tony Smyth kindly contributed the leaflet below :

Tony writes :
" This a sample of a vocations promotion publication that the White Fathers in Britain put out in the early sixties while I was at St. Columba's. As this came from the same 'press' as the White Fathers / White Sisters magazine I think Bill Turnbull may have a copy on file. "

(source: Tony Smyth)

Michael McNamara lighting candles (at St. Columba's)

(source: Tony Smyth)

Tony can't spot anyone he knows here
(Was this a classroom at St Columba's ?)

(source: Tony Smyth)

The St Columba's Refectory (1960 - 62)
has identified the following people :
Pat McHale
on the left and opposite him is Robbie (Jack) Dempsey
next to 'Jack' is Paul Fletcher, next to Paul is Andy Cathie and then Pat Gritton.

(difficult original - sorry)

(source: Tony Smyth)

Charlie Savage doing sacristy duty

Return to Text
Return to Top
Return to HISTORIES Index