A LITTLE grotto sits at the front of the Immaculate Conception church in Maryhill. It commemorates the first Scottish Catholic priest to fall in the First World War.

His sacrifice, like that of all of those who died for their country in that Great War, was made in the hope that those battles might yield a better life for his countrymen.

More than 100 years later, Maryhill, like many other working-class districts across Scotland, still suffers from many of the inequalities of health and opportunity that stalked the men who fought in France and Germany.

Along with neighbourhoods like Shettleston, Springburn, Possilpark and Baillieston – all of them to be found in Glasgow’s north and east – Maryhill flits in and out of the top positions in Scotland’s various indexes indicating multi-deprivation.

In recent years though, the parish of the Immaculate Conception, often in partnership with its neighbouring Church of Scotland congregation, has been helping Maryhill fight back.

Church attendance has increased dramatically in the last few years, bucking the national trend. Across four Masses each weekend, nearly 1,000 worshippers regularly pass through the doors of one of Glasgow’s oldest and best-known Catholic churches.

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The takings, for want of a more elegant phrase, have increased exponentially and to the extent that the Archdiocese of Glasgow is seeking a bigger cut of the parishioners’ largesse.

Says who?

It’s also a rebuke to the Catholic Church spokesperson’s recent claim that parishioners were spending more on Netflix subscriptions and football season tickets than donations to their parishes.

“If the situation does not change then the next few years will be a really stressful test of the financial viability of parishes and sadly many more may fail.” The spokesperson urged Scottish Catholics “to take a long, hard look” at their financial choices.

Yet, such presentiments of doom don’t seem to apply to this community. “Like many other churches of all denominations in disadvantaged areas we strive to reach out to those in our community – of all faiths and none – who may be threatened by economic hardship,” says its parish priest, Father Jim Lawlor.

“Words without action are meaningless and if the Church wants to be at the centre of people’s lives that should also mean walking with them and helping them when they are facing challenges and being there for them when they fall. Nor should we attach any pre-conditions to this.”

A cursory glance at the weekly bulletin of planned daily events resembles the work programme for a busy Social Services office. Each Thursday, there’s a Warm Welcome club where locals can get tea, coffee, home baking and lunch – all provided free of charge.

On Mondays there’s a Breakfast Club organised with a neighbouring parish and also providing a free meal. The Tuesday Club offers “friendship, fun, a dance and bowl of home-made soup.” And this being an afternoon social, there’s also the bingo, that stalwart game of electronic possibility that forms the staple of west of Scotland community initiatives.

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Each month there’s a Men’s Breakfast. There’s been a sharp increase in suicide rates and mental health problems affecting middle-aged men, especially in disadvantaged communities. On these Saturday mornings there’s a chance for blokes to do what doesn’t really come naturally to the genus of the species: open up a bit and perhaps – very, very occasionally – talk about their feelings.

“Many people in Maryhill, like other mainly working-class districts, are facing so many challenges in simply heating their homes and paying energy bills,” says Fr Lawlor.

“So, at events like these we’re effectively saying, ‘Look, if you need to keep yourself warm for a few hours without hammering the heating then pop over to our place for a while and let us heat you up a bit’.

“Many people in this area lost their nearest and dearest during the Covid and are perhaps suffering the effects of loneliness. These events might just help them to start living again.”

Another glance at the parish bulletin provides a clue as to where this church’s heart lies. It points parishioners to the Global Justice initiative to Make Polluters Pay.

“At COP27, it was finally agreed that a loss and damage fund will be set up to help billions of people across the global south being impacted by climate catastrophe and press rich countries to contribute their fair share by taxing polluters.”

The Herald: The Church of the Immaculate Conception in Maryhill has bucked the trend of decreasing congregation numbersThe Church of the Immaculate Conception in Maryhill has bucked the trend of decreasing congregation numbers (Image: Newsquest)

It advertises a series of study sessions looking at issues of international peace and disarmament “in light of key Catholic Social Teaching principles”.

It cites a report by the Jesuit Refugee Service which says that the UK Government’s plans to overhaul the asylum system “will criminalise and exclude refugees and punish asylum-seekers for the realities of being displaced. In Maryhill, this issue resonates across the community”.

A 2015 report profiling children and young people living in the Maryhill Road corridor records that 14% of them were from minority ethnic groups. That number has almost certainly grown since then.

Says Fr Lawlor: “We have 27 different nationalities making up our congregation, ranging from South America to Africa to parts of Eastern Europe. With the help of one of our local MPs we’ve been able to prevent the removal of some young families by the Home Office.”

He talks about the young couple from El Salvador who, having wed in a civil ceremony in their homeland, had recently asked for a church wedding.

“They didn’t have very much, but a local parishioner heard about their plans and popped round with £300 so that they could celebrate the event with a wee knees-up in the church hall.”

The previous week there was an anonymous donation of £5,000 to help with the parish food bank.

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A recent report reckoned that the monetary worth of social outreach programmes by church-based groups could be measured in hundreds of millions annually across the UK. If churches and parishes are forced to shut then the effects will be deeply felt by marginalised communities across wider society.

Not for the first time, the Scottish Catholic authorities seemed, to many, grievously tone-deaf with their “Netflix or Bust” ultimatum.

One of the reasons why the Church of the Immaculate Conception is recording much higher than average church attendances is the nature of the preaching of the charismatic and outspoken Fr Lawlor. A large banner is prominent on the altar that tells churchgoers “All are welcome. None are judged.”

According to one local Catholic activist, the perceived message of an increasingly influential and reactionary cartel of right-wing groups in the Church is “Few are welcome. Many are judged.”

To me, this perception, along with a top-down, authoritarian approach favoured by these ultra-montane, Latin Mass obsessives is probably more responsible for falling church donations than the punters’ preferences for Netflix and football. There’s also the element of trust.

In November, it was reported that Archbishop Leo Cushley and fellow trustees at the Archdiocese of St Andrews & Edinburgh had been reported to Scotland’s charity regulator over accusations of financial mismanagement, including the accusation that a trustee had adopted a “threatening” tone in correspondence about financial contributions.

It’s not known if the correspondence cited Church concerns about Netflix consumption. Nor is it known if the correspondence included discussion of the assets of the Archdiocese which include the Archbishop’s official residence, a category ‘B’ listed mini-mansion called St Benet’s in the heart of Morningside.

A spokesman for the Church said its trustees had acted “equitably and transparently. They have gone to exceptional lengths to listen to the concerns of the representatives of the parish in question, and to answer their questions in detail."

The Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator said it had received the complaint and that it will be assessed.

Back in Maryhill, Pat and Dan Baird – two Immaculate Conception churchgoers – are in no doubt why their parish is thriving.

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Says Dan: “We're fortunate in belonging to this parish. It’s a welcoming parish characterised by openness to the community and social commitment and it’s inspired by Fr Jim and a large number of volunteers.”

His wife, Pat added: “The welcome for asylum-seekers and refugees is underlined by the presence of 27 different nationalities in the parish community. We believe that the parish is a model for others that see social commitment as rooted in, and not additional to, the values of the Gospel.”

Catholics, like churchgoers of other Christian denominations, will always be happy to help out their church. But only if they’re happy with the messages they’re hearing.