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St Peter's Church, Aberdeen

1804-1979

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There is perhaps no one better-equipped nor better-placed to recall the history of St. Peter’s, Aberdeen than Monsignor Sandy Mac William. His patient historical research has long been recognised and appreciated; while his thirty years at St. Peter’s have given him a feel for the events he chronicles.

This story of St. Peter’s certainly makes fascinating reading. It also reveals a very chequered history. The church has sometimes been bursting at the seams; at other times it has been empty of worshippers. From use for high ceremonial like the consecration of a bishop it has known only the voices of children prattling their catechism. The Chapel House has served in turn as a bishop’s ‘palace’, a convent, rooms for an association of the laity and simply a priest’s house. Perhaps the prevailing feature throughout the years has been poverty. Today the poverty is in numbers and in the state of the buildings and in the sad people who haunt the area and hope for something given or something found at the bottom of Chapel Close.

Every parish is largely the story of its priests and people. Between 1803 and 1977 St. Peter ~s was served by only six parish priests. Since three of them account for only fourteen years it is obvious that the other three served for long periods. The pages that follow rightly give pride of place to Priest Gordon (47 years) and Canon Grant (45 years). The third priest is the author, Monsignor Sandy Mac William. Not his the flamboyance and pithy humour of his predecessors, nor his the demanding opportunities that served the need to expand. But he had the no less daunting task of continuing a great tradition in a period of change and diminishing numbers. That he maintained the reputation of St. Peter’s and added to it his own particular distinction as a man of learning and honest piety earns him the companionship of those great men he has striven so hard and succeeded so well to portray.

I believe the present parish priest is marked with some of the characteristics of his predecessors and fittingly presides at the celebrations to mark the 175th anniversary of a distinguished parish church.

Mario Conti, Bishop of Aberdeen

 

St Peter’s Church, Aberdeen

18O4~1979

St. Peter’s Church, Aberdeen, has had a long and honourable history. On 19th August, 1979 it celebrates the 175th anniversary of the official opening of the present building in Chapel Court, Justice Street. But although it was the first permanent Catholic church to have been built in Aberdeen since the Reformation, there have always been Catholics in the city and there have always been priests about, so that there can have been few Sundays since 1560 when there was no opportunity of hearing Mass. The story of Catholicism in Aberdeen is unique in Scotland therefore, in that it is unbroken and continuous.

Before 1774

In Scotland the religious revolution of the 16th century not only gravely damaged the organisation of the Church, but left it a complete wreck. A faithful remnant survived, but it was leaderless. There were no bishops and we cannot point to anyone who was in charge; and, indeed, it was not until 1653 that the Catholics of Scotland, admittedly few in number, were provided with the rudiments of an organised church. It was in that year that William Ballantyne, a secular priest, was appointed by the Roman authorities as prefect apostolic of the Scottish Mission and given the general supervision of the handful of clergy. It was a step forward since it meant that the dozen or so secular priests in the country, who had been their own masters for so long, could not now stay where they fancied or roam about the country as inclination or necessity disposed them. Aberdeen had been able to rely upon a succession of Jesuit missionaries, and it was not until 1686 that the first secular priest, Mr. Robert Strachan, was appointed to Aberdeen where he was to remain until his death forty years later in 1725. He had the distinction of being the first resident priest in the city. In 1769 Bishop James Grant, vicar apostolic’ of the Lowland district of Scotland, and the fourth in succession from Mr. Robert Strachan, was in charge of the mission since there was no priest available. He was then lodging with Mr. Patrick Leslie, hatmaker, ‘next door to the fountain in the middle of the Gallowgate’.

In those days Mass was normally said in the priest’s lodging if it offered suitable accommodation, or in a room hired for the purpose as Mr. George Gordon hired a garret in the Gallowgate in 1749, or in a private house like that of Menzies of Pitfodels in the Castlegate. But it had been apparent for some time that, owing to an increase in numbers, a more commodious meeting place had become necessary. This increase, Bishop Grant tells us, came from an influx of poor people from the country and from members of Irish woolcombers who had settled in Aberdeen—surely a very early and isolated example of Irish immigration.

Mr. William Young, a Catholic merchant in Aberdeen, tells how ‘About September 1771 Mr. James Grant, churchman in Aberdeen, earnestly desired Mr. William Young, Senior, merchant in Aberdeen, to look out for a. convenient and privat lodging and chapel, and purchase that in trust for him; and after long seeking found out a ‘ginland’ (?) Lodging doss and garden of the Heirs of Patrick Smith of Inveramsay, near to the Justice-port in Aberdeen to be rouped; The Boundrys are, Having its gate to the South looking to the Castlegate and within the gate is a square doss with a Tenement of houses not in good repair; and at the back thereof is a large garden and summer house Bounded to the north; and on the West is bounded with Skipper Scott’s doss; and on the east bounded with Justice-lain .‘~ The first plan was that the better of the two houses (which lay across the present house) should be the chapel. but it was found necessary to demolish both and rebuild. The chapel occupied the whole of the ground floor. Bishop Grant moved into the house sometime in 1774.

‘Priest Gordon’

St. Peter’s Church, Chapel Court, 28 November, 1855. A packed church hung with drapings of mourning, the congregation over flowing into Chapel Court and a dense and hushed crowd outside in Castle Street under the leaden sky. Within, Bishop James Kyle, vicar apostolic of the Northern District, is celebrating a Pontifical Mass of Requiem for the Rev. Charles Gordon, late pastor of St. Peter’s, whose body lies before the altar. After Mass, at one o’clock, the funeral procession begins. An eye-witness tells of the scene—the hushed crowds, the closed shops, the long line of the procession down King Street, the Lord Provost and several of the magistrates following the coffin which was carried by relays of members of the congregation, the double line of redcoated soldiers of the 19th Highlanders on either side. One who was present remembers that, as the cortege was entering the Snow Churchyard in Old Aberdeen, the last of the mourners was leaving Castle Street. Who was this priest to whom such unprecedented honours were paid?

Charles Gordon (commonly known among non-Catholics like other priests of his day as Priest Gordon), was born at Landends in the Enzie of Banffshire, a district to the southwest of Buckie, which in his time and much later before the depopulation of the countryside set in, was a nursery of priests. No less than nine of the Scottish vicars apostolic came from this little corner of Banffshire. His mother was the sister of a bishop, Bishop John Geddes. The croft his father worked has long since been swallowed up by the farm of Burnside and not a stone or shrub remains to mark his birthplace. But the same burn of Tynet flows past to the sea and the same old Catholic cemetery of St. Ninian’s, where the first vicar apostolic of Scotland, Bishop Thomas Nicolson, Bishop Michael Foylan of Aberdeen, and Canon Andrew Grant, once pastor of St. Peter’s, lie buried, looks down from the brow of the opposite hill.

Charles Gordon was born on 30th June, 1772, the youngest of nine children. He entered the seminary of Scalan on 25th January, 1785, and in the following September was sent to the Scots College, Douai. In 1793 he was compelled to leave Douai inconsequence of the French Revolution, when he came to Aberdeen to continue his studies in the house’he was to occupy for nearly all his life. On 2nd July, 1795, he was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop George Hay, vicar apostolic of the Lowland District, just under the room where his uncle, Bishop John Geddes, lay slowly dying. He remained in Aberdeen with his brother, Mr. John Gordon, who was in charge of the Aberdeen congregation; and when the latter was appointed procurator of the college of Aquhorties, he succeeded him in that charge in 1799. He was to remain there—alone until 1830—until a year before his death on 24th November, 1855.

I doubt if any Catholic priest has had the tribute paid to him of his life having been written by a minister. That compliment was paid to Charles Gordon. Just seventy years ago a Congregational minister, the Rev. James Stark, D.D., wrote a book, now out of print, which he entitled Priest Gordon of Aberdeen and which he dedicated ‘to a native of the North who loved and lived for his fellows’. Dr. Stark’s little volume is the work of an outsider, one of an alien faith who never knew the subject of his memoir personally. I had thought once to be able, from the letters in the Scottish Catholic Archives at Columba House, Edinburgh, to supplement that portrait, to paint a more complete picture, warts and all, of someone who did so much for the Church in Aberdeen. But Priest Gordon was a true son of the north-east. He did not wear his heart on his sleeve. In his letters and in the year-by-year record he kept of the Aberdeen mission, he is the undemonstrative Scot, canny and cautious to the extreme. There is nothing of himself, nothing of his day-to-day life, of his experiences among his flock, of his relations with his bishop and fellow clergy, of those little human incidents which the gossip in us is always agog to hear. Yet, when he came to die, we see dense throngs of mourners in Castle Street and the Lord Provost and several of the magistrates walking behind the coffin. What was there about him that prompted this public manifestation of grief?

Well, there was, first of all, the personality of the man himself, his picturesque individuality. There can be no doubt that the vivid homeliness of his speech had much to do with his long-maintained popularity. Those who daily used his language felt that he was one of themselves. He might have spoken as he did as one acting a part, as a piece of showmanship. But in listening to him, his people instinctively felt that his dialect was part of himself, as natural as his complexion or the colour of his hair. On going into St. Peter’s, a visitor never knew what was going to happen. Reverence was always maintained, though one’s sense of what was seemly might occasionally be disturbed through some observation which escaped the lips of the priest, as if he could not help it. Priest Gordon went into the pulpit as God made him, and when he appeared in the pulpit he kept nothing back which belonged to his personality. There is so much that could be said in evidence of his strong individuality, but this is not the place. Just one example. He was speaking about the mystery of the Blessed Trinity and in the course of his remarks said that the unity of God was a truth every member of the Catholic Church was aware of, and the youngest child could prove it. To enforce his words, he called to one of the altar servers: ‘Johnnie, stan’ up and tell the fouk foo mony gods there are.’ Naturally Johnnie was very much taken aback at this sudden and unexpected question and extremely confused. ‘Three’, he said. It was an embarassing moment to Priest Gordon. ‘Sit doon, ye gowk. Ye ken naething aboot it’.

One non-Catholic University student, and later Professor, William Clark, has left us an account of things in St. Peter’s as they appeared to an outsider. ‘One of the relaxations of the Aberdeen students was to go to the Roman Catholic Chapel on Sunday evenings, partly to enjoy the music, partly to listen to the discourses of the Rev. Charles Gordon, the venerable priest in charge of the church. Mr. Gordon was a dear old gentleman, Scotch to the backbone, speaking pretty broad Scotch even in his sermons—adored by his own people, much respected by the Protestants of Aberdeen. One of the attractions to his chapel was his practice of preaching strongly Roman and anti-protestant sermons on Sunday evenings. Martin Luther and John Knox were held up to universal execration in the most delightful broad Scotch and with a vehemence that might have satisfied the Grand Inquisitor. Occasionally these attacks produced bursts of merriment from his protestant hearers, and, if these became audible—which they sometimes did—the author was ejected by the sexton. This was no unusual occurrence, since the laughter was sometimes unavoidable and the sexton was always on the watch.’

Priest Gordon was, too, a formidable controversialist, as the foregoing account shows. There was at that time in Aberdeen a Congregational Minister, Dr. Kidd of Gilcomston Church, with whom Priest Gordon had many encounters. Once they were discussing the doctrine of Purgatory. Dr. Kidd declared it preposterous, a mere figment of the ecclesiastical imagination, having no place in scripture and so on—’Weel’, said the priest, ‘a’ I hiv tae say, Doctor is that we can gang farrer and fare waur!’; or when he was asked to attend a Commission which had come to Aberdeen to make enquiries about church accommodation and these questions were put to him: ‘How many members have you?’ ‘Close on 2000’. ‘How many does your chapel hold?’. ‘About 800’. ‘How do you accommodate so many when you say that your chapel only holds at about 800?’ ‘We have a serviced at 8 in the morning and another at a quarter past eleven.’ ‘How many might attend the first service?’. ‘From 500 to 600.’ .

‘And in the evening’?. ‘In the winter, from 1000 to 1200.’ (There were cries of ‘Oh’ as if they thought the priest was not strictly adhering to the truth). ‘How can you know or think that there are from 1000 to 1200 in the chapel when you say it only holds 800?’ The old man drew himself up and said: ‘Well, we are not in the way of allowing anyone to get in but those who put a copper in the plate and verra few pits in twa!’ (Cheers). No wonder than that, at his passing, the people felt that a unique character had passed from their midst.

Aberdeen was a very small place in those days with a population of thirteen to fourteen thousand, and everybody knew everbody else. And the inhabitants of Aberdeen would see this little man of pleasant ruddy countenance, made still less by a slight stoop, as he passed along the streets of the east-end, down its lanes, and into its foetid closes, bent on errands of mercy. They knew of the orphanages he had built. They saw him dispensing soup in the soup kitchen in Loch Street. ‘Another denizen of Justice Port was the Rev. Charles Gordon’, writes William Skene in ‘East Neuk Chronicles’, who for more than half a century performed more charitable acts than any other individual in the city . . . Every Monday morning the Chapel Court used to be crowded with poor people from far and near, for on that morning every week throughout the year, there was a bounteous distribution of "cloddies" by the priests. The gifts were awarded not only to Roman Catholics, but to the poor of every denomination’. Priest Gordon’s heart was as big as a house; it had room for everybody. ‘I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink. I was a stranger and you took me in. . .‘ It was that Christian charity, that love of God’s poor, a love which knows no distinction of creed, which was Priest Gordon’s crowning merit. When we add to that his mother wit, his plain familiar ways and homely speech and, beneath all, the simplicity, the uprightnes, the transparency of the man, then there is no wonder that he captured the imagination as well as the heart of Aberdeen, and that, at his passing, all the honour that could be paid to the dead was paid to him.

He lies at rest now in the Snow Churchyard in Old Aberdeen in the same grave as Bishop James Grant and his uncle, Bishop John Geddes. On the stone that covers his earthly remains is the inscription, as simple and unpretentious as his life:

‘Charles Gordon, priest. Missionary Apostolic in the Lowland District of Scotland. Died at Aberden on 24 November, 1855: 84 years old’.

The stained glass window in the sanctuary, the work of Joseph Nuttgens, commemorates the centenary of his death.

1803-1860

In 1803 he replaced the small and comfortless chapel, which fitly represented the low state of the Church in Aberdeen, with the present building. From that year until almost the end of his life, he kept a year-by-year record of the Aberdeen mission. This record begins with the building of the new chapel.

‘The Roman Catholic congregation in Aberdeen, owing to a variety of causes had been considerably on the increase, and in 1802 it became necessary to turn our serious attention towards procuring a chapel, much larger and more commodious that the one to which we were then confined. It was at first proposed to sell off the ground the whole property in Inveramsay’s Close3 which stood in the name of Right Reverend Bishop Hay; and to purchase ground somewhere nearer the centre of the town, but this proposal was soon laid aside. Our own ground was fortunately burdened with no feu rent, and the plan of a new chapel to be erected upon it, which plan having been fully approved of by Right Reverend Bishop Hay, it was resolved that the same should be executed . . .‘.

‘Adjoining to our property there stood in our way two small houses. One of these belonged to Mr. David Middleton, the other to Mr. Peter Mellis. We found the proprietors willing to accommodate us, and to sell on moderate terms. For Mr. Middleton’s house we paid £23, and for Mr. Mellis’ one £42. In order to execute the plan it was also necessary to sacrifice about twelve feet from the entire length of the clergyman’s dwelling house . . .‘

‘Early in the month of January, 1803, Mr. Hay (the mason) began to collect materials and on the 24th February he set about digging out for the foundations. On the 28th of the said month the work was what is called sisted at the instance of William Sangster, proprietor of a house opposite the west side of our ground, who claimed the site on an old dyke which bounded our property on that side. In consequence we were forced into a disagreeable, most tedious and somewhat expensive lawsuit, which terminated entirely in our favour on the 12th day of April, the dyke and the site thereof having on that day been declared undoubtedly ours.’

‘Three days thereafter, viz., the 15th day of April, 1803, the foundation stone was laid by the Reverend Charles Gordon. . . Mass was celebrated for the first time in the new chapel on Sunday the 13th day of November, 1803. From Trinity Sunday inclusive we had the use of what was called the Concert Hall, situated in a close in Broad Street, and for which we paid as rent eight shillings for Sunday. This hall was very confined, and nothing like sufficient for our purposes, but we had no other place to go to . . .‘

‘Although from a sort of necessity we continued from the 13th day of November to assemble on all Sundays and holidays for Divine Service in the new chapel, the work was not completed till the middle of the month of August thereafter, 1804. Upon the 19th day of the said month of August, 1804, the chapel was solemnly blessed and dedicated to God under the patronage of the Holy Apostle Saint Peter, by the Right Reverend Bishop Cameron.’

‘On this interesting occasion the Bishop was assisted by seven of his priests. High Mass (the first in Scotland since what is called the Reformation) was solemnised, and the Holy Sacrament of Confirmation administered to about sixty individuals, partly young people, partly grown-up converts’.

It was a proud day for this young priest of 32 who had achieved so much in so short a space of time. One might question that ‘first’ High Mass since the Reformation, since it is possible that someone like Abbot Quintin Kennedy of Crossaquel and his monks may have celebrated High Mass after 1560; but one may safely say that it was the first High Mass since the old priests died out. Father Richard Hay, a Canon Regular of Sainte-Geneviève, describes what is called a ‘High Mass’ in the Chapel Royal at Holyrood in 1668 and his description deserves to be quoted in extenso: ‘On Christmas night, High Mass was sung. I was under the impression that I was to officiate, at least the Chancellor said so to one of the Jesuits. However, Father Abercrombie, a Benedictine, performed the function; he is a good honest man enough, but as nature has not provided him with a good vocal organ, and he has been long away from his monastery (where I imagine there is not much in the way of singing), the poor Father acquitted himself very ill of his office . . . The choir was composed of a man who passes here for a musician, although he has neither voice nor any knowledge of plainchant, of Mlle. Alexandre and the two girls they brought from Paris, with another woman of the same nation, the wife of a saddler here’. A most edifying Mass. But the palm has still to be given to St. Peter’s, since it appears that it was not a High Mass after all. ‘There was no deacon or sub-deacon—in Scotland they have not got as far as that!’4

There are a few letters from Priest Gordon to Bishop Cameron in the Scottish Catholic Archives5 one, dated 20 February 1803, gives a description of his new chapel. ‘It will be 81’ x 37’ and the side wall 24’ high. There will be eight windows in the Gothic style, 12’ high and 6½’ broad. The estimated cost, including gallery, seating etc., was £1,049, of which he had collected over £500 ‘from his own people. To pay the interest of what had to be borrowed, he had a house to let to tenants at £15 per annum. The seat rents would bring in £35 to £40 a year. After the debt was paid off, a missionary would be able to live there very comfortably!’

A year later he was writing to say that ‘notwithstanding all my efforts, I find that my debt will be very considerable. I cannot help it. The chapel is, I think, a pretty good one, and my dwelling house is really convenient. My people in general seem to be very well pleased with what has been done, and I can say with truth that I am happy.

The chapel debt will be got payed.’ On the 3rd August, 1804, there was a letter to say that the chapel was ready to be blessed. ‘Will Bishop Cameron allow High Mass at the ceremony?’ There was no organ then at St. Peters and no choir, and it may be that the college at Aquhorties, where his brother was procurator, helped with the music. On 29 May, 1807, when Bishop Cameron proposed to come to Aberdeen for confirmation, Mr. Gordon wrote: ‘I have consulted the gentlemen at Aquhorties and they have sent me the vestments and everything necessary for High Mass, and I hope that you will allow High Mass to be celebrated on that great day . . . How shall we get a choir formed? Messrs. George Gordon and Davidson have promised to be there but they would need some others to join them. Would there be a possibility of getting 2 or 3 of the young gentlemen from Aquhorties? There are three divines there, and they being candidates for the Church, should certainly as much as possible be made acquainted with everything that relates to the public service of the church. Now, they can at present, if you think proper, assist at the celebration of High Mass. Two of them can sing and could join Messrs. Gordon and Davidson, the other one would look on. They perhaps, poor fellows, will never have an opportunity of seeing the like again.’ Again, on 13 August, 1810, the Sunday before the bishop was to come to St. Peter’s for confirmation, its pastor gave a pretty broad hint of what was expected of him: ‘Although I have neither said or done anything to make them hope for such a thing, I perceive that all expect to be gratified with High Mass.’ These references to High Mass are significant.

There had been singing in the Aberdeen chapel in Priest Gordon’s brother’s time, when Bishop Hay wrote to Mr. John Gordon announcing that ‘there is a neceessity of putting an immediate stop to it everywhere.’ But Bishop Hay was dead and there were some congregations which had begun to indulge in hymn singing, though Charles Gordon seems to have been the only priest in Scotland at the time even to have thought of High Mass. It could be said of him: ‘I have loved, 0 Lord, the beauty of thy house,’ and everything that could make that house more attractive to his people and redound more to the glory of God was constantly in his mind. It is to be seen in his predilection for High Mass and in the readiness with which he gave his support to the idea of music in church. In a letter to Bishop Cameron, dated 2 October 1814, he writes: ‘Yielding to the pressing importunity of almost the whole and of the most respectable part in particular of my congregation, I have been induced to take some distant steps towards the introduction of some little church music into our chapel. We have not so much as begun yet to teach, nor have we made choice of our scholars and it would take us a full year at least to prepare ourselves properly for doing anything to the purpose. Your Lord’s at least tacit approbation is necessary . . .‘

An organ was acquired, built by Mr. George Mathison, the priest at Auchinhalrig, which proved high unsatisfactory. Another was brought from London, the total cost being £441, and the gallery was extended at the back of the church for its accommodation, access to which was by a wooden stair within the church. The next task was to organise a choir and provide it with music. Let Mr. Gordon speak: ‘It is a circumstance particularly to be noticed that sacred music had hitherto been quite unknown among us. We had, in a manner to create it; to it we had to form our every sense. Scarcely one individual amongst us had ever heard a single note of music in any place of worship. Not one piece of music either in manuscript or in print were we in possession of. Not in Aberdeen—not even in Scotland—could we procure the Masses, the Hymns and Anthems which make up the principal parts of the Office in a Catholic Chapel. All these we were obliged to commission from London and elsewhere, and to pay for them very high prices.6

Fortunately, however, one copy of each piece in print generally did our turn, as a young man of great merit and unwearied industry, Mr. James Macdonald, who wrote a superior hand and who, in every respect, was fully up to the task, freely undertook to draw out (which he did after his labours of the day and when he should have been in bed) as many copies as the choir should require.

Thirty young members of the congregation met three times a week in the presbytery for a whole year under the tuition of Mr. Alexander Heard, a non-Catholic, ‘of known abilities’, to form themselves into a choir. ‘On Easter Sunday which, this year (1815), fell on the 26th March, a sufficient numbr of excellent voices were prepared to open in due form. On this occasion (and to us a very solemn, interesting occasion it was) a Mass from one of the works of the celebrated Mr. S. Webbe was made choice of for the forenoon service. And in the evening several appropriate Hymns and Anthems were performed at the exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, and it is but justice to say that everything was concluded in the most decorous manner, to the great edification of all present.’ He hoped that ‘sensible people will take every opportunity of expressing their good will to our young friends who, with no other possible motive, than that of adding to the dignity of Religion, and the solemnity of Divine Worship, have spared neither their Time, their Labour, nor their purse.’

Charles Gordon never failed to acknowledge his indebtedness to the choir whose ‘labours have been most incessant, more edifying, frequently attended with great inconvenience, and almost always with considerable expense’ and he called on the congregation at large ‘to testify in some public manner how much we feel indebted to the Ladies and Gentlemen who, for so long a time in the most exemplary and disinterested manner, have continued Sunday after Sunday, to come forward to sound forth the praises of God, and by the melody of their voices, to assist us to prepare our souls to communicate with the blessed in heaven.’

It may be of interest to described the lay-out of this property just off Justice Street in the year 1804. There was a narrow entrance from the street to the court, on either side of which were dwelling houses which did not belong to the church; they were in poor condition. On the right as one entered the court there was the ‘side’ house, which was church property and brough in a rent of £15. On the left was ‘an old decayed house’ which was bought for £256 in l811—’a bad bargain’, Mr. Gordon described it in a letter to Bishop Cameron, but ‘I thought of it a very great consequence to this property to have the house’. (It was demolished in 1817 and a new house, the present unoccupied house on the left, built on part of the site and the porch of the church on the remainder). Facing the entrance was the chapel house (as they were then called) and, in line with the wall of the house, the gable of the church, the door of which was by the present window. There was then, in 1804, no porch. The court was unpaved. It was to be paved in 1807 at the expense of Mr. John Menzies of Pitfodels.

In 1828 Mr. Gordon pulled down the front buildings in Justice Street, which he had purchased some years previously, and built the present tenement at his own expense ‘so that by these his operations the value of what may be called public property, so far from being diminished, was very considerably increased.’ There were objections which he does not specify, but made by people ‘not much acquainted with the circumstances of the case and, to prevent as much as possible all sorts of blame, Revd. Mr. Gordon is determined to pay Seventy Pounds Sterling out of his own pocket to the Chapel Funds; and his sum . . . will surely be more than sufficient to satisfy the scrupulosity of the most scrupulous amongst us’. In 1827 Mr. John Menzies of Pitfodels had left his house and estate of Blairs to the Scottish vicars apostolic for the purposes of a national seminary. Considerable alterations and extensions had to be made to fit the house for its new use and Mr. Gordon was asked to superintend this work. At the same time he was in sole charge in Aberdeen, riding in on Friday evening and returning to Blairs on Monday morning. A small Catholic School had been opened in Longacre, behind Marischal College, by one of his parishioners, Mr. James Barclay, who was married to his sister, in 1815. In 1831 Mr. Barclay died and, with him, what Mr. Gordon described as his ‘poor concern’. The way was now open to him to fulfil a long standing ambition and to build the schools in Constitution Street, to which he added two wings to serve as orphanages for the boys and girls of his congregation.

In a way this was the crowning act of his life, testifying as it did to his care and concern for the rising generation and the poor among them. The whole transaction cost £2,250 of which £525 was raised by public subscription; the rest was paid for out of his own pocket. He had no patrimony of his own but he had a gift of evoking liberality and people loaded him with donations and legacies, confident that he would use them to good purpose. This seeming affluence attracted the attention of the Income Tax Commissioners and he was called for an interview. ‘You state you have no income but what you receive from your people?’ ‘I say so, and never had any other income.’ ‘Do you get income from the Court of Rome?’ ‘Na, nor yet fae the Court of St. James.’

In 1842 he was instrumental in building the church at Woodside. By this time he had an assistant, Rev. John Reid, one of his own boys; in 1848, when his health began visibly to decline he applied for and obtained another, Rev. John Ritchie. He still carried on his share of the parish work to the best of his ability, and to the end of his life he kept the instruction of the children in his own hands. In 1850 he was induced to leave St. Peter’s and live in a house adjoining the schools in Constitution Street. But he had no intention of retiring from active responsibility; he was still in charge and it is characteristic of the man that it was not until 1854 that Bishop Kyle was able to prevail upon him to resign the management of the temporalities of the mission into the hands of the Rev. John Sutherland, appointed that year to St. Peter’s along with Rev. William Stopani, recently come from the Scots College, Rome, Next year he was dead.

That year marked a new chapter in the history of the church in Aberdeen. Up to this time the whole of Catholic life in Aberdeen had been centred in Chapel Court and from 1799, on the Rev. Charles Gordon. No one during the first half of the 19th century had any doubt who was in effective charge in the city; it was not Bishop Kyle, it was Priest Gordon. The Brief of Pope Leo XII of 13 February, 1827, which divided the two ecclesiastical districts of Scotland, the Lowland and the Highland, into three, the Eastern, Western and Northern, stated that the headquarters or See of the vicar apostolic of the Northern District was to be the city of Aberdeen. But Bishop James Kyle chose to live at Preshome near Buckie, which had been the normal headquarters of the vicar apostolic of the whole of Scotland when Bishop Thomas Nicolson, our first post-Reformation bishop (1694-1718) held that post. When the somewhat surprised Roman authorities enquired why he was not living in the city assigned to him, he explained that it was cheaper to live in the country, that Preshome was more central, that it boasted the strongest body of Catholics in the whole district, and so on. But the real reason was the redoubtable Priest Gordon. He was there in Aberdeen and he was going to remain there, bishop or no bishop; it was his preserve alone. So Bishop Kyle was consecrated in Aberdeen but, throughout his long episcopate of forty years, he lived at Preshome and there he died on 28 February, 1869. There could be no question of replacing Charles Gordon or of providing the Northern District with an adequate church, comparable to St. Mary’s, Edinburgh (1814) or St. Andrew’s Glasgow (1916) as long as he lived.

The way became open in 1855. There was certainly a crying need for a new church, since it was quite obvious that St. Peter’s was bursting at the seams. The evidence is Priest Gordon’s own answers to the questions put to him by the Commission that came to Aberdeen to inquire about church accommodation. Within two years a feu was taken in Huntly Street and, three years later, St. Mary’s was completed except for the spire and dedicated on 21 December, 1860, while St. Peter’s became a mere appendage to the new foundation.

1860-1895

On the opening of St. Mary’s, Huntly Street (not yet a cathedral, not even a pro-cathedral), St. Peter’s was closed, ostensibly for repairs. But the intention was that there should be only one church for the whole of the city. In accordance with this policy, the old building was divided into two; one part was used as a boys’ school under a certificated master and two assistants, while the other part was retained as a chapel and dedicated on 10 August, 1861, under the title of our Lady of the Visitation7. The chapel was first used on Sunday afternoons for the children’s catechism, and this state of affairs might have continued indefinitely had not a colony of nuns arrived from Nazareth House, Hammersmith, in the following year, to make their first foundation outside Hammersmith. The sisters occupied the presbytery and, to provide for their spiritual needs, Mass began to be said in the adjoining chapel. In the meantime, the school premises in Constitution Street had been extended and a new school, reserved for girls and infants, which the Catholic Directory was pleased to describe as ‘elegant and commodious’ was built on the high ground behind Priest Gordon’s original foundation in 1866.8 The old school now accommodated the boys whose numbers averaged 116, and the new school the girls and infants~, 162. The two orphanages continued their useful and charitable work and had been staffed since 1866 by nuns from Belgium, known as the Apostoline Sisters of the Immaculate Conception. They left in 1876 and a matron was put in charge. But the appointment was not a success and the orphans were dispersed among Catholic families in the city.

Four years previously, the Poor Sisters of Nazareth had departed for their new home at Cuparstone, and St. Peter’s was again closed. The ‘Catholic Association’, the primary object of which was to promote religious knowledge among its numbers and a more fruitful discharge of their religious duties, occupied the presbytery where they had a library, reading room and recreation room; they were later to migrate to North Silver Street. The church remained closed for the next eight years until 1880 when it began again to be served from St. Mary’s. It then appeared in the Catholic Directory under its old title—not our Lady of the Visitation but St. Peter’s, since it was felt that two dedications to our Lady were confusing. There was Mass on Sundays at 9 am, Sunday School at 2.30 pm. and an instruction at 3 pm. There was life again in the old church and no longer the necessity of that long trek from Fittie and the Spital to Huntly Street, where the poor of this end of the town (and they were desperately poor) could never have felt quite at home. Baptisms, confirmations, First Communions, marriages and funerals continued as from the beginning at St. Mary’s.

The St. Peter’s baptismal and marriage registers have been in safe keeping at St. Mary’s since 1860. The earlier ones (in cheap, paperback notebooks) are all in Priest Gordon’s hand writing which becomes more and more crabbed with the advance of old age. But what is of particular interest is the information to be gathered from the registers from 1879 onwards. It was from that year that the custom began of entering in the baptismal register the addresses of those who had been baptised. Peacock’s Close, Sugarhouse Lane, Longacre were nests of Catholics. So was Windy Lane, Love Lane, Water Lane, Abbey Place—street names which long since disappeared. But an illuminating fact emerges from the study of these registers and it is this: from 1879 to 1896 no less than 73% of the baptisms in St. Mary’s were of children born east of George Street. The bulk of the Catholic population of the city was still congregated in the east end and from this circumstance deserved a resident priest. It was not lack of priests which deprived St. Peter’s of this boon but a continuation of the policy to utilize to the full the seating capacity of St. Mary’s, which could claim not many parishioners beyond Union Bridge.

But there was some improvement. From 1892 onwards, beyond the Sunday Mass, there were weekday Masses on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 8 am. Three years later in May, 1895, St. Peter’s was given a priest of its own in the person of the Rev. Donald Chisholm, who came from the Cathedral to take up residence in Chapel Court and to look after the 2000 parishioners whom St. Mary’s had lost to the new parish. Dean Stopani9 who left the impress of his personality on the Catholic population of Aberdeen as no one else has done, with the exception of Charles Gordon, and who did so much for the good of the Church in the city (if we except his treatment of St. Peter’s) was dead while a new bishop, a Redemptorist, Bishop Hugh MacDonald, reigned in Aberdeen. These two events conspired to rectify the long-standing injustice of the then more populous quarter of the city being deprived of a pastor of its own.

1895-1902

The Rev. Donald Chisolm, priest-in-charge of St. Peter’s mission from 1895 to 1899, was born in Portobello on 17 January 1847. He was educated at St. Mary’s College, Blairs, from which he passed to the Benedictine College, Douai, and thence to Saint Sulpice in Paris. Owing to the Franco-Prussian war he was compelled to return to Scotland and was ordained to the priesthood at Blairs College on 31 May 1871. He was first stationed at Huntly Street and, a year after his ordination, was sent to Wick. He health broke down and he was recalled to assist Dea Stopani at the Cathedral where he remained until he took over the separate charge of St. Peter’s in 1895. He was not a stranger when he came to Chapel Court, since for 15 years previous he had been responsible for the Sunday Mass at St. Peter’s, the Sunday School and the afternoon instruction. He threw himself into his new duties with enthusiasm and found a particular happiness, as he had always done, in the instruction of the children (one recognised immediately in St. Peter’s, as I did, those who had been formed by Father Chisholm). His sermons were simple and he realised the value of a story as an illustration. (How often does it happen that the only feature people retain of a sermon is the story?). These stories he published in a series of five little volumes, The Catechism in Examples, which were once extremely popular and which went~ into a second edition.

It is to Father Chishoim that St. Peter’s owes the High Altar and the Lady Altar, both the work of Belgian craftsmen and both, I understand, the gift of a poor serving girl of the parish, Miss Elsie Robertson, and her sister. It was to him also that, on its refusal by the Cathedral (which had a special chapel prepared for the original), the Sacred Heart community at Queen’s Cross presented the statue of our Lady of Aberdeen which still adorns the Lady Altar. In those days the parish numbered over 2000 souls. In 1896 there were 89 baptisms, in 1897 88, 1898 90. But even with the help of an assistant, Father Chisholm found the work beyond his strength and left for the quiet country mission of Dufftown in May, 1899. But he left a thriving parish and sodalities to cater for all conditions—Holy Family, Sacred Heart, Our Lady of Good Success, Altar Society, League of the Cross, Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament (for young men), Children of Mary (for young women). In these days of infrequent confession it is no little surprise to find that the two priests of St. Peter’s were on duty for confessions every Saturday from 10 am. till 2 pm. and from 4 pm. to 9 pm. The boy’s school in Constitution Street, which was attended by boys from St. Mary’s, averaged 103, while the girls’ and infants school under the Franciscan nuns, averaged 234. There was, too, a Girls’ school in Huntly Street under Franciscan nuns where the average was 116, while the Sisters of the Sacred Heart had recently opened a fee-paying and free elementary mixed school in the convent grounds at Queen’s Cross.

Father Donald Chisholm left St. Peter’s in 1899 after a short ministry of four years, during which he had welded the new parish into a unity and laid a second foundation for the future. He was succeeded by Father Thomas Macdonald.

Father Thomas Macdonald, a nephew of Bishop John Macdonald, came from the Highlands and from what was then a nursery of priests, Strathglass in Inverness-shire. He was born on 3 December, 1867, began his studies for the priesthood at Blair’s College in 1880 and, four years later, was transferred to the English Benedictine College at Douai in France, where Father Donald Chisholm had preceded him. After two years in Douai, he was sent to the Scots College, Rome, but there his health broke down and in 1886 he returned to his native land. In 1888 he was able to resume his studies at Saint-Sulpice, Paris, where he was ordained on 23 May, 1891. Back in Scotland, he was for a short time assistant priest at the Cathedral, then for a year at St. Joseph’s, Woodside, then for two years at Banff. In 1895 he was sent—a Gaelic speaker—to Marydale near Beauly where Gaelic was still the native tongue of the not inconsiderable congregation and, four years later, succeeded Father Donald Chisholm at St. Peter’s. In less than three years he was dead. Towards the end of 1901 he contracted a troublesome cold. He was single-handed at the time and continued with his work in the parish, meeting the constant calls made on him. The cold developed into inflammation of the lungs and on Candlemas Day, 1902, the whole Catholic body of Aberdeen and many non-Catholics, to whom he was known and whose respect he had earned, heard with sorrow of his death. He was only thirty five years old. Father John McBain of Blairs College, who preached at the funeral Mass, said this of him: ‘Many who were not linked to him by the ties of common Faith will consider themselves the poorer from the loss of a friend. Yet throughout his social intercourse the dignity of the priesthood was in safe keeping. He had ever this motive in view in his social relations, to break down the barriers of prejudice which in Scotland dies hard, for it is the growth of centuries. Besides Father Macdonald the gentleman, there was Father Macdonald the pastor. The poor of St. Peter’s, the sick, the infirm, the afflicted, could best give testimony of his goodness as a pastor. Even during his trying illness his heart went out to his flock. This was evinced in the directions which he imparted to others, not to forget such a one, and to be sure to visit such other. . . And recently, when the weather was inclement, he was mindful of God’s poor, of whom there are plenty in this district, and he insisted that any money available should be conveyed to them . . . The heart that was thoughtful and considerate and anxious about his flock when beating feebly within a dying body was a heart worthy of a priest of God.’

Father Macdonald’s mortal remains lie in St. Peter’s cemetery against the wall on King Street and directly opposite the opening to Pittodrie Street. His grave is overlooked by a simple granite cross with the inscription: ‘Crux Domini Spes Unica (the cross of the Lord is my one hope). The grave of Thomas Macdonald, born 1867 ordained priest 1891, died at St. Peter’s, Justice Street, Aberdeen, 1902. He asks all who see it to have the charity to pray for his soul. Jesus, mercy. Mary, help. R.I.P.’

1902-1947

As we draw nearer to our own time, it becomes more difficult to provide an account of St. Peter’s. The ‘Diary of Events’ in the Catholic Directory is scanned in vain for any reference to the parish and none of Priest Gordon’s successors followed his example and kept a year-by-year record of the outstanding happenings of his ministry. Father Macdonald had no assistant, and during his last illness Father Andrew Grant was recalled from Wick by Bishop Aeneas Chisholm to look after the congregation. It seemed in a sense that priest Gordon had come to life again. There was the same zeal, the same devotion to duty, the same care for the poor, the same unorthodox delivery in the pulpit, the resemblance even being carried out in the length of years spent in Chapel Court. Once upon a time Father Andrew’s name (Andy Grant to his fellow priests) was a legend, became a household word in the eastend, but no one troubled like Dr. James Stark to transmit in writing to posterity the worth and work of the priest who for forty five years walked the streets of the eastend of the city, descended into its closes, climbed its tenements, bent on errands of beneficence. It has been our loss.

Father Andrew Grant was born at Auchendryne, Braemar, on 24 February, 1869. He entered St. Mary’s College, Blairs, on 20 July, 1883, and was sent to complete his studies under the Jesuit Fathers of Rue Vaugiraud, Paris, in October 1886. From thence he passed to the Scots College, Rome, in 1889. He was ordained on All Saints’ Day, 1894, returned to Scotland in the following year and was stationed at the Cathedral. Father Donald Chisholm had already gone to take charge of St. Peter’s.

In 1889 Bishop Chisholm appointed him to Wick, away from the hub and centre of the diocese to its most isolated mainland outpost. It was a severe test of character. In 1902 he was recalled to Aberdeen to relieve Father Tom Macdonald of the burden of the parish. When Father Macdonald died, the bishop told Father Grant to ‘take charge meantime’. That meantime was to last for almost fifty years. Often he would laugh and say with a chuckle: ‘I was never appointed to St. Peter’s. I am only here ‘taking charge meantime’.’

The east end of Aberdeen in 1902 was a very different place from what it is today. Read The North-East Lowlands of Scotland by S. R. Allan to discover what Justice Lane (swept away to form the Market Stance) was like. Then wretched slums housed workers and workless, old and young, married and unmarried, in over-crowded misery. Wages were low, employment hard to find and easy to lose. Sickness was a financial anxiety; no work, no pay, no sick benefit. Cheap full-proof spirit made drunkenness a widespread source of domestic strife and home neglect. Father Grant’s imperturbable good humour and priestly patience accepted lightly and courageously these unhelpful realities. The poor, the down-and-outs, the cadgers, those in trouble soon got to know his humanity and besieged his door. Somehow he succeeded in finding and providing whatever was asked for; food, shelter, clothes, money, work. He canvassed everybody—his Brothers of St. Vincent de Paul, his Franciscan Tertiaries, his Children of Mary. The hospitals knew him, Lodge Walk knew him, Craiginches knew him. Town officials, businessmen, works managers, probation officers, they all knew him and warmed to him and felt honoured to help him to help others. There can have been no more kenspeckle or admired figure in Aberdeen as he went abroad, wrapped in an old highland cloak which grew green with age and exposure to the elements, on his errands of mercy—to find work for the workless, homes for the homeless, food for the hungry, to bring sunshine and new hope to many an anxious mind and many a weary downtrodden spirit.

When the first Great World War came, the spiritual needs of the fighting man attracted Father Grant’s generous spirit and he went out to the front as a chaplain attached to the 51st Highland Division. The servicemen who came back were ready to testify to his kindness and companionableness, so resourceful, so quick to suggest, so prepared to do what under the circumstances was the right and sensible thing to do. He was made a prisoner of war (‘we fed on carrots’) and was released in 1919, decorated with the Military Cross—he was again and again nearer the fighting line than chaplains’ regulatations laid down. This time he was formally ‘appointed’ to St. Peter’s by Bishop Bennett and relieved his brother George who had been responsible for the parish during his absence.

These post-war years were difficult years; trade depression, strikes, universal disappointment. But social conditions were steadily improving, the worst of the slums were gradually being demolished and, as the personal burden of helping the needy lessened, Father Grant turned his zeal to other works. He installed the present organ in St. Peter’s where a fine choir had been built up, though he had no music himself and could not distinguish ‘God Save the King’ from ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’. When in Paris as a student (it is his own story), he was given a trial hearing by Charles Gounod, author of the operas Faust and Romeo and Juliet, who pronounced this verdict:‘utterly tone deaf’. Father Grant delighted to flourish this unmusical testimonial, but he would add: ‘I love the pipes.’ He acquired a hall in West North Street, which must have helped many to forget for a moment the stress of the war years through the Sunday concerts it offered, and which housed a fine dra’matic society and an enthusiastic youth club. In 1931 he built St. Theresa’s’ U in Orchard Place to relieve the congestion in St. Peter’s. She was one of his favourite saints along with those whose natural disposition resembled his own—St. Peter, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Vincent de Paul, the Curé d’Ars. Some of the older members of the congregation may recall the huge statues of St. Peter and St. Francis which encumbered the then diminutive sanctuary and the many others which littered the walls of the church—I can remember at least sixteen. But Father Grant was a great believer in the Saints and in their power of intercession, and this was just his method of encouraging every soul in its own devotion. As a member of the Aberdeen Town Council Education Committee he helped to negotiate, in spite of some sectional opposition, the building of the new school in Nelson Street—a suitable locality then, when the preponderance of the Catholic children in the city came from there or there about. One can only hint at Canon Grant’s work in the confessional and in private consultation—how patient and wise and encouraging he was; or at his years as confessor to the nuns of Nazareth House and Queen’s Cross and the students and nuns at Blairs College; or at his apostolate in the pulpit. Like Priest Gordon he was always natural and unselfconscious, and there was nothing of the mountebank about him. He spoke from the heart and from a deep reading of spiritual books, and ‘he spoke to the experience of his hearers whose hopes and fears and difficulties he knew so well. How wonderfully he could hold you by telling a story to bring a lump to your throat or a ripple of laughter round the church—nearly all authentic stories of his own experience.

By 1947, when he was 78 years of age, the burden of old age and the burden of duty could ‘no longer be reconciled and Canon Grant asked and received permission from Bishop Matheson to retire and went to live with his lifelong friend, Monsignor Charles Macdonald, at Portessie near Buckie. In the spring of 1955 his physical and mental health weakened so rapidly that his doctors advised the special care and professional attention given at the House of Daviot; 2 June of the same year he slipped quietly from earth to God. He was laid to rest in the good company of so many fellow priests who, in the ancient braeside churchyard of St. Ninian’s in the Enzie of Banffshire, await the glory of the Resurrection.

1947-77

Canon Grant was succeeded by the Rev. Alexander Mac William. He was born in Buckie, Banffshire, on 28 May, 1902, and went to St. Mary’s College, Blairs, in August 1918; next year he entered the Scots College, Rome, and was ordained at Rome’ on 27 February 1926. He came home in July of that year and joined the staff at St. Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen. His first parish was Kirkwall in the Orkneys where he remained from 1928 to 1933, when he was transferred to Aboyne. He spent twelve years on Deeside and then over two years at Chapeltown in the Braes of Glenlivet. It was from Chapeltown that Bishop John Matheson sent him to St. Peter’s.

It was still a fairly populous parish with a population of over 2200. The older people remembered when the 9 o’clock children’s Mass was crowded and how necessary it was to be in good time to procure a seat at the 11 o’clock Mass. But the exodus from the east end had been on its way for sometime and was to be greatly accelerated when Kaimhill, Garthdee, Kincorth and particularly Northfield and Mastrick were built at the expense of the populous area between the sea and George Street. The decrease in numbers was shown in a tangible way when Father Bernard Ashworth was removed and no one sent in his place. This meant the closing of St. Teresa’s, Orchard Walk, which had been opened in 1931. ‘Thirty-one years ago St. Teresa’s was blessed by Bishop Bennett and opened for divine worship. I do not know whether it was built to relieve the congestion at St. Peter’s or whether it was expected to develop into a separate parish. But, whatever the intention, it has been belied by events. No one thought in these days of the present great expansion of the city towards its western boundaries, while St. Peter’s itself has had to witness a gradual diminution in its numbers from 2200 in 1948 (the earliest record there is) to just over 700 in 1962; so that, instead of a new parish being opened in this quarter of the City, we have to lament the passing of the daughter church and the necessity of retrenchment within the bounds of Chapel Court . . . I shall miss that Sunday experience. The spring sunshine seemed always warmer at Orchard Walk, the autumn mellower, and the countryside just round the corner.’’’

However the midnight Mass at Christmas 1947 was said in a church packed to the door and a congregation flowing into the aisles. A queue had formed before the opening of the church, stretching from the Premier Café to the church door. There were Children of Mary then, and it had been their custom to accompany the bambino to the crib. Their passage from the sacristy to the crib can only be described as a ‘sair trachle’, through the encumbered passage way.

But there was not only the Children of Mary at that time but all kinds of organisations—the Catholic Young Men’s Society, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the Third Order of St. Francis, a Women’s Association, Guides, Scouts, Brownies, Cubs and a flourishing Youth Club and Dramatic Society in the hall in West North Street. There is no record of the numbers in previous years but there were 78 First Communicants in 1959—43 boys, 29 girls and 6 adults. In 1947 there were 180 baptisms which had dropped to 39 in 1961; in the nineteen seventies an average of less than 10 a year.

In those days (and it is still true) St. Peter’s was a parish with a tradition. Some could remember Father Donald Chisholm, and there were some who still bore the impress of his teaching, while there was in all a great sense of identify with and a loyalty to the parish—so many always ready and willing to help and to give of their best. There was a good choir which Father Malaney reduced to a less operatic standard, and a nucleus who could be depended to carry on and who are, some of them, still active. Does anyone still remember the four-part Latin Mass and the latin motets and the clouds of incense on Easter Sunday? Or the Sanctuary at the Quarantore devotions ablaze with candles? Or the May procession and the May Queen, accompanied by her attendants, crowning the statue of our Lady to the strains of ‘Bring flowers of the rarest’? But one appeal which always seemed to fall on deaf ears was the appeal for members for the choir, even when they were assured that it was not a Caruso who was required or better still, were reminded that, if they were to spend eternity singing God’s praises, it wouldn’t be a bad thing to put in some practice beforehand.

The property had not changed since Priest Gordon’s time. There was still a tenant in the ‘side’ house, and the house on the left was fully occupied; they are empty today. But the buildings were showing obvious signs of wear and tear and Father MacWilliam’s first task, which was made easy by the generosity of the congregation, was the ordinary, humdrum task of repair—the pointing of walls, resarking and reslating, eradicating woodworm, bringing the two halls into a tolerable state of usefulness. Month after month, for many years, the Parish Magazine refers to the Church Repair Fund, to what had been collected, to what had been done.

It was only when this work was well on the way that a start was made on the embellishment of the church. Four things appeared to be necessary after the main work of repair had been accomplished and a new heating and lighting system installed. These were: confessionals, a baptistry, Stations of the Cross and a more spacious sanctuary. The confessionals (there were two of them) were installed at the beginning. They were makeshift and never designed by an artist, but they were an improvement on going into the house for confession and wondering which of the three doors to take, or risking one’s limbs on the sacristy steps, even though it has been heard said that people at St. Peter’s tell their sins in a wardrobe! Then there was the baptistry, separated, as the liturgy then prescribed, as far as circumstances allowed, from the body of the church, a new marble font and that splendid window by Gordon Webster (it cost £600), depicting our Lord’s baptism by St. John and the patron saints of the pre-Reformation wards of the city—St. Andrew, St. Clement, St. Nicholas and St. Machar. A stained glass window by Patrick Nuttgens had already been installed in the sanctuary to commemorate the centenary of the Rev. Charles Gordon’s death.

Next came the Stations of the Cross. These are in ceramic (glazed tiles) by a Polish artist, Adam Kossowski, so much of whose work is to be seen at Aylesford Priory. Not everyone may like them but this is a quotation from a letter received just after their erection: ‘May I take this occasion of congratulating you over the new Stations. They are beautiful, aesthetically pleasing, but also surely capable of inspiring real devotion. The artist who created them is deeply in the Christian tradition. Note for instance how our Lord actually reaches up to embrace the Cross (second Station), rather than being loaded with it. There is almost enthusiasm in the gesture. They are a noble contribution to the church and will enhance its beauty.’

Finally there was a sanctuary. One can judge how small it was when one learns that the altar rails were in line with the walls of the arch and the Lady Altar just outside. There was something like three feet between the altar rails and the altar steps, and during Holy Week the servers were falling over one another because of the lack of space. One ordination ceremony, that of Father John Cunningham, lost so much of its impressiveness for the same reason. Something required to be be done and plans were presented by Mr. Charles Gray, the architect of the Mastrick Church, for the extension of the sanctuary and a new free-standing altar. Mr. Gray wanted the reredos removed but the congregation would have nothing of it. ‘I am sorry about the reredos’, he wrote. ‘However, my Archbishop (Archbishop Gray) did warn me not to make a hash of St. Peter’s.’ On Sunday, 24 October 1965, Mass was said for the first time on the new altar. The whole came to just under £2,000

On Sunday, 22 February, 1976, Canon MacWilliam celebrated his Golden Jubilee when the Bishop of Aberdeen, Mgr. Michael

Foylan, concelebrated Mass with him and his former curates. On Sunday 11 September 1977, he was ‘preached out’ by Bishop Mario Conti as he had been ‘preached in’ to his office thirty years before by Bishop John Matheson. The bishop then said: ‘During these thirty years this parish has seen extensive changes1 Like many city parishes it has been drastically reduced in numbers, yet what do we find? A beautiful church, modified but unspoilt by the changes required by Vatican II: adorned with modern Stations and a new altar in happy harmony with the old, because there was discretion and good taste in their ordering. A church where the liturgy is true, its accents sincere, because it expresses a genuine piety of priest and people . . .‘

Canon MacWilliam retired to Aboyne that same month of September and was succeeded by the Rev. Patrick Grady.

During the summer of 1939 all the former missions in the diocese of Aberdeen were canonically erected into parishes and priests-in-charge installed as parish priests.

Priests-in -charge

Assistant Priests

 

Rev. Charles Gordon

1803-1854 Rev. Charles Fraser

1830-1835t

 

Rev. John McCorry

1837-1842

 

Rev. John Reid

1842-1854t

 

Rev. John Ritchie

1848-1854

Rev. John Sutherland

1854-1860 Rev, William Stopani

1854-1860

 

1860-1895

 
 

St. Peter’s is closed

 

Rev. Donald Chisholm

1895-1899 Rev. Joseph McLellan Rev, Donald MacKay Rev. Angus Mclnnes

1896-1897
1897-1898
1898-1899

Rev. Thomas Macdonald

1899-1902t Rev. Angus Mclnnes Rev. Andrew Grant

1900
1902

Rev. Andrew Grant

1902-1947 Rev. George Grant

1902-1906

Appointed canon of

Rev. James Anton

1906-1913

Aberdeen Chapter 1928

Rev. John McPherson

1913-1916

Rev. George Grant:

   

protem

1916-1919 Rev. Thomas MacLaughlin
Rev. Sidney J. Toman
Rev. William Murdoch
Rev. Alistair Kennedy

1917-1922
1922-1925
1925-1927
1927-1929

Rev. Andrew Grant

Rev. Stephen A. Keane
Rev. George J. Phillips
Rev. Wilfred Davis
Rev. Charles Collins
Rev. John F. Copland

1929-193 1
1931-1933
1933-1938
1938-1946
1946-1947

Rev. Alexander S.

   

MacWilliam

1947-1977 Rev. John F. Copland Rev. Hugh Malaney

1947-1948
1948-1952

Canon of Aberdeen

   

Chapter 1954

Rev. Robert A. McDonald

1952-1956

Provost 1975-1977

Rev. Hugh Sheridan

1956-1959

Prelate of honour 1977

Rev. Denis Garrity: on loan from Motherwell diocese.
Rev. Bernard Ashworth

1959-1960

1960-1962

Rev. Patrick Grady

1977-

 

NOTES

1 The name given to a bishop in missionary countries where the normal hierarchy is not established and whose powers are delegated through the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda. Scotland was under vicars apostolic until 1878.

2 The summer house is now the vestry. The garden wall in undoubtedly 17th century. Skipper Scott’s inn had been bought for a dwelling-house sometime previously by Francis Peacock, the dancing master, who gave his name to Peacock’s Close. The quotation is from a CTS pamphlet, A Notable Family of Priests.

3 It was from the time of the building of the front land that Inveramsay’s Close was renamed Chapel Court.

        4 See Underground Catholicism, p 83

5 These references are owed to Mrs. Christine Johnson.

6 ‘Mr. Charles Gordon’s grand organ has been set up and publicly exhibited . . . The concourse was prodigious. Among the other extraordinary personages present were four Parsons and the admiration of the music, both instrumental and vocal was universal. John Cameron, Aquhorties, James Gordon, Tombae.’

7 The altar-piece hangs in the porch of St. Peter’s. It was the gift of Charles X, King of France, who abdicated in          1830. Another such gift is the altar-piece in St. Thomas’, Keith, representing the incredulity of St. Thomas.

8 The ‘new’ school has been demolished while the old school, once a Polish Club,

houses (1979) the Shiprow Tavern, a voluntary group which provides food and

company for homeless men every weekday evening.

9 He found the Cathedral a shell and made it—according to the taste of the time—one

of the most magnificent interiors in the country. He extended the schools in Constitution Street, brought Franciscan nuns from Glasgow to open a day and boarding school in Huntly Street and is to be counted the second founder of Nazareth House, Aberdeen.

10 The hall was sold and subsequently demolished. St. Teresa’s was sold to the University and the church and grounds now house part of the Department of Computer Sciences.

        11 The Catholic Parish Magazine, August 1962.

FURTHER READING

Charles Gordon: MS. Record of St. Peter’s

James Stark: Priest Gordon of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, 1909

Constance Davidson: Priest Gordon, Edinburgh n.d.

The Catholic Parish Magazine, June 1955-May 1966

J. F. S. Gordon: The Catholic Church in Scotland Aberdeen 1874

Peter Anson: Underground Catholicism, Montrose 1970

Alexander Keith: A Thousand Years of Aberdeen, Aberdeen 1972

Fenton Wyness: Spots from the Leopard, Aberdeen, 1971

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