Roman Catholic Communities

Michael TRB Turnbull

By 2000, there were six Roman Catholic post-Reformation parishes in East Lothian. Four of these – Our Lady of the Waves, Dunbar (church constructed 1877), St Gabriel’s, Prestonpans (with its associated Oratory of St James at Wallyford), Our Lady of Loretto & St Michael, Musselburgh and Our Lady, Star of the Sea, North Berwick – lay on the coast; two – St Mary’s, Haddington and St Martin’s, Tranent – were located inland. Also inland was St Kentigern’s (established 1913) in East Linton; ministered to by Dunbar, it had closed by 1990.

Four patterns of population were evident: Haddington, with 690 Catholics in 1952, showed only slight growth (700) by 2000; similarly, Musselburgh grew in that period only marginally, from 1851 to 1890. North Berwick increased in size from 350 to 430. Dunbar, by contrast, more than doubled from 211 to 500, while, most dramatically, Prestonpans (with communities formerly at Levenhall, and latterly at Wallyford, Port Seton, Cockenzie and Longniddry) more than tripled in size from 800 to 2000. St Martin’s Tranent, on the other hand, fell slightly from 1155 to 1000. Some caution, however, must be indicated at the reliability of these statistics. Derived from returns submitted by parish priests and published in the annual Catholic Directory for Scotland, the figures submitted for the number of parishioners are global estimates of baptised Catholics, not mass attendance returns. Mass attendance records the number of weekly ‘celebrating’ parishioners (formerly known as ‘non-practising’) rather than that wider body of ‘practising’ parishioners who are members of the Church by baptism but not regular church-goers; in most cases, the former is less than 50% of the latter.

It is easier to point to reasons why parishes have grown, than fully to explain their decline. In Dunbar, for example, the construction of Torness nuclear power station (completed in 1988) and the Blue Circle cement works (1963) brought many new faces into the parish. In Prestonpans, the need for labour in local mines was the main factor behind the explosion of the Catholic population, as well as employment opportunities in Edinburgh, well served by trains and local buses. Relatively low parish growth in Haddington and Musselburgh and decline in Tranent is unlikely to be due to any fall in local employment opportunities. It may well be a reflection of changed social priorities, aspirations, disenchantment with organised religion, or confusion following the liturgical changes introduced in the mid-1960s by the Second Vatican Council.

Some of these factors can perhaps be seen in the widespread sharp fall in infant baptisms (also following a general decline in the birthrate): Dunbar’s baptisms fell from ten in 1962 to nil in the year 2000; Tranent from 45 to eleven; Haddington from 23 to nine; Prestonpans from 45 to 34. Infant baptisms in North Berwick, however, remained virtually steady (13 to eleven), as did those in Musselburgh (44 to 40). Marriages in the same period, however, declined equally rapidly – those in Tranent falling from 22 to three; Musselburgh and Prestonpans experienced a similar decline, from 14 to eight, and Haddington, from four to two; the only growth recorded was at Dunbar, where marriages doubled from two to four; in North Berwick, marriages remained at four over the half-century. Overall, there was a decline in infant baptisms from 180 to 99, and of marriages – from 68 to 34. These figures mirrored changes in society at large, where the Church’s blessing for rites of passage was evidently increasingly seen in the eyes of many of the child-bearing generations, as being less relevant than in 1950.

Perhaps giving as much cause for concern was the decline in priests and religious (nuns and brothers). Among religious orders, the relatively large (eleven) congregation of Passionist missionary priests at Drummohr (officially in Midlothian, but intimately related to Prestonpans) closed, as did the Benedictine Priory and school at Carlekemp, North Berwick. From 1945 to 1973, the school had educated Catholic and non-Catholic alike (many of the latter members of the East Lothian landed aristocracy). Only one parish (St Gabriel’s, Prestonpans, formerly linked to Drummohr) continued to be served by a religious order (the Passionists) to the end of the period. Against the trend, the Cistercian community at Sancta Maria Abbey, Nunraw, Garvald, saw only a negligible contraction in its monastic community from 18 to 17, in spite of the general pronounced decline in the number of those joining the priesthood or religious life (a phenomenon common to most western industrialised nations); Nunraw’s highly successful farming and livestock operation continues unabated.

Between 1951 and 2000 there was no change in the one priest complement of Dunbar, Haddington, North Berwick and Tranent, although the average age profile increased considerably. Exceptionally, numbers at Prestonpans grew from two to three (one of these being a lay brother, not a priest); in Musselburgh, by contrast, the numbers of clergy fell from two to one, although, in Musselburgh, the numbers of religious sisters remained considerable – the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul (four) and of the Sisters of Charity of St Paul the Apostle (ten). Overall, by 2000, the numbers of priests and religious sisters and brothers in East Lothian fell from 42 to 39. While the number of Catholics in East Lothian increased only slightly (by 600), the number of diocesan parish clergy stayed very much the same (seven).

Closures of institutions managed by religious orders mirrored changing priorities in the care of the sick or those at risk. The Servite Sisters who had staffed the Richard Cave Foundation for Multiple Sclerosis at Leuchie, North Berwick had retired (two to live in Prestonpans) by 2000 (although lay staff continued); in 1992 the De La Salle Brothers withdrew from St Joseph’s List D (formerly Approved) School, Tranent, which had been administered and staffed by the De La Salle Brothers since 1914 until it was taken over by the local authority. Three of the Brothers continued to live in Tranent until 1999. Balancing this exodus was the arrival of two Poor Clares at Humbie in 1992 and of four Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul at Musselburgh in 1999. In that year (1999) the Sisters of Charity of St Paul the Apostle retired from the professional staffing of the residential care home at St Anne’s Convent, Musselburgh, but a number (ten) continued to live on the premises, which was thereafter run by lay staff.

In spite of what appear to be many negative trends, positive signs of a different kind of growth made themselves visible; the quality and depth of congregational life improved. From the mid-1990s, the faith-formation of adults and children took centre-stage in parishes, with sacramental preparation programmes and the Christian initiation of adults into the faith community. This was accompanied by greater lay involvement in parish administration, leading to a more informed and responsible participation. Since the 1950s, ecumenism has been a particular feature of Catholicism in East Lothian, beginning in 1952 with a Nativity mime led by members of the Grail at Nunraw, acted by the Presbyterian children of Garvald village, supported by the minister, his wife and congregation. This was followed, after the restoration of St Mary’s, Haddington, by the annual Haddington Pilgrimage, which made ecumenism an ever-present occasion of sharing and healing. There were other signs of good ecumenical dialogue: in 1994, a Roman Catholic became a member of the Music Committee of the Presbytery of Lothian, while on-going fraternals between ministers of all denominations helped to foster a spirit of mutual understanding and co-operation in East Lothian.

Further reading

  • Heeps, Brian (1989) In Beauty Enshrined: Our Lady of Loretto and St Michael of Musselburgh, Musselburgh
  • Turnbull, MTRB (2000) Abbey Boys, Perth: (for Carlekemp Priory, North Berwick)