Columns, Religion, War
May 17, 1998
MIKE BARNICLE IN THE BOSTON GLOBE: Do this in hope, remembrance


May 17, 1998

BELFAST — A hundred children of parents from a poor, shattered neighborhood where the past always conspired to defeat any decent future streamed into Holy Trinity Church yesterday to make their First Holy Communion. All the girls wore dazzling white dresses and boys were dressed in light gray suits as entire families watched, dizzy with pride.

“It’s like a fashion show,” the Rev. Matt Wallace said. “Most of these people go into debt to buy the outfits. Father Wallace is pastor of Holy Trinity in the Turf Lodge section of town. He is 55, a priest for 28 years, and he brings an infectious laugh and wonderful sense of humor to a parish of 6,000 people living in an area smaller than Beacon Hill. The church is the focal point of the community. It is a large, square cement-block building with a flat factory roof, located high on a hill above Center City, all right in the shadow of a British Army facility.

“Lock your car,” he advises visitors. “We share cars around here. Nearly everyone belongs to the D.L.A. club. That’s disability living allowance, and without it there wouldn’t be a single car in Turf Lodge.”

He and Father Patrick McCafferty were in the sacristy putting on their chasubles and stoles for Mass. The church was packed for a simple ceremony that manages to offer hope and optimism to an area more familiar with funerals after 30 years of violence.

“This church opened on Bloody Sunday,” Father Wallace recalled. The people here have suffered a lot but they are the most forgiving people you’ll find. And I think that this is the last community in the Western world where the extended family is so important.”

The pastor, two altar boys, and Father McCafferty strolled to the altar promptly at 11 a.m. Everyone rose as voices from the grammar school choir filled the building while the service began.

All the doors were open for a breeze so at the Offertory the sound of an Army helicopter overhead competed with the song, “We Love You Jesus.” Due to the huge numbers receiving, communion took 15 minutes to complete as the place filled with the light of flash bulbs as youngsters, hands folded in prayer, accepted the host and new responsibilities.

After Mass, everybody flooded on to the driveway between the rectory and the church where most of the adults lit a smoke before lining up for family pictures with the two priests. “Like I’m a rock star,” Father Wallace laughed.

Maria Coogan stood off to the side of the happy crowd, cigarette in hand, surveying the long line of two-story attached stucco bungalows as if each building contained a single story with a separate memory. Across the years, Turf Lodge has lost 27 men in a struggle rooted in politics, economics, and religion; a bitter, bloody fight that seems to have lessened a bit recently and might even recede more with this week’s vote on peace.

“Billy Gibson lived right across the street,” Coogan said. “He was 15 when the soldiers murdered him. Sean Savage lived two houses up; he was killed in Gibraltar. Died for his country, he did.”

“Terry Enright was the last we had,” Father Wallace pointed out. “They shot him to death in January. He was a wonderful lad. Worked with Catholic kids as well as Protestants. A youth worker, he was. Wonderful man.”

“Why was he killed?” the priest was asked.

“Catholic,” he replied.

“Then there was Brian Stewart,” Maria Coogan added. “He was 9 when a British soldier murdered him; the soldier’s name was Mark Thien. He did a year in jail and he’s back in the Army today. I don’t think there’ll ever be peace in Northern Ireland. Too many splinter groups. Too many bad memories.”

The parish population has an unemployment rate of 35 percent. It is presently enduring the horror of teenage suicide and rising drug usage. But yesterday, with marvelous weather and all these terrific children, smiling and almost saintly in their appearance, the past disappeared for a morning while a whole community took time out to concentrate on this country’s one true future.