More than 5000 people have signed a petition in protest at the closure of a pilgrimage centre at Scotland's national Catholic shrine, the Carfin Grotto in the Motherwell diocese.
The diocese has announced the centre, opened in 1996, will close at the end of September and all staff will be made redundant. The grotto itself, founded by Canon Thomas Taylor in 1922, will remain open and will be served by the parish church of St Francis Xavier.
The visit of the relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux will go ahead as planned at the end of August.
Staff at the centre said they were “totally shocked, numb and heartbroken”. Motherwell Diocese said the decision was “purely financial”.
Bishop of Motherwell Joseph Toal said that income from visitors had not been sufficient to meet the operations costs of the centre.
The Pilgrimage Centre was opened in 1996. Maureen Campbell, who has been an employee there for the last 23 years said that the decision to close was “a complete shock”. She said that staff had attended a meeting in May which addressed the question of shortfall in income and asked for fund-raising ideas andthere was “no talk of closure at that point”.
Local protests included a letter from Mr Richard Lynas, former head teacher of Taylor High School, which is named after Canon Taylor.
In a letter to The Herald, Mr Lynas said: "I was stunned when I heard that the visitor centre attached to Scotland's National Shrine to Our Lady is to close its doors at the end of September. For many years now, that shrine, known locally as Carfin Grotto, has been a centre of pilgrimage and is valued and respected as such not just by Catholics but by people of all faiths and none. To this day, it attracts thousands of visitors from across the UK and indeed from across the world."
He continued: "Those who know the story of how the Grotto itself came to be constructed, will be well aware of the remarkable drive of a local priest, Father Thomas (later, Canon) Taylor, first in promoting the case for sainthood of St Therese of Lisieux and then in employing out-of-work miners back in 1920 to commence the building of a shrine in the local pit village of Carfin in honour both of Our Lady of Lourdes and, a few years later, of Therese, that much-loved saint, when she was canonised in 1925. If the people of the area could not afford to visit the French towns of Lourdes or Lisieux, said the Canon, then perhaps the spirit of faith of Lourdes and Lisieux could be recreated in the mining village of Carfin. And so indeed it was. And continues to be."
Mr Lynas said that, like staff, he was not privy to the detailed financial pressures that had led to the Motherwell diocese decision, but expressed the hope that “the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland and, indeed, Scotland’s Catholics in general will be willing to rally round and contribute to the saving of a facility of which they can be so justly proud”.
Run as a limited company with its own board of directors, the centre has been subsidised by the diocese for some time.
Bishop Toal said in a letter outlining reasons for the closure: "The ultimate difficulty for the centre is that not enough people visit the grotto. Far more pilgrims would be needed to maintain the present business and improve the facilities. It does not seem likely that more people will come to the grotto, even though it is a beautiful oasis of prayer and tranquillity. This summer only 20 of the parishes in our diocese have arranged a parish day at the grotto. That is a third of the parishes and is sadly indicative of the decline in numbers.
"If the support is not there from the local community it is unlikely that visitors from further afield will compensate for this. It is true that large numbers come to Carfin for special feast-days and devotions, but they often visit in the evening when the pilgrimage centre is closed and the Xavier centre is more able to cope with a large number looking for a cup of tea after Mass.
"I accept people may feel disappointed about this decision but they have to be aware that we are now a diocese of modest means, which can’t afford to ignore the reality of the limited resources we can invest in a business that is not financially viable. The total income of the diocese, in the last financial year was £11 million as was our expenditure. We basically spend everything we take in, leaving us unable to save for the future. That is the reality of where we are now and parishioners need to be aware that there no surplus funds that can be accessed to pay for short-falls in income. We have been left with no option, but to make a difficult choice in regard to the pilgrimage centre. Unfortunately, it will not be the only one we must make, as we face a future of reduced numbers and modest incomes. As a diocese with more limited financial resources than in the past, we must cut our coat according to our cloth."
The diocese is talking with Fr McGachey, the parish priest of St Francis Xavier parish, which is within the grounds of the grotto, on the provision of alternatives facilities when the centre closes.
The Scalan altar, Carfin. Pic by Scottish Catholic Media Office.
Meanwhile, a new altar has been installed at the grotto to honour the Scots forced to practise their Catholic faith clandestinely through two and a half centuries of persecution, from 1560 onwards.
The Scalan altar is named after the secret seminary in the Braes of Glenlivet which operated from 1716 to 1799 in contravention of the Penal Laws against Catholicism. The laws forbade the celebration of Mass in Scotland and priests were prohibited from being in Scotland at all.
Fr Michael Briody, president of the Scalan Association said: “There are several shrines at Carfin Grotto honouring the Irish, Polish, Lithuanian and Ukrainian immigrants who brought their own contribution and strength to the Catholic Community in Scotland. The Scalan altar pays tribute to those native-born Scots who kept the faith through centuries of persecution, especially in The Enzie of Banffshire, Lochaber, Strathglass, 'Blessed Morar', the Southern Hebrides and Galloway. The Scalan altar is a worthy representative of them all.”
Bishop Toal said: “The new Scalan altar recognises the courage of the men and women who gave witness to their Faith in the darkest and most testing of times. It reminds us that we must never take for granted the freedom we have to practise our faith in public and in private, and our responsibility to stand up for our fellow Christians around the world who face severe hardship, discrimination and persecution for professing belief in one God and his holy religion.”