The Scottish Hierarchy with Bishop Joseph Toal, front left. Some Catholics are of the opinion that every diocese should make a contribution to save the Carfin Centre and Grotto from closure.
SPECIAL REPORT by BILL HEANEY
Scotland’s Roman Catholic bishops are facing unprecedented questioning of their authority over a decision to shut down the pilgrimage centre at Carfin Grotto.
The grotto was constructed by poor Irish labourers in the heart of industrial Lanarkshire.
There are widespread fears that the whole Carfin Grotto will fold when the centre closes its doors since the café and restroom facilities for pilgrims will go with it.
However, today (Tuesday), the Catholic Media Office issued a reassuring statement for people planning a pilgrimage there: “The closure of the shop and tearoom (Pilgrimage Centre) will have no effect on the Grotto. The Pilgrimage Centre had been run as a Limited Company with its own Board of Directors.
“Unfortunately, it has been loss-making for several years (the Grotto gets lots of visitors, but the shop and tearoom don’t) its losses showed no sign of improving, and it cost the Diocese a substantial amount of money to subsidise them.
“Ultimately the diocese had a responsibility to all its parishes and it simply couldn’t justify the continued substantial subsidies which the centre required. The future of the Grotto is secure.”
Carfin grotto is Scotland’s Lourdes, the “miraculous” religious shrine, grotto and basilica dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary in France, which has been visited by thousands of Scottish pilgrims annually over the past century.
Lourdes is reputed to be where, on February 11th, 1858, Our Lady is said to have appeared to Bernadette Soubirous, a poor teenager suffering from asthma.
Bernadette, one of the most popular saints of the Catholic Church, is said suddenly to have heard “a noise like a gust of wind” when a young woman appeared to her on the rock of Massabielle more than once.
Eventually, a miraculous spring was revealed, and it has continued to flow ever since, providing water believed to have properties for the physical healing of some, and spiritual healing for millions.
Millions of bottles, designed and manufactured specially to hold Lourdes water, have been brought home to Scotland as souvenirs and gifts over many years.
Catholics sprinkle “holy water” from these bottles when they pray for such things as good health, safe houses, healthy children, employment and good fortune.
Motherwell Diocese has announced that it will close Carfin Pilgrimage Centre on Tuesday, September 30.
There was no definitive announcement in regard to the grotto, which has extensive grounds and numerous statues, where parties of pilgrims have processed religiously over a long number of years.
The decision to close the café and toilet facilities has been described in the local newspaper as “a bombshell”, but it is no exaggeration or hyperbole to say it has been greeted with anger and dismay by many Catholics from across the country.
The Bishop of Motherwell, Joseph Toal, said the diocese can no longer afford to maintain the grotto or finance the centre since it had become clear that more money was required “to meet statutory food and hygiene and health and safety standards expected today”.
The numbers of people making pilgrimages and using the centre had plummeted to the extent that the footfall and use of the facilities was no longer sufficient to generate the income to meet day to day operational costs.
He added: “The Diocesan Trustees have decided that there is no alternative but to close the Centre.
“This decision has been taken with deep regret bit I feel it is a decision which has had to be made.”
Questioning any decision of the Scottish hierarchy has always been deeply frowned upon by the Church’s fathers and brethren.
But Bellshill man John Paul Quinn said: “I can assure you 90 per cent of the Motherwell Diocese parishes had no idea this was coming, and believe it’s an outrage.”
An online petition has been started in a bid to reverse the decision.
But Bishop Toal said: “I am aware that in recent days there have been strong reactions among some people to the decision of the Trustees to close the Centre at the end of September.”
He pointed out that the Centre was a limited company which was struggling to survive – “It has not succeeded in doing this for many years and has instead, depended on loans from the Diocese, and support from the parish, to continue trading.
“It is a business that is not making money, shows no signs of doing so and costs the Diocese a substantial amount of money.”
Bishop Toal added: “Throughout this time, I allowed it to continue to operate at a loss, as it has provided a welcome service for pilgrims to the grotto and employment for a number of staff.
“After commissioning a feasibility study earlier this year we decided that there was no justification for keeping a loss-making company trading indefinitely and in the process should begin to inform the staff of the closure and to ensure they receive all that they entitled to when being made redundant.
“That is why it was necessary last week to announce the closure of the Centre.”
What followed was clear confirmation that the Church in Scotland, which is separate from England Wales, is facing a cash crisis due to the steady drop in Mass attendance.
Many other services, including Confessions and Devotions, Rosary and Benediction have been phased out in some parishes due to the shortage of priest.
The bishops, who have been recruiting abroad for clergy in countries where Scots traditionally brought the Christian gospel, see little prospect of this improving.
He added: “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 [in the Centre] and improve the facilities. It does not seem likely that more people will come to the Grotto.”
Old customs such as parishes throughout Scotland sending busloads of pilgrims to Carfin have fallen away and 21st century pilgrims choose to travel to Lourdes itself and Medjugorje in Bosnia or walk the pilgrim trail along the Camino from France into Spain.
Bishop Toal said: “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 [which is in the local parish] is abler 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 people of Motherwell do not appear to be in a forgiving mood and have come out strongly on social media, criticising their bishop and clergy for allowing this to happen.
James Grant said: “I have browsed the myriad of comments about this, and I find myself astonished and deeply saddened at the lack of respect for the Bishop of Motherwell.”
Adrian Maguire said more marketing was required nationwide – “I hope it doesn’t have a knock on effect on the grotto. The grotto has given my family peace this last few difficult years after our daughter died and it was lovely before coming home to use the pilgrimage centre.”
Susan Ingram said she was sad to hear news of the closure since she had many happy memories of the grotto – “My Grandad helped to build it when he came over from Ireland. I hope the grotto does not suffer.”
Lorraine Brown Robertson asked why is so much emphasis was being placed on lack of visitors to the grotto when it had been clearly stated that the Centre and the Grotto were two separate entities.
Paula Shields said the news of the impending closure should have been shared to the wider community who should have been asked to help with the finance – and would have helped.
But Yvonne Maria Morris said: “It would appear that too many Parish Priests in Motherwell Diocese have little interest in Carfin and therefore don’t promote or support it.”
Others said it was time for the Bishop to rethink his position on the matter.
Angela Ryan said: “I don’t understand why it was left to run at a loss for so long without reaching out to parishioners and further afield for help.
“I think the closure would have been accepted a little better if we, the public, had been made aware of efforts being made to save it.
“Instead, the shock announcement of closure. Surely something can be done.”
Mary McShane said: “Shocking decision. I think the diocese can afford to help keep centre open. I’m sure it’s had plenty money from Carfin. Tell the pilgrims to come to grotto, but bring a flask with them.”
Marie Gallagher said: “If business is failing in the way described, surely replacing the management team should be considered first. As said many visitors arrive after the centre is closed. Good business would be to remain open. The centre seems poorly run, under used and requires some TLC and modernisation.”
Mary Cain said: “Still think something can be done to save this centre and it’s up to the Bishop and priests of the diocese to at least try.”
Paul Airlie said: “The harsh reality is now hitting home about declining numbers and money. I sympathise with the Bishop.
“However I must say that the handling of this has been a PR disaster. The Diocese must have known that this was going to cause hurt and upset many.”
Meanwhile, a new altar has been installed at Carfin Grotto to honour the Scots forced to practise their Catholic faith clandestinely through two and a half centuries of persecution, from 1560 onwards.
The 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; priests were prohibited from being in Scotland at all.
Father 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.”