Secrets of a full church: Children, no sermon and an Irish singsong

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It was with a mixture of wry amusement and faint bewilderment that the parishioners of St John's greeted the cameras and reporters' notebooks which awaited them as they left church yesterday.

It was the first Sunday since their parish had been tagged too popular for its own good - so much so that environmental health officials from Manchester City Council had told the parish priest, Fr Patrick McMahon, that he would have to restrict the numbers or risk having the church closed.

At the noon-day family service yesterday it was not obviously apparent what was making the place swim against the national tide of falling church attendances.

In the entrance of the traditional-looking building, all gold mosaics and heavy oak carvings, a nun was giving out crayons and colouring sheets to children. Old ladies clutched rosary beads as they lit candles beneath the statue of St Joseph. At the back a "famine box" for donations to the Catholic aid agency, Cafod, stood by a signing-up sheet for a pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. This was clearly no hotbed of wild charismatics or fervent evangelicals.

The service was characterised by the tone of gentle simplicity and quiet holiness which is the style of the priest, known affectionately as Fr Mac. But then, bit by bit, he invited all the children up to the altar.

One after another they read the prayers. Then, in the spot where the sermon should have been, he invited children from St John's school to perform part of the show that they had put on for parents two days earlier on St Patrick's Day.

Dozens came up to perform stately Irish dances or jigs, and reels on whistles and accordions. A full house watched this mini Riverdance with frequent applause. Burly men joined in that anthem of Irish exile, "The Fields of Athenry".

It all combined the three qualities which make St John's in Chorlton a special place - emphasis on children, on culture and on community.

The parish has a good school, much sought-after by local parents. But Fr Mac's inclusion of those he describes as "the future of the faith" extends far beyond the educational. Each week he has dozens of children at the altar and a veritable buggy-park in the church vestibule.

The church also celebrates the cultural roots of the congregation, a good half of whom are Irish-born, and many more have Celtic antecedents. "Our culture is itself an expression of faith," he announced before the dancing yesterday, lest anyone should suggest that "Danny Boy" was too secular a song for a sanctuary.

And St John's works hard at building a sense of participation. The walls are covered in photographs of youth clubs, football teams, day trips and community celebrations. Most of its altar servers are girls and the black and Asian sections of the congregation are well-represented at the altar.

It is a place where faith is woven into the fabric of life. "As it is in many churches," said Fr Mac modestly. "I'm just pleased that people going to church can make the news".