Tremendous events marked Friday evening of this week, although they largely escaped the notice of the wider world more intent on goggling at whatever rubbish was being disgorged by the Friday-night TV schedules. The Basilica of Corpus Christi, the Manchester home for over a hundred years of the Canons of Prémontré (the Norbertines), saw its final celebration of Mass and closed its doors on a rueful congregation largely composed that evening of well-wishers, former parishioners and old friends. The parish, being at the centre of a now largely depopulated district of Manchester, has been doomed for some time.
Well, perhaps such an event is hardly tremendous, especially when compared with the perennial contribution being made to civilization by the Friday night episode of Coronation Street. Still, 'tis a sad, sad day. Several generations of my family on both sides find their names inscribed in the baptismal, wedding and funeral registers of the parish. Only last June, the family gathered there to say a sorrowful farewell to Norbert Sudlow, reconciled to the Church on his deathbed, and brought home to Manchester to be given the final salute by the Canons who share his name. Not long before, it was the turn of Marie Sudlow, wife of Norbert's brother Anthony, to be carried to her eternal reward from under the stunning crucifix that hangs above the nave. A few days earlier, Kathleen, the matriarch of 100 years, had been buried from a neighbouring parish.
But the church still stirs with the passage of yet more ancient ghosts. One of my first memories remains the Requiem of Kathleen's husband, John, whose giddy laugh and bald pate have been inherited by my own father (who also maintains - albeit elsewhere - John's tradition of building the Christmas Crib). Many a Sudlow - or Leyden, Burke and McCarthy, the rest of the clan - walked down the main aisle to exchange marriage vows. Atop the mantle piece in my grandmother's flat sat the black-and-white picture of Kathleen and John on their wedding day with the kindly Abbot Toner. On mantlepieces across the city, there must be myriad similar scenes of Corpus families gathered together underneath the tipanum that greets the visitor at the main entrance.
Many other images of Corpus Christi are merely in my imagination, fading relics of long-gone, half forgotten conversations with Gran Leyden - Billy Gran - a mistress of wistful recollection. So often did we hear the story of how the ghost of the first superior, Abbot Guerdens, appeared in the church's organ loft during the Blitz, that I was vaguely persuaded we had seen him ourselves. Dinner tables still chuckle to the anecdote of John's ceaseless attendance on the dodgy parish boiler, and Kathleen's angry march to the presbytery, bearing a note which stated baldly, 'Dear Father Cross, I have not seen my husband for three days. Shall I send his bed?' or something like that. I suspect the story has been embellished in the retelling!
And so, Corpus passes into history, like a ship over the horizon, rolling under the shadows of a century too young to understand its loss. Without wishing to indulge in the Hegelian mania for plotting historical coordinates, Corpus Christi, once the national shrine of the Blessed Sacrament, has now passed into the eternal moment, the moment captured by the Paschal Mystery of the Mass which plucks the cross from atop calvary and plants it down on any point along the procession of time.