Mass attendance in the 1950s was just over 500, and rose to its high watermark in the late 1960s and early 1970s when it often exceeded 1000. In the 1980s average mass attendance was 950, and in the ten years 1995-2005 it was just under 700. The decline is similarly reflected in the figures for the Diocese as a whole. We are challenged in an increasingly secular country. However, it is important to note too that the Catholic population within our parish has also declined, for in 1974 the new parish of The Sacred Heart was formed to serve the new Eastern Development of Northampton. The new parish drew in former parishioners of St. Gregory’s, who lived on the eastern fringes, and those living in Moulton, which St. Gregory’s had previously served.
Since the formation of the Parish in 1947 it has been served by five parish priests (or Priests-in-charge) – Father (Canon) Eric Phillips, Father Jim Marks, Father John Harris, Father Michael Harrison and currently Father Andrew Behrens— and 19 assistant priests (see pages 29, 30). In 2003 the Parish welcomed Father Andrew Behrens together with his wife Carole and their two daughters. Father Andrew is the first married priest to serve St. Gregory’s. He was formerly, for 22 years, a priest in the Anglican Church, and was received into the Catholic Church in 1992 and ordained priest in 1998. Each priest has made his individual contribution to the development of the Parish: we have been well served.
Regrettably, the number of priests available to the Bishop is declining, and like other parishes St. Gregory’s has felt the effect. From 1948 until 2000 the Parish always had two priests, and for a short period in the mid-1970s, it had three. Since the retirement of Father Harris and Father Smith, in 2000, the Parish has been served by only one. This has marginally affected the number of Masses offered: in 2001 it no longer proved possible to offer the 8 am Mass on Sundays at St. Gregory’s, and the regular mid-week Mass at St. Andrew’s Hospital is now often replaced by a Communion Service. We are warned by the Bishop that resolves to seek improved communication within the parish. This found ready support from the clergy and a group of hard-working lay men and women took on the task of preparing and producing a weekly newsletter. A print room was established in the Presbytery attic and the product was available at all Masses. Subsequently, another dedicated group took the communication theme forward by the production of a Parish Magazine. Again with clergy support, an editorial team produced the magazine three times a year for a period of ten years, providing articles, reports, and commentaries, with authorship embracing a wide range of parishioners from the elderly to youngsters at school. Responsible whilst exploratory of issues, it informed, it entertained, it fostered community.
The 1960s and 1970s were a period of evolution not revolution. Vatican 2 was clearly a stimulus, it did “open doors”, but it would be unwise and certainly unfair to attribute all subsequent liturgical development directly to it. Priests and laity have sought, and continue to seek, to make the liturgy more meaningful, more accessible, more inclusive. Thus over the last twenty years we have seen developments such as the lay-led Children’s Liturgy, the Family Mass, the carpeted area for young children, the use of an overhead projector to support the liturgy, a rota of lay readers and eucharistic ministers, the greater role of women in the liturgy, Masses for the Handicapped and for the infirm, the healing ministry and so on. Yet the Parish has never abandoned the traditional mode of worship: Sung Mass is offered every Sunday, and the tradition of a trained choir ably singing the solemn elements of the Mass and the liturgies of Holy Week and other major celebrations has been sustained.
Laymen and women have contributed immeasurably to the support of the clergy and to the development of the parish. Fundraising is a regular necessity in any Catholic Church and at St. Gregory’s Sunday collections have been augmented by the work of parishioners running bazaars, jumble sales, loan schemes, planned giving, raffles and draws, dances, coffee mornings. Lay volunteers work in the sacristy, run the Repository shop, maintain the cleanliness of the church, provide refreshments. Decision making ultimately rests with the Parish Priest, for he is responsible to the Bishop, but the laity at St. Gregory’s has freely given time, help and professional expertise. A line of continuity can be drawn from the Abington Social Committee pre-1947, through Father Phillips’s Planned Giving Committee, to the Finance Committee of Father Marks, to the Parish Council of Father Harris and Father Harrison, to the Parish Forum of Father Andrew.