Foreign priests 'backbone' of north Wales Catholic Church

The Catholic Church in north Wales is becoming increasingly more dependant on foreign priests, according to the Bishop of Wrexham.

The Right Reverend Peter Brignall said priests from Africa and India were helping keep the churches open.

Wednesday morning at the Holy Cross Catholic Church in Llangollen and a congregation of about 20 has gathered for morning mass.

The priest taking the service is new to the parish - and to the UK. Father Anthony Nnamah only arrived this September after 10 years working in Germany.

Since being ordained in the early 1990s, he has also spent time in Liberia, Cameroon and France.

Like his immediate predecessor as parish priest for Llangollen, Ruabon and Chirk, Father Nnamah trained as a missionary of St Paul in his homeland of Nigeria.

'Ageing significantly'

Tanzania, Kenya and India are among the other countries now providing the men whose vocation means Catholic churches in north Wales can remain open.

"The diocese is becoming increasingly dependent on overseas priests," said Bishop Brignall.

"We have fewer of our own priests and those are ageing significantly. And, therefore, if we are to continue anything like the present model of the church in north Wales, then we are going to need men from overseas."

The change in the backgrounds of priests working in north Wales began about 20 years ago, but it has become more marked in the last decade.

Image caption Father Anthony Nnamah arrived in the UK in September

About 10 are currently based in north Wales with Denbigh, Llandudno and Conwy among the parishes served by priests ordained overseas.

"When we first moved here we actually had a priest who lived in Wales, he was Welsh, he came from just up the road in Cefn Mawr," recalled Gail Flavell, one of the parishioners in Llangollen, as she reflects on the number of priests she has seen come and go over the years.

"But we've got these good men, who come from Africa and it's like role reversal, We used to send priests over to Africa and now they're sending priests over to us. We're just glad we've got a priest."

Father Nnamah himself stresses that where a priest comes from is not an issue for him or the Church.

"The Catholic Church is a universal church. The Catholic Church does not know an African church or European church, American church. So there's no question of asking priests to come from Africa to come here. We have one Catholic Church."

'Communities need evangelising'

Father Nnamah does describe himself as a missionary but he said it is a word that can conjure up the wrong idea for many people.

"They have the idea that a missionary must carry a whole load of handouts to go to a poor country and to preach the word of God," he said.

But it is also the role of a missionary priest to maintain the faith in those communities where the Christian faith is already established, he said, and to offer comfort to those in need, such as the elderly and sick.

Nevertheless, the Bishop of Wrexham does see parallels with the work being done by foreign priests arriving here and the missionaries who once left Britain to spread the Christian faith.

"I see them as being missionary priests - they are coming here because our own communities have not produced the vocations, our own communities are not fully taking their place within the Church on the Lord's Day, on a Sunday," said the Bishop.

"Our own communities need evangelising and these men come as missionaries - their background, their intent is to be a missionary."

And while Father Nnamah described his new parishioners as "very lovely people", the bishop acknowledged it can "undoubtedly" be a challenge for some of the priests to settle in what has become a very secular British society.

But there is no doubt about the warmth of welcome they receive from often dwindling congregations who fear seeing their churches close.

"They're really tremendous," said Muriel Silverston, another of those who regularly attends mass in Llangollen.

"They are just so faithful and so full of love. We couldn't do without them really."

Bishop Brignall said the nature of the clergy has changed many times over the years.

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