Drums, tin whistles or the organ: migration, transnationalism and Catholicism

I’ve long been fascinated by the intersections of migration, transnationalism and Catholicism – for me it’s biographical as well as integral to our research project. Growing up my Catholic class mates included many Italians and Poles, as well as those of Irish ancestry like myself. As a student working in a Catholic mission in Calcutta I learned new forms of Catholic practice – removing shoes before entering the chapel, garlanding of favourite statues – suggesting the hybridities of Indian Christianity. In West London my sons attend Catholic schools which are much more diverse than mine in 1970s Hertfordshire – their friends are of Irish, Afro-Caribbean, Polish, French African, Lithuanian, Filipino, Eritrean, Sri Lankan, Italian ancestry – Catholic identities are ‘superdiverse’ and transnational here. At their primary school all the national saints days were celebrated, ethnic cuisine stalls vied with each other at the school fete and the head teacher introduced a self-conscious performance of Britishness by the singing of the national anthem once a year at the awards assembly (which never went down well with the Irish parents!)

On 25th February I acted as a discussant at the workshop Migration, Transnationalism and Catholicism held at SPRC organised by Dominic Pasura and Marta Bivand Erdal. The workshop sought a comparative approach to how contemporary international migration and transnationalism affects Catholicism both as practice and institutionally. The workshop’s comparative focus highlighted some interesting ideas for our project. Historian Sara Roddy’s discussion of the impact of mass migration on the Catholic Church in Ireland offered a useful corrective to ahistorical accounts of religious transnationalism, reflecting on the ‘Irish Spiritual Empire’ and the harnessing of remittances from the Irish diaspora to church building projects back in the homeland in the late nineteenth century. It offered another perspective to our own reflections on the Irish Catholic migrants in Ealing in the 1850s, working as navvies building Brunel’s railway, and forging new faith communities in West London while maintaining links to their homeland.

The Polish Church in Ealing was founded by the post-war émigré community in West London, hosted first as a Polish service in other churches before gaining a former Methodist Church in 1984. It maintains an institutional relationship with the Catholic Church in Poland – rather than coming under the jurisdiction of the English Bishop’s Conference – and provides services and sacraments in Polish to the émigré generation, their children and grandchildren and new Polish migrants in London. Louise Ryan’s paper outlined some of the institutional dilemmas for the Catholic Church in the UK of such ethnic chaplaincies. Should new migrants be encouraged to ‘integrate’ in local parishes? And what traditions of Catholicism are they ‘integrating’ into? What are the benefits of retaining worship practices and traditions from ‘home’? Dominic Pasura offered an insightful into the experiences of Zimbabwean Catholics of the forms of worship in ordinary ‘English’ Catholic churches. The migrants described mass as ‘rather flat’ and lacking the energy of their home churches – they wanted drums not the piano!

In our project we’re interesting in finding out how different musical and performative traditions are negotiated and created in different suburban spaces. Is there room for drums, the organ and Irish dancing in suburban Catholic churches which have congregations with diverse ethnic backgrounds and religious traditions? How are diverse religious practices and performances of Catholicism accommodated within the space of the church? Are the material cultures of different forms of Catholicism combined or blended through migration?

Afro caribbean dance group st josephs

Afro-Caribbean dance group performing at an international evening at Our Lady and St Joseph’s Church, Hanwell


Blessing of the Easter baskets, Our Lady Mother of the Church, Ealing

Republished with permission of Testigo