The Blessed Sacrament Shrine is a former furniture warehouse that was acquired by the Blessed Sacrament Fathers in 1985. It certainly has the appearance of a warehouse at first glance, but then one notices the large crucifix hanging in front of the uppermost centre windows. There are steps up to the front, leading into a vestibule replete with coloured glass in red, pink, blue and yellow, and a variety of modern-looking statues. The chapel itself is simple, with attention drawn to the Blessed Sacrament exposed in a large ornate monstrance resting on the altar. The May Procession in honour of Our Lady is an annual event organised by the Sisters of Mercy, whose convent is located in Seel Street opposite the former St Peter’s Church, which is now a Cuban restaurant. The place still has a churchy atmosphere about it, with Tu es Petrus emblazoned on the pediment above the doorway and the confessionals converted into cosy private dining nooks.
The shrine plays a pivotal part of devotional worship in the busy city centre. It is open from dawn till dusk every day, and has a full liturgical schedule. People can drop in whenever the whim takes them for a quiet break from the busy world's ignoble strife, as Thomas Hardy so eloquently put it.
The procession began at St Peter's Square, a courted area with grass and small trees, and wound its way through Seal Street, Berry Street, Bold Street, Church Street and Whitechapel to Queens Square, finally arriving at the Shrine. Some of the streets are bustling with shops and shoppers; others are lined with semi-derelict buildings and litter.
The Most Revd Malcolm McMahon, Archbishop of Liverpool, attended by a posse of mafia-style minders looking furtive in black suits, nervously fingering their ties; the Sisters of Mercy; the Knights of St Columba; a group of first communicants (mostly girls in their pretty white dresses and veils); flower girls carrying baskets of petals; the Merseyside police (en masse!); and several hundred camp followers and hangers-on.
What was the name of the service?Annual May Procession.
How full was the building?
Approximately 500 attended this gathering.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. One of the Sisters handed me a hymn book saying, "Welcome to the procession today. The hymns will be announced."
Was your pew comfortable?
I was so thankful to be sitting down at last that I didn't notice, nor did I care!
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
People were standing around talking generally, just waiting for kick-off. One or two men were lazing on the grass. The children seemed excited. In general, an air of expectancy. When the archbishop and his contingent arrived, we all snapped to attention and fell in. A motley band we made!
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good afternoon, everybody, and welcome to our May procession in honour of Our Lady."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Catholic Hymnary.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
Some people walked toward us against the flow of procession traffic. It was interesting to note the reaction on the faces of some shoppers or those drinking coffee al fresco. People were hanging out of upstairs windows. A young lad ran alongside asking, "What's happening?" "Come 'ere, you little [expletive deleted]!" said his mum.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Free and easy. All welcome, with or without beliefs - a very happy occasion. The children led the way, strewing petals before the statue carried on a bier bedecked with flowers. We got off to a faltering start with the singing: "Immaculate Mary, our hearts are on fire." But the nuns were belting it out! The procession slowly wended its way through the busy streets of Liverpool, filled with shoppers. And so we continued, singing as we went, following the statue borne aloft. We were joined by a bride and her hen party, mums with prams, a couple of guide dogs and their charges. A heckler yelled something at the archbishop; his response was to bless the man, making a Sign of the Cross toward him. I espied our old friends the Jehovah's Witnesses handing out tracts! When we arrived at the shrine, up the steps went the bier, with everyone following behind. Inside, we all busied ourselves finding a seat as Our Lady's statue was being positioned onto a pedestal in the sanctuary. The chapel was full - standing room only. Was I glad to sit down! Bliss!
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The archbishop is a very good orator; everyone stopped chattering to listen to him.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Why do we walk in procession? In a nutshell: to witness. It takes courage to do what we have done today, to proclaim our faith in public. We should never be afraid to proclaim our faith, wherever we are. We do not walk alone: Christ walks in front of us and behind, and in every situation. And we are joined on that walk by the unseen company of angels and saints. It is good to see so many children in our procession today, and I hope that even if we were frightened we will have made some sort of impression on those who looked on.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Being in the procession in these difficult times. It is hard to get to grips with religion sometimes. This brings it all into perspective, I think.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Negotiating the obstacle course whilst singing and carrying walking stick and book!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Refreshments were provided by the Sisters. One of the Legion of Mary was giving out white Rosaries and prayer cards as a memento of the occasion. The children all received them. And then we all went downstairs into the parish rooms.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Plentiful and full of flavour. Hot drinks were hot. We enjoyed a lovely selection of cakes and sandwiches; strawberry, pineapple and passion fruit gateaux; tea, coffee and soft drinks; individual small cartons of fresh orange juice; grapes. There was a special table of goodies for the children labelled "Children only please." The kiddies' cakes were shaped like hedgehogs. Everything was beautifully and lovingly prepared by the good Sisters and their helpers. I spoke to a lady from Moldova who told me that the salad I was eating was a Russian salad. It was very tasty. I thought it was couscous, but it wasn't. The archbishop was busy whetting his whistle with a hot drink. "I think I'll have a few of those grapes," he said.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
N/A – Couldn't really say, this being a one-off event.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, most definitely. We have a gospel to proclaim; let's proclaim it!
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Being footsore but happy from the experience of being on a May procession. Oh, and my souvenir prayer card a representation of Our Lady on the front. I was there!