A vibrant pastoral hub

Martin O’Brien visits Accord’s newest office in Belfast

"Accord has come home to St Mary’s and it’s great news,” proclaims Deirdre O’Rawe, Northern Ireland director of Accord, the Catholic Marriage Care Service which prepared more than 7,000 couples for the Sacrament of Marriage in Ireland last year, 1,800 of them in the North. 

It also provided more than 50,000 counselling hours at its 60 centres throughout the island, 1,800 of those at 10 centres in Northern Ireland. Those sessions are available to married and co-habiting couples of all denominations, a quarter of whom are not Roman Catholics.  

Other services offered include marital sex therapy, fertility advice and marriage enrichment.

One can share Ms O’Rawe’s sense of excitement in Accord NI’s spanking new regional headquarters built in the past year as an annex to the historic St Mary’s Parish Church – the oldest Catholic church in Belfast – in bustling Chapel Lane a short distance from Royal Avenue in the city centre.

Since 1982 St Mary’s has been run by Mill Hill Missionaries; three priests are based there, Fr James Boyle MHM, Adm, Fr Jim O’Donoghue MHM and Fr John Nevin MHM.

Thirty years ago this parish had 5,500 souls but today due to massive inner city re-development including the Castle Court Shopping Centre the number has shrunk to 400. However, two daily Masses are well attended by office workers and shoppers and numerous people including those of other denominations and none drop in for moments of prayer and recollection, says Fr Boyle. 

Last year Accord celebrated the 50th anniversary of the setting up of its forbear, the first Catholic marriage counselling service in Ireland, the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council (CMAC) in College Square North in St Mary’s parish.

Lay people

The Irish Church was, however, way behind its English counterpart in giving its blessing to such an initiative, the prevailing thinking being that “they did not see this  sacred space of marriage and family life  as a place for lay people  however professional to get involved,” as Bishop Christy Jones, president of Accord recalled last year.  

The CMAC (now Marriage Care in England & Wales) was founded in 1946 by Major Graham John Graham-Green and his wife Eirene, a social worker during WWII and its London offices opened by Cardinal Griffin that year.

Accord’s new premises are rented out to the charity by the parish and accessed via a side door in the porch of the Church itself. The new facilities are part of a wider development including an enhanced presbytery and refurbishment to the Church costing several hundred thousand pounds.

Catholic ethos

The new premises reflect a definite Catholic ethos appropriate to an agency of the bishops’ conference that exists “to promote a deeper understanding of Christian marriage”.

The offices have names such as Cana House and St Brigid’s Room – St Brigid is the patron saint of Accord – and the counselling room is named after St Joachim and St Anne.

Deirdre O’Rawe says: “We are about supporting and promoting the Sacrament of Marriage and supporting the family. We start from where people are, our approach is non-judgemental.

“We recognise not only are individuals and couples on different rungs of the ladder, many are on different ladders.”

Deirdre stresses Accord services are available to all who need them, regardless of denomination, race, creed or ability to pay.  “Clients are requested to make a contribution towards our services where they can afford to do so.”

She points out that couples who have lived together in what the Church considers irregular unions for perhaps 15 or 20 years and raised a family come for marriage preparation courses and are treated no differently from the rest

Those who have been on marriage preparation courses are more likely to seek help when things get difficult, often after the birth of the first child.

Deirdre who joined Accord as director in 1998 says that their counsellors are increasingly more skilled at recognising signs of domestic violence, both physical and emotional.

There has been a 15% jump in approaches from couples in marriage difficulties as a result of financial pressures and she is particularly concerned by welfare reform in the North which is cutting benefits severely.

Talk openly

Accord has 14 staff in its 10 centres in the North and 80 volunteers, 40 of whom are accredited counsellors who “give people a safe place to talk openly about all their hurts and difficulties”.

When marriages break up children often find themselves in excruciating dilemmas not of their making. 

At the 50h anniversary last year, Judge Gemma Loughran, a former marriage counsellor who often sits in the family court, quoted from a letter: “Dear Mother and Father : Do not be sad when I am at the home of my other parent. If I am leaving you do not think that I will love you less during the days when I am not with you. I would always prefer to be with both of you but I cannot cut myself in two simply because our family has been split up.”

Accord moved to their new home from the Lisburn Road in August.  Although fully functioning, there is still some work to complete including the hanging of a large oak St Brigid’s Cross with two united wedding rings made by the prisoners in the craft department at Arbour Hill Prison.

Deirdre O’Rawe speaks passionately about “the synergy between the home mission of Accord, the biggest lay ministry in Ireland with 800 volunteers and the foreign mission of the Mill Hill Missionaries” exemplified in Fr James Boyle, a native of Inver, Co. Donegal, and a missionary in Cameroon for seven years.

Fr Boyle was appointed administrator of St Mary’s in 2007 after a 15-year spell in the Diocese of Portsmouth.

Vibrant hub

With Accord having moved into the new premises alongside Living Youth, led by Pauline Dowd, just metres away on the other side of the church, a vibrant pastoral hub has been created with St Mary’s at the centre.

Within weeks a new daytime Chapel of Adoration or Capelinha (the Portuguese word for Little Chapel, Fr Boyle explains) will be opened and those visiting the new conference hall will see that it is called the Fr Hugh O’Donnell Room. And there hangs a tale. Fr O’Donnell was the founder of the C hurch and first Parish Priest of Belfast.

As Fr Boyle prepares for the official opening of the new premises by Bishop Treanor on February 16 it is fair to say Fr O’Donnell would be pleased that the building of God’s kingdom which be began in this place is still in good hands.