As Cardinal O’Brien said in his homily, the Sisters of Charity had organised everything, even the weather, for their celebration of the 150th Anniversary of the death of their founder, Mother Mary Aitkenhead and the formal blessing of their new Mary Aitkenhead Centre for the elderly.
It was a gloriously warm day for the double celebration, so warm in fact that the balloons decorating the grounds and buildings started to swell and burst during the Mass, startling the congregation. There was also plenty of competition from large low-flying planes, as the Hospice is on the flight path to Glasgow Airport, and some of the planes sounded as though they were about to join the service!
However nothing could spoil the day. A large marquee had been donated for the day and it was filled to capacity with invited dignitaries and guests, patients and staff and their families. Cardinal O’Brien was the principal celebrant and was joined by Archbishop Conti, Bishop Tartaglia and a number of priests from the Archdiocese of Glasgow. The musical support was provided by a group of the St. Mungo Singers under their director, Mgr. Gerry Fitzpatrick, with organist Jane McKenna and Dr. Noel Donnelly on clarsach (not counting the occasional audio input from the planes and the bursting balloons).
The Sisters had produced a beautiful Mass booklet and a Commemorative Booklet for the occasion. The Mass began with the aptly titled hymn “On this house your blessing, Lord.” As it was a day of celebration, the Gloria (Bellahouston) was sung. The Psalm (Ps. 102) reflected the theme of thanksgiving for the life and work of Mother Aitkenhead, and the acclamation proclaimed “They are happy who dwell in your house, O Lord!”
In his homily, Cardinal O’Brien said he knew he was speaking to a congregation which valued the standards set by Mother Mary Aitkenhead and by the Hospice movement. He touched on the major events of Mother Mary’s life and her dedication to the service of the poor, particularly those who were sick, seeking to “give [them] for love what the rich can obtain with money”. By the time of her death, her order was flourishing and had set up 10 major institutions.
The St. Margaret Hospice was the first hospice set up in Scotland, in 1950. It began with the request of one man who was ill with cancer, for help, and from such a small, ordinary, humble beginning, the hospice developed. Cardinal O’Brien was very clear in his views that any suggestion of the removal of this provision of end-of-life and palliative care was almost criminal. While the immediate threat to the Hospice has been shelved, a final decision on its future is only postponed. Meanwhile palliative care and care of the elderly are the Cinderella areas of the NHS and Cardinal O’Brien urged the congregation to continue to press for money to be diverted to this work.
The presentation of the gifts had been developed into a thought-provoking and effective symbol of what the Sisters and the Hospice stood for. The gifts included the flags of the various nations where the Sisters now work, a stethoscope for the medical profession, a copy of the Palliative Care Bill which the Sisters are supporting in its passage through the Scottish Parliament, and fruit, as well as the usual gifts of bread and wine.
After Communion, the congregation joined in singing the Servant Song whose opening words “What do you want of me, Lord?” were so appropriate for Mother Mary and her Sisters. Just before the end of the Mass, Professor Leo Martin, the Hospice Chairman, spoke briefly of the work of the Hospice and how he had become involved. He said three words came to mind: “Chance” – it was by chance that St. Margaret’s had been started, by chance that its patron saint, St. Margaret had ended up in Scotland, by chance that he had become Chair although he did suggest that there had been some “benevolent deception by his predecessor who had never mentioned the risks of becoming involved in fights with the government over funding or, even worse, ending up dressed as a giant snowman!
“Outcomes” – these came from the dedicated staff and volunteers and supporters and he expressed the thanks of all to them. They didn’t ask for much, just a fair share of the government budget – currently St. Margaret’s have to raise £40,000 every week to cover their costs. He appealed to the public authorities “invest in us because you need a strong Hospice at the centre of the community.”
“Blessing” – as one of the Sisters had said to a non-believer, “everyone needs a wee blessing now and again” and you get it at St. Margaret’s where life is precious. The Hospice is a blessing and its new centre is a further blessing. With his closing remarks, Cardinal O’Brien thanked everyone and joked that, having seen what Sr. Rita, the Chief Executive of the Hospice, had planned to fill the day, he had decided to book Bed and Breakfast!.
The Mass finished with the joyful “God , we praise you” and as the congregation spread out to enjoy the sun and the glorious buffet organised for them, the choir sang the Marian hymn “Mary, full of Grace”.