In Harmony – making music in West Everton at St.Mary and the Angels


 

The uplifting strains of Julian Lloyd Webber’s seventeenth century ‘Barjansky’ Stradivarius cello are guaranteed to transport even the weariest soul to another, better, place.  Music has the power to penetrate our deepest, darkest, hidden places – healing, calming and consoling.  Beethoven famously said that “Music should strike fire from the heart of man, and bring tears from the eyes of woman.”

 

Julian Lloyd Webber knows the power of music – which is why he agreed to chair a project called “In Harmony”.

 

Inspired by Venezuela’s El Sistema, “In Harmony” harnesses the unique power of the symphony orchestra to capture the imagination of children and to motivate them, their families and whole communities.

 

Since 2009, this national scheme has been piloted in three areas – Lambeth, Norwich and West Everton, in Liverpool.  The philosophy which underpins “In Harmony” is the belief that musical excellence can help individuals and their communities to experience radical social change. It developed out of an imaginative initiative encouraged by the former Education Minister, Lord (Andrew) Adonis.

 

At Julian Lloyd Webber’s suggestion I recently spent an afternoon with the musicians and team from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic who are delivering “In Harmony” to the children of Everton’s Faith School.

 

What I heard and saw made my spirits soar; and where I heard it even more so.

 

The first time I walked into the church of St Mary of the Angels – known locally as the Friary – was in 1972. I had just been elected to the City Council. I was still a student and the offer of supper with the small Franciscan community, taking pity on their local pavement politician, was one I couldn’t resist.

 

The contrast between urban squalor and decay and this magnificent Grade Two listed building, constructed at the turn of the twentieth century, could not have been greater.

 

In an area of great deprivation, with a once teeming Catholic community, this was an oasis of great beauty. Marble had been imported from Italy and the high renaissance style was to “bring Rome to Liverpool”. Funded by Ann Elizabeth Imrie, a Catholic convert and a Poor Clare nun (Mother Clare Imrie), she was heiress to the White Star shipping line – owners of The Titanic. Mother Clare’s family home in Mossley Hill’s Green Lane become the first Poor Clare Monastery in Liverpool.

 

Over the years, St.Mary of the Angels was administered by Franciscans but in 1979 they left and, following massive demolition programmes, in 2001 the Archdiocese announced its closure. Liverpool City Council successfully stopped the Archdiocese from stripping and removing the church’s fixtures.

 

These included stunning Stations of the Cross and an imposing sixteenth century High Altar which originally stood in Bologna Cathedral. Tradition has it that many saints, including St Ignatius of Loyola, St Philip Neri and St Charles Borommeo offered Mass at the High Altar and preached from the church’s pulpit.

 

The announcement of the church’s closure led to a huge backlash and an indomitable Catholic woman, Kay Kelly, led the campaign to stop the demolition or stripping of the church.

 

Diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease in 1978 Kay had been told she would soon be dead.

 

Using what time remained Kay became nationally known as she raised £1 million for cancer research and treatment.  In 1979 she travelled to Rome to meet Pope John Paul II.  On her return, cancer specialists at Merseyside’s Clatterbridge Hospital were astonished to find her in full remission. At her meeting the newly-elected John Paul had embraced her, telling her “I’m very proud of you.” Kay lived until 2010.

 

Kay was one of the most formidable women I have had the privilege to know – and in 1980 was voted Catholic Woman of the Year.

 

Kay attributed the intercession of Pope John Paul to three decades of unexpected life. But perhaps the survival of the church which she loved and fought so hard to save and the story of the adjacent school –which was also earmarked for closure – is a second miracle. Anyone who knows the sectarian history of this part of Liverpool will know what a remarkable story it is.

 

Faith Primary School is the joint Catholic and Anglican ecumenical school which emerged from years of friendship and hard work by local Christians – it is now twinned with Lancashire’s Jesuit Stonyhurst College.

 

Housed in a new building, appropriately, the school is home to the “In Harmony” project and Kay’s church of St.Mary and the Angels is where the West Everton Children’s Orchestra make their music.

 

Since the inception of “in Harmony” two years ago, the Liverpool Philharmonic has spent half a million pounds on the interior of the church – leased from the Archdiocese for twenty years. Five musicians from the Phil., led by an energetic and charismatic New Zealander, Rod Skipp, direct the school’s 151 children.

 

In April 2009 the children picked up an instrument for the first time and, 12 weeks later, in the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, they performed for 600 friends and families. Regularly playing to great acclaim, before audiences of up to 1,000 people, I listened to them rehearsing for their next concert. They were practising Ode to Joy, The Rocking Horse Song and some music from Pirates of the Caribbean.

 

Once the children leave Faith Primary and are dispersed to secondary schools they continue to receive individual tuition each week.

 

Peter Garden, the Executive Director who, for the past three years, has been in charge of Learning at the Liverpool Phil. talked me through achievements of which Julian Lloyd Webber and all those involved can be incredibly proud.

 

Central to the story has been the remarkable headmistress, Sister Moira Meeghan, a member of the congregation of St.Mary of Namur, who, along with the school secretary and cook, plays her instrument – a double bass – as part of the orchestra. “In Harmony” costs about £1700 per child each year

 

The result of all of this?

 

In a school where 35% of the children have special needs, OFSTED recorded a 78% improvement in children exceeding expectations: “academic achievements have gone through the roof” says Peter Garden. They have seen significant progress in reading, numeracy, self esteem and self confidence.  Literacy SATs are up from 36% to 84% and numeracy from 35% to 75%.  I was struck by the attentive and responsive behaviour – and happiness – of the children.  Sister Moira says: “In Harmony is transforming the school and has brought a new energy to our community.”

Sister Moira adds: “I always say it is a miracle because everything came together at the right time, just at the point when this school was ready for it – when we needed it most.” – Kay Kelly had a great belief in miracles and would certainly agree. Along with St.Mary and the angels surely Mother Clare Imrie would also rejoice that her church – and our sacred heritage – has been preserved for a future generation.