A Conversation with Canon Cristofoli
Interview and photos by Michael Durnan
It’s a neo-Gothic gem of a Catholic Church, perched high over once-Catholic Preston England. And now, St Walburge’s, along with the city’s breath-taking English Martyr’s Church, have been placed into the care of the Institute of Christ the King.
Why is Preston ‘once Catholic’? Reasons given vary; some will blame poor catechesis and liturgies, others say it’s just a casualty of relativism and consumerism. Whatever the cause, essentially today one is hard put to find any sign of Catholic belief or practice in Preston, once an epicentre of Catholic life in England.
But now we have a community of young, French-speaking, traditional priests stepping into the care of parishes with dwindling, aging congregations and buildings left too long without maintenance. A tall order for anyone to tackle, which REGINA’s Michael Durnan well knows as a parishioner at St Walburge’s. Recently Michael sat down with Canon Gwenael Cristofoli to discuss his plans.
REGINA: You arrived at St. Walburge’s Shrine Church in Preston, England, a year ago. Where have you worked before?
CANON CRISTOFOLI: My former Apostolates were both in France. From 2004 to 2008 I was appointed to Port Marly. I was an assistant priest, student in the University of Paris, and chaplain of a school and a college. From 2008 to 2016, I was appointed to Rennes, Brittany. My ministry was the equivalent of a parish priest and I was also the chaplain to a school. In addition, I had the joy during these years to be a spiritual director at the seminary of the Institute in Gricigliano, Tuscany.
REGINA: Your first Sunday Mass at St. Walburge’s coincided with another special occasion, the anniversary of the Dedication of St. Walburge’s.
CANON CRISTOFOLI: The Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest is a Missionary Institute of Salesian Spirituality. When I met the Institute nineteen years ago, it was this missionary spirit full of gentleness and goodness that struck me. I try, in turn, to transmit what I have received.
The fact that I came to England enforced this missionary dimension of the Priestly life. It is with enthusiasm that I try to learn English. I am doing my best… but I also believe that the French accent has something charming about it!
REGINA: Were you familiar with this part of England?
CANON CRISTOFOLI: The North of England is fascinating, as much for its history as its vast challenge for the Church. How can we not be impressed in Lancashire by this county of martyrs? This fidelity to God makes me think of our heroes in the French Vendée region. There is so much to discover in this remarkable country.
In our community life, we regularly have recreations and we try to link our walks with the rich history of Lancashire. As you know, history is not simply nostalgia, it roots us in the present. The blood of the Martyrs is the seed of Christians. The Faith of our fathers, and particularly the poor who gave their pennies to erect the Shrines of Saint Walburge and The English Martyrs, gives us energy to conquer new souls.
REGINA: What are your thoughts on St. Walburge’s and the English Martyrs after your first year?
CANON CRISTOFOLI: When you look at the Shrine of Saint Walburge, you feel small! Our two churches are splendid, and I am very grateful to His Lordship the Bishop of Lancaster, the Rt. Rev. Michael Gregory Campbell. The Institute of Christ the King is absolutely Roman. This close collaboration with the Bishop and the Deanery is a grace for us.
REGINA: The buildings are impressive.
CANON CRISTOFOLI: The Shrine Churches of Saint Walburge and the English Martyrs are two iconic churches in Preston. Their architectures are extremely different. One is the work of Hanson and the other is a Pugin Church. Our two churches require restoration work. We have begun a long and considerable project for Saint Walburge’s. Soon we will also be able to undertake the same work at English Martyrs’. Many local Preston people are passionate about their churches and Saint Walburge’s and the English Martyrs’ cannot leave us indifferent. I pray that Divine Providence will grant generous benefactors because with such important buildings, the quote that we have received is extremely high.
REGINA: And the people?
CANON CRISTOFOLI: The Institute was warmly welcomed to Lancashire. It is not a legend that the people from the north are very warm! We have found a vibrant and dedicated community for the daily necessities of the life of the Apostolate. Every Sunday after Mass we have a social with tea and coffee and it is a great occasion to meet everyone.
I am impressed by the youth of the city of Preston. Thanks to the university, there are a great deal of students. I often ask myself how to bring the Light of the Gospel to them. We see in the streets a youth that at first sight seems far from God, but at the same time, if we have the opportunity to speak, it is easy to perceive their thirst for Truth.
Each month during winter, we have a Deanery meeting with priests from the Diocese. “It is good for brethren to meet together”. We look forward to these reunions with impatience as beautiful occasions of fraternal charity.
REGINA: Your first year has been a very busy and eventful one.
CANON CRISTOFOLI: Monsignor Schmitz, the Vicar General in the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, told me of my nomination to England with the intention that I rest after a tiring Apostolate in France… but it is true that after Canon Altiere, the Apostolate of Preston was very busy. Saint John Bosco said that we will rest in heaven… but I am not so sure about that, because according to Saint Therese of Lisieux, we will spend our heaven doing good on earth!
REGINA: And the Bishop has visited?
CANON CRISTOFOLI: We have indeed had the joy, of receiving our Bishop, His Lordship Michael Campbell, several times. I was particularly marked by the Pontifical Mass at Easter which he had the goodness to celebrate, and by the crowning of Our Lady at the end of May. They were wonderful occasions.
REGINA: Is it true it rains in your rectory?
CANON CRISTOFOLI: We have also, as you underline, begun work in the house. You could well suppose that a Frenchman would begin in the kitchen, but it is true that it is an important room for a community. We have also restored some bedrooms. Now we are focusing on restoring the interior of the presbytery and the church. It rains in the house, in the sacristy and in the church. The roofing and gutters are in a poor state. There are a lot of windows to change and last but not least, the church heating. We are supported by carefully chosen competent people and I am very confident for the future.
REGINA: How does this assignment compare to your previous ones?
CANON CRISTOFOLI: Since each Apostolate is different, it is difficult to compare them. The Apostolates in Preston are foundations. A foundation is always a time of enthusiasm and difficulty, in brief, both joy and crosses.
CANON CRISTOFOLI: Certainly, the devil is furious when a Catholic Apostolate is founded and he attacks but, thanks to God, most of the time it is only material.
REGINA: There have been a lot of new developments and projects for the future of the ICRSP’s Apostolate in Preston.
CANON CRISTOFOLI: What is very reassuring is that none of these projects were mine! I can affirm that I would never have thought, on arriving in Preston, that one year later we would have the charge of a second church, Saint Benedict’s Academy, a pre-seminary with five candidates, and of course, a convent with our dear Sisters Adorers… I would never have imagined that! When projects come from ourselves, it is not always good.
REGINA: Why do you say that?
CANON CRISTOFOLI: In the Institute, we have always preferred to receive the gifts of Divine Providence. Monsignor Wach, our General Superior, as a priest in Rome, never dreamed of founding an Institute. Years later, we would never have imagined having a feminine branch etc. etc.
REGINA: Is it true you are starting a Catholic school with Sisters?
CANON CRISTOFOLI: Amongst the developments that God permits, we are particularly touched by the arrival of our Sisters and by the opening of our Education Centre, which has discreetly but efficiently opened in receiving all of the permissions necessary. A lot of families are considering moving house to Preston to join us. We try to deliver a quality and authentically Catholic teaching. We will see how Divine Providence will lead us, but we believe that in this work there is plenty of hope for the future.
Catholic education is one of the major challenges in this country. The Sisters help us a lot at Saint Benedict’s and their presence, along with that of the priests and seminarians, seems to me a blessing for the children.
The arrival of the Sisters has also considerably changed our Apostolate. They are very loved and appreciated and often people ask them questions in the street about their Religious life.
REGINA: And your pre-seminary? What’s that?
CANON CRISTOFOLI: In our House of Discernment, (Saint Augustine’s Presbytery), we have five candidates who prepare to enter the seminary or the oblatehood (brothers of the Institute). Each day, they follow the daily schedule of the Shrines. Every morning, they receive three hours of lessons that are divided into Doctrine, Spirituality, Liturgy, Gregorian chant, French and Latin. The afternoons are more practically-based, the works being more manual.
REGINA: So, they work with their hands as well?
CANON CRISTOFOLI: In our Institute, we have always wanted to keep this balance between manual work and intellectual work. This avoids the danger of losing a sense of reality! Our presbytery is therefore very lively. The lessons in the morning are given by the Canons in such a way that when one is at the Education Centre, the other is with the Candidates. That keeps us a little busy!
REGINA: So, what does the future hold?
CANON CRISTOFOLI: As I already mentioned, we do not have any real plans of development. We try to stay open to what God will manifest and indicate. God speaks to us through His Church and principally though our Shepherd, the Bishop of Lancaster.
On the other hand, all of last year and this first part of the year, we have prepared our restoration project. To receive more faithful and to maintain our buildings in good condition, we need to proceed. It is our great hope at the moment.
Some parishioners have asked us for new activities such as catechism for adults, (we currently have monthly talks, pictured above), and toddler groups, but for the moment it would be difficult to add something more to our Canonical Life.
REGINA: Any last thoughts?
CANON CRISTOFOLI: Nominations in the Institute are always the fruit of a very paternal discernment of our Superiors. After eight years in Brittany, or “Small Britain”, it is true that “Great Britain” was an obvious choice for me! Today looking back, I can see that the Superiors really know their priests. Of course, leaving an Apostolate always requires a certain detachment, but I can tell you that God has fulfilled me through the shrines and such welcoming people.
In leaving you, I would like to invite you to Preston! Nothing is better than a visit. I will be happy to receive you and I promise you to not cook frogs’ legs for lunch! Thank you, reader of Regina Magazine, for your prayers and your support. May God bless you.
Saint Walburge Website Here