By Noel Donaldson
CHRISTIANITY has known many champions down through the ages, men and women who have fought for their beliefs against hopeless odds and relentless adversity. Father Walter Lovi was one such crusader. He pitted his courage and faith against prejudice, bigotry and disease during Wick’s herring heydays, and triumphed.
MANY a cleric would have viewed the prospect of carrying the fiery cross of Catholicism to one of the Kirk’s far-flung outposts, as a daunting undertaking, but Father Lovi revelled in a challenge. His superior, Bishop James Kyle, of Enzie, had chosen him carefully, for the mission, in 1832, taking his special qualities into account. The Bishop remarked to a fellow cleric, that Lovi was “more in his element” when he was pushing forward, than when he was engaged in “ordinary” duties. It was a prophetic observation.
The Bishop’s confidence in his emissary was not misplaced. Lovi, son of a Scots mother and Italian father, was thirty-four and had already built a chapel in Keith. Rekindling the faith of Catholicism, among the hard-bitten seafaring folk in the far north , however, was to prove a different kettle of fish, for the herring industry, he discovered, had brought with it “wickedness” as well as wealth. The itinerant workforce of 10,000 which consisted, mainly of female gutting crews, moved around the country according to the vagaries of the herring shoals, or silver darlings, as they became known. So far as their living accommodation was concerned, the workers were left largely to their own devices, and they ended up, crammed together with the local inhabitants in narrow streets, as tightly as the drifters that packed the harbour.
The workers were exposed to “every type of temptation”, not least alcohol. There were twenty pubs in Wick and 23 taverns across the river on the Pulteneytown side of the town. Whisky sales of five hundred gallons per day were not uncommon. With the workers living cheek- by-jowl, a dozen to a room in some cases, and the streets pungent with the smell of rotting fish offal, it wasn’t surprising that fever of the typhoid strain was a risk.
This, then was the challenge that faced Father Walter Lovi. It would probably have driven a lesser man to despair, if not to admit defeat, but this intrepid evangelist was made of sterner stuff. In fact, he was in good heart when he wrote his Bishop, following his 15-hour voyage north. Father Lovi described Wick as “a very thriving place, indeed”. It had a buoyant fishing fleet of 2000 boats, each carrying a crew of five and, with the sea a veritable “mass of herring”, prospects for the season were excellent. The booming industry had swelled the local Catholic population from a mere handful, to almost three hundred. The crucial question was, where would they worship?
Father Lovi tried in vain to procure a chapel. In a letter, reporting his lack of success to his Bishop, he stated:
“There seems to be a kind of latent dread of old Popery among the inhabitants which cannot immediately be removed. I have offered as high as 20 shillings per Sunday for a herring loft to meet in, yet the offer, upon some pretext or other, has not been accepted.”
Despite the absence of practical support, he found the inhabitants quite civil to him, personally, but declared perceptively:
“No-one likes to be instrumental in first introducing Catholicism to Wick. That it is better to keep out than to put out, they think is true, in most cases, but undoubtedly so in the case of Popery. Hence, to our great mortification, we have not had either Mass or Sermon today”.
Obtaining a place of worship, eventually, was a mixed blessing, for with it came a noticeable change in the mood of the inhabitants, from passive opposition to active, outright, hostility, further fuelled when Father Lovi began attract Protestants to his services. The animosity intensified when cholera struck. Lovi was blamed for the misfortune. However, not for the first time in religious history, has good come out of bad. The disease was already present in Caithness, having broken out in the neighbouring town of Thurso, 21 miles away and the intuitive priest, anticipating that, given the living conditions of the fisher folk in Wick, literally packed like herring in a barrel and exposed to the damp night air and cold, the plague would inevitably transmit to Wick. He asked his Bishop to take advice on treatment of cholera, which, as he had predicted, descended on the town. The local health board shared his premonition and set up a hospital at the home of John Mackay in Wellington Street. There were twelve beds, initially, but this rose rapidly to 42 as the outbreak peaked. The crisis lasted three months and involved more than 300 cases. Miraculously, there were only 66 deaths.
Many workers had fled the town, leaving herring curers without labour and facing ruin. Lovi drew some solace, however, from the fact that none of those who left were Catholics. In his bulletins to his Bishop, Lovi referred to the “surprising courage and perseverance and unexampled fidelity” of the carers and their “contempt of danger in the service of the very men who most opposed me when seeking a place for a chapel”.
When the emergency was over, the local health board gave Father Lovi a public vote of thanks and instructed the town’s druggist to provide him with all the medicine he required. The priest was nothing if not shrewd, though, and with an impeccable sense of timing, tabled a request for a site for a new chapel, in his own words “taking advantage of the present good feeling which might disappear with the departure of the cholera”.
A map of the town was made available and he was given a choice of two vacant feus. He selected the ground on which St Joachim’s stands today, in Breadalbane Terrace. But, for the resourceful minister, that was simply another chapter in his life’s mission. Father Lovi went on to respond to a similar outbreak of cholera emergency in Inverness. Afterwards, he was gifted the sum of £10 for his services but handed it over the medical men of the town for distribution to the poor,
Father Lovi must have been a man of considerable physical strength as well as unshakeable conviction, for he embarked on a “begging” expedition round Britain and Ireland to raise money for the construction of St Joachim’s, returning to Wick for brief spells in between, to supervise construction work. The church, made of top quality red and yellow pine, was completed in 1835. Records state that, following a private Mass, it was thrown open to “saints and sinners”.
His work in Caithness, at an end, Father Lovi moved south from Wick at the end of the 1837 season fishing season. His next task was the construction of a chapel in Braemar and he was again to the fore when cholera struck in the Midlands. Father Lovi died there in 1870 at the age of 60.
The plaque on St Joachims Church, which is still a place of worship today, stated-
“This church was built in 1835 by Father Walter Lovi on a site made available to him by a grateful community for his heroic services during the cholera epidemic of 1832”.
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