18 December 2014

It was good to be a ‘Black Santa’
for an afternoon, despite the rain

Collecting with the Verger of Saint Ann’s Fred Deane in Dawson Street this afternoon

Patrick Comerford

I hate asking people for money.

Without any false claims to generosity, I am happy to give to causes I believe in; with what I hope is wise discretion, I am happy to give selectively to people who ask me for money on the streets.

But I hate asking people for money, and I hate asking people for money on the streets.

So, this afternoon, it took a little extra mental energy to hold a bucket and stand in the rain for two or three hours shaking a bucket outside Saint Ann’s Church in Dawson Street.

This has probably been the wettest day in Dublin so far this winter. I have only been wetter this year when I sat on a wet seat on an open-top tour bus in Lisbon one day last month.

I can say the wet and the cold are easier to endure than looking people straight in the face and asking them for money.

But it was all worth while.

I had volunteered to spend the afternoon as part of the team shaking collecting boxes at this year’s Black Santa sit-out at St Ann’s Church to help the city’s homeless.

The sit-in was launched 24 hours earlier by Archbishop Michael Jackson and the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Christy Burke.

This is the 14th year that sit-out appeal has been held at St Ann’s and to date it has raised almost €400,000 for charity. The Black Santa Appeal gets its name because the clergy involved wear black cloaks. The original concept began in 1975 when Dean Samuel Crooks started standing outside Saint Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast, at Christmas time. A similar idea was taken up by my dear friend, the late Canon Norman Ruddock, when he became Rector of Wexford 20 years ago.

This afternoon I swapped black cloaks with the Revd Rob Jones from Rathmines as I joined Fred Deane and the carol singers and other collectors outside Saint Ann’s.

I am embarrassed to look at people putting money in the collection boxes, and prefer to look into their faces with a smile and wish them a Merry Christmas.

It is two years since I have taken part in the Black Santa Appeal. But once again I could not avoid being impressed once again to see people rolling up €50, €20 and €10 notes to place in the collecting tins. I was even more impressed to realise that some people were putting in small change, counting out what they could afford and leaving themselves with only enough coins for the bus fare home, or deciding to forgo that cup of coffee they may have planned as treat.

And, in silent moments, I was cheered to hear passing children pointing me out to their parents, remarking on my white beard, and asking (despite the fact that I was covered in black clothing from head to toe): “Is that the real Santa?”

Dawson Street is lined with coffee shops, boutiques and big-name clothes shops. It is one of the most fashionable shopping streets in Dublin. Those who passed by and stopped included a former President, and leading politicians and business figures. But there were cheering waves too from tourists on hop-on, hop –off buses – doubtless as wet as I was that afternoon in Lisbon last month.

And the widows’ (and widowers’) mite is always the most impressive contribution .., indeed, on a cold and wet afternoon, they are the most heart-warming.

The Vicar of Saint Ann’s, Canon David Gillespie has invited his clerical colleagues from in the Dioceses of Dublin and Glendalough to join him outside his city centre church each day from 10 am until 6 pm until Christmas Eve, singing carols and collecting money for homeless charities.

Cheery carol singers at Saint Ann’s Church in Dawson Street this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

At each lunchtime over the coming days, the clergy collecting outside Saint Ann’s are being supported by carol singers from a variety of choirs, including choirs from Castleknock National School, Saint James’s Primary School, Francis Street CBS, Catholic University School, Kildare Place National School, Loreto College, and John Scotus School, as well as members of the Seafield Singers, the Brook Singers, the Dublin Male Voice Choir, the Line Up Choir, Taney Parish Junior Choir, choir, the Revenue Choir and the Steadfast Band.

This year the money collected is being distributed among charities working with the homeless in inner city Dublin, including Trust, the Salvation Army, the Simon Community, the Peter McVerry Trust, Barnardo’s, the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, and Protestant Aid.
This is inner-city street mission finding its best expression in the Church at this time of the year. As I was standing outside Saint Ann’s this afternoon, someone shared on the Affirming Catholicism Facebook page an image from the Orthodox Christian Network with a quotation from Saint Chrysostom: “If you do not find Christ in the beggar at the Church door, neither will you find Him in the chalice.”

But this is not an “either/or” choice – it is a “both/an” imperative for the mission of the Church.

If you still have Christmas shopping to do in Dublin, and you are in the city centre, remember there is still a week to go until Christmas, and call around to Saint Ann’s in Dawson Street. Even a cheery word will raise the morale of my friends and colleagues. And you could make a difference to one homeless person or family this Christmas.

The Christmas scene in a window in Saint Ann’s Church, Dawson Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

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