The Herring Boom

The North Pole Mission had been set up c. 1855 by Pope Pius IX "for the evangelisation of the people lying within the frozen regions towards the North Pole." There were never many clergy assigned to it. After the departure of Fr Djunkowsky (who reverted to Russian Orthodoxy in order to reclaim his ancestral estates after a brief and unhappy marriage)there were eight priests: Very Rev Bernard Bernard, the Apostolic Prefect, who was based in Wick from 1861-64, then Copenhagen from 1864-68; Rev A. Boller in Tromso, and Rev E. Maesfrancx at Altengaard, both in Lapland; Rev G. Bauer and J.M. Convers at Thorshaven in the Faroe Islands; Rev J.B. Baudoin and E.M. Dekiere at Reykjavik in Iceland; and Rev Theophilus Verstraeten at Lerwick in the Shetland Islands. Many of them were Belgian. This ambitious missionary endeavour came to an end in 1868 when the territory was broken up along national lines.

The second Prefect Apostolic, Abbe Bernard Bernard, now became Prefect Apostolic of a new Norwegian Mission, and Shetland was handed back to the Vicar Apostolic of the Northern District of Scotland. Within a few years the Scottish hierarchy was restored and from 1878 Shetland became part of the Diocese of Aberdeen, to which it still belongs. Fr Verstraeten transferred to the diocesan clergy for the last three years of his ministry.

The number of Catholics in Shetland was increasing. When Fr Verstraeten arrived his mission was mainly to fishermen on their way to the fishing grounds around Shetland and out towards Iceland. But from the 1870s Shetland was caught up in the herring boom which lasted until the First World War. The main centres were at Baltasound in Unst, Lerwick and Scalloway.

The Herring season began at Johnsmas, - 24th June, the Feast of John the Baptist - when the Dutch fishing fleet arrived in Lerwick harbour. The island of Bressay gave shelter to the Mainland at this point, and up to a thousand boats could converge here from all parts of northern Europe. Much of the subsequent catch was landed at Shetland ports and the herring gutted and packed with salt into barrels. At the peak of the trade, hundreds of thousands of barrels of salted herring were exported to Germany and Russia each year. With this herring boom came a migrant band of fisherwomen who worked their way round the north coast of Scotland, and down the east coast of England, following the fishing fleet.

Herring fisherwomen at Yarmouth

Many of these fisherwomen were Irish and Catholic. Margaret Cruickshank, who lived for most of the year in London, often visited Shetland during the herring season and was struck by the cramped nature of their Sunday worship. After the death of Fr Verstraeten there was no resident Catholic priest in Shetland but the islands were served occasionally by priests coming from Orkney, Wick and Aberdeen. The old cellar-chapel of St Anne in Lerwick, which Fr Djunkowsky had boasted could seat a hundred, in reality could seat only fifty, and in the 1880s the Catholic community had moved their services to the newly built Lerwick Town Hall.

Margaret Cruickshank raised money - even from the pennies of the fisherwomen themselves - to build a more permanent Catholic Chapel in Lerwick. She died on 26th December 1910, just seven months before the new Church was opened, and is commemorated by a monument beneath one of the windows.

The official dedication of our church is to the Sacred Heart and St Margaret, but the fact that almost from the beginning the dedication has been reversed witnesses to the affection shown to this early benefactor. The North Pole Mission had been placed under the patronage of the Sacred Heart. Perhaps that is the clue to the double dedication? More recently, another monument has been added opposite Margaret Cruickshank's to commemorate Fr Theophilus Verstraeten.

He was technically an 'Apostolic Missioner' but is remembered as Shetland's first resident Parish Priest. Apart from a brief appointment after the opening of St Margaret's Church in 1911, there would not be another resident priest in Shetland until 1954.

10 Jun 2018

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St Margaret and the Sacred Heart Church, Lerwick

Roman Catholic Diocese of Aberdeen

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