The North Pole Mission

A bookshop is an unlikely relic of our Catholic past, but the present Shetland Times Bookshop in Commercial Street, Lerwick, has a long history. In the 1860s it was functioning as the Zetland Hotel and was owned by the O'Brien brothers from Ireland. It was probably here that the first Mass since the Reformation was said on 30th September 1860.

In 1560 Catholicism had been proscribed in Scotland and many of the old churches destroyed. By the nineteenth century Scotland was seen as mission territory and was administered by three Vicars Apostolic appointed by the Holy See. Shetland formed part of the Northern District, centred then on Presholme in Moray, but the Northern Isles were always going to be seen as peripheral to the missionary needs of this huge territory.

What if you think of Shetland in terms of sea-lanes instead of roads? It was this new perspective which saw Shetland being withdrawn from the Northern District in 1860 and assigned to the Apostolic Prefecture of the North Pole. For nine years Shetland was part of a trans-national ecclesiastical territory, initially centred on Alta in northern Norway, which included Iceland (1857), the Faroe Islands (1857-8), Orkney, Shetland and Caithness (1860-1) and Tromso (1862), and which had aspirations to spread around the Arctic rim from Scandinavia to Greenland, culminating in a mission to the Eskimos of North America.

The first Mass in Lerwick was said by the charismatic Apostolic Prefect of the North Pole Mission, Fr Stefan Djunkowsky (a Russian nobleman from St Petersburg). Djunkowsky did not work long in Shetland, in fact within little more than a year he had left the North Pole Mission altogether. In the short time available to him Djunkowsky had managed to establish a Catholic chapel dedicated to St Anne in the cellar of the building opposite the Shetland Times Bookshop, now occupied by Faerdie-maet.

The building was owned by Mr Grant, an early convert, and when Fr Djunkowsky summoned Fr Theophilus Verstraeten from the Faroe Islands to take over the Shetland mission, the Grant family invited him to move into the house.

An early photograph of the building shows how much this area of Lerwick has changed. The building which housed St Anne's chapel (on the left of the photograph) was originally a lodberry, jutting into the sea, and the modern Post Office occupies the site of a beach immediately opposite the former Zetland Hotel. The flight of steps between the Faerdie-maet building and the Post Office takes you to what would have been the chapel entrance, opening onto the beach. Djunkowsky described it rather fancifully as of a 'gothic character' and able to accommodate 100 people.

The new priest was not given a very warm welcome. Scotland was celebrating the third centenary of the Protestant Reformation in 1860 and the mission was viewed with suspicion by those who saw it as an example of Papal aggression. The Minister of the United Presbyterian church preached against the mission and an even more zealous opponent set gunpowder charges around the priest's house which, with a midnight explosion "like that of an earthquake", blew out the windows.

Fr Verstraeten eventually won the respect of the people of Lerwick and was much lamented when in 1871, at the age of 39, he died of smallpox contracted from a Belgian fisherman to whom he had administered the last rites. His body was taken back to his native Belgium on the same boat on which he had contracted the fatal disease.

Obit card of Fr Theophilus Verstraeten, (1832-71).

Shetland reached its greatest population during Fr Verstraeten's period as first resident mission priest in Lerwick. The 1861 census showed a resident population of 31,579, nearly fifty percent more than at the present day. Prosperity had come with the fishing business, and with prosperity a cosmopolitan mix of nations.

9 Jun 2018

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St Margaret and the Sacred Heart Church, Lerwick

Roman Catholic Diocese of Aberdeen

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