Friday, December 31, 2010

One last collection for Black Santa

The streets are white. 

Ice sparkles in the sunlight and there are icicles dangling from St Anne’s Cathedral. 

Before the steps of the imposing Cathedral stands a man draped in black, freezing, but cheerfully accepting donations from passers-by.

This is the Dean of St Anne’s, the Very Rev Houston McKelvey.

And this is his final year acting as the ‘Black Santa’, following on from a tradition started in 1973 by Dean Sammy Crooks.

Dean Crooks had concerns about the ‘expensive but necessary’ work being done to the Cathedral, and decided to stand at the Cathedral entrance on Donegall street to beg for the poor and charities.

The press coined the phrase ‘Black Santa’ because of the black Anglican clerical cloak he wore as he stood by the steps.

Set to retire in 2011, Rev Houston McKelvey’s thoughts turn to his time as Dean, his role as Black Santa and his life before entering the Church.

He studied at Royal Belfast Academical Institution, before completing an honours degree in Geography at Queens University, then studied theology at Trinity College.

Dean McKelvey was ordained in 1967.

The Very Rev McKelvey is not ignorant of the work of journalists, having worked as one for a short time while at Queens University. He writes for the Church of Ireland Weekly Gazette and St Anne's produces its own monthly magazine.

He is married to Roberta and they have one son, John, who lives and works in America.

He said: “I came to St Anne’s 10 years ago. I succeeded the Very Rev Jack Shearer.

“I suppose, amongst the highlights of my time here, the visit of the Queen and the Duke of York in the Jubilee year rates highly.”

Apart from the annual Black Santa appeal, he has been moved by the generosity of the people of Belfast when faced with the suffering of others — notably after the devastating tsunami which hit Indonesia in 2004 and claimed an estimated 230,000 lives.

Dr McKelvey organised a special collection that year.

“In about nine days the people of this community gave £1.6m.

“We’ll never forget the sight of people on Donegall street coming out of the rain and giving money,” he added.

He has also enjoyed developing friendships across the divide in Northern Ireland.

“One of the best things about St Anne’s is the partnership we have with St Peter’s Catholic Cathedral and the friendship I’ve enjoyed with Monsignor Tom Toner and Dr Hugh Kennedy,” he said.

We retire to his office to thaw out for a bit and Dr McKelvey quips: “If I had known what the weather would be like this year I’d have retired last year.

“At least it hasn’t rained but it is very cold. You really need a sense of humour for this weather,” he added.

Of the Black Santa appeal, he said: “The good thing about the Black Santa sit out is that while it takes place outside a Church of Ireland Cathedral, it is owned by all of the community.

“Each year we bring in between £220,000 and £250,000 and that is distributed among a wide range of charities and community groups who deal with the young, the elderly, medical research and medical support.

“By tradition, at the beginning of our Christmas service ‘Nine lessons on carols’ we give a cheque to the Christian Aid charity, which is usually a minimum of £20,000.

“The donations come from individuals, schools, businesses and churches, but it is a team effort.

“We have a good team of volunteers at the Cathedral who help in counting the donations, setting up gift aid and dealing with tax.

“Two Bishops and cannons together with former clerical members of staff stand at the barrel to collect donations,” he added.

“Cheques are usually given on the first Sunday in February at our ‘Good Samaritans’ service, when representatives of community groups and charities are present,” he said.

“The stained glass window of the Cathedral shows the parable of the Good Samaritan and I’ve always been impressed by the quality of people who come along on that day.

“I believe there is more involved than simply a cheque: there is a recognition of the effort and contribution their effort makes to the community.”

He said of his life as a member of the clergy: “I was ordained in 1967. From 1967 to 1970 I was the curate assistant in Dunmurry.

“The Bishop sent me to Seymour Hill where there was a church extension project and a church to be consecrated.

“I had 14 years or so there, and following that I served as secretary |of the General Synod Board of Education for Northern Ireland.

“In that role I was |responsible for advising the church on matters of education and the church’s response to government policy.

“We established links with the Presbyterian church and the Catholic church. Together, we sponsored the common program in religious education.

“Within my church, with the help of Archbishop Robin Eames who was on the Church Board of Education, we played a leading role in child protection policy,” he added.

His retirement, he hopes, will bring respite from the cold.

“I want to see a little sunshine in January,” he shivered.

He added: “I have been working on a website, it’s a project I started while in the church and will take me into my retirement.

“It was started for church news and for church leaders, the website is and brings news from the home countries and worldwide into one website for ease.

“It is basically a parish support resource.”

And even more importantly, involves long periods in a warm room.