Scotland’s Glagolitic Seminary by Canon Jim Foley

Scotland’s Glagolitic Seminary by Canon Jim Foley





This essay should be read to the accompaniment of Leos Janacek’s Glagolytic Mass.   Let me explain.   I understand that Janacek (1854-1928), set about to compose a Mass like no other.   He appears to have succeeded beyond all expectations.    His is a musical setting that aspires to reach beyond the Last Supper, beyond the elements of bread and wine of the Eucharist, to embrace and proclaim the elemental forces of nature which were as much caught up in the plan of redemption as was mankind.   If the ground was cursed on account of man’s first sin then the earth too was equally in need of redemption.   Man and nature were reluctant partners in crime (Gen 3.17). He called it his Glagolitic Mass.   His choice of title, which would almost make your hair stand on end, already reveals something of his intention.  The composer evidently thought the word Glagolitic referred to an ancient Slavonic language and lent a kind of antiquarian quality to his composition, comparable to the singing of Mass in Gregorian Chant or Greek or Syriac.    Like many liturgists he thought he was setting a primitive Liturgical text to music when, in fact, he was working from a text with scant claim to antiquity and little else to commend it.   Few, of course, would notice, but the ones who did have never quite forgiven him!   Janacek was inspired by the hope that an ancient text would add something to the primordial atmosphere of the music and that words and music would reach into space and resonate throughout creation.


A Like-minded Apostle


Saint Paul had set himself a similar daunting task:   ‘For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation  was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it in hope that the creation  itself will be set free from  its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.   We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies’ (Rom 8.18-23).



The whole of creation was groaning for the freedom of the sons of men but the great composers of the past had listened only to the groans of man.   I believe Saint Paul would have enjoyed the Glagolitic Mass.   He had aspired to express in words what Janacek attempted to express in music.  Paul wanted to see all things fulfilled in Christ as head of the universe.  ‘He has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all’ (Eph 1.22).


Against this background you could add Francis of Assisi and John Duns Scotus to Janacek’s admirers.   Janacek’s Mass  set out to engage with the whole of creation on the understanding that anyone who encountered Christ became a new creation (2 Cor 5.17).


The Opening Fanfare


The opening fanfare certainly catches the audience’s attention and may even blow their hats off their heads.   Then, there is a point during the Creed when the organist appears to become completely unhinged as if the music had exploded in his face or a diapason had fallen on his head.   It is not surprising that this Mass is never celebrated and seldom performed.  It calls for resources of manpower and stamina in the orchestra, the singers and the audience usually associated with heavy industry.  When he occasionally comes back to earth, Janacek draws inspiration from folklore melodies and pastoral sounds but these only engender a false sense of security as he quickly moves ahead to pursue his relentless drive into the galaxy.



There is a sense in which the Seminary at Cardross, perhaps inadvertently, had the same purpose and I have chosen to share the title ‘Glagolitic’ with it.  The analogies are much closer than we might at first think.   The opening fanfare was memorable.   A new archbishop had just been enthroned in the See of Saint Mungo in the person of James Donald Scanlan.   He had spent the previous ten years looking over the wall of a neighbouring diocese, like Ozymandias, with a combination of admiration for and detachment from the mighty works around him as the new seminary rose slowly from the ashes of the old, like a mighty ziggurat clad in honest materials shipped in from every corner of the earth: copper from Zambia; timber from Brazilian rain forests; teak from the last resources on earth.


The first St Peter’s College in Glasgow had been opened on the patronal feast of Archbishop Charles Eyre on 4th November 1874, evidently with a little less panache.   The archbishop’s father kept a diary which has survived in the college archives.   There are two entries for that day.   The first notes that ‘he (Archbishop Eyre’s father) had taken delivery of 1 cwt of coal’.   The second that ‘Charles opened a seminary today’.


Eventually, by way of the divine irony, it fell to James Donald Scanlan to summon the great and mighty of the land to the solemn dedication.   There is somewhere a photograph of the event that tells its own story.   The expressions on the faces of the major players ranged from smiles to something just short of disbelief.   There were those who approved and those who were upset.   Some yearned for a Scottish national seminary on native soil, others were less enthusiastic.   They argued that there was a fine seminary in Edinburgh, another in Spain and a third in Rome.   There were plenty of others south of the border and across the Irish Sea.   Why this extravaganza?



Others again were filled with despair at the thought of a building that had the stamp of ancient monasticism turned completely in on itself.   The students lived on top of each other while the staff inhabited separate and, reputedly, less Spartan accommodation.   Who would be first to storm the Bastille?  Vatican II had just ended, Armageddon could now begin.   This was a monastic building inspired by accommodation in cells.   The difference from the traditional monastery was that the students lived in cells stacked on top of each other rather than side by side.   Had the fact been forgotten that these candidates were one day to be secular priests and not monks?   The juxtaposition of refectory and college chapel sent out its own message.   Eating and praying would fill the day as it filled the building.


The chapel was probably the most inspirational part of the entire project.  (To view the changing moods of light and shade in the college chapel click here). Traditional choir stalls had survived, although this was something of an innovation since during the previous years since the ‘Bearsden Fire’ of 1948 the chapel was not capable of such an arrangement.   The new sacristy was underground and there was always an element of surprise as the celebrant, supported latterly by at least ten concelebrants, would suddenly surface to the surprise of the congregation.

While everything was asymmetrical in the ways of modern architecture, there was a quite startling intrusion from the past.   Quite large heraldic stones were just visible above the ramp that led up from the sacristy.   Evidently these came from a medieval bishop of Glasgow’s house and suggested, to those with an eye for them, that St Peter’s Seminary had not entirely abandoned its past.   However, the past was not to overshadow the present and the future.


If we were free to allow our imaginations to run away with us we might well be persuaded that there is a powerful Druidic influence in the college chapel.   Those who have walked the Way of Saint James to Compostela might be more conscious of this than most.   This is seen especially in the manipulation of light and, belatedly, of water.  High above the sanctuary is what might best be described as a lantern of glass held together precariously by laminated beams.   As a consequence of this, as the sun travels across the heavens, these beams cast an ever-changing cruciform pattern across the walls and the floor of the sanctuary.   It must, however, be said that the patterns are as much industrial as they are cruciform, and capture well the industrial landscape along the banks of the nearby river Clyde.  The fact that the patterns never remain the same from one moment to the next and, with the disappearance of the sun behind the clouds, they disappear all-together, added to the elusive wonder and beauty of the sanctuary.   This, in turn, enhanced our awareness of the cosmos against which our daily Mass was celebrated.   Our Eucharist moved into the world of Saint Paul, St Francis of Assisi and John  Duns Scotus and, perhaps, into concern for the world we inhabit.   It is a matter of some regret that we were never able to muster sufficient resources to celebrate Leos Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass in that setting.

The druidic enthusiasm for the waters of baptism is equally well-attested on the way to the shrine of Saint James.   With Christian Baptism in mind, several ancient churches were built to take account of the hidden water courses to be crossed by those who would enter the sanctuary.   It is no secret that part of the skill of Gillespie, Kid and Coia, architects, was a talent for turning adversity to good purpose.   The little stream that ran gently alongside the seminary buildings proved to be more tenacious than was thought and, to avoid undermining the entire building, had to be diverted into a moat with its own bridge to be negotiated by all who entered the building.


We needed only to raise our heads a little to discover our spiritual roots.   On the near horizon we could see the silhouette of St Mahew’s chapel in Cardross village, which has been a place of worship since 1370 and was restored in 1950 under the inspiration of Mansignor David McRoberts, a member of staff at St Peter’s and the industry of the students of the time.


It will not have escaped the attention of the reader that no human being features in any of the photographs which accompany this essay.   We were there for almost twenty years, swept along as much by the elements as by the tide of Vatican II, not always conscious of the coming together of grace and nature of which we were part and to which our buildings gave powerful witness.   The gardens were beautiful, oriental in places and with a most attractive bird-house which survived with its feathered residents throughout the entire process of building.

During the month of May the rhododendrons were absolutely stunning.   In our Glagolitic Seminary we lived close to each other and to nature.   At times it seemed a bit too close to the latter.   There is, in recent times, a suggestion that we have not heard the last of our Glagolitic Seminary on the Clyde:


For there is hope for a tree,


if it is cut down, that it will sprout again,


and that its shoots will not cease.


Though its root grows old in the earth,


and its stump dies in the ground,


yet at the scent of water it will bud


and put forth branches like a young plant.   (Job 14.7-9)

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