Groups like the Syro-Malabar Catholics and the Institute of Christ the King are filling previously empty churches

We belong to a town
With a thousand years of history,
With traditions and a story
Which have made its people proud.
We belong to a town
Where the road could ford the river,
Where monks were given lands
And where priests could build their town.

Twenty-four years ago, I – along with probably every other primary-school-age child in the area – gathered to perform this stirring paean to Preston, as part of the town’s 1992 Guild Year. (We were great, by the way.)

As the song proudly notes, Preston (or ‘Priests’ town’) in Lancashire is a town with a distinguished Catholic history. Even for non-Catholics, this is all hard to miss. When Wetherspoon’s, arguably our nation’s greatest chronicler of local history, opened its first pub there in the 90s, it called it The Grey Friar: ‘named after the Franciscan monks (known as Grey Friars from the colour of their habit) who founded a nearby friary in the early 13th century’.

As elsewhere in the north-west, a long recusant tradition, bolstered by several waves of Irish immigration, mean that Preston today has a lot of Catholic churches, some of them very large. And this is part of its problem. Whereas a large market town down south might have two or three Catholic churches, serving the whole town and a large catchment area of outlying villages. In Preston, the same area is likely served by four or five times that many churches. Even with a higher-than-average proportion of practising Catholics, it’s still very difficult indeed for many of them ever to feel very full. (Finding clergy for them is another issue too).

This has all kinds of knock-on effects. It doesn’t take a social psychologist to realise that the same number of people crammed into a small church might have a very different experience if sparsely sprinkled throughout a cavernous one.

But what’s a bishop to do? Mergers and closures are one (albeit always unpopular) option. But there is another way – and ‘Priests’ town’ might, once again, be living up to its name.

This year, my family and I spent Good Friday at St Walburge’s, the stunning, Gothic-revival church, whose spire – the country’s third-highest – dominates the Preston skyline. All throughout my (non-Catholic) formative years in Preston, St Walburge’s seemed near-derelict: used occasionally by the local university chaplaincy, but for not much else besides.

Not any more, though. Two years ago it was entrusted to the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest (ICK), as a Eucharistic Shrine and a centre for the Extraordinary Form. While still early days, the transformation is impressive. A church that once, as a vast but decaying vestige of better times, seemed the perfect metaphor for decline in the Catholic heartlands now serves as remarkable beacon of hope: a sizeable and growing worshipping community, from all walks of life, including lots of young (and large) families.

Lancaster isn’t the only north-west diocese where this pattern of giving over ‘surplus’ parishes to specialised groups is bearing fruit. In 2011, the ICK saved another historic church: the so-called ‘Dome of Home’ at New Brighton, in Shrewsbury Diocese. Last year, the Archdiocese of Liverpool followed suit, the Pugin-designed St Mary’s in Warrington to the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter (FSSP).

However, this basic idea need not be Extraordinary Form-exclusive. And in fact, it was a rather different news story that sparked this expat Prestonian singing to myself about ‘traditions and a story /Which have made its people proud’ (something I do only rarely – indeed, as the locals would say, about ‘once every Preston Guild’).

In December 2014, St Ignatius’, another venerable Preston church (where Gerard Manley Hopkins had been a curate; Francis ‘Hound of Heaven’ Thompson was baptised there) was closed. Soon after, however, the Bishop of Lancaster received a request from the head of the Syro-Malabar Church (one of the Eastern churches in full communion with Rome) for a dedicated place of worship. St Ignatius’ was duly reopened.

This too, by all accounts, has been a notable success. In fact, it’s not surprising: Syro-Malabar Catholics, mostly of Keralan extraction, in this country are thriving. Their youth movements are producing large numbers of young, committed Catholics. (Anyone who was at this year’s March for Life, for instance, probably met dozens of them.)

As both a Catholic and a Prestonian, then, yesterday’s announcement gives me great pleasure: the Syro-Malabar Church is to create a new eparchy in Great Britain, with St Ignatius’ Cathedral, Preston, as its mother church.

To the casual observer, the ICK, founded in Africa in 1990, and the Syro-Malabar Church, tracing its origins to first-century India, might seem a world apart. And indeed, the Extraordinary Form doesn’t look or feel much like the Syro-Malabar rite Mass. But in other, more important respects they have much in common. Together, St Walburge’s and St Ignatius’ – less than a mile’s walk away from each other – might be providing a model for recreating the kind of real ‘northern powerhouse’ that made Prestonians so proud in the first place.