Brum at Xmas: Polish Migration and Other Stories

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 12/24/2008 10:22:00 AM
This may very well be the last holiday note I will write about Birmingham. During Christmas last year, I took a look back at the important role Birmingham has played in economic history. This year, I will discuss the cross-currents of migration and religion in a still-evolving town with a rich and storied history. As probably everyone knows, church attendance across vast swathes of Western Europe is in decline. In Britain, this trend is very much in evidence. At this same time last year, newspapers were abuzz with news that Catholicism had "overtaken" the Church of England in mass attendance. This news was also accompanied by the story that former PM Tony Blair had become one with the Popery.

As a Catholic, I was of two minds about these events. There is no real coup here as the headlines would suggest. To begin with, attendance has been in decline for both Church of England and Catholic parishes. It's not so much that Catholicism has overhauled its Anglican counterpart. Rather, attendance at Catholic services has declined more slowly than at Anglican ones--not exactly a stellar achievement. More important for a blog about IPE, the interplay between religion and migration is the interesting one. Attendance at Catholic services has been buttressed by a large influx of Polish and Lithuanian parishioners. Unlike many of the locals who couldn't be bothered to attend mass, Eastern Europeans discouraged from practicing religion during the Soviet era find value in doing so in a reflection of the famous adage "you don't know how much you've got until it's gone."

My own church attendance in Birmingham has validated this factoid. The Catholic service I attend is at St. Michael's in the heart of Birmingham's shopping district. In distinct contrast to the mix of folks of all ages you see walking around the shopping malls, masses in English are largely populated by pensioners or those nearing pensionable age. Not that there's anything wrong with older folks being more religious, it's that churches--regardless of denomination-- need to attract a younger flock to survive.

It's at this point where our Polish parishioners come in. By my reckoning, there are now more Polish-language services and priests at St. Michael's than their English counterparts. Of course, this reflects the influx of Polish workers coming to Britain after Poland's accession to the EU. I've always had an exceedingly positive impression of the Poles--kind, hardworking, untroublesome folks any country would be proud to host (and Catholics to boot). It is precisely this influx which now sustains St. Michael's given the dwindling flock of locals, as the BBC has noted:
After years of gently declining attendance, St Michael's Polish congregation never expected that one day they would be joined in their prayers by thousands of their fellow country-men. Since May 2004, when Poland joined the EU, 20,000 Poles have migrated to the West Midlands - many of whom have settled in Birmingham. Around a third of these are thought to be practising Catholics.

This means that St. Michael’s, the city's bi-lingual 'Polish church' is busier than ever. "This is something we have never expected to happen. There are virtually hundreds and hundreds of young Polish parishioners joining our Sunday services every week" says Father Apolinary, from St Michael's. "It is a big challenge for us priests to serve such a big number of Polish Catholics who live in Birmingham now. But we are doing our best. We are very happy the Polish congregation is growing".

Official statistics claim that over 80% of new migrants from Eastern Europe are younger than 34 years old. Father Apolinary finds it overwhelming that so many of those young Poles have joined their congregation. He says: "Sometimes I cannot believe my eyes when I see all of these young parishioners attending Polish services every Sunday. It is great to see that they bring their faith with them when they decide to leave their home country".

For many Polish people religion is an integral part of their day-to-day lives. Ela is one of the new members of St Michael's congregation. She works with children with special needs in Birmingham. Ela says that her faith is often thought of as something rather unusual by her British friends: "My colleagues cannot believe that I go to church every Sunday. But this is the way my parents brought me up. If I were still living in Poland I would be in church at least once a week so why should I stop doing it in Britain?"
Of course, conditions are ever-changing. The current economic crisis has undoubtedly dimmed the prospects for Polish immigrants. Strong anti-immigrant sentiment also pervades in British politics. It is no surprise then that news reports suggest there are greater numbers of Polish expats returning and that the upcoming Euro 2012 should lure back construction workers and the like due to the need to build stadiums and roads [1, 2]. In contrast to many nearby Eastern European countries, Poland isn't faring too badly.

It is always good to contemplate the meaning of things even during the holiday season. Will atendance at Catholic churches suffer the same precipitous decline Anglican churches have suffered once less Eastern European migrants ply their trade in Blighty? I suspect the answer will only be known long after I have moved on. Regardless, I wish all IPE Zone readers a warm season's greetings wherever you are as we contemplate how our fates unfold in a highly interdependent world.