An Open Door
Chancer was in his early fifties when he decided to revisit Belfast , and his village of Ardoyne where he grew up . With some time to spare nothing was planned on this trip home . He put a suit in a bag and put his bag on a bus . He took the bus to the airport and caught the flight to Aldergrove .
He got into a taxi and asked the driver where a good B&B was .
Chancer wanted to remain invisible for a little while before dropping in to see his people in Ardoyne .
The Taxi driver drove to a place near Knockbreda and Chancer got his bag from the boot . Early on the next day he forked out some money and hired a little car for a week . In a day or so Chancer had his bearings and confidence behind the wheel .
Heading off along the Ormeau Road and then to Shaftsbury Square , he was soon passing through the maze of back streets to what once was Peters Hill and then up the Crumlin Road to his destination St Gabriels Secondary Boys Intermediate school .
Chancer drove through the big double gates and parked in front outside the building . Something was different . Weeds where everywhere and lots of the windows were shattered and boarded up
He hadn’t been home for twenty years and had no idea that St Gabriels had closed . Chancer walked around the school grounds and felt a bit sad .
It was an shame to discover his old school had closed its doors .
The old building almost welcomed him back as he stood there remembering the days when St Gabes was a hive of activity .
Chancer went over to the playground where he had fought manys a lad . It was now so quiet he thought he should just go home .
Then he heard this banging sound of a door opening and closing as if in the wind . He made his way to the area the noise came from and finally outside the door opposite where Mr McLaughlin TD room was Chancer spotted the open door . Half hanging on by one hinge he peeped inside the old school building .
“Hello , is anybody there ? “
He shouted but no one answered back .
His inquisitive mind was now pushing him and he accepted the open invitation and walked inside . The old corridors hadn’t changed all that much and he entered some of the classrooms where once he sat at his desk . The first room he went into was his old French classroom and as he walked over to where the teachers chair used to sit he saw a piece of chalk lying on the floor near the blackboard .
He lifted the chalk and wrote Bonjour and them his name on the blackboard with the date and time .
Then he pretended to be the teacher standing in front of the class .
“All of you write down in your books everything on the blackboard .”
He smaned to himself and saw a few of the old desks where piled up at the rear of the classroom . He checked them out was amazed to find one with his initials still there . Beside his name the date was deeply gouged into the timber of the desk . He pulled the desk out of the stack and placed it on the floor and sat behind it for a while . As he sat there he looked out the back windows at the all weather pitch . It was difficult to see through all the grime and dirt that was layered in thick crusts on the pane . A coating of bird droppings with hardened mud had stuck to the glass and shone with a kind of a copper shimmer as the sunlight streamed through . A dim light pierced the quiet grey classroom . He drew circles with his foot in the dust on the floor .
Suddenly the silence was broken by a mouse that scurried across the floor and ran right over his foot . Chancer jumped up and just for a moment he thought he heard someone shout out ,
“ Young man sit down at your desk and finish reading your book .“
Chancer sat down and looking around . The cobwebs hung from the ceiling and years of memories clung on to the draped gossamer that strung itself like a work of art onto the mouldy surface . Chancer wondered did he hear somebody or was it just his imagination . He tried to forget it and thought about his old school friends .
He knew a few had left Belfast and where now living in Canada and Australia , but many others he remembered had been killed during the troubles .
Silently he mentioned their names . He said a prayer and mentioned the names of all those who he could remember . At the close of his prayer he felt a hand on his shoulder .
Chancer screamed aloud and spun around but no one was standing there .
Then on the other side of the opaque glass he saw a figure of a man pass by the classroom , along the corridor .
Chancer ran to the door and screamed .
“Hey you , stop ?”
When the man turned around the hair on Chancer’s neck stood up .
The man who turned around in the corridor was old Fonsy the head master who had been dead for many years . The old man waved his finger and said .\
“All right that’s enough of your antics . Get back into your class .“
Then he walked along the corridor to the stairwell . Chancer chased him thinking it was somebody taking the mickey .
He followed him up the stairs and watched him enter through an open door into his office . By the time Chancer got to the headmasters door it was closed and as he tried to open it he found it was locked .
He knocked and the door opened .
Chancer felt a cold shiver run through him . Just then his knees turned into water and this chill ran at speed down through his veins .
“Come in “
The voice said and it echoed along every corridor .
It was clear to Chancer that he was somewhere that he didn’t want to be .
He could either run or face his fears . Oddly enough something came over him and he felt this sensation of peace .
“I won’t bite you lad . Come in “
Chancer walked into the room and saw old Fonsy sitting there at his desk .
“Hello sir , its Chance . I’ve returned to school . “
“Obviously so . Then tell me why are you here ? “
Fonsy replied .
“Well I guess I missed the old place and wanted to have another look at it .“
Fonsy smiled and stood up .
“I saw you in one of the rooms praying . I heard you softly mention a few names . I also recognise each of those boys .“
Chancer stood up and asked .
“Are you a ghost ?”
Fonsy almost illuminated and answered ,
“I am a spirit unable to rest because this school of mine was closed long before its time .“
Chancer said ,
“.I know if I pray for you there may be some peace you will find sir . “
“Pray if you like but what I really need is for you to get this school rebuilt .Only then can I really be at peace >”
Fonsy disappeared and suddenly the door opened and Chance made his way out of the room and down the steps . He took each step slowly and looked around at the old buildings .
Eventually he came to the front door that opened for him .
He made his way back to his car and drove back to his B& B .
He made a promise to himself .
He was not going to leave Belfast until St Gabriels was rebuilt .
From that moment he began a campaign and pushed politicians and locals with a new idea of the Commune School System .
At first people baulked at the thought of hippies living and learning together inside one building but the more it was introduced to the media and business sector the better it began to sound .
St Gabriels was going to be a place for students to escape from war torn and troubled spots around the world and feel for the first time free from fear .
Education was a building block the it would be a place for reflection and religious retreats .
After months of debating the issue the Education department said they would not stand in the way of the project .They donated the old school site to the planned development and as an alternative school it was stated that they could not assist with any money so the project had to find the funds necessary to rebuilt St Gabriels .
The idea of a new St Gabriels began to make some impact and soon a committee was formed .
The first St Gabes project meeting was to take place in the assembly hall at St Gabriels . The hall had been cleaned up for the purpose and a tea with scones was provided .
Chancer was to chair the opening meeting and addressed the committee .
He welcomed the people who had gathered ,
“Hello . My name is Chance . Most people call me Chancer . I used to go to school here and looking around I can tell its been a long time since any of us were in a classroom but I’m so glad to see all of you here tonight with the same thought as myself . What we are doing is enormous . We need to focus on raising money and we intend to do what no other country has ever done . Build up instead of pulling down old schools for the benefit of every other culture apart from ourselves .“
“What is the amount we need to raise ?”
Came the reply .
Chancer responded quickly and quietly .
“The amount will never be enough . We will need to provide shelter and food for all those who will come within these walls .It will always be an on going fund raiser ..“
A couple of pigeons who where perched on the beams near the roof took flight and glided through the air . They flew around the assembly hall before making their way out through an open window . Chancer saw a light in the back of the room and knew who was there . He stood and laughed for a moment .Then continued to speak ,
“Some of you may remember old Fonsy Mc Guinness . Well I’m sure he would be looking down art us now with a big smile on his face . He loved this school with a passion and I know just how proud he would be today knowing what we plan to do here at St Gabriels .”
A young man reached up his hand to Chancer and said ,.
“Hello Chancer I’m Liam . I just noticed those pigeons a moment ago take flight and it gave me an idea . Maybe we could send messages of peace and love around the world from St Gabes tied to the legs of pigeons and who knows that hope we send in flight might bring some encouragement to somebody out there who can read the messages that we send .”
Chancer replied ,
“Nice meet you Liam . Yes certainly and if you what to know what I think my friend , well there are so many people in the world today that need to hear messages like what you have just mentioned . I put before the committee now a pledge to obtain some pigeons for this cause .“
Liam was very taken by the response and asked ,
“Can I be in charge of that project Chancer ?”
“Yes and I’d like you to begin as soon as possible . Get those messages up there tonight .‘
Said Chancer .
Chancer took a long look around at old building and wrote down something on a piece of scrap paper .
The he spoke ,
“Here is the first message to be carried by a pigeon . You can crush the bird or crumple up the paper in your hands . Its your choice but I would like to think that you could spread this message on to others and let the bird go . Let it fly to the sky and be free . “
Chancer passed around a notebook and asked everyone there to write a message of their own
At the end of the activity he read aloud all of the things that had been written down ..
“May the peace you find take wings and fly to others . Then as others read this they may know someone cares .“
“This is a message on a pigeons leg . Its been carried to you all the way and never once did it stop until it found you . Don’t give up hoping for a better world . Be happy and live .”
“Well hello I hope you find a place to be accepted and treated with respect .“
“ Hey I’ll come and sit with you for a while . I’m just a bird with a message .”
Everyone there smiled and at the end of the meeting Chancer said goodnight and when the last person left he wandered up the old staircase to Fonseys office
He felt a warm presence in the room and it made his heart feel good because somehow he knew that Fonsey had passed over to the other side . At peace with the world and at peace with God .
As the weeks passed flocks of pigeons took to the sky . It wasn’t long before people started to show up at the front door of St Gabes wanting to help . Young men and women with guitars and whistles started to arrive . Cheques began to come in from anonymous sources .
Concerts began to happen on the roof of the school and huge crowds began to appear from nowhere .
Across the world the news footage created international interest and financial support was arriving in a hurry .
Artists arrived with their canvasses , easels brushes and paints . They had exhibitions of their work that drew in international buyers and all monies went to St Gabes Commune School .
A new day had dawned for St Gabriels and the old building was pulled down from the roof . Slowly a new building emerged from the foundations and lots of help was offered by builders at no cost . Building supplies also were donated and groups of hippies placed flowers gardens alla round the grounds .
Recycled things were the order of the day and large tanks were used to capture and distribute the rain water to all the garden beds .
Chancer tried to oversee everything that was done .
Then one day there was a possibility that the commune school could be adopted and even connected to sister schools around the globe .
Chancer could not be more pleased with that .
He wondered if it was Gods will that had brought this to a reality and somehow he though it was .
The sky was still full of pigeons bringing messages of hope around the world and in return large numbers of students had arrived at the door of St Gabriels commune school to be educated and encouraged .
Members of various religious communities also arrived and offered up prayers and services for the continued work at St Gabriels .
These became a regular part of life in the St Gabes community . A separate building was erected to allow regular church services and novenas with the stations of the cross ,choir practices and even nightly wax therapy as it was often called . Candle lit vigils .
Freedom was the religious order of the day and no one had a problem with other creeds or cultures . Everyone learned from everyone else and questions were answered about different lifestyles .
The beginning of understanding others was called being free in spirit .
The students had a constant nomadic tribe of gentle souls who were not lost but on an journey where they could see the blindness of the world by being around others who saw the truth that was always just a step away on the road .
Music always echoed from St Gabriels and Chancer realised there that God was at work .
The picture had come and a new St Gabriels community was being formed before his very eyes .
Chancer listed the names of all the students and they numbered over five hundred people and twenty teachers .
Within ten years there were a cluster of St Gabriel commune schools scattered around the globe .
From an old school that had been shut Gods grace poured out a message to all the world that and is well in the world again .
By Paul McCann