The annual Black Santa Sitout for Charities at St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast, got underway at 10am on Wednesday December 17.
The team of Black Santas, led by the Dean of Belfast, the Very Rev Dr Houston McKelvey will stand with their collecting barrel in Donegall Street, in front of the Cathedral, each weekday until Christmas Eve.
This is the 31st annual Pre-Christmas Sitout, and it will be the eighth Christmas Sitout led by Dean McKelvey. Recently the Sitout has been raising in the region of a quarter of a million pounds each year. Three years ago, in the aftermath of the tsunami, a special Sitout was held and raised £1.6 million pounds. Under the Dean’s leadership over three and a quarter million pounds has been raised in total so far.
In the region of 150 local charities receive donations from the Sitout. These cheques are presented at an annual Good Samaritans Service held in February. The inspiration from this service comes from the window behind the altar in the Cathedral.
The Black Santa title was coined by the local press. It refers to the black clerical cloak which clergy may wear. The tradition at Belfast Cathedral was started by Dean Sammy Crooks in 1976. Concerned at the emphasis being placed on necessary and costly building programmes at the Cathedral, Dean Crooks decided to stand on Donegall Street in front of the Cathedral and beg for the poor and charitable causes.
With a small barrel in which donations could be placed, and dressed in the familiar black, Anglican clerical cloak, Dean Crooks "sat out" each day of the week before Christmas. Thus began the tradition of Belfast's Deans sitting out for charities.
Dean Crooks was succeeded by Dean Jack Shearer who involved members of the Cathedral Chapter in the Sitout. Under his leadership the event continued to develop so that by his last Sitout in 2000, a total of £2.2 million pounds had been raised for charities over the previous 24 years.
Commenting on the Sitout, Dean McKelvey said: "The Sitout fully demonstrates the charitable nature of the overwhelming majority of people in this part of Ireland. To be the leader of the team organising the Sitout is a tremendous experience which is only surpassed by actually being at the receiving end of so much generosity. The experience is breath-taking both physically and spiritually. Charity is indeed the greatest of the Christian and human virtues".
The Dean said that despite the credit crunch so far advance donations were keeping pace with other years. “We know that some of the building firms and companies in that sector who have given us excellent support in former years are not as busy as they were. Sadly unemployment is no new thing in our community which over the years has met unemployment in many different ways.”
Dean McKelvey went on: “I grew up in a linen mill village were there was cyclical unemployment before the factory eventually shut. I was also rector in Seymour Hill when several companies closed including Grundig and De Lorean. But always the charitable spirit of this community came through and often from the people who could least afford it. On a world scale we are very rich indeed and I think that inspires many folk to be charitable for good causes at home and abroad.”
The Bishop of Connor, the Rt Rev Alan Abernethy, will be joining the Sitout on the morning of Monday, December 22.
Donations may be made at any time of the year by sending a cheque made payable to "Cathedral Sitout" to the Dean, at Belfast Cathedral, Donegall Street, Belfast BT1 2HB.