In the 1970s, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal was growing rapidly in England, and a number of regional conferences were established. Among them was the Southampton Conference held at La Sainte Union College, and organised by members of local prayer groups. It was a very successful conference catering for up to 400 people aged over 16years, but by the end of the 1980s we began to sense that we should really be offering something for the whole family, including the younger children. We were encouraged in this by a prophetic word brought to us by one of our conference speakers, David Matthews, and so took the decision to call others to a weekend of discernment about the way ahead. As a result, the search began for a new family-friendly venue.
The search for a venue
I wrote to every holiday camp in England to ask if there was a possibility of taking over a site for Easter Week. We only had about £400 in the kitty, but felt sure that we were in God’s will and everything would work out. Letters arrived in reply to my question, but the only positive one came from the manager of the John Fowler Holiday Park in Ilfracombe, Devon. He began his letter with these words: “The Lord has been prompting me for some time to offer our Holiday Park for a Christian conference….”
It turned out to be an excellent venue for us, self-catering holiday chalets, a shop, take-aways, a restaurant, a bar area with a dance-floor, and very friendly staff.
The first conference
So CELEBRATE ’94 was launched, and almost 900 people arrived on Easter Sunday. The Conference was a great success, and financially we were in the black. There were streams for the children, young people and the adults, worship groups, mime artists, dancers, guest speakers, a bookshop, the evening “fringe”, and the local bishop back then, Christopher Budd, celebrating our opening Eucharist. Our God-given vision was fulfilled, and over the years the Conference developed and grew year after year with 1,500 participants, and each year almost half were 22 years old and younger.
Regional Weekends are launched
In 2008 there was a change in the school holiday system in England with the North and South having different dates for their Easter holidays. This impacted the Conference because families attended from across the country as well as Celebrate relying on a wide spread of Catholic ministries to run our children’s streams. Having felt so disappointed that we could not run we began to feel the Lord prompt us to look at new ways of providing Celebrate for a wider catchment of people by launching Celebrate Regional Weekends. We began with six weekends and found that many new people came who perhaps would never have considered going on a week’s spiritual holiday. With the success of these weekends it was decided to continue to build these alongside the main Conference in Ilfracombe which we were able to run most years depending on how the school holidays fell. Since then we have grown to 12 Regional Weekends throughout England, Wales and Scotland. We set up Joel’s Bar our Youth Conference for 16 – 25 year olds in 2014. This is located at Worth Abbey, Sussex and sees approx 200 young people come together for almost a week to grow in and get excited about their faith – it’s an amazing event.
Release - Young Leaders Formation
Release - Celebrate’s young leaders formation programme was launched in 2010 to prepare our growing number of young people to take on key leadership roles within Celebrate and what we have now found is that it has also provided the Church with many Catechists, School and University Chaplains. We have seen incredible growth in our young people and we are so proud of them!
We are also working at the development of Celebrate@home, family prayer groups that come together to share faith and friendship. We hope these will build communities that will learn to praise God and pray for each other in local areas on a regular basis.
As we look back, we just thank the Lord for the vision he gave us all those years ago, and for the commitment of so many people, year after year, to making it all happen. Of course it hasn’t always been plain sailing - there have been challenges along the way, but Celebrate is HIS not ours, and we willingly give Him all the glory.