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Blue plaque for Black Santa

12 December 2014

TODAY, the Very Revd John Mann, the present Dean of St Anne's Cathedral, Belfast, which serves the dioceses of Down & Dromore and Connor, will take his place on the steps of the cathedral at the start of the 38th annual sit-out as Black Santa, to collect funds for local charities.

The cathedral has raised astonishing sums, both from passers-by and from those who have brought along the collections that they have made in advance of the sit-out. But this year there will be an additional ceremony: the unveiling of a blue plaque on the west front of the cathedral, in memory of Dean Sammy Crooks, who first began these sit-outs. It will be unveiled by his son, Sam Crooks.

When Dean Crooks was installed as Dean and Vicar of Belfast in 1970, he had immediately to start raising funds to complete the cathedral, which had been an ongoing project since 1899. Charismatic and compassionate, he was deeply moved by the terrible floods in Bangladesh in 1975, and decided to stand outside the cathedral to collect money for the disaster appeal.

The collection had such a generous result that he decided to repeat it the next Christmas, with a placard (above, left): "Give and let live. Save the children, feed the hungry, heal the sick. Please don't pass them by." Thus began the "Dean's sit-out" as a Black Santa, the name that was given to Dean Crooks by the media because of his black clerical cloak, and which quickly caught on with the public. It has now become a Christmas tradition in Northern Ireland. Last year, the appeal raised £196,000 - £4000 more than the year before. In 1981, Dean Crooks was appointed OBE for his services to charity.

He died in a traffic accident soon after his retirement in 1986, when he was on his way to a meeting in the cathedral. Such was his reputation that "Thousands mourn the man who touched the heart of Belfast" was the headline in a local paper.

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