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The History of our two Parishes

A History of the Roman Catholic Parishes in Darwen

When we think of our parishes today, it is easy to forget that 150 years ago they came from very humble beginnings. In even earlier times, before the dissolution of the monasteries and the “Reformation”, the small community that was Darwen, was served by visiting monks from Whalley Abbey. They travelled here on Saturday afternoons and would stay overnight to celebrate the Sunday Mass and then instruct the people in the truths of the Faith.

In the early 1800’s the Parish Priest of St. Alban’s in Blackburn, sought to organise the building of a chapel in Bridge St. Darwen for the use of the small number of Catholics in the town. This was not a success as there was a great deal of anti-catholic feeling at that time.

However, due to the dogged perseverance of the people and clergy, Fr. Ward, a priest again from Blackburn, visited the people of Darwen with the intention of re-establishing the Mission. A small chapel was built in Redearth Rd. and although the congregation was few in number, they were devout and regular attendees at the Mission.

However, the onerous task of running a parish in Blackburn and trying to serve the people of Darwen proved too much, and the chapel had to be closed down for services. It was then discovered that a debt of £70 was outstanding on the chapel. It was therefore sold and transformed into a Public House and named the Black Horse.

Undaunted by the lapse of a few years, another attempt was made around 1855 to revive the mission in Darwen. A Father Meaney from St. Anne’s in Blackburn, undertook this task and in September of 1855 the following notice appeared in the Blackburn Weekly Times:-

“We understand that the Catholic brethren in Darwen have engaged the large room over the Black Horse Public House. Next Sunday a High Mass will be celebrated for the faithful of Darwen, and we understand that Rev. Fr. Meaney from St. Anne’s will be in attendance. Collections are to be made in aid of current expenses, as we are informed that the party are at present entirely without funds.”

The large room over the old chapel was hired then for services for the growing Catholic population of Darwen. As the population continued to grow, the rented room was no longer large enough and it became a necessity to build a new school chapel.

Land was eventually purchased in Radford Street and St. William’s Chapel was built, largely due to the shrewdness, business capabilities and sheer determination of Fr. Meaney. It cost £480 and was opened on the Feast of St. Peter and St Paul in 1856. Thus the Catholic parish of Darwen was founded.

The mission building was to be multi-purpose, a school room for the instruction of the faith, a church for the celebration of Holy Mass and a social centre for the raising of funds for the upkeep.

The foundation stone had been laid on Easter Monday of that year, many had attended the ceremony and Fr. Meaney thanked all who came and who had made any contribution to the funding of the work, many of whom were non-catholics. He thanked in particular, the architect Mr. Birtwhistle and the builder a Mr. Kay.

The official opening of the Mission was a grand affair, with special sermons preached, and Weber’s Mass in G sung by an augmented choir from Darwen, Blackburn and Preston.

About this time, the Catholic population of Darwen had increased greatly and it was found necessary to petition the Bishop for a resident priest for Darwen rather than priests travelling in from Blackburn. Bishop Turner complied with the request and sent the Reverend Father Desiderius Vandenweghe to take charge of the Mission in 1858. He was to remain as Parish Priest until his death on 26th March 1898. He is buried in Darwen Cemetery.

On his arrival in Darwen, Fr. Vandenweghe lodged with a local family, but soon embarked on a building programme of his own. In 1861 he went to live in the new presbytery in Radford Street and there began to plan further parish improvements. He next extended the school rooms at the Mission at a cost of £800 and began a day school for the education of the children of the parish.

Over the next few years as the parish grew in numbers, so did the social and fund raising efforts organised by the Parish Priest, concerts and tea parties being favourite amongst the events held. The parish however was not insular, and took part in town events and celebrations. When the wedding of the Prince of Wales was celebrated in 1863, the children from St. William’s headed the Sunday Schools’ section of the procession.

In June of 1864 the parish had grown to such an extent that when the Bishop visited for Confirmation, there were 102 male candidates and 143 female. That year also saw a Cotton Famine in Darwen, a consequence of the American Civil War, with many families of all denominations suffering hardship due to the large number employed in the many cotton mills of the town. Fr. Vandenweghe served on the Relief Committee set up to help those in great need. His kindness, courtesy and simplicity of approach appears to have charmed almost everyone in what was a time of intense bigotry.

By 1872, the Mission of St. Williams’ had grown in such numbers that Fr. Vandenweghe decided that in order to accommodate everyone at services, he needed to establish a mission at the northern end of town.

The land at the northern end of the town belonged to the Lord of the Manor of Lower Darwen, one Edward Petre, Esq., of Dunkenhalgh. The site of the school chapel was donated by him, and Fr. Van-der-Weghe, acting on the wishes of Bishop Turner, supplied the sum of £550 out of his own pocket to start the building of the day school. As a courtesy to Edward Petre, the school was called Saint Edward’s after his Patron Saint.

Saint Edward’s Mission in Blackburn Road was therefore an off­shoot from St. William’s R.C. Parish, better known today as St. Joseph’s. As previously stated it was not until 1872 that Fr. Van-der-Weghe was able to help the lower end of the town. Parishioners from Lower Darwen even had to make the long journey to Radford Street.

St Edward’s Parish officially came into being on January 20th, 1878, under Fr. Lathouwers. The chapel was crowded at both masses, excellent sermons being preached by Fr. Thomas Butler from Salford and Fr. Richard Dunderdale from Blackburn.

At St. Williams, the day school was growing fast. In 1868 the teacher in charge was a Bridget Kelly. She saw the school recognised and placed under the control of a Board of Governors. Fr. Vandenweghe was named as school manager for the rest of his life.

The Parish flourished and grew in number, so much so that in 1870 a plot of land was bought near the top of Mill Gap from Eccles Shorrock at a cost of £650 with a further £25 in payment for the boundary walls, for the purpose of building a bigger church when funds permitted.

As the parish grew, Fr. Vandenweghe needed assistance to care pastorally for his flock, and so in 1876 Fr. William Hampson, a native of Farnworth, was appointed assistant priest. He worked untiringly with Fr. Vandenweghe, caring for the needs of the parish and in particular visiting the sick. However, within ten months of his arrival in Darwen through his visits to sick parishioners, he had contracted typhoid and died at the early age of 24.

The parish priest was not a well man, having suffered from heart trouble for many years and so a second assistant priest was sent to help him. He was a Fr. Peter Kopp from Coblentz on the Rhine. He quickly endeared himself to the congregation. However, he too died within a short space of time. His death notice saying quite simply that he died of a fever, caught in visitation of the sick. He was in his 25th year.

In spite of his own ill health, Fr. Vandenweghe continued to look after both St. William’s and St. Edward’s as no other priest was available to take over at the northern end of town until the late 1880’s.

St Joseph’s (formerly St William’s)

By this time the debt on the Presbytery was paid off, and work began in earnest to raise the money for the building of a new church. In 1879 he had also bought a second plot of land adjacent to the first one on Mill Gap. This would provide ample land for the church and eventually for a new day school.

By 1883 there was a sum of £2,500 in hand for the building of the new parish church and so in 1884 the foundation stone was laid by Bishop Vaughan on the 3rd of May in very wet weather. St. William’s at that time could accommodate 500 people and was not large enough for the congregation. A marked contrast to today.

The construction of the new church was now well under way. Pugins of Westminster were the architects. There was to be seating for 700 and the total cost was estimated at £7,300.

The main building, organ and furnishings were to cost an estimated £4,000. The Reredos, marble altar and tabernacle were donated by parishioners and special fundraising events were held for the building of the turret.

The church itself was opened on October 15th 1885 by the Right Reverend Dr. Vaughan, Lord Bishop of Salford. It was one of the largest in Darwen. It was well lit and heated by hot water pipes. The local press made much of the fact that during those hard times when work was not easy to come by, all the sub-contracts without exception were given to local people and so the building of the new church became the main source of employment for many in the town during that year. It was also remarked upon that only quality materials were used. Many local dignitaries, including the Mayor at the time, attended the opening of the church which was described as “an edifice which is an honour to the Catholic community and an ornament to the town!” Fundraising continued over the next years until new Day School Buildings were also erected.

Since his arrival in Darwen Fr. Vandenweghe, in spite of ill health, had worked long and hard to care for the Catholic community in Darwen and to complete a comprehensive building programme. He had been in Darwen for over thirty years.

On the evening of Friday 25th March 1898 Father Vandenweghe went to bed at his usual time after leaving instructions regarding the locking of the doors and turning off the gas. At 11 p.m. the rest of the household retired and the Parish Priest was awake but seemed in his usual health. The following morning when he had not risen to say Mass, his housekeeper found in lying in bed with his hands clasped in prayer having passed away in his sleep. He is buried in Darwen Cemetery.

Throughout the last century the Parish of St. Mary with St. Joseph known as St. Joseph’s has continued to grow and flourish. Today, as in those far off days fundraising for the good of the parish and its people still continues. The social life of the parish is still very important. A scout group and Brownie Pack together with a Youth Club cater for the younger members of the congregation. A children’s Liturgy Group operates on Sundays and the Sacramental Programme prepares our young people for the reception of the Sacraments.

All of this work has of course been under the supervision of the priests who have served our parish during the past one hundred and fifty years. Various priests have been sent to St. Joseph’s to minister to the congregation and although much reduced in numbers of faithful attending church, the parish still has active members who keep the parish alive in the tradition started by our first Parish Priest.

Sacred Heart and St Edward’s

St Edwards Mission continued until 1882 when expansion took place.

In the “Darwen News” for Saturday, August 26th, 1882, a full report of the ceremony was given.

At St Edwards Mission from 1878 to 1882 Fr. Lathouwers said Mass in a damp and leaky building, quite unsuited for a chapel. On August 19th, 1882 the Foundation Stone of the New Church of the Sacred Heart was laid by His Lordship Bishop (later Cardinal) Vaughan.

The new church was being erected on a site adjoining the present St. Edward’s chapel in Blackburn Road and the present edifice was to be used as a school. A Mr. Simpson from Bradford was the Architect whose design of the church was to have an interior of 72 feet by 36 feet with a vestry at the north end and at the west end a baptistry to the left of the entrance, with a gallery above approached by a flight of stairs to the right of the entrance. The Foundation Stone was to be under the main window —

There were to be seats for 400 persons and heating was to be provided by hot air apparatus. The probable cost of the building was put at £2,000. The actual ceremony commenced at three o’clock and was witnessed by a very large crowd of spectators. In the cavity under the stone, Fr. Lathouwers placed a bottle containing a list of the most generous subscribers of his own congregation, a few particulars of the mission and copies of “The Tablet”, the “Catholic Times” and the “Darwen News”. The people’s contribution laid on the stone amounted to £226 2s. 6d., several leading men of the town having sent generous donations

On Saturday, April 14th, 1883, the “Darwen News” gave a full report of the opening ceremony of the Church of the Sacred Heart which took place on April 11th, 1883 in the presence of Fr. Vaughan, Bishop of Salford. A detailed list of builders was given and all were praised for the way in which their work was carried out in a thoroughly workmanlike and satisfactory manner.

Fr. Lathouwers continued to serve the parish, accepting a gift of the first statue for the church on June 22nd, 1884, from Mr. Richard Holden. During the year 1885, the Sisters of the Cross and Passion were invited to the parish. For some years they were com­fortably housed in a small cottage in Blackburn Road near the church before a convent was built in 1906 from designs by Mr. Oswald Hill of Manchester. The building contained a private oratory and two special rooms to receive children and adults for instruction.

A great blow fell on the parish on June 5th, 1886, when Fr. Lathouwers announced that he was leaving Darwen (to become Chap­lain to the Good Shepherd Sisters in Manchester). During his time he had re-opened the school (closed from 1873 to 1878) and paid off most of the debt for the Sacred Heart Church, asking nothing in return.

Fr. Claase was one of several Dutch and Belgian priests who responded to His Lordship, Bishop Vaughan’s appeal for priests. Fr. Claase’s “temporary” appointment was to last from 1886 to 1928 when he was forced to retire because of ill health. Fr. Claase’s name was synonymous with progress. In the “Darwen News” for Wednesday, November 13th, 1929, the obituary for Fr. Claase who died on Novem­ber 11th, 1929, recorded his achievements over a span of forty-two years’ service in the parish. It noted that when he succeeded Fr. Lathouwers there was a church membership of 600; when he left it had increased 1,500. In addition, he left well-equipped schools; the fine presbytery; the Convent for twelve sisters; and St. Gerard’s Home for twenty young girls. He was a member of the Blackburn Board of Guardians — the now defunct School Board.

Fr. Claase was replaced in July 1928 by Fr. Henry Atkinson of Manchester. During his stay as a Parish Priest, a considerable programme of interior decoration and renovation took place in the church. Extensive oak panelling was installed and new electric light fittings, along with an efficient heating system was fitted. Fr. Atkinson was keenly inter­ested in the welfare of children. He was a member of the Education Committee and one of the Governors of Darwen Grammar School.

Two houses near the church were made into an Institute for Boys, while weekday mass and Benediction for school children catered for their spiritual needs. Fr. Atkinson’s jovial manner concealed a great deal of ill health from wounds received during the Great War. In 1937 he retired from active parochial duties and- became chaplain to the Little Sisters of the Poor at Newton Heath where he died on March 28th, 1941. He was replaced by Fr. Thomas McKenna who was to remain in the parish for over twenty-five years. In 1961 he was responsible for a £17,000 extension to the church, necessitated by a tremendous increase in the number of parishioners, due mainly to the opening out of the Birch Hall estate. There were now over 2,200 on the roll.

On the occasion of his Silver Jubilee as a Priest in 1962, he received a cheque for £625 and a silver cup for the new school of St. Thomas Aquinas which was rapidly nearing completion. It was a great joy to him when this Catholic Secondary School was opened on March 7th, 1963 the Feast of the School’s Patron Saint. A week later, on March 15th, 1963, Fr. McKenna retired. He died on March 12th, 1965 in Cork, where he was buried on March 15th, just two years after his retire­ment.

Fr. McKenna was succeeded by Fr. Horrocks in 1963, but Fr. Horrocks’ stay in the parish was to be short due to ill health and he retired from parochial duties in July, 1963 and was buried on May 23rd, 1975. Fr. Burke succeeded Fr. Horrocks in August 1963 and was to stay in the parish for five years until September 1968. Amongst his achievements whilst in the parish, Fr. Burke was responsible for the complete renovation of the Presbytery, which had lapsed into such a state of disrepair as to be dangerous for habitation. Fr. Burke restored the building to the condition we know ;t today. Fr. Peter Passagno took up his duties from Fr. Burke in 1968. He was assisted by Fr. Patrick Keville, Fr. Philip O’Mara and curate, Fr. John Horgan.

During Fr. Pessagno’s time, changes under Vatican II were instigated and the altar moved forward so that the Celebrant now faces the congregation. The Font also was moved to the front of the church as a true symbol that baptism means welcoming in a new member of God’s Family. The Parish Centre was also built.

Fr Pessagno retired in 1986 and was succeeded by Fr Kevin Griffin. During his time at St Edward’s, Fr Griffin was actively involved in the Youth Club and was responsible for the renovation of the Church roof. He also reorganised the seating to create the centre aisles and the aisles were carpeted. The old Presbytery was deemed unfit for use and the new Presbytery was built along with the Lychgate entrance.

In 1996 when Fr Griffin moved to a new Parish, Fr Anthony Barrett became Parish Priest. Fr Barrett had been curate at St Joseph’s Darwen from 1968-1978. During his time at St Edward’s the Church was re-decorated, funded by an anonymous donation. He left the Parish in 2006 and was succeeded by Fr John Dugdale.

In 2011 Fr Dugdale moved to Blackburn and Monsignor Peter Wilkinson, (Fr. Peter) Parish Priest of St Joseph’s Darwen, became Parish Priest of The Darwen Catholic Parishes. The rear of the Church was opened up and a glass partition installed. The Presbytery became used for administration and work began to move towards amalgamation of the 2 Parishes. Fr Peter celebrated his Ruby Jubilee in July 2017.

The Amalgamation as One Parish

The amalgamation of the two Catholic Parishes was formalised in September 2017 with Bishop John officially re-naming it as The Catholic Parish of the Sacred Heart Darwen, with St Joseph’s Church and St Edward’s Church.

Mgr Peter Wilkinson left Darwen on 10th September 2017 to move to the Parish of Good Shepherd Pendle. Fr Brian Kealey was appointed new Parish Priest of Darwen on 17th September 2017.