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History of St. Begh's Parish


During the reign of Queen Anne, Father Francis Rich, O.S.B., a Benedictine monk originally from Kent arrives from the European continent to found the Roman Catholic Benedictine Mission at Whitehaven. At this time, and for many years afterwards, the area served by the mission covered the whole of West Cumberland and the Isle of Man. Ever afterwards, the Whitehaven Mission is known as the 'Mother Church' for West Cumberland.

Because of anti-Catholic laws, the exact location of where Father Rich was based in Whitehaven is not known. However, there is a strong possibility that Father Rich stayed at least part of the time with the Fletcher family of Moresby Hall, who were still Catholics in the early days of the mission. The Curwen family of Workington Hall also belonged to the Catholic faith until 1727.

Charles Conner, a layman, purchases property at Chapel Lane, Whitehaven from the Lowther family on 30 May 1761. The entrance to Chapel Lane is off Catherine Street, near the corner with Duke Street and the Love Lane entrance to Lowther Castle Park.

Many people have suggested the first Catholic chapel in Whitehaven was at Charles Street. However, the Chapel Lane / Catherine Street site is the first one for which there is some provenance. The Benedictine missioner to Whitehaven in 1761 was Father Amos Bolas, O.S.B.

The earliest surviving registers for the Whitehaven date from 1764, with the arrival of Father Benet Catteral, O.S.B.

The first recorded baptism (June 1764) was entered in the register as follows: "William, the son of William and Nancy Macartan was baptized. John Quin & Helen Curwen, Godparents".

Father Catteral was in charge of the Whitehaven mission until 1774.

Father Oswald James Johnson, O.S.B. (who arrived at Whitehaven in 1781) is involved in the conveyance of the property at Chapel Lane / Catherine Street on 2 August 1786. The parties involved in the conveyance were recorded as: Charles Conner (Mariner), who was reserved the use and occupation of a room over the building, James Johnson of Whitehaven (Bachelor), Amos Bolas (Bachelor), Henry Fleming of Whitehaven (Gentleman) and Ann Cornick of Whitehaven (Widow). The parties other than Charles Conner were assigned interest in the property. Amos Bolas (Bachelor) was the same Father Amos Bolas O.S.B. who had been in charge of the mission in 1761.

The Chapel Lane / Catherine Street property is extended into Duke Street. It remains the Catholic chapel of Whitehaven until 1834, after which it is used mainly as a school for some years. Father Johnson remains in charge of the Whitehaven mission until his death in 1818.

At the request of Father Oswald James Johnson, and with the support of John Henry Curwen of Curwen Hall, Workington, a separate Catholic mission is founded at Workington (October 1810). The first Benedictine missioner to Workington is Father Clement Rishton, O.S.B. of Ampleforth, who remains in charge of the Workington mission until the spring of 1814. His replacement is Father Stephen Barber, O.S.B.

The departure of Father Rishton proves to be the catalyst for anti-Catholic riots, demonstrations and desecration of the recently constructed Catholic chapel and school. Soldiers from Whitehaven are despatched to Workington to quell the anti-Catholic rioting. After only five months at Workington, Father Barber leaves Workington to be replaced by Father Bede Rigby, O.S.B. who stays until November 1816. From November 1816, until the return of Father Rishton in September 1819, the Workington mission is again looked after mainly by the Whitehaven mission, with some support from the Benedictine mission at Warwick Bridge east of Carlisle (Father Andrew Ryding, O.S.B.).

On 9 November 1818 Father Oswald James Johnson dies. He had been in charge of the Catholic mission for Whitehaven and West Cumberland since 1781. Father Johnson was buried at St Bridget's Church, Moresby. The funeral service was conducted by his great friend, Reverend Richard Armistead (who was concurrently the Anglican Vicar of St James, Whitehaven and St Bridget's Moresby at that time). Father Johnson's obituary in the 'Cumberland Pacquet' describes him as a "pious Christian".

The executor of Father Johnson's will is Father Andrew Ryding. O.S.B.: then in charge of the Benedictine mission at Warwick Bridge. Father Johnson's replacement in charge of the Whitehaven mission is Father Gregory Holden, O.S.B. of Downside Abbey, Somerset.

Following a cholera outbreak in Whitehaven and Father Holden's role in resolving a miner's strike, a new Catholic Church is built at Coach Road with land and stone being provided by the Earl of Lonsdale. Two nieces of Father Oswald James Johnson, who had been in charge of the mission until 1818, are known to be among the most generous benefactors of the new church. The new church is dedicated to St Gregory. The previous Catholic chapel is retained for use as a school. The teacher of the children is Father Holden.

With a growing Catholic population in the Cleator and Cleator Moor area to work in the iron ore mines, iron works and linen mills, Father Gregory Holden moves to Cleator to found a new mission. He remains at Cleator until his death in January 1859.

After the Cleator mission becomes established, it becomes the base to found further Catholic missions at Frizington (1875) and Egremont (1878)

Father Edward George Lynass, O.S.B. is appointed to take charge of the Whitehaven mission. With a growing immigrant Catholic population in Whitehaven, mainly from Ireland, Father Lynass begins plans to build a new and much larger church, and raises money from benefactors from Whitehaven and further afield.

The foundation stone for a new church on Coach Road, adjacent to the existing St Gregory's Church, is laid by Bishop Patrick Dorrian, Coadjutor Bishop of Down and Connor. The church is designed by Edward Welby Pugin, eldest son of the late Augustus Pugin. The church is dedicated to the St Bega (the 'Apostle of Cumberland'), and initially known as "St Bees".

The ceremony took place before a large crowd, including many non-Catholics, on Queen Victoria's birthday (24 May). During his address to the assembled crowd, Bishop Dorrian takes the opportunity to speak to his fellow Irishmen then living in Whitehaven, where there was perhaps more freedom and opportunity than back home in Ireland. They should change their ways for the sake of their immortal souls. His fellow Irishmen should no longer be the "scoff" of others because of riotous living!

Bishop Chadwick, Bishop of Hexham & Newcastle is the main celebrant at the opening ceremony of the new St Bees (St Begh's) Church (29 October). The previous church building of St Gregory's becomes the new school building. The earlier chapel at Chapel Lane / Catherine Street / Duke Street is re-conveyed back to the Lonsdale Estates, and eventually becomes a Masonic Hall.

The first nuns to assist the priests by teaching in school arrive in Whitehaven (March 1870). They belong to the Sisters of the Congregation of the Charity of St Paul (also known as "The Selly Park nuns"). The name of the new Whitehaven convent was St Anne's, and the first Mother Superior was Mother Aloysius Bowen.

A new school is built at Quay Street, believed to be on the site of the house where the last Prior of St Bees Priory had lived following the dissolution of the monasteries under King Henry VIII. There is accommodation for about 300 pupils. The school is dedicated to St Gregory & St Patrick, known respectively as the 'Apostle of England' and the 'Apostle of Ireland'.

A new chapel is built attached to St Gregory's & St Patrick's School, Quay Street.

1906 / 1907:
Additional work on the interior of St Begh’s Church, which had not previously been carried out in the 1860s to keep the overall cost down, was finally completed in time for the mission’s bicentenary.

1926 / 1927:
Two new schools for older children are opened near St Begh's Church on Coach Road. The boy's school comes under the headship of Mr Forcer. The girl's school comes under the headship of Mother Mary O'Farrell, often described as "indomitable"! The former school (originally St Gregory's Church) becomes the Parish Hall (and is later used as the school dining hall).

A new mission chapel is established at Kells to meet the needs of families living in newly-built housing at Kells, Seacliffe and Woodhouse. It is known as St Mary's, Kells.

A newly-elected Parish Council is formed under the Chairmanship of Father W.H. Mackey, O.S.B. (November 1929). Its two main aims are to assist the Parish Priest in the administration of the parish and to raise funds. According to a report (December 1929) in 'The Universe', a Catholic national weekly newspaper, this Parish Council was the only one of its kind in the country at the time. The St Begh's Parish Council lasts until March 1935.

1934 / 1935:
The Benedictine Abbey of Downside decides it can no longer provide priests to man the Whitehaven mission of St Begh's. It makes a request to Bishop Pearson, first Bishop of Lancaster, for the diocese to take over the control of the parish. Bishop Pearson - who was a Benedictine - makes a successful request to the Benedictine Abbey of Belmont to take over St Begh's church and parish.

A new school is opened at Kells to accommodate children from the Kells mission area between the ages 4 - 11. The headteacher is Sister Hermengild Doherty, who remains at Kells St Mary's until her retirement in the summer of 1966.

Kells St Mary's becomes a parish in its own right.

Following the 1944 Education Act, St Begh's becomes two mixed schools: a Junior School and a Senior School.

St Begh's priests serve the newly-built Mirehouse housing estate by saying Mass in the area (Valley School). It is the first stage of yet another new mission. The priests who take most of the services at Mirehouse in this period are Father Bernard Campbell O.S.B. and Father Philip Jackson O.S.B.

St Gregory's & St Patrick's School, Quay Street moves to a new, purpose built school on 'The Valley' at Esk Avenue, Corkickle. The headteacher is Sister Rose McCarthy.

A new Mirehouse mission begins with the arrival of a secular priest of the diocese of Lancaster, Canon Matthew McNarney. Canon McNarney takes up residence in a flat above Mirehouse shops. Although the new parish is not established by a Benedictine, the name of the new parish recognises the long history of the Benedictines in West Cumberland by being dedicated to St Benedict. It is the only parish dedicated to St Benedict in the Diocese of Lancaster. St Benedict's eventually becomes a parish in its own right in July 1964.

St Begh's Parish marks the centenary of the opening of the parish church with a number of civic and religious events. The celebrations include a pastoral visit from the Papal Legate to England & Wales: Archbishop Cardinale.

A new St Benedict's High School is opened at Red Lonning, Whitehaven for children aged 11 - 18 mainly from the Catholic parishes of West Cumberland. Children from St Begh's Secondary School, Coach Road transfer to the new St Benedict's High School. St Begh's Junior School takes over the whole of the school site on Coach Road.

The commemoration of the 1500th anniversary of the birth of St Benedict of Nursia (founder of the Benedictine Order) includes a pastoral visit to Whitehaven and West Cumberland by Cardinal Basil Hume, O.S.B., himself a Benedictine (July 1980).

The last two Sisters of the Charity of St Paul leave Whitehaven, one of them being Sister Rose McCarthy.

A new St Begh's School building is opened on Coach Road, with most of the old school buildings being demolished. One building that is retained is the former St Gregory's Church, which is maintained as the school assembly hall / dining hall.

The celebration of the Tercentenary of the Benedictine Mission to Whitehaven is marked by a year-long series of events.

According to the Lancaster Diocesan Directory for 2010, St Begh's Parish serves a Catholic population of 4050: the largest in the diocese. The second largest (3894) is one of the 'daughter' parishes, St Mary's, Cleator. Average Sunday Mass attendance at St Begh's is recorded as 574, the second highest in the Lancaster Diocese. The highest weekly attendance is at Sacred Heart parish in the holiday resort of Blackpool (673). St Mary's, Cleator is the parish with the third highest average Sunday Mass attendance (547).

The first two Permanent Deacons (Rev. David Skillen and Rev. Stephen Scott) attached to St Begh's parish are ordained on the weekend of St Benedict's Feast Day (July).

September 2010 saw the 150th anniversary of Belmont Abbey, Herefordshire, whose monks have been in charge of St Begh’s parish since the mid-1930s. (4 September 2010).

October 2010 also marked the 200th anniversary of the first Benedictine Mission to Workington.

The current parish church celebrated its 150th anniversary. A Mass of Thanksgiving was celebrated on Sunday 16th September - Bishop Paul Swarbrick, (Bishop of Lancaster and former parish priest of Workington parish), was the main celebrant and Abbot Paul Stonham, (Abbot of Belmont), preached. The concelebrants were Father Paul Johnstone, parish priest of Cleator and Dean of West Cumbria, Father Thomas Singleton, parish priest of Cockermouth and Keswick, Father Peter Groudy, parish priest of Egremont and Seascale, Father Paul Dadson, parish priest of Maryport and Workington, Father Aidan Dolye osb, (former parish priest of St Begh's, and parish priest of Bromyard and Leominster, Herefordshire), Father Richard Simons osb, (parish administrator of St Begh's), and Father Cenydd Marrison osb, (parish priest of St Begh's).


The development of the Benedictine West Cumberland Mission

Dates of parishes founded from the West Cumberland Mission

Parish/ Date founded


Whitehaven 1706

(The ‘Mother Church’ of West Cumberland)

Workington 1810

Maryport (founded from Workington) 1838

Harrington (founded from Workington) 1884

Westfield (founded from Workington) 1965

Cleator 1853

Frizington (founded from Cleator) 1875

Egremont (founded from Cleator) 1878

Kells (Whitehaven) 1943

Mirehouse (Whitehaven) 1961

Additional information:

(1) During the early years of the mission, the district covered by the missioner included the Isle of Man, until c.1812 when a permanent place of worship was established by a resident priest from Ireland.

(2) Catholic worship at Cockermouth was established from Wigton (1850), rather than the Whitehaven mission. However, Cockermouth was run by Benedictines between 1856 and 1958. The Catholic parish at Keswick was later established from Cockermouth.

(3) Later developments have included most of the parishes being taken over by secular priests from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lancaster and some parishes have since been ‘twinned’ and are being served by the same clergy.

Funeral Homily for Father Aidan Doyle o.s.b.
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