The Catholic Church began its mission in Whitehaven in 1706, when Dom Francis Rich, a Benedictine of Saint Gregory's, then at Douai, arrived in Cumberland to serve the growing Catholic population. This began a much appreciated Benedictine presence in Whitehaven, which continues to this day.
The Church on the present site was built in 1834 and designed by A. Welby Pugin. At the time it was regarded as one of “the most striking” Catholic churches,“ altogether bold and novel.” The cost of the whole structure was £5,000. One hundred and fourteen years later, in 1982, it cost over £100,000 simply to repair, restore and re-decorate St. Begh’s to its original standard of stability and finish. Included in the restorations were facilities for Mothers and Babies, for Children's Liturgy, for recording cassettes for the sick and access for the disabled.
The foundation stone of the Priory Church was laid by Bishop Dorian in 1865, during the incumbency of Dom Dominic Lynass, and the Church was opened for worship on 29 October 1868. The Church was dedicated to Saint Gregory and Saint Bega, an Irish princess, who fled to Cumbria to begin her mission to the native people.
St. Begh's - Before the spire was removed
In 1993, further work took place to enhance the beauty and dignity of the Sanctuary. A permanent stone altar was erected and the Sanctuary floor was re-carpeted. The pinnacle tower, that had originally housed the Most Blessed Sacrament, which had been removed from the church was, once again, after restoration, returned to the Sanctuary as a fitting Sanctuary House, thereby restoring the Blessed Sacrament to its central point of importance and reverence. The ceilings in the Lady Chapel and also St. Benedict’s Chapel were restored to their former glory, with appropriate stencilling. The old oak gates were also returned to the side chapels and all the Sanctuary was restored. The Miners' Chapel at the back of the church, containing the statue of Our Lady of Sorrows, was also restored, thereby emphasising the importance of the history of the mining community of this town. Today, St. Begh’s church is considered to be one of the finest Catholic Churches in the north of England.
View of St. Begh's Church
Today the Mission is served from Belmont Abbey, Hereford and the local people are still deeply appreciative of their Benedictine heritage. Saint Begh's is seen as the mother Church of the area and is a worthy monument to all the devotion and hard work of many generations of Clergy and Lay people. The monastic Community are always delighted to welcome visitors, believing Benedictine hospitality to be one of the foundation stones of their apostolate.
The name "Begh" is a derivation of "Bega" or "Bees". At St. Bees was a priory in the village then known as Kirkybee, (Church town of Bega), a name which enshrines the legend of an Irish princess, who had dedicated herself to Christ.
The following information has been taken from the booklet produced for the 125th Anniversary Celebrations of St. Begh's Priory Church in 1993. Please click on the link to read more
The Christian Faith Our Heritage
The Order of St. Benedict
The Sisters of Charity
Bega fled the royal court rather than marry a prince from Norway. Tradition states that she was miraculously transported to Cumberland, in England. There St. Oswald counselled her in a hermitage, and St. Aidan received her vows as a nun. Bega founded St. Bee's Monastery. She served as abbess there until her death. She is also remembered in the village of Kilbees, in Scotland. Around her name, and particularly around a bracelet which she left with the community when she sought safety elsewhere, there has grown up a variety of legends.
For a fuller account of the Life and Legend see "In search of Bega" by Daniel Hay (available from the St. Begh's Bookshop).
In this illustration, St. Begh is shown with the staff of an Abbess, a boat for her sea crossing, a lily for her virginity and carrying in her arm the Church of St. Begh.
The Caption, S.BEGHA.ORA.PRO.NOBIS, reads "St. Begh pray for us"