Llandeilo Past and Present

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Catholic Llandeilo - Part 3

A History of St David's Parish

by Alan Randall, 1987

Toleration and Emancipation

The Relief Measures of 1791-2 greatly improved the conditions of Catholics, and at the same time public feeling was becoming more tolerant. But by then, in Wales "though a handful of adherents lingered on, the heart had gone out of the old faith until it was revived again with the advent of a wave of Catholic immigrants in the nineteenth century".

Indeed this was the Church described by the Vicar Apostolic, the Rt. Rev. Dr. Brown in 1845 as a lonely remnant of Welsh speaking Catholics and growing migration of poor Irish. To him Wales had been neglected; Welsh speaking priests had not been sent to their native country and consequently Wales had a claim of justice on English Catholics. His view was that "The Welsh seem, therefore, to have gradually ceased to be Catholics for want of instruction and ministry, rather than to have embraced the Established Creed".

Even in the early 19th century however, Dr. Brown felt of the Welsh that "There was a lingering attachment to the Religion of their fathers, although its tenets were forgotten, and that certain traditional remains of Catholic devotions were long kept up of which the origin and meaning were not remembered by the people".

In 1842 the Vicariate of Wales was in a sad state "its destruction is in every way extreme". The stark description of the state of the Church in Carmarthenshire is summarised in the Catholic Directory of 1845 as "No Chapels! No Mission-houses! No School-houses! No Mission Fund! No Missioners!"

In 1842 Bishop Brown planned to appoint two travelling missioners, one at least fluent in Welsh who "shall sow the seeds of divine truth where they cannot be otherwise conveyed, and lay the foundations of future permanent missions".

In the same year Fr. Peter Lewis was appointed missioner apostolic, and was to serve in Milford Haven 1844, Haverfordwest 1845, then Pembroke Dock, before coming to Carmarthen in 1850. There he established a Mass Centre in Water Street and was instrumental in the building of St. Mary's Church.

By the late 1840s there were a few Catholics scattered around Llandeilo and its district, in the main probably Irish immigrants. With the arrival of Fr. Peter Lewis they could be served occasionally from Carmarthen. Abermarlais became the Mass Centre for this area. At the time it was occupied by Captain John William Arengo Cross, his wife Maria Teresa and their three children and staff. It is likely that a number of the staff were Catholics. The 1851 Census records six members of staff at Abermarlais. It is probable that at least three, the governess, a teacher and an Irish servant were Catholics.

There were of course other Catholics in the area. The records of St. Mary's Church show that Norah Hickey was baptised by Fr. Peter Lewis in 1851 at Abermarlais. She was the child of John and Catherine Hickey, and the Godparents were Cain Mahoney and Ann Griffin. How many others there were is difficult to say.

At the end of 1851, Fr. Lewis left for Brecon and was succeeded by Fr. Lewis Havard Jnr. Like his uncle and namesake before him he did much to bring the faith to his native Welshmen. He was renowned for his Welsh sermons and remembered for "the warmth of his deep faith and unaffected piety". As "Missionary.Rector" Lewis Havard served Carmarthen and its several widely separated stations from 1852 to 1864.

It was during Fr. Havard's time at Carmarthen that an attempt was made by Miss Catherine Richardson to have a Catholic Church built at Manordeilo near Llandeilo. She was described by the Anglican Bishop of St. David's as a "pious lady" and a "warm partisan and munificent patroness" of the Catholic Church. Indeed, she had funded St. Mary's Church, Carmarthen, built in 1851/2. Sadly, for the Catholics of the Llandeilo area "no more than the walling of the nave with its roofs got completed" before the scheme was abandoned "because it was impossible to obtain a footing in the neighbourhood". The partly constructed building was sold some years after to the Church of England for £275.

"Under the superintendence of Mr. J. Harries, Architect, Llandeilo, the transepts and a bell turret were added, and the niche in the gable intended for a figure of the Virgin, made a passage for light, and the whole completed". The completed church, St. Paul's, was opened in November 1860 having cost £1,100.

Financially, the mission centred on Carmarthen was a poor one. In 1856, we learn that Lewis Havard's mission was "dependent for support entirely upon alms, and the scanty resources of the diocese". One of the main benefactors was Mrs. Arengo-Cross. Writing to his bishop Fr. Havard records "nobody I am sure acknowledges more deeply than I do the zealous support given by Mrs. Arengo Cross to the cause of our Holy Religion". She had been responsible for setting up a school for poor children at Carmarthen in 1854, providing £5 a year and a house for the school teacher.

At Abermarlais Mass was said on the last Sunday of every month. Fr. Havard also reported that Mrs. Arengo-Cross paid his "travelling expenses to and from Abermarlais and I take it that she does so with the intention to exempt the few people there from all application for that object."

Abermarlais continued as a Mass centre until 1861 when Mrs. Arengo-Cross died. In that year her family moved to Iscoed near Ferryside. The 1861 Census records five servants at Abermarlais, four of them, Mary Driscoll, Ann Wilde, Catherine Cotter and Ellen Mahoney were originally from Ireland. It is unclear whether or not they moved too but these names do recur in church records for the Llandeilo and Llandovery areas.

The loss of Abermarlais probably meant that the few Catholics that remained would have had to be content with less frequent visits by priests. It is possible that Mass was said at Glanbrydan Park when Catherine Richardson lived there. Alternatively the faithful would have had to travel to Carmarthen.

The Coming of the Passionists

In 1888 a Miss Lascelles asked the Provincial Superior of the Passionist Order to set up a Passionist Mission at Tenby. This request was supported by Bishop Hedley and the Passionist Fathers came to Tenby in that year. A year later the Passionist Fathers Dominic O'Neil and Fr. David moved to Carmarthen. In 1890 Fr. Placid Waring took over as Rector. It has been suggested that this move was a result of an appeal to the Passionist Order by Bishop Hedley who was concerned about the spiritual needs of Catholics living in isolated areas in Carmarthenshire.

The size of the mission taken on by the Passionists was large in that it "embraces the towns and hamlets beyond the picturesque Vale of Towy, and .... the villages scattered in that district as far as sea-girt Pendine". In fact the Carmarthen Mission covered the former counties of Carmarthenshire and Radnorshire, and parts of Pembrokeshire, Cardiganshire and Breconshire. From their base at Carmarthen the Passionists attended various stations at Cardigan, Aberystwyth, Llandrindod, Ammanford, Llandovery and Llandeilo. With such an area to cover it is not surprising that Mass was said only at irregular intervals at each place. In 1894 for example it was reported that "Mass has been twice a year" at Llandeilo. In the same year the size of the Catholic congregation in the Llandeilo/Llandovery area numbered only eight persons.

In 1909 Abermarlais Park once again became a Mass centre serving the spiritual needs of the Llandeilo/Llandovery area and beyond. Mass was held at the private oratory of Mr. Henry Hunter and the Hon. Mrs. Hunter. Louise Hunter was the daughter of the twelfth Lord Dormer by his first wife. Mrs. Hunter had moved to Abermarlais in 1909 and on May 2nd that year a public oratory was opened there, the first Mass being said by Fr. George Dobson, CP. It was then said regularly every week. John Rudd records that "many of the Catholics living scattered thereabouts attended. Some of the Llandovery people were fortunate enough to share 'lifts' on the Driscoll's trap. Mrs. Hunter paid 5/- towards the cost of hiring a brake to bring the people once a month".

From 1911 the Passionists travelled on from Abermarlais once a fortnight to say Mass at Llandovery.

The full services of Holy week commenced at Abermarlais in 1923. There are references to canonical visits by the Bishops who stayed at Abermarlais as guests of the Hunters. In October 1920 for example Bishop Francis Mostyn visited Abermarlais to confirm nine young people from the Llandeilo and Llandovery areas belonging to the Manning, Dowling, Driscoll, Evans and Wells families.

In 1927 there were fourteen confirmations by Bishop Vaughan, of children from the families of Evans, Williams, Fury, Wells, Cooper, Dowling, Hayes and Brewer. At that time the total Catholic population in Llandeilo/Llandovery was estimated at only fifty or so. Amongst the Passionists serving this mission older parishioners still remember with affection Fr. Thomas Heffernan CP, and also Fr. Finian Connell CP who cycled many miles seeing to the needs of the faithful.

Henry Hunter died in June 1934 and Mrs. Hunter decided to leave her home at Abermarlais. Mass was said there for the last time on November 23rd, 1936 by Fr. Germain Conway, Rector of St. Mary's Carmarthen.

With the closure of Abermarlais the faithful were forced to look elsewhere. Occasionally Mass would be said at the house of Lawrence Lee at Heol y Garreglas, Llandeilo. Otherwise local Catholics would have to travel to Ammanford, Llandovery or Carmarthen.

It is noteworthy that a contemporary report records that "there are numerous Catholics scattered over the county who travel regularly thirty miles or more each way to fulfil their religious obligations, and the priests at Carmarthen have at times to go thirty to forty miles on a sick call".

The Second World War witnessed a significant increase in the Catholic population of Llandeilo. In June 1940 staff and pupils from Coloma Convent School Croydon were evacuated to Llandeilo. A local paper announced their arrival.

"The evacuees arrived on Sunday at 6.40 p.m. They numbered above 200, and the arrangements were carried without a hitch. They were taken from the station to the County School for tea and medical examination. The evacuees included a superior lot of girls who were in the Secondary Schools of the London County Council. They were accompanied by their teachers and sisters of the R.C. The children from Bootle are expected on Thursday".

Sister Mary Clare, one of the sisters involved has recalled her time in this area. Her account is reproduced here:

"In August 1939 about 500 pupils with approximately 20 staff including the Head Mistress, Mother Winifride and four Sisters evacuated their school Coloma, Croydon and set out, for what was then an unknown destination.

All wore labels and carried gas masks. Tearful parents watched the exodus, as well as those left behind for whom other plans were made.

The unknown destination proved to be Eastbourne but six months later danger loomed from across the Channel and once more there was an exodus this time, to a little known town called Llandeilo in South Wales, about fifteen miles from Carmarthen.

There a tired and bedraggled group arrived late at night walking in procession along the one street to a large hail, to be sorted out and taken to allotted billets. Curious faces appeared at doors and windows eager to see Roman Catholic nuns and Convent school girls, never had such appeared in that vicinity and villagers were eager to see what they looked like.

Finally when all children were claimed and taken to their temporary homes the sisters alone remained with their luggage - it looked as if nobody had the courage to house them - finally a few brave householders came forward and offered temporary lodging, so a small community of five found themselves divided out, one to a family. The hosts and hostesses were certainly very kind and helpful, but it was a strange experience for sisters who had spent five or ten or more years within the Convent precincts to find themselves adrift in a strange world. There was no Catholic Church in the area, or parish priest to advise. However the Passionists at Carmarthen were notified of their arrival and arranged to come for Mass on Sundays. Where to celebrate it was a problem, however the proprietor of the local public house, The Kings Head, came to the rescue and offered a room for Sunday morning. This was greatly appreciated and so Mass was offered there for two years.

In the meantime accommodation was offered to the Sisters in Ammanford, where they could have daily Mass. Later however as rumours of imminent invasion spread the Head Mistress decided that we should all be together in Llandeilo, where the children were, also they now shared the local County School and playing ground. The Head Master and his staff were always kind and helpful in every way. He allowed us to use the school hall for Mass occasionally and this was indeed most kind and broad- minded of him at that time. We left Amman ford regretfully, but settled into the more restricted life of Llandeilo.

They were soon accepted by the people and shared their life to some extent, taking part in local functions etc.

There was an Army unit stationed there for a time - a Chaplain (Catholic) also arrived after the evacuation from Dunkirk, but didn't remain long much to the regret of the Sisters who had short lived hopes of daily Mass. (The Catholic population of the area was boosted by an influx of American soldiers to Dinefwr Park.)

During this time Coloma School had reopened and classes were resumed there. Many of those who were evacuated had a/so returned to their homes and rejoined their c/ass mates.

In 1942 it was decided that we should all return and so we enjoyed packing up and setting off for home.

We retain many happy memories of our stay in the beautiful country of Wales and of its kind and hospitable people."

The Carmelites

The Carmelite mission to Wales began in 1936 when the Order reopened St. Mary's College, Aberystwyth which had been founded to educate a Welsh speaking clergy for Wales but had been closed in 1934.

Towards the end of the Second World War the Order started to look for larger premises to solve its accommodation problems at Aberystwyth. The school there only had room for 16 boarders and a limited area for sports.

Tregyb Mansion near Llandeilo was chosen for the new boarding school and this was opened in September 1947. St. Mary's College, Tregyb accepted both Church and non-Church students and outside of Cardiff provided at the time the only Catholic Secondary School for boys in South Wales. Places were provided for 50 boarders.

Tregby MansionAerial view of Tregyb Mansion, Ffairfach, since demolished

The Religious Community consisted of at least six priests all engaged in teaching though during their stay the Carmelites also took on responsibility for the Parish from the Passionists. The college chapel became the main Mass centre though Mass was also said regularly at Ty Teresa, Cefn Goleu, Llandeilo and at other centres as occasion demanded. These included Blaencennen Farm, Gwynfe and Edwinsford Mansion near Talley, part of which was used by Polish families for growing mushrooms. These families had come into the area after the War to take up farming but many later drifted to the urban areas.

In addition to their religious and teaching duties the Carmelites were "keen gardeners, growing vegetables and selling the surplus in Llandeilo and Ffairfach". In 1958 St. Mary's College became the home of St. Albert's Press, a private printing press. It lasted until 1961 when it became a "casualty to failing finances and a shortage of workers".

In 1957 the Carmelite Major Superior received a request to open a secondary school in Cheltenham and this was acceded to. A new school - Whitefriars School took over from St. Mary's Tregyb in September 1958. Some of the Carmelites remained at Tregyb which now became a House of Philosophy for Carmelite students until 1964 when the property was sold to the local authority. With the closure of the Philosophy House one Carmelite, Fr. Laserian Geary remained to look after the parish. He was followed by Fr. Patrick McAllister. With the loss of Tregyb, Mass was now said at various locations including the Institute, South Lodge, George Street, and the Public Library.

When the Carmelites withdrew their remaining priests in August 1970 the Redemptorists at Machynlleth were asked to say Mass at Llandeilo as part of their travelling mission. Fr. Crowe served Llandeilo for the year between the departure of the Carmelites and the return of the Passionists. Occasionally, from 1964 the travelling mission had said Mass in Brechfa.

The Passionists Return

The Passionist Order was willing to resume responsibility for Llandeilo on a trial basis for one year after which it would decide whether or not a separate parish would be formed. Mass was said by the Passioriists on Sunday, 21st March, 1971 at the Public Institute and Library. The need for a more suitable venue was clear, "the room being at the top of a steep flight of stairs and was very dirty and much in need of decoration".

Lord Dynevor had already donated a plot of land for a church and plans for a church had been prepared. However, it was felt that the proposals were too costly for the small community.

At this time responsibility for the parish was in the hands of Fr. Marcellus McCann, CP. In July 1971 he discovered that an unused chapel Elim Non-Conformist Chapel on Rhosmaen Road, Llandeilo was owned by Mrs. Corcoran a Catholic then living in London. Within a short time Fr. Marcellus had acquired the lease of the building, and his small parish, with support from outside quickly transformed the building, redecorating and furnishing it. Much help with money and furnishing came from other areas especially Carmarthen parish; St. Oswalds's, Barnes; the Holy Ghost Parish, Carshalton and Herne Bay.

St Davids Catholic ChurchSt David's Catholic Church from 1971 to 1987 (formally Elim), Rhosmaen Street, Llandeilo

The Platea records that "an altar was obtained from the Holy Ghost Convent at Abergavenny, benches from Swansea, "hardly a convent in Britain did not donate something". This was all achieved despite the fact that no formal agreement had been reached and the Bishop and lawyers were still sorting out the legal niceties.

Canon Mulroy has recalled how Fr. Marcellus "begged all the furniture and accessories from all parts, practically hauled them single-handed, and certainly painted and refurbished the seating single handed" to complete the Church for its first Mass on Christmas Eve 1971.

The official opening took place on St. David's Day 1972. In May the following year Bishop Fox formally appointed Fr. Marcellus as parish priest and on June 11 th Canon Mulroy inducted him to his rights, duties and privileges.

He had little time to savour the fruit of his work however; within a week "this frail looking little man" had suffered his first heart attack. His untimely death at the age of 46 occurred early in 1974.

A great debt is owed to Fr. Marcellus for all his work for the Parish and to the Passionist Order who "to their lasting credit ... gave us one of their most energetic and lovable priests, a man who gave everything to God and people with scant regard for his own needs".

Fr. Marcellus was followed by a succession of Passionist priests including Fr. Francis and Fr. Gregory. In September 1974 Fr. Oliver McKenzie C.P. was inducted as parish priest but served only a short time before being transferred to Herne Bay.

In May 1976 Fr. Conleth O'Hara C.P. took on responsibility for St. David's parish. Like his Passionist predecessors he lived at St. Mary's Retreat Carmarthen travelling twice or three times a week to Llandeilo to visit the people, administer the sacraments, instruct children and celebrate Mass.

At this time Fr. James Eamer C.P. was meeting all the expenses incurred by St. David's parish. Fr. Conleth therefore set out to raise funds himself. Though the parishioners helped all they could, the parish was small and so he had to look further afield. Here, a tribute must be paid to Mrs. Eileen Ross who worked so hard for the parish and who did so much to arrange functions. Sadly she died in January 1986 of cancer. She was an excellent parishioner, with a deep faith that was an inspiration to all who knew her. Her work too for the handicapped and for the housebound was well-known.

The first opportunity to obtain outside help arose following a talk given by Fr. Conleth to a convent school in the West of Ireland, when the pupils organised a collection on behalf of the parish. Within a few years he had persuaded a few parish priests to allow him to make appeals in their areas. Parishes such as Barnes, Carshalton, Norbury and Church Cookham adopted St. David's parish. Parish priests of Passionist parishes also came to the aid of St. David's parish either by allowing appeals to be made or by letting societies and parishioners raise finance. Later, appeals were made in Irish newspapers.

The search for a new church began several years ago and Bishop Fox approached British Telecom about its former telephone exchange. He was told that it was not available at that time. Nearly seven years would go by before it could be bought and even so there were several more hurdles to be tackled before the parish could be sure of its new church. Finally, in 1986 work began on the building when the inside was rewired, the central heating installed and a new ceiling put in. Most of this work was carried out by parishioners Lawrence Lee and John and Anthony May, and Tom Broughton who Fr. Conleth had met in Fatima. Work on the outside started in September 1986.

The year 1986 was significant for the parish in another respect too, in that St. David's once again had a resident Catholic priest. This followed the purchase of St. David's presbytery at 26 New Road, Llandeilo. It is opportune to acknowledge the debt the parish owes to Bishop Hannigan. He has been a great friend of St. David's parish, purchasing both the new Church and Presbytery and has always taken a close interest in the welfare of the parish.

The opening of the Church would not have been possible without the spiritual and financial help provided by the clergy, sisters, parishes and organisations both in this country and in Ireland, especially in Northern Ireland. A tribute must be paid to all those who have assisted in any way, with a special mention for the help given by the Knights of St. Columba and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

The first Mass in the new church was said on Palm Sunday 12 April, 1987. As the opening of the new St. David's Catholic Church is celebrated one can recall the sermon of Fr. Ignatius given at the dedication of the previous church in March 1972.

"The Church does not consist of the bricks and mortar of a building, for a church building is but a sign and a symbol of something much greater than any building ever can be.

It is a sign and symbol of a meeting place of the Church, the people of God who you are. You are the stones of that spiritual temple of the Lord that we call the City of God, the Church.

And so, tonight is not the culmination and ending of something, it is not merely an achievement in that sense; it is but one more step. It is but the beginning of something; the beginning of a new and increased fervour and faith amongst the Catholic people of Llandeilo and its district.

It is a time to remember all those people in different parishes in this country and overseas; all the benefactors who have come to the aid of St. David's parish through its newspaper appeals; the different societies within those parishes that have helped; and the parishes that have adopted St. David's, Llandeilo. They too are working towards the conversion of Wales".

Source: Catholic Llandeilo, A History of St David's Parish, by Alan Randall, 1987.