Catholic Mission & Parish History compiled by Father Geoffrey
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1. The Beginning until 1890.
the Reformation and during the late sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries. County Durham' Catholic community was served by
a number of priests who belonged to the secular clergy or to
the religious orders, such as the Jesuits and the Benedictines.
In centres of large population like Durham, these priests were
supported largely by their small congregations. Elsewhere,
the priest was the chaplain to a wealthy Catholic family, like
the Riddells of Gateshead. Sometimes, the priest was a 'riding'
missioner, going around on horseback, visiting a circuit of
small Catholic congregations. Throughout this time, the Catholic
community was subject to restrictions and sometimes persecution
on account of its beliefs. We
have no definite record of a Catholic community in the Birtley
area before the 1690s, although it is likely that there were
a few catholics in the vicinity of the nearest town of any
importance, which was Chester-le-Street. This was a prosperous
market town and the centre of a widespread and important Anglican
parish in the Anglican diocese of Durham.
By the 1680s, the Catholic centre
of Chester-le-Street was to be found at Lumley Castle
and in the park which surrounded it. Richard, First Baron
had been brought up a Catholic, but became an Anglican
in 1687. His sisters, however, and some members of the
household seem to have remained attached to the ancient
faith. Lumley's agent was William Tempest and a member
of the famous
Catholic family of that name. It was this gentleman who,
despite the apostacy of his patron. Lord Lumley, donated
in 1696 the sum of £300 (princely sum in those
days) to the English Benedictine monks to provide a priest
the few Catholics around Lumley Park and Chester-le-Street.
The condition of the gift was that mass should be said
each month for the donor by the monk who was supported
interest from the investing of the fund.
We have little surviving
evidence of this Lumley Park mission over the next few decades,
although we do possess the names of the monks who served it.
There is also a strong tradition that during the period of
persecution, these monks ministered to the Catholics of the
area by travelling from place to place disguised as pedlars.
Birtley as such can hardly have been said to exist during this
time. It can have been little more than a hamlet with a few
houses in which lived miners working in the many surrounding
pits. This insignificance may partly explain why Father Leander
Raffa moved the Catholic mission in 1746 from Chester-le-Street
to Birtley. For in the previous year, Catholics especially
in the north had undergone a renewed persecution because of
their alleged support of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Stuarts
in the Jacobite Rising of 1745. In the city of Durham, an angry
mob attacked one of the 'popish chapels', and in Gateshead,
Father John Walsh, a Jesuit, who was nicknamed 'Daddy Walsh",
was 'smoked out' of his lodgings by the Duke of Cumberland's
troops. lf Chester-le-Street was such an important town, Catholics
would doubtless have wanted to keep out of the limelight, and
the quiet backwater of Birtley would have been a suitable refuge
for a Catholic priest. Catholics in Gateshead might also have
helped in the development of the Birtley mission at this time.
Father Raffa was chaplain to the Riddell family whose main
seat was at Great Swinburne, north of Hexham, in the 1740s,
and the Riddells had a large house and property in Gateshead
adjoining the present St Edmund's (Anglican) chapel which still
survives. This Gateshead property also seems to have been threatened
by the mob at the time of the 1745 rebellion, and it is possible
that the Riddells' chaplain. Father Raffa, retired to Birtley
at this time in order to avoid trouble.
Once in Birtley,
the Catholic mission expanded fast, helped by money left to
mission by members of the Brandling family who were wealthy
coal owners in Leeds and Felling. Ralph Brandling, who died
in 1751 aged 21, left £500 to the Chester-le-Street mission.
He had probably been taught as a boy by Father Raffa in the
Benedictine college at Douai in northern France. The conditions
of this gift were that 22 masses be said yearly for Ralph Brandling,
and that 2 masses should be said each month by the Birtley
priest in Felling, where his mother lived. It was the Brandlings
who seem to have introduced the Humble family to Birtley. Like
the Brandlings, the Humbles had connections with Leeds and
the heads of the family acted as coal agents for the Brandlings
in their pits around Felling and Birtley. The Humbles were
to be great benefactors to the Catholic congregation in Birtley
for over one hundred and fifty years. The Birtley Catholic
baptismal register which dates from this period lists the names
of successive generations of this family.
donations were added to the invested capital of the Brandling
1753, for instance, the Benedictine Placid Hutton, a Durham
man, left £100 to be invested to help Birtley. It was
for reasons of safety that all these funds were invested with
local Catholic families like the Erringtons of Beaufront, near
Hexham, who were looking after the Tempest fund in 1725 and
the Swinburnes of Capheaton who were later to take care of
the Brandling fund.
The Birtley baptismal
register gives us an indication of the size of the Catholic
congregation from about 1750. More importantly, it also shows
the growth of the congregation, as Birtley expanded in response
to the demands of industrial growth in the last decades of
the eighteenth century. Between 1745 and 1770, there were usually
no more than five baptisms a year, but from the 1770s, this
figure doubles. It is significant that this increase coincided
with two Acts of Parliament (in 1778 and 1791) through which
many of the penal laws against Catholics were repealed.
A better indication, however,
of the actual size and type of the congregation attached to the
Birtley mission during the eighteenth century can be gained from
a variety of other sources. In 1744, just before the mission moved
from Chester-le-Street to Birtley, the authorities drew up a list
of Catholics 'suspected of being dangerous' (presumably they were
Jacobite sympathisers); there were 25 of these in Birtley, 14 in
Chester-le-Street, including Father Edward Bulmer, and those in
Felling included RalphBrandling of Felling Hall. By far the most
valuable source for Birtley, however, is the list of Catholics
drawn up nationally for the House of Lords in 1767. This showed
that there were 137 'papists' in the parish of Chester-le-Street,
of which 14 were living in Birtley, and another 30 in Lamesley
parish. The 1767 Returns are particularly useful because they tell
us of the ages and professions of Birtley Catholics: 13 of the
men worked in the coal trade as miners, viewers, wrights and staithmen,
but there were also a merchant, innkeeper and husbandmen.
Four Humbles were also listed: Mary (aged 68), and her 5 grandchildren,
Ralph (aged 42), and his 9 children, Anne (aged 55) and Margaret
(aged 60). The priest, Father Robert Daniel, whose name is also
found in this list, was, of course, also responsible for the Catholic
congregations found, not only in Birtley, but also in Chester-le-Street,
Lumley Park, Pelton, Waldridge, Whitehill, 'Pictree', Fatfield,
Chateshaush. Portobello and Urpeth. Thirteen years later, in 1780,
the number of Catholics in the whole Anglican parish of Chester-le-Street,
which included Birtley, had grown to 180.
By this year, 1780,
our picture of the Birtley Catholic mission becomes clearer,
thanks largely to letters from the Birtley priests to their
religious superior, the Benedictine President who was then
living in France. Father Robert Daniel was to be the mission
priest until his death in 1781 and for most of his time in
Birtley had lived with a family who belonged to the congregation.
His letters suggest that the mission chapel itself was to be
found in the same family house. By 1779, this family had 'broken
up' so the priest was determined 'to purchase land and build
a place to pray in himself'. He expected Benedictine funds
to be used for this purpose. Despite his grumbles about the
poor salary he was being paid whilst in Birtley and about his
ill-health, he was reluctant to leave. He admitted that the
congregation was large, but that ever since 'the Lumleys' defection',
it had been 'unstable'. The only household which had the means
to put up the priest as a lodger was that of the prosperous
merchant, Mr Thomas Hill, and his was presumably the family
which had 'broken up'. There is no further mention of this
chapel, and as at the time of his death in 1781, Father Daniel
seems to have had a lot of money invested locally. We can only
presume this was set aside by him to finance the proposed chapel.
There was a brief interval after Father Daniel's death, when
no priest was resident in Birtley, and therefore, between 1781
and 1783, it was served from Pontop Hall by the secular priest
Father Johnson. The frequent journeys from Pontop soon proved
a great burden to him and the Benedictines therefore decided
to install Father Bernard Slater in early 1783 as priest in
Birtley. He was to remain as pastor of the congregation until
his death in 1810.
It is likely that Birtley's
first free-standing chapel was erected soon after Father Slater's
appointment, thus realising his predecessor's Father Robert
Daniel's principal aim. The 1791 Catholic Relief Act allowed
Catholics for the first time to build their own chapels. These
had to be in secluded positions, they were to be simple and
unadorned, without bells or towers, in order that their construction
might neither annoy nor alarm Protestant neighbours. Birtley's
new chapel was registered on 29th October 1791, and was then
described as 'a place of Religious worship, prepared and used
in or near the Dwelling House of John Slater, Clerk, situated
at Birtley'. This registration was performed by Father Slater,
by the merchant Thomas Hill, and by Charles Joseph Humble of
the White House, then aged 28 years old, and known by later
historians as the benefactor who had donated the parcel of
land for this first chapel and priest's house.
II. 1800 until the Present
From 1800, the history of the Catholic community in Birtley is quite
well documented, and except for an interval between 1825 and
1828, there were resident priests in the town. Between 1802 and
1805, there were, in fact, two priests in Birtley, because Father
Bernard Slater was joined by the retired monk. Father Anselm
Bolton, who made his name as the monk who gave up his home at
Ampleforth in North Yorkshire to house his community exiled from
France after the French Revolution. Birtley, in fact, was at
this time the only mission in County Durham which was served
by priests from a Religious Order, in this case, the Benedictines.
The Birtley Benedictine priest had still a wide area to look
after. In 1807, for instance, we find him officiating as far
away as St Andrew's, Newcastle, and at Saltwell, Gateshead, in
1817 and 1825. InBirtley, the priest continued to officiate in
the chapel which, as we have already suggested, dated from about
best description we have of this small mission chapel is to
be found in the Catholic Magazine of March 1832, which describes
this chapel and the priest's house being in the north west
part of the town, 'a plain unpresuming edifice'. This suggest
it was on the site or very close to the present St Joseph's
Church, since the centre of old Birtley village was in the
area around where Charles Perkins's monument now stands, and
St Joseph's is to the north west of this. There were in 1832,
at the time of the above report, 'one hundred communicants'
in the Birtley congregation, and this number was to grow rapidly
as the coal industry underwent a huge expansion during these
years. As the Catholic Irish streamed into this part of the
world in ever larger numbers in search of work in the pits,
so the little chapel built some fifty years earlier was soon
unable to house the growing number of Catholics.
By 1837, Birtley's Catholic
mission narrowly escaped being re-absorbed into Chester-le-Street,
which had remained the administrative and urban centre of the
district. In June of that year. Father William Riddell wrote
to Bishop Briggs: 'For a long time I was against the Chapel
being built in Chester-le-Street because the most regular attenders
in every way were either living at Birtley or close to it.
I thought it rather hard upon those who had given general edification
to lose the benefit of the slothful and the negligent'. Such
sentiments demonstrate how strong the faith was among Birtley
folk at the time. But Riddell reluctantly conceded that it
might be better to transfer the chapel to Chester-le-Street
'principally on account of it then being in a town'. Again,
we are left with the impression of how small a place Birtley
must have been as late as 1837. Riddell's letter also gives
us some impression of what a poor state of repair the chapel
was in by this time: 'The present chapel is an abominable place,
so exceedingly damp and rather out of the way, and certainly
has no attractions. The House, though small, is very tolerable'.
The tug-o'-war between
Birtley and Chester-le-Street in regard to the chapel's location
was won by Birtley. The monks preferred to remain in Birtley
and pledged their commitment to remain here by deciding to replace the old run-down chapel with a new church
in 1842-3, which was designed by the famous North-Eastern architect,
John Dobson, who was responsible for some of the finest buildings
in Newcastle, including the Central Station. In 1815, Dobson
had already designed Birtley Hall (south of St John's Anglican
Church and demolished in the 1960s) for the Warwick family,
and whilst busy on the new Catholic Church in Birtley, he was
also engaged on plans for the Catholic churches at Longhorsley
(1841), Felling (1841) and Ministeracres (1843). Dobson designed
for Birtley the Chapel, Priest's House and Schools. It was
this Church whose 150th anniversary we celebrated in 1993.
Its erection marks the Birtley Catholic mission's coming-of-age,
for in 1843, it became for the first time a recognisable parish,
with its own handsome Gothic church dedicated to Saint Mary
and St. Joseph.
The labours involved
in all this building fell on the shoulders of Father James
Sheridan, who had become the parish priest of Birtley in 1841.
He gained permission from his Benedictine superiors to purchase
a plot of land from the Maddison family on which he built the
church and its associated buildings. This land cost £400
and the building itself, £1000, most of which Father
Sheridan seems to have begged from well-wishers in Liverpool.
The foundation stone was blessed on July 16th 1842 by the same
Father Riddell who had tried earlier to transfer the mission
to Chester-le-Street. The church was opened at a mass on 18th
August 1843 which was celebrated in the presence of Bishop
Mostyn. The procession into the church was led by the 'Newcastle
and Sunderland guilds' and Father Henry Brewer, the Benedictine
provincial of the North, preached on 'the sacrifice of the
mass'. The choir came from Sunderland, the collection taken
amounted to £30, and 'after the service, the company
sat down to an elegant and substantial entertainment'. On 12th
May 1846, Father Sheridan registered the new church 'as a place
of Congregation or Assembly for Religious Worship after the
manner of the Church of Rome'. There are many famous anecdotes
about Father Sheridan. It is said, for instance, that one night
he returned to find the Church doors locked during what was
supposed to be a choir practice, so he went into the Church
through the sacristy where, to his amazement, he discovered
the choir dancing across the floor accompanied by the organ.
He promptly expelled them.
Throughout the following
decades, the congregation continued to grow, causing another
major building scheme to take place in 1862, when the nave
was extended, the separate sanctuary built, and the sacristy
added. When this project was completed, a High Mass was sung
by the Prior of Ampleforth in the presence of Bishop Hogarth,
and the sermon was preached by Father Cuthbert Hedley, a native
of Morpeth and monk of Ampleforth, and later Bishop of Newport.
The choir sang a mass composed by Thomas and John Swinburne
who owned a brickyard in the town and who had been educated
at Douai. They were to be amongst the greatest benefactors
of the parish. The steady growth of the parish continued throughout
the rest of the century. A new school was built in 1870, further
property was purchased, and land bought for a church and school
at Wrekenton in 1882. The century ended in 1896 with the bi-centenary
celebration of the establishment of the original Lumley Park
mission in 1696, when the choir and orchestra performed Gounod's
Messe Solennelle under the direction of the two Swinburne brothers.
What picture do we have
of the congregation in these years? The development of a school
shows a growing Catholic population, and the setting up of
various parochial societies demonstrates the continuing close
bond betweeen church and people. In1895, for instance, Father
Benedict Scannell founded the League of the Cross, originally
a Catholic organisation to support temperance, but Birtley's
League soon developed its own fine brass band attached to St.
Fortunately, we have
the personal reminiscences of Father Wilfrid Phillipson who
was parish priest in Birtley
between 1884 until 1891 which give a revealing picture of the
parish at this time. In 1884, with some fear and trepidation,
he reached Birtley at night, after a journey on the train from
Newcastle, and leaving the station, climbed up to the church,
'along a cinder path with fields on the left, and a few cottages
on the right'. There was no pavement, no street lamps, drainage
nor water supply. He boasts that a water supply came to Birtley
when he promised he would support temperance and teetotalism
only after a water supply had been installed. Father Phillipson's
parish was still extensive, covering an area of nearly forty
square miles. Inevitably he had to deal with frequent serious
mining accidents; in 1884, for instance, he remembered forty
two dying from a pit explosion. Smallpox was another scourge;
during one epidemic, he recounted that he had buried 'our Catholic
dead by night'. Father Phillipson was friendly with Miss Charlotte
and Miss Anne Humble who were the last two members of a family
which had supported the mission in Birtley for generations.
He later returned to Birtley to preach the bi-centenary sermon
in 1896, choosing for his text the words: Others have laboured,
and you have entered their labours. 'I traced back the history
of the mission from the present time to the dark days - 200
years ago - when the remnant of the faithful, at the peril
of their lives, met in the narrow, windowless hiding-hole still
existing in the village, to receive the Bread of Angels from
the hands of a proscribed and hunted priest of God'.
During the 20th century,
it is surprising how little the parish as such has changed
since Father Phillipson's time. The north aisle and Lady Chapel
were added by Father (later Abbot) David Hurley in 1910. During
this century, the sodalities and societies have continued to
expand: St. Joseph's Football Team, St Joseph's Literary Debating
Society Study Club (1930), the Catholic Young Men's Society
(1933), the Children of Mary, the Tertiaries, the Catholic
Women's League, the Society of St Vincent de Paul, the 2nd
Birtley St Joseph's Scouts, Cubs, Brownies and Guides, the
Knights of St Columba, and latterly, the Young Mothers' Group.
All of these tell us something about the congregation's devotion
to its church and to its members. The long tradition of choral
music has been maintained in the Male Choir, and has taken
on another form in the Folk Group established in the 1970s.
In 1935, the chapel
of St Benet at Ouston was founded, which, thanks to the development
of new housing estates, has now its own primary school. In
the late 1960s, the re-ordering of the church was begun, in
accordance with the liturgical directives of the Second Vatican
Council, and in the early 1980s, a new social club, opposite
the church, was built and linked up with the Parish Hall, which
had originally been the school. A major change occured in 1977
when the Benedictines who had staffed the mission and parish
for over two hundred years, left and were replaced by diocesan
clergy. The 1970s and 1980s saw an expansion of ministry within
the parish as the clergy encouraged members of the congregation
to share in their pastoral work.
Thus, a convent was
established near the church, which became the home of two Sisters
of the Congregation of the Daughters of Jesus, who soon found
themselves fully part of the parish. Later, a large team of
Eucharistic Ministers were commissioned, allowing many of the
house-bound and sick to be visited and to receive Holy Communion
Birtley still remains
a traditional parish, despite the development over the last
thirty years of large numbers of new housing estates. It has
no large institutions like hospitals and schools which require
more specialist ministries. Instead, its priests devote themselves
fully to the parish, and in this way, the traditional character
of this Catholic community has continued, as it has in the
past, to provide strength, support and inspiration to its members.
In1996, we shall be celebrating the 300th anniversary of the
establishment in 1696 of the Catholic Chapel in Lumley Park, and in 1993, we are
commemorating the 150th anniversary of the building of St Joseph's.
Our first records of
Birtley's Catholic places of worship date from the end of the
17th century, but over the three hundred years since then,
much of Birtley's Catholic history has been passed on by word
of mouth by generations of parishioners devoted to the town's
Catholic history: Inevitably then, the evidence has been elaborated
and has doubtless undergone some distortion in the telling.
What follows is an attempt
to piece together the evidence we have for the various buildings
which have served Church in 1843. We therefore congratulate
Father Tony Duffy and Father Peter Kelly and all the members
of the parish, and ask God's blessing and protection for the
First Chapels: C.1696-1745 Lumley Park, and 1746-C.1791 Birtley
Nothing is known about
that first chapel attached to the mission at Lumley Park until
1746, although it was almost certainly a domestic chapel, that
is, it was to be found in the home of a member of the congregation.
No free standing chapel was allowed by law at this time. One
relic which we do possess from this time is the small, late
seventeenth century silver chalice which was rediscovered in
the1980s in St. Joseph's Primary School by Father Brian Murphy.
Once the priest
moved to Birtley in 1746, another chapel seems to have been
although this was again in a private house. This was the "windowless" apartment,
about seven feet square and hardly six foot high, found in
the eastern part of the town. It is said to have been located
in 'Atkinson's Buildings', behind the Rose and Shamrock Public
House, in what is now Kateregina. The priest lived with a 'pious
Catholic family', latterly the family of the merchant, Thomas
Hill, and travelled about the countryside disguised as a pedlar.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, Father Bede Swale
(1850-79) at his own expense kept the little windowless apartment
white-washed and clean, out of reverence for the hallowed purpose
it once served'. This 'small unlighted chamber' was still standing
at the end of the nineteenth century, when Father Wilfrid Phillipson
regretted not gaining possession of it.
Second Chapel C.1791-1842.
As we have already seen
from the correspondence, there were moves afoot to build a
bigger and free-standing chapel in the late 1780s, whose completion
coincided with the 1791 Catholic Relief Act, which gave Catholics
religious freedom. This chapel seems to have been built on
land donated by Charles Joseph Humble, probably near the site
ofthe present St Joseph's. It was a humble affair, and probably
resembled a plain nonconformist chapel. When there was no priest
resident between 1825 and 1828, the story is told that Mr Humble
of Birtley White House, which was situated south of the present
Leafield House, had the whole congregation taken to Newcastle
for Mass in a farmer's long cart. It was in this chapel that
Father James Higginson died whilst saying Mass in 1836. He
was taken into the presbytery, and the church locked, everything
being left untouched, until a priest came from Newcastle the
next morning to finish the uncompleted Mass.
In 1884, Father Wilfrid
Phillipson recounts that the 'sanctuary end' covered with an
arched ceiling was all that was left of this chapel. After
its replacement by the new church in 1843, it served as a workman's
cottage. Its altar and altar-stone were, however, later taken
to Wrekenton and used in the new church there from 1882.
Joseph's Church 1843-1993.
150 years of Service.
This was opened in 1843 and was dedicated to St Mary and St Joseph.
It was designed by John Dobson, who tended to build churches
essentially Georgian in style but with Gothic additions. Birtley
St. Joseph's is in the Early English Gothic style, with very
thick walls and a porch. It was built on a commanding position
in the north of the town. The dedication to St Mary seems to
have been dropped early on, although older parishioners will
remember the stone St. Mary's Terrace which lay to the east of
the present presbytery. The only major additions to the church
were made by Father Bede Swale in 1862, and consisted of an extension
to the nave, a new sanctuary and sacristy. In 1910, Father David
Hurley had the north aisle and Lady Chapel built.
Tour of the Church
1. The Sanctuary
The original sanctuaryof
l843 lay where the front pews now begin. Above the present
confessional, designed by a parishioner architect, Wilfrid
McCann, in the early 1970s, can be seen two windows out of
sequence with the rest, which were part of the original sanctuary.
On each side of the chancel arch
are the figures of St Benedict and his sister, St Scholastica.
The large east window was the gift of Miss Anne Humble at
the end of the nineteenth century; until the 1960s, the name
of its donor was to be found in the bottom three panels.
The rest, which were part of the original sanctuary. The
present sanctuary dates from 1862, although the only original
is the stone piscina in the left wall. In the continuous
re-ordering which took place in the 1970s and 1980s, the
oak panelling, communion rail and pulpit of 1880 - 82, donated
by private benefactors, were removed
Below it was the site of the 1862 high altar in stone, which was designed
by Hanson and Dunn and was, some time in the
1970s, to be found in the Lady Chapel. Older parishioners will
remember the later, wooden high altar and reredos of oak, with
its painting of the Last Supper in the centre, its throne and
the two panels depicting the Annunciation and Nativity which
are now in the Lady Chapel. This altar and reredos were erected
to commemorate the Bi-Centenary of the mission in 1896, and were
the gift of 'a respected Birtley family'.
The altar's wooden crucifix
with brass figure is now in the sacristy. In 1965, the altar
was taken to Ouston. The present high altar, of white marble
and alabaster, was moved to its present position in 1979. As
can be seen from the depletion of the Sacred Heart in the central
panel and the passion flower motifs on each side, this altar
was originally dedicated to the sacred Heart, and stood in the
Lady Chapel below the Sacred Heart window. It was the gift of
the Swinburne family and dates from 1906. The present tabernacle
had been positioned from the late 1950s on the earlier wooden
high altar, until the reordering in the 1970s, when it assumed
its present position.
An interesting feature of the sanctuary is the ceiling which is painted
with the arms of important Benedictine monasteries. This work
was begun between1882 and 1884, when Father Richard O'Hare
was parish priest and completed under Father Wilfrid Phillipson
(1884-1891). It follows the designs of Father Norbert Sweeney
of Bath, a Benedictine of Downside.
On the north side the arms depicted
are those of:
St Mary's Abbey,
York, Glastonbury Abbey & St Albans Abbey,
Evesham Abbey & Westminster
(Not identified) Window.
(Not identified) Altar.
On the south side the arms depicted are those of:
Douai Abbey (pre
1929)Douai Abbey (post 1929)
Bury St Edmunds Abbey, & DurhamPriory
The Order of St Benedict.
Nave, Aisle and Lady Chapel
The nave, with its beamed roof, and thick walls with narrow lancet
windows, is substantially as Dobson designed it. The oak pews,
with linen-fold pattern were installed in 1898. The Stations
of Cross, which had ornate wooden frames until the 1960s date
from Father Wilfrid Phillipson's time (1884-91), and were the
gift of the executor of Miss Anne Humble. The large crucifix
on the wall in the middle of the aisle originally hung above
the pulpit. Until the 1960s there were statues of Benedictine
and English saints under canopies on the walls of the nave and
aisles, donated by the confraternities of the parish, such as
that of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and by private benefactors.
The painting of the Black Madonna of Poland was given to the parish
in gratitude from the people of Poland.
The architect of the 1910 aisle
and lady chapel is not known, although the stone masons were
local men. Like the church, they are in the Early English Gothic
style. At the east end of this aisle, there is a fine carved
statue of our Lady of Lourdes in wood, carved by craftsmen of
the Bromsgrove Guild for Father Edward Morrall in 1917, and a
statue of St Joseph, the church's patron, which originally stood
at the side of the high altar. The lady chapel and many of its
effects were the gifts of the Blythe and Swinburne families.
Its black oak altar, originally against the north wall, was erected
to the memory of John Cuthbert Blythe in 1923, when Father Edward
Morrall was parish priest. It is now at the back of the main
aisle; for a time, it served as the church's temporary main altar,
during the liturgical alterations in the 1970s. Unfortunately
its matching reredos has been destroyed, although the two large
copies of famous Italian oil paintings of the Madonna have survived
and are now fixed to the chapel's walls. The statue of the Crowned
Virgin was until the 1960s at the side of the high altar.
On the wall are the marble tablets
with the names of those from the parish who fell in the Great
War of 1914-1918. These were originally attached to the base
of a Pieta, one of many such carved by the firm of Wall of
Cheltenham, which was blessed as a war memorial by Abbott
David Hurley in 1918 on the 75th anniversary of the church's
opening. Until the 1960s, it stood to the right of the Lady
Chapel arch, close to the brass plaque commemorating the
spot where John Lee, a lay minister of the Eucharist died
suddenly during Mass on 16th February 1989. This Pieta is
now outside, deteriorating in the graveyard, but fortunately,
these panels, together with those added bearing the names
of those who fell in the Second World War, were rescued and
restored to the church.
In the late 1970s, according to the fashion of the time, the font
was removed to the lady chapel to be closer to the main altar.
Unfortunately, in the process, the finely carved railings around
the font were removed. The font, which dates from the time
when Father Edward Morrall was parish priest, is a memorial
to John Fallow Swinburne, his wife Mary, and his son, Joseph.
Much of the church's stained glass was removed in the early 1960s to
improve the natural lighting. Thus, we have to imagine many of the windows
in the north aisle of 1910 being stained glass. Fortunately, some of
the original roundels of the 1840s survive in the windows of the south
wall of the nave. They represent Benedictine saints. The east window
in the present sanctuary depicting the Passion has already been described.
- It was the gift of Miss Amie Humble
in 1919 to mark the diamond jubilee ofthe Church and replaced
earlier ones of 1843 and 1862.
- Miss Humble was the sister of Bishop
Cuthbert Hedley and was living in retirement at that time
in St Joseph's Convent, Stafford. In the lady chapel, the
Sacred Heart window is to the memory of Father Benedict Scannell,
who died in 1906, and that of St. Edward the Confessor, to
the memory of Father Edward Morrall, who died in 1930. This
window was originally in the north aisle and part of a much
larger one which depicted scenes from the saint's life.
The other two windows, one
representing the Church as a lighthouse, and the other commemorating
John Cuthbert Blythe, are in the Art Nouveau style, and were
the gift ofthe Blythe family.
- Finally, at the west end ofthe 1910
aisle, next to the original position of the font, is a fine
window in the style of the Arts and Crafts movement, showing
the Baptism of Our Lord. This is the work of J. Davies of
the Bromsgrove Guild, and is dated 1915. It was the gift
ofthe Blythe family, in memory of Jane Ann and John Merry
The first organ was bought by Father Joseph Sheridan (1841-50) and was replaced
by a larger, second-hand instrument sometime after 1858, which
cost £130. Like so much else of value in the church, however,
the present organ is the fruit of Father Phillipson's labours.
In 1891, just before he left the parish, Father Phillipson began
an organ fund, based on the £200 he had receivedfor
the purpose from John and Thomas Blythe. He received advice from
Abbot Anselm 0' Gorman, Abbot President of the English Benedictines,
who was himself an organist and musician, and was staying in Birtley
at this time. O'Gorman recommended that the firm of Nicholson of
Newcastle be responsible for the Birtley organ, and it was built
after Father Phillipson had left.
A private benefactor, possibly
one of the musical Swinburne brothers, had the 16 foot diapason
added in 1896. In the 1960s, this fine instrument was divided
in half to allow more natural light into the church, although
the console was preserved in its original state. The west gallery
in which this organ is found was completed in 1892; it replaces
an earlier one erected in 1857-58.
Grounds and Graveyard
During the 1960s, the graveyard was mostly cleared of its gravestones,
which were re-erected by the wall, and the area turfed. Some of the poplar
trees, planted by Father Wilfrid Phillipson in the 1880s were removed
at the same time. Besides possessing the gravestones of some of the Church's
important benefactors, the graveyard also contains the top of the medieval
spire of Chester-le-Street parish church, which is thought to date from
the 12th century, and was raised in its present position in 1910 by Jack
Blythe. The date of the stone grotto with terracotta figures which is
also to be found in the grounds is not known.
On the garden side, to the south of the church, there is the burial vault
of the priests who have served the parish from the nineteenth century,
as well as bronze statue of Our Lady, donated by a private benefactor
during the years in which Father Edward Morrall was parish priest, to
commemorate some of these priests.
us not forget that we owe a debt
to those who have gone before,
who lifelong suffered for the faith
and would have glady suffered more.
For that priceless gift
which they held so dear,
may their memory never perish,
may they rest in peace is our fervent wish
and may Birtley Mission flourish."