The history of St Bede’s parish, Sacriston, can be divided into three phases of very unequal lengths. The three stages are firstly the origins and foundation of the church in the mid/late C19th, second, the consolidation and development of a stable parish and community during most of the C20th, and finally a phase of new challenges, economic, political and social which began with devastating abruptness in 1985.
Every parish has its own unique attributes, St Bede’s is no exception, and the key to its character goes right back to its foundation and even before. From around 1850 many 1000s of Irish immigrants began arriving in the Durham coalfield, refugees from the Great Famine and seeking work. Sacriston, where the Victoria Pit had opened in 1839, was one of a couple of villages which became known as places of settlement for unusually high numbers of Gaelic speaking Galway Irish. A doctor visiting Sacriston in the 1860s commented specifically on the spectacle of “black-shawled Irish women squatting at doors smoking clay pipes”. The atmosphere was not always welcoming and walking to Mass in Durham often required safety in numbers.
The plight of the new Catholic population in the surrounding mining districts was not lost on the priests at St. Cuthbert’s in Durham. In 1867 a Gaelic-speaking priest, Father Thomas Matthews began a series of ‘missions’ from Durham City to Sacriston and other neighbouring pit villages. Father Matthews became known as the ‘founder’, and his assistant from 1870, Father Michael Gilligan, as the ‘builder’, of St. Bede’s Parish.
Father Matthews’ mission took in not just Sacriston, but Edmondsley, Witton Gilbert, Kimblesworth and Nettlesworth too. Sacriston, however, became the central base for the mission since a Catholic school had been set up there in 1865 by local initiative and with a volunteer teacher. The school was housed in two cottages, knocked together, adjacent to the Colliery Inn. Matthews had the premises further adapted so that it could serve as a chapel for Mass on Sundays. All of this was paid for with collections from the Catholic miners. When Matthews’ mission focus moved on to Stanley and Burnopfield, Father Gilligan took over running the parish. Like Matthews, Gilligan was Gaelic speaking and homilies were frequently delivered in both English and Gaelic.
Both priest and congregation were entirely reliant on their own resources to build the parish. There were no wealthy benefactors here. But the Catholic population of the parish had grown from c.400 to c.800 in these few years and the makeshift school and chapel were increasingly inadequate. Gilligan co-ordinated an astounding fund-raising feat. Men donated one day’s pay to a parish building fund, and innumerable other collections, lotteries and bazaars collected pennies and sixpences to add to the total. Land was acquired bit by bit during the 1870s. A presbytery was started. And, in 1878, work commenced on a church. St. Bede’s church, designed by Father Gilligan himself, was finally opened on June 5th, 1881. The whole project had cost nearly £1000. But this was not the end. The cemetery followed in August 1882 and then, after another massive fundraising initiative, a new school, the current school, opened in 1884. There were 188 pupils on roll, three times the number who had first attended the cottage school in 1865. For most of the next 100 years, both the population of the parish and the size of the school were to remain remarkably stable.
CONSOLIDATION AND CONTINUITY
When Father Edward Costello arrived in Sacriston in 1897 he was able to take charge of a fully functional parish with over 1,000 parishioners, an active school and an externally impressive church, all fruits of just 30 years work. Rightly proud though the congregation were of their achievements and church, however, in other respects, internally, it still remained relatively “bare”, with few benches, no pulpit, and only simple Stations of the Cross. There had been some new furnishings and statues during the time of Father Henry Gillow, but there was clearly scope for much more to be done with the inside of the church. Costello set about this with a will! This is when the current impressive altar and Stations of the Cross were sourced from Belgium and installed. At the same time new stained glass windows were designed and installed in the sanctuary and the organ commissioned to replace a harmonium which had had to suffice until then. By the time Father Costello was required to move on to another parish in 1905 St. Bede’s church had also joined a very select group of premises in the village fitted with electric lighting. The electricity was a DC supply from the generators at the pit.
There had been debts incurred in the building of the parish but these were paid off and the consecration of the Church of St. Bede was able to take place on 17th July 1929. This was no mean achievement, at the time of St. Bede’s consecration there were only 14 other churches in the whole of the diocese which had achieved this distinction. The then historian of the parish, Father J. Lenders wrote at the time: “The Dedication of the Church is the crowning act by which the material building is consecrated … [this] applies especially to a church, like St. Bede’s, where the construction of it, its decoration and its furnishing is due to the persevering efforts of the parishioners”. The work of the founders of the parish had been consolidated and St. Bede’s entered an extended period of stability and continuity. The close working community of the church spawned a myriad of social guilds and groups, self-sufficient and supportive. Many even of the most distinctive features of the parish lived on. As late as the 1960s there were still some older parishioners able to converse in Gaelic, though the necessity for the parish priests to be able to do so had long since passed!
1985 AND AFTER
The last 30 years has been a high contrast for St. Bede’s parish compared to the preceding century of stability and continuity. In this period the Church as a whole has, of course, had to face the impact of huge social, economic and political changes. For St. Bede’s parish, however, one date stands out: 1985. In 1985 Sacriston Colliery closed. The very social fabric of the parish was under threat. The colliery had been the mainstay of the local economy for over 150 years and it had been the colliery workforce upon which the parish had been founded. At the same time many of the younger generations were leaving to follow new opportunities open through further and higher education, but all too frequently never to return. These developments coupled with the general decline in Mass attendance and an increasing shortage of priests all impacted heavily on the close parish community.
Father Malachy Mulligan, the longest serving priest in the history of the parish, retired in 1987. He was followed by Father Desmond Meagher who was to become the last exclusive parish priest of St. Bede’s. Thankfully, however, Father Meagher was mindful that there were no longer sufficient numbers of priests available to serve all small parishes and he put considerable efforts into making arrangements to safeguard St. Bede’s as he approached his retirement in the year 2000. Father Meagher secured the services of a missionary priest to take care of the parish after his departure; the wheel had turned full circle. As a result, for the next 9 years, the parish benefitted from the residence of Father James Cronin MHM. Only when completing of the Diocesan Forward Together in Hope documentation in 2015 did the parish fully come to appreciate the debt it now owes to Father Cronin. Father Cronin’s ‘day job’ was as financial administrator for the Mill Hill Mission Society, but he also transformed the parish by encouraging and initiating lay responsibility for many functions previously reserved to the parish priest. Father Cronin thus prepared the foundations for St. Bede’s to face a new future where priests need to be shared between multiple parishes. As a result of Father Cronin’s legacy and the FTIH process the parish now, in 2016, once again has a fully functioning Parish Parochial Council and a vibrant and re-energised lay community.