A Farewell to St Thomas More, Chickenley
7th January 2018
After a final Mass which blended celebration with sadness, the parish and church of St Thomas More Chickenley closed on the Solemnity of the Epiphany. The church opened in 1954, serving a new estate and a large area to the north and east of Dewsbury: it was one of many built by (then) Bishop Heenan and was a very busy and active parish. However, for the last few years it was unable to support a resident parish priest and at the Deanery Review in 2017, it was decided to close. The parish area will be divided between St Ignatius Ossett and St Paulinus and St Joseph parishes in Dewsbury. The weekend congregation had dwindled to 50/60 but more than double this number attended the final Mass.
Dewsbury Parishioner, Margaret Watson, writes the Dewsbury Reporter's Nostalgia Column. This week, she says farewell to the church of St Thomas More, Chickenley.
'IN RECENT years a number of churches have closed down in Dewsbury, and their passing is still mourned by many. My wish for 2018 is that those which are still struggling will find some way of staying open for many years to come. Sadly, this will not be the case for the church of St Thomas More in Chickenley which will be closing its doors for good this coming Sunday after 11 o’clock Mass.
The main reason for its closure is like that of other churches which have closed recently - too few members to cover the huge cost of its upkeep. Although no plans have yet been made for the future use of the church building, at least its presbytery next door, where successive priests have lived, will remain occupied.
Another problem facing churches of all denominations today is the lack of priests and ministers now entering the Church to replace those who have retired or passed away. In the old days most Catholic churches had three priests, the parish priest and two curates, but for some years now there has only been one.
Sunday will be a sad day in the history of Chickenley because St Thomas More’s church has always been at the centre of the local community. Its social history is also worthy of recording because it was built during Dewsbury’s massive slum clearance programme of the 1950s and 60s. At this time, huge populations were being moved to newly built outlying estates like Thornhill, Chickenley and Dewsbury Moor. Many, especially those from Westtown and Batley Carr, were of the Catholic faith, but there were no Catholic churches on the new estates where they could worship. Previously, their church had been only a few minute’s walk away, now it was four miles away, which meant they had to walk because buses didn’t run on Sundays in those days.
It wasn’t long, before the parish priest of St Paulinus Church in Westtown made arrangements for his flock to attend Sunday Mass in a classroom in Chickenley Infants’ School. It was called a “Chapel of Ease” because it saved those wishing to attend Mass the long trek to their respective churches in Batley Carr and Westtown. Every Sunday, Father Backhouse said Mass there, bringing with him his vestments, incense and golden chalice. A school desk was covered with a white cloth to act as the altar, and parishioners sat on tiny straight-backed school chairs.
Soon parishioners were talking about building their own church, even though they had no money, no land on which to build it, and no appointed leader to show the way. It took one man to get the ball rolling, Willie Manning, a former parishioner of St Paulinus Church, who one Sunday, after Mass in the schoolroom, walked up to Father Backhouse and handed him a £5 note saying: “Here Father – this is towards a new church.”
THERE were many more like Willie Manning who believed the Lord helped those who helped themselves, and with the help of a few thousand bingo sessions, various bring and buy sales, and a big loan from the Bishop of Leeds, the good Lord did.
Many people worked long and hard to build and establish the church of St Thomas More, men and women like Laurie and Eileen Minnett, who held bingo sessions in their front room every Friday night to raise money. It meant them having to empty their front room of furniture and taking it upstairs to make room for the many people turning up. Then they had to carry it back downstairs when they’d gone.
A great deal of love went into the actual building of the church, which cost £20,000, and two church members, bricklayers John McGrath and Tom Greensmith, were employed by Wimpenny’s Builders to help build it. Paula Briggs, one of the longest serving members of the church, and daughter of John McGrath, once told me how these two men had put their hearts and souls into building the church. It was one of the proudest days of her dad’s life when it was officially opened and the first Mass said.
Many others also played an important part, not only in building the church, but in keeping it going, and I mention the names of those I knew because they deserve to be recorded in local history.
They were: Tommy and Winnie Frain, Herbert and Nellie Taylor, Cissie and Louis Degnan, Johnny Callaghan, sisters Mary Gosnay and Hilda Marron, Annie and Jimmy Littlewood, Jack and Nora Larkin, Helen McCreesh and Mary Tolan, John McGrath, Joe and Margaret Rock, Arthur and Mona Hazelgrove, Kathleen and Brian Kaye, Jack and Paula Briggs, Tom Greensmith, Alf and Margaret Howgate, Mary Mitchell, Dennis and Ann Keegan.
There were many more early pioneers, so if any readers remember them, please let me know and I will add their names at a later date.
The first parish priest was Fr Manus Moynihan, who served from 1954 to 1960, followed by many more worthy priests who added much to the spiritual life of the church and to the village of Chickenley.
It is 14 years since this church celebrated its 50th anniversary in style with a parish dinner and an exhibition of the church’s early history. No-one taking part in those celebrations could have foreseen that only a few years later it would close its doors forever. Many tears will be shed I’m sure at the last Mass on Sunday.
Despite recent church closures in the district, it is important to record there are still some fine churches flourishing in Dewsbury, with some going from strength to strength. And although there are some churches still suffering from reduced attendances and an ageing population, these too still continue to do fantastic work in the district and are a beacon of light to us all. God bless them.'
From 'The Dewsbury Reporter', Saturday 6th January, 2017: https://www.dewsburyreporter.co.uk/news/the-nostalgia-column-with-margaret-watson-1-8935578
Margaret is keen to hear memories of other local churches, and is happy to be contacted via: firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch up with her column and the rest of the news in the Dewsbury area via the Dewsbury Reporter, or online by visiting: https://www.dewsburyreporter.co.uk/