A Brief History of the Parish by David Gorman
The Benedictines established themselves in Bamber Bridge in 1780. One of the earliest references to Brownedge was in a grant of land dating from 1306, which referred to the land known as ‘Brownegge’. The parish itself has its origins in two 18th century Benedictine chapels at Little Mosna in Walton-le-dale and Cuerden. Fr Oswald Eaves OSB who served both Little Mosna and Cuerden, bought three acres of land at Brownedge in 1780, building a chapel and a house on the site. Fr Eaves, therefore, was the first Parish Priest of Brownedge and recorded the events leading up to the opening of the new church in his account book – ‘Laid the first stone at Brownedge June 5th 1780. Came to dwell there the October following, and on the 23rd December 1780 said the first Mass’. Fr Eaves remained as Parish Priest until his death in 1793 when he was succeeded by Fr John Atkinson OSB, Parish Priest between 1793 and 1822.
The chapel built by Fr Eaves remained in use until 1826 when Fr Anselm Brewer OSB, having purchased a parcel of adjoining land, built a new chapel with a small tower at a cost of £1,652. Mannex’s Directory of 1854 described the church as ‘a beautiful Catholic chapel, in a most delightful and picturesque location’. Between 1847 and 1883, Fr Anselm Walker OSB served as Parish Priest and it was he who converted the original chapel into a house and built a cloister, at a cost of £80, connecting it to the new chapel. In 1861 new schools were built in Brownedge Lane and Duddle Lane and in 1866 a 120ft high spire was built, holding a peal of six bells. 1864 had seen the arrival of the Sister of Charity in the parish, the order remaining in the parish until the 1960s. In 1880 the school in Brownedge Lane was rebuilt and a Parish Room was built on part of the site of what is now St Mary’s and St Benedict’s Primary School. In his Country Churches and Chapels of 1872, Hewitson describes the church as follows: ‘There is not a country church, whether Protestant or Catholic, we have yet visited which can be at all compared to this in decorative effect, in richness of tone, in elaborateness of detail, in the manu hued colours and rare beauty of its sanctuary, and in the fullness and perfection of its artistic treatment throughout’.
In 1891, enlargements and alterations were commissioned by Fr Bernard Pozzi OSB, the result being the church, which stands today. The architect, Peter Paul Pugin, son of the better known Augustine Welby Pugin, was asked to largely rebuild the church in the gothic style, although it appears that the original tower and spire were left untouched. The work involved adding the Apse, together with Transepts, the Sacred Heart Chapel and Lady Chapel, lifting the roof of the Nave and adding the rose windows. The church was extended in length by some 100ft, giving a total length of some 192ft, including the chancel and porch. The work was largely complete by August 1892 at a cost of £13,000.
Between 1906 and 1907 the present Priory was built under the direction of Fr Basil Clarkson OSB, Parish Priest between 1900 and 1912. In 1912 a new Parish Hall was opened at a cost of £2,600 and a new Lady Altar was unveiled. 1912 also saw the arrival of Fr Anselm Turner OSB as Parish Priest. In 1915 it was discovered that poor foundations had caused subsidence and that dryrot was a causing problem. Remidial work costing £1,600 had been completed by June 1916 and involved the construction of flying buttresses to the external walls and the removal of a number of coffins so that a dry area could be created which encompassed the entire church. In 1918, ten stained glass windows were fitted to the Nave, a number of which commemorate Benedictines who have served the area, and, in 1920, five fitted to the upper level of the Sanctuary.
In 1919 the present Stations of the Cross were unveiled at a cost of £260, having been paid for by fourteen members of the Parish. Following the end of the Great War in November 1918 in which a member of the Parish, Corporal John McNamara of School Lane, had been awarded the Victoria Cross and subsequently killed in action, it was decided to erect a fitting War Memorial. This was unveiled and blessed on 4th September 1921 on Brownedge Green. In 1926 a new Code of Canon Law made it necessary to define the boundaries of the Parish, a requirement which also applied to the neighbouring parishes.
In 1927 the peal of six bells were replaced by a peal of eight smaller bells and at the same time a new clock was installed in the tower. This clock, which remains to the present day, has the distinction of being, in all but size, exactly the same as the better known Big Ben at Westminster. The new bells were blessed on the High Altar by Abbot Edmund Matthews OSB on 5 February and rang out for the first time on 4 March. On 16 June 1935, Trinity Sunday, five stained glass windows depicting ten English Martyrs were unveiled in the Ambulatory behind the Sanctuary. In 1940 Fr Dominic Wilson OSB succeeded his brother Fr Philip Wilson OSB as Parish Priest.
During 1949 the spire was re-pointed, the clock faces re-painted and the grounds improved. In 1953 an organ from a Preston Congregational Church was purchased to replace the old pipe organ, which was believed to date, in part, from 1688. In 1954, Father Gabriel McNally OSB oversaw the installation of the present Sacred Heart Altar. Fr McNally was also responsible for the installation, in 1958, of stained glass windows in the Sacred Heart Chapel, which had previously been part of the old Abbey Church at Ampleforth. Dry rot was once again discovered and remedial work was undertaken during the 1960s in an attempt to cure the problem. In 1959 the secondary school, St Mary’s, was opened at Fourfields and in 1967, work began on a new building for the primary school in Browedge Lane, together with the construction of the Catholic Club. In 1970 the steps behind the High Altar were removed, allowing the Priest to face the congregation and in the same year the church was completely re-wired. During the 1970s, further changes were made to the interior of the church by Fr Leonard Jackson OSB, Parish Priest between 1976 and 1986, and included the erection of a partition to separate the Sacred Heart Chapel from the main body of the church. In the period between 1994 and 1996, Fr Alban Crossley, Parish Priest between 1992 and 1996, also undertook several changes. These involved the extension of the Sanctuary out into the main body of the church, bringing the Altar further forward and necessitating the removal of several rows of pews. A new Baptistry and Ambo were also formed. The next major period of works took place between 1999 and 2000 during the tenure of Fr Bede Leach OSB as Parish Priest, when treatment for dry rot had again to be undertaken, together with much internal restoration, re-modelling and re-decoration. A new heating system was installed and the Sacred Heart Chapel partition was also removed. The Stations of the Cross were refurbished and the Tabernacle, moved to the Ambulatory in 1996, was restored to its former position.
To mark the completion of the work, the Brownedge Festival was held in May 2000 and since then, Festival has been held annually and has developed into both a Parish and Community Festival attracting visitors from far and wide, together with annual art and photography competitions which attract well over 200 entries of an extremely high standard.
Fr Bede Leach left the Parish in late 2000 and after a brief period when Fr Colin Battell OSB administered the Parish, was succeeded by Fr Francis Davidson OSB followed by Fr Terence Ricahrdson OSB and, finally, Fr George Corrie OSB. In early 2016, it was announced that Ampleforth Abbey would, with much regret, be withdrawing from the Parish and handing over its care to the Diocese of Salford. The end of 236 years of Benedictine custodianship at Brownedge came on 31 August 2016. After a brief period during which the Parish was again administered by Fr Colin Battell OSB, the First Sunday of Advent 2016 saw the arrival of Fr Mark Harold from Rome where he had been Vice-Rector of the English College, heralding a new chapter in the life of the Parish.