Tuesday 2 April 2024

First post-Reformation Catholic church in Welsh valleys saved from closure

Taking Stock - Catholic Churches of ...

The first post-Reformation Catholic church built in the Welsh valleys has been saved from closure thanks to grants totalling almost £1million.

Parts of St Illtyd’s, Dowlais, Merthyr Tydfil have been roped off due to falling debris from the roof and rainwater has also caused extensive damage.

Urgent repairs will soon get underway to replace the failing asbestos roof covering with Welsh slate to make the roof watertight. 

Grants supporting the work has come from the Albert Gubay Charitable Foundation, the National Churches Trust and the Welsh Government in the form of the historic environment service, Cadwe. 

It will be possible to reclaim VAT for the work under the Listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme.

“We are so grateful to our generous funders, were it not for their support I don’t know how we would have kept the building open,” said parish priest, Canon Barry English.

The new roof will incorporate solar panels, and a wildflower planting scheme is being planned for the grounds.

The Grade II listed church was built by Irish migrants fleeing the Great Famine of the 1840s and the building continues to be a home to a thriving multi-national and multi-ethnic community. It is on a steep hillside and operates on split levels. 

The ground floor contains the worship space and the undercroft a busy community centre. 

The latter has become a hub for community activities that include collaboration with Brecon Anglican Cathedral, the local Malayalam and Filipino communities, schools and other community organisations.

Fr James Carroll, a mission priest, built the church in 1846 employing JJ Scholes as the architect. It was paid for by Dowlais Iron Works and local miners, most of whom were Irish migrants. The number of these grew in the 1840s as the Great Famine took hold in Ireland.

Fr Carroll died of cholera in 1846 and is buried in the church. St Illtyd’s was reordered and extended in 1894 by Benedictine monks who also installed an ornate reredos. 

In the 1900s the church had a congregation of over 4,000 Catholics with schools, processions, a social club. The large stained-glass windows behind the altar depict SS Patrick, David, Benedict and Illtyd. There is also a recent work by Kevin Sinnott, a Welsh painter, depicting the growth of the Church in the Valleys.

The Archbishop of Cardiff, Mark O’Toole, said: “The archdiocese is grateful to everyone who generously contributed towards the cost of restoring and renovating this important Catholic landmark.”

Peter Heberlet, grant manager at the Albert Gubay Charitable Foundation said: “We are pleased to be able to support this much needed project at St Illtyd’s church and community centre. After helping to fund a small project at the church a few years ago, we realised that this bigger project was needed so that the parish and its partners will be able to fulfil all their plans to support the community for many years to come.”

Claire Walker, chief executive of the National Churches Trust, said: “The National Churches Trust is excited to be able to support St Illtyd’s church to enable them to carry out urgent roof repairs. This will safeguard the unique heritage of this historic church and keep it open and in use for the benefit of local people.”