History of the parish of Our Lady and St Werburgh Catholic Church, Clayton

A brief history of our parish from its founding, its extensions, parish priests, to the current arrangements, the parish hall and the community.

Strong Parish, Firm Foundations

Father Daniel Kelly, the parish priest at Holy Trinity, Newcastle, arranged the purchase of a field adjacent to Seabridge Lane from Newcastle-under-Lyme Corporation in 1956.

Fr Kelly had first explored the possibility of buying the land now occupied by St James's, the Anglican Church in Clayton Road. The few houses in the Clayton area at the time were part of the Newcastle parish.

The Diocese paid £2,430.7s.op in March 1956 for 3.5 acres of land, required for the "erection of a church, presbytery, church hall and school."

Sister Rosarii, who was to become the school's headmistress, continues to serve the parish. She recalled a "great big field" covered in thistles, in the middle of which was "a great big hole" that was once a pond. Bishop Kevin Dunn recalled fishing for newts. The pond disappeared when the Church was built, he said.

Seabridge Lane was a narrow one-way street, and there was a small cottage where the Kingsdown Mews properties now stand.

In 1958 the Diocese sold part of the field back to the council so that Seabridge Lane could be widened. Another part of the field was sold at a later date, during a game of golf, allegedly. This was despite a "Save our Field" campaign that saw banner-waving parishioners descend on Newcastle's civic offices; a petition signed by residents; and "direct action" by a brave and dedicated ground force.

Sr Rosarii was there: "Every day they took up the turf off the field, and every night we put the turf back on the field ... we had lights and a barrel of beer. When they went home we put the turf down, a whole crowd of parents. We put the turf back down every night and they got fed up."

Mass at Clayton Lodge

Fr Francis Johnson, the first priest of the new Clayton parish, celebrated Mass on weekdays at his home - 21 Wye Road, Clayton - until 1958. Weekend Masses were celebrated in the conservatory at the Clayton Lodge Hotel. "We came up early on a Sunday morning to clean out the smell of cigarettes and beer," Sr Rosarii said.

Work commenced on the building of a church hall and presbytery. Fr Johnson would go on to serve the parish for more than 20 years.
Sr Rosarii recalled that Fr Kelly used to sense that St Werburgh would pray on the "lovely long walk" beside two tall trees near to the cottage, so he "insisted that St Werburgh was included in the name of the parish".

The Original Church and First Mass

Archbishop Francis Grimshaw formally opened Our Lady and St Werburgh's Church Hall on 3 June, 1958. The celebrants of the first Mass included
Fathers F. Johnson, A. Brennan, C. Adams and P. Ryall. The altar servers were Michael Barrow, Terry O'Neill, Derek Taylor and Robert Colclough. Clayton Lodge Hotel was the venue for a dinner to mark the occasion, at a cost of 15 shillings per person - more than the consecration reception!

The church hall had a very large screen at the front of the sanctuary. The screen would be wound down for social and fundraising events including bingo, barn dances and jumble sales.

Bishop Joseph Cleary formally opened Our Lady and St Werburgh's Primary School in 1967. It was built, Sr Rosarii said, in "the middle of nowhere". Only a single, narrow path to the school was laid. Volunteers used blow lamps to burn off the weeds, and laid and rolled black ash for a playground. Sr Rosarii was appointed head teacher, and there were 96 children on the first day, 9 January.

The Parish hall

St Dominic's Grammar school in Hartshill was closing and the parish acquired two mobile classrooms, which were joined together to form our parish hall in 1981. A team of volunteers, who spent much of their spare time on the building work over a period of more than two years, included Frank Barlow, Arthur Quinn, Bill Thomas and Steve Rowe.

A local engineering company constructed the roof, aided by the volunteers. Frank and his team laid the foundations and the floor. Arthur explained that the floor has "a series of pillars all the way under here, joists running this way, more joists running that way, and then there is a three-inch floor underneath your feet".

Once the parish hall was complete, the church hall was "kept as a church", the screen was sold, and the parish was able to hold more functions.

Improvements

Fr Pat Gilsenan wrote to parishioners in June 1986 saying: "It was always the intention one day to build a proper church befitting the needs of a fast-growing parish". The Archbishop had declared on a recent visit that the time had come to build the long-needed church and, once it was built, the "original church hall" would revert to "its intended social use as a parish hall and community centre".

No new church was built, however, and in time the existing church and parish hall would be extended and substantially improved.

During the late 1980s Fr Pat oversaw the building of a new porch and entrance door. The body of the church itself was enlarged by the addition of side aisles to replace the side entrance corridors.

Fr Malcolm Glaze oversaw major improvements to the church during his time as parish priest. He wrote to parishioners in 1993, setting out the plans:

"[The work] involves demolishing the east end of the building, which was originally designed as the stage, toilets and kitchen area of the parish hall. It will be rebuilt to a design with only the needs of a church in mind. The sanctuary area will be widened, but will not be so deep as at present and will not appear to be cut off from the rest of the church by the praescenium arch containing the roller blind. A Blessed Sacrament chapel will be provided in place of the toilet and kitchen areas ... The sacristy areas will be reorganised and a new Reconciliation room will be provided [with access] directly from the main body of the church ... There will be a completely new first floor meeting room ... As funds allow new sanctuary furniture will be provided, including matching sandstone altar, lectern, baptismal font and tabernacle pedestal. The sanctuary will be carpeted in a manner appropriate for such an important area of a church. A new public address system will be installed with a deaf aid loop system."

All of this was made possible by the huge fundraising efforts and kind donations of a large number of parishioners and supporters. It included provision of a new crucifix, several statues, a new altar and the bench seating.

Father Malcolm commissioned the crucifix and the statue of St Werburgh, which were carved out of wood. The statues of Mary and the Sacred Heart of Jesus at the back of church were formerly at the City General Hospital (now part of the University Hospital of North Staffordshire) and were donated when the hospital chapel was closing. The altar and lectern were cut out of stone and donated to the church. The statue of St Joseph was donated by the Sisters of Mercy at St Bernard's Convent, Newcastle.

Father Simon Stephens commissioned alterations and improvements to the presbytery during his stay from 1999 to 2003.

Father Stephen Fawcett has overseen improvements to the parish hall and commissioned the floodlit cross, erected in 2006, and the new stained glass windows installed to mark the consecration of the church.

The Community

The parish has grown significantly over the years, with the development of the area around Clayton including new housing at Westbury Park and Seabridge.

The spiritual growth of the parish has been reflected in the enthusiasm of parishioners sharing their memories at the recent "trip down Memory Lane" meeting, and in some of the comments made in response to the recent parish survey. For example:

"To me the parish is alive, caring and exciting."

"As a new member of the parish, I've never felt as welcome in a parish as I have here. Support is fantastic."

"As a non-Catholic I have always been made to feel very welcome."

In a short history like this, covering 50 years, we could not even begin to try and acknowledge all of those people who have helped and supported the parish in many different ways. They include cleaners, flower arrangers, caterers, readers, altar servers, musicians, ushers, collectors and gift aid officers, office workers, newsletter writers, webmasters, parish and other committee members, event organisers and helpers, but there are many more.

Some are "high profile" but many people of all ages do lots of work behind the scenes with great humility. This is what makes the parish a community. So in this section of the history we have merely identified just a few highlights of our parish life.

The first baptism, in 1958, was that of Sandra Doyle. The first wedding took place in 1959, of Herbert Edward Bourne and Esther Bridget O'Neill (Terry's sister), who were married by Fr Johnson. The first funeral was for Mary Ellen O'Neill (Terry's mother).

Fr Johnson turned up for one jumble sale in 1959, took off his hat and coat and never saw either of them again. His only concern was the hat, which was a gift from his days as a US army chaplain, but no-one had sold it. At Mass the next day, Fr asked: "Whoever had my hat, would they bring it back?" This went on for weeks, a parishioner recalled, "and it never came back".

A Parish Mission was led by Fr Pat and a mission team in March 1989. Three months later, Fr Pat's newsletter recalled that it was "a time of deep reflection and spiritual renewal for each of us - a time for renewing our relationship with God". But it was only a start, it added, and parishioners had identified areas for growth - prayer and liturgy, adult formation, welcome, ecumenism, families and youth, and reaching out.

The parish held its own 10k road race and three-mile fun run in 1989-92. Sr Rosarii explained her own remarkable performance: "I practised every day with the children. I'll tell you what I did. I went out through the gate, over as far as that road, down Rydal Way. Alan Jones picked me up and he took me along a bit of Dartmouth Avenue, and then he brought me back and he dropped me at the bus stop and I got out and I ran. I was first past the post - nobody knew I did it illegally."

Sr Rosarii retired as headmistress of the school, aged 60, in 1991. She was chauffeured to school on her last day in a Rolls Royce, to be greeted by banner-waving children. A mass of thanksgiving was celebrated to mark her 25 years of service to the school, the parish and the community.

On Sister's last day at the school Mrs Collins, one of the teachers, told the Sentinel that Sr Rosarii had not just been a teacher. "She has been a mother to everyone in the school," she said.

There is an element of mystery surrounding a sponsored pilgrimage to Chester led by Fr Malcolm, who - according to reports - was unaware for some time that he had lost a pilgrim in the canal. More recently, Fr Stephen led an equally enjoyable pilgrimage to Chester Cathedral, the resting place of St Werburgh since the year 875.

We have several active groups in the parish, including three youth groups who meet regularly, take part in various projects, pray and have fun together. We have two Parish House Groups who meet monthly, for discussion and prayer, in the welcoming environment of a parishioner's home.

Our Over 55s Club is a happy, informal and friendly group engaging in a variety of activities including talks and music, quizzes and bingo. The Parents and Toddlers Group caters for babies and toddlers in a friendly environment with plenty of toys for the children. Our Journey of Faith and CAFE meetings are for all people, Catholic or not, who want to deepen their knowledge of the Catholic faith and especially for those who want to consider joining "the biggest club in the world".

Having the primary school and the church on the same site is very convenient to both, as Mr J Devine the current Headteacher says, "The school of Our Lady & St Werburgh's has always enjoyed close links with the parish and it has been a privilege to work with many hard working and inspirational parish priests. At the school's Blessing and Formal Opening, on 12th April, 1967, Bishop Joseph Cleary asked God the Father to, 'Visit this school, we pray thee Lord and drive far from it every snare of the enemy; may thy angels dwell here and keep in peace all who assemble, teach and study within these walls'. Throughout the years which followed, the school's reputation has grown steadily and is seen as an integral part of the parish community. Our last Religious Education Inspection (Nov 2006) described the effectiveness of this provision for the Catholic life of the school and religious education as outstanding. The report highlights the school's strong Catholic ethos and states that, 'Collective worship and the spiritual and moral development of the pupils are excellent'. None of this could have been achieved without the parish and school working closely together to nurture and develop our pupils' spiritual, moral and academic development."

All in all, as one parishioner at "Memory Lane" summed up, one of the great strengths of the parish is "... that we've mourned together, laughed together and really celebrated things together. When a parish goes through that it makes it a stronger parish. And how we remember people ... I think that's important in a parish".

Stained Glass Windows

In the beginning ...

As part of our preparations for the consecration we considered the church flooring, replacing the tabernacle on the main sanctuary, improving the church lighting, illuminating an external cross on the church and having stained glass windows. Perhaps the most important of all these was the tabernacle, but the one that took the greatest effort and impacts on the church the most was the stained glass windows.

Why Stained Glass windows?

Any church building should inspire reverence and seek to be welcoming. This is not an easy balance, but ours achieves it very well. It is undeniably welcoming, but the idea of stained glass windows was that, similar to the holy pictures and statues around the church, they would add to the sense of reverence and devotion.

What would the windows portray?

Often windows have pictures of saints or scenes from Christ's life. This was particularly important when most people couldn't read, when windows and paintings were the primary way people got to know about the Gospel stories. We tried to consider what would be more appropriate now.

Since there are twelve windows it was suggested that we focus on the twelve fruits of the Holy Spirit, primarily because then the windows would serve as a teaching aid as well as a help to devotion.

"By their fruits shall you know them," Jesus taught (Mt.7:15), so the windows would be a constant challenge to us, as to whether what was reflected in them would also be reflected in our community - love, peace, patience, joy etc.

Furthermore, some of the fruits are perhaps forgotten qualities in our culture, which makes it all the more important that we proclaim them.

General Design of Windows

Tanith Harvey of Goode and Davies Ltd. was commissioned to design and make the windows. It was decided to have a certain uniformity, to emphasis the unity of the 12 fruits - expressed in the scroll on which the fruit is written, the tongue of fire above it, representing the Holy Spirit, and the patterned glass below.

However, it was also felt appropriate to express the diversity in which these fruits are revealed in us through the different styles of window and the two styles of border. The result is a set of windows that is neither predictable nor too chaotic. The centre piece, top symbol and small crosses that make up the outside border are all hand-painted.

Parish Priests

The founding Parish Priest for the church was Father F. Johnson and he served the parish for twenty years. Father W. McGann took over in 1970 and served the parish until 1980. Father Plunkett Shannon then served the parish from 1980 until 1985, Father Pat Gilsenan from 1985 until 1990, Father Malcolm Glaze from 1990 to 1996, Father Anthony Rohan from 1996 to 1999, and Father Simon Stephens from 1999 until October 2003.

Our next Parish Priest was Father Stephen Fawcett who was the first to serve in addition the parish of Our Lady and St John the Baptist, Ashley. He served us until August 2010, when he left to take charge of Soli House, Stratford-upon Avon. During his tenure, the church was consecrated by Bishop McGough; he also masterminded major refurbishment of the church in Ashley, refurbished the hall at St Werburgh's, and established LinkLine, the children's Sunday liturgies, the Youth Groups, and most of the other parish groups that continue to thrive today.

Our current Parish Priest, Fr Anton Madej scj, has been with us since September 2010: his first Sunday Mass fortuitously was the combined parish Mass at St Werburgh's on 12th September. He was formally inducted as Parish Priest by Father Peter Weatherby, Dean of North Staffordshire, on 19th November 2010.

Current Arrangements

The current arrangement of the school and the church being on the same campus is a rare thing and very convenient for both the school and church as there are opportunities for cooperation between them. The original community was small back when the church was founded. It served the area of Clayton and continues to do so.