The history of Catholicism in the area now encompassed by the town of Cwmbran began some eight centuries ago. Llantarnam Abbey was founded by the Cistercian Monks in 1179 and occupied by them until 1536 when, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, it was confiscated and put into the hands of a private family.
Priests continued to say Mass in secret places in the area, and it was after saying Mass that one of the Welsh Martyrs, St.David Lewis, was captured outside a blacksmiths shop opposite Llantarnam Church in 1679. He was imprisoned for a time and then put to death in Usk on 27th August.
1864 – THE BIRTH OF THE PARISH
For most of the Eighteenth Century, ours was a quiet farming area with small clusters of housing at Cwmbran, Croesycieliog, Llantarnam and Pontnewydd. The construction of the Monmouthshire Canal from Pontnewynydd to Newport changed the face of the Eastern Valley.
The Monmouthshire Canal Act was passed in 1792 and the Canal was completed in 1797. The canals gave the Welsh Ironworks direct access to the sea. The increasing importance of the port facilities led to migration of people to the southern part of the coalfield. Among other developments in the region, a forge was established in the centre of the village of Cwmbran near the canal.
A large blast furnace was built at Forge Hammer between Cwmbran and Pontnewydd in 1800 and an Ironworks opened nearby a few years later. In 1870 these combined under the ownership of the Patent Nut and Bolt Company (later Guest, Keen and Nettlefold) and began to produce railway material.
This firm built a number of small houses for their work-force in various parts of Cwmbran, such as Spring Vale, Nightingale Row, Forge Row, Stone Row and Brick Row — the last two we now know as Wesley Street. They were also responsible for constructing a number of roads in the village, including Wesley Street.
In the middle of the Nineteenth Century, many Irish families had been driven out of their home land by the famine and poverty and arrived in South Wales, looking for employment. Some eventually arrived in Cwmbran where they succeeded in finding jobs in the local iron works and the coal mine. Although coal mining had been carried on in Cwmbran for many years, it became of prime importance in 1879 when the Patent Nut and Bolt Company opened up the main adit. In its peak in 1913, 1.200 men were employed and the output was between five and six thousand tons per year. The mine was a major employer of labour until it closed in 1921.
For the Irish families moving into the area, their only opportunity to attend Mass was to walk along the tow path of the canal to Pontypool or Newport. In 1864 an approach was made to Father Alzear, parish priest of Pontypool, to ask him if one of the Franciscan Fathers could travel to Cwmbran each Sunday to celebrate Holy Mass. A promise was made that a priest would be provided if a suitable place for Mass could be found.
The history of the Franciscan Missions in this area describes Cwmbran as
” . . a wide straggling village … where about 380 Catholics are employed in the furnaces and extensive iron workings which have sprung up in the last few years.”
Life for these people was very hard. “The work was always going on night and day, Sundays and weekdays alike, without pause or respite, until men lost all account of time and hardly knew when the Sunday came round.”
A visiting priest of this time talks of men working in slavish and almost brutal conditions.
“One evening I entered a cottage at Cwmbran, where a begrimed unshaven Irishman was sitting down to a comfortless meal of weak tea and bread-and-butter; he looked so utterly done up that he certainly seemed to require more substantial food, and, on inquiring why he did not have meat or bacon, he told me that he was working long spells – that is, fifteen or sixteen hours at a stretch – and he got so puzzled he could never tell the day of the week, and so he was ‘afeard’ he might eat meat on a Friday if he did not ‘stick to bread-and-butter!’ This poor fellow had not been to his Easter duties for years, and had only heard Mass on Sunday two or three times during that period; but to eat meat on Friday appeared to him ‘in lowest depths a lower still’ of degradation.”
At first, Masses were said in a room in a Bakery at the end of Spring Street, but after a time this was found to be far too small. The only room large enough to contain the congregation was the club room of the Forge Hammer Hotel where Catholics were made extremely welcome for the price of two shillings and sixpence per week.
“An altar was formed of a table raised on four bricks to give it sufficient height, its unsightly legs being concealed by an antependium. The reredos consisted of the backs of three tall chairs, covered with a piece of red baize: a clean linen altar-cloth, a crucifix, a couple of bright brass candlesticks, and a few vases of flowers, gave a devotional appearance to the contrivance. The ‘asperges’ was given from a soup-plate, with a small branch of yew-tree; the cruets were two usually used for vinegar or pepper. Everything was in the extreme of poverty. The room was reached by a sort of ladder, the ceiling was almost on your heads, and it required great skill to get safely across the rickety floor. More-over, as there was frequently a club meeting late on the Saturday evening, when the father arrived at 8 o’clock on Sunday morning the first thing he had to do was to take a broom and sweep away the abundant traces of the late carouse, before arranging the altar and benches for the Mass.
Underneath the room was an old stable inhabited by families of pigs, whose incessant grunting was somewhat disturbing, to say nothing of the unsavory odours rising through the broken floor.”
The afternoon was devoted to teaching up to forty barely literate children who arrived in the room.
In 1866 two young men walked over the mountain from Risca to hear Mass on a Sunday morning, and to ask the Franciscans if Mass could be celebrated in Risca.
After two years of saying Mass in this club-room, a sudden inspiration came to the priest who served the Mission. As he was preaching one Sunday during Mass he said :
“My dear brethren, we must have a Chapel built at Cwmbran.”
1867 – THE IRON CHURCH
It was no easy job persuading the people of Cwmbran that the ‘Papists’ should have a piece of ground, but eventually a quarter of an acre was acquired on a long lease at the rent of £6 per annum. The newly awakened Catholics of Cwmbran gave free labour to clear the ground and to dig the foundations. £30 was collected in the first few months towards the cost of the building. About £150 was begged and the rest of the sum required was loaned by a benefactor and in six weeks an iron building capable of accommodating 250 people had been constructed- On the Feast of the Circumcision, 1st January, 1867, the new Chapel dedicated to ‘Our Lady of the Angels’ was solemnly blessed and opened. The sermon was given by the Very Rev. B.B. Vaughan, Prior of the Benedictine Monastery, Belmont.
With the Chapel now opened, one of the Franciscan Fathers would arrive early every Sunday morning and after celebrating two Masses, would remain in the Church until after evening Vespers. On weekdays the building was used as a school, the younger children being taught in the mornings, and the older in the afternoon. They were taught by Sister Antonia, a nun from Pontypool and a lay teacher, Miss Watkins. For a time, both teachers resided in a cottage at the back of the Church. Later this cottage was occupied by one of the Franciscan Fathers and then by various families of the parish.
1882 – THE STONE CHURCH
By the late 1870’s the congregation had grown so much that a larger building was necessary. On 6th November, 1882, Bishop Hedley O.S.B. laid the Foundation Stone of the Church It was to be Gothic in style, built of red sand-stone and would cost £1,500. It was designed by Mr.Paul Andre of Horsham, Surrey, and built by William Jones and Son, Newport.
10th May, 1883, was a very proud and joyous day for the Catholics of Cwmbran, because it marked the opening of the new Church of Our Lady of the Angels. Bishop Hedley arrived at Cwmbran Railway Station and walked in procession to the Church led by the Abersychan Fife and Drum Band. The streets were lined with large crowds of people.
The choir was assisted by some members from St. Albans parish in Pontypool. A public tea was given in the Infant Schoolroom and later the people were entertained with a concert by the Abersychan Fife and Drum Band.
To commemorate the opening of the new Church, the parishioners donated a large framed picture of Our Lady, surrounded by Angels, to represent the name of the Church.
‘OUR LADY OF THE ANGELS’
This picture was hung above the Altar where it remained for over fifty years.
The Sanctuary of the Church was surmounted by a large arch with folding doors which were closed on school days so that the building could also be used as a school. There was also a Sacristy, Infants School and choir loft.
The parish continued to grow in strength. In 1887 when Bishop Hedley visited Cwmbran to administer Confirmation, he remarked on the rapid growth of the Catholic faith in Cwmbran where thirty eight converts had been received into the Church in only a few years.
In 1891, the Franciscans, who had worked so hard to establish the faith in this area, left the Friary in Pontypool to continue their work in other districts. Father Degen was appointed Parish Prior of St. Albans, Pontypool, from which Cwmbran and Blaenavon were to be served. For many years a young priest called Father Fitzpatrick traveled to Cwmbran every Sunday morning, celebrate Mass at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. and remain in the area until after evening Rosary and Benediction. He also visited Cwmbran once during the week to meet as many parishioners as possible.
1908 – THE FIRST PARISH PRIEST
By 1908 the Catholic population had increased considerably and there was a feeling amongst the parishioners that the time had arrived when there should be a parish priest in Cwmbran. Four parishioners, Thomas Hopkins, William Love, Joseph Daley and Fred Stanley, were appointed to approach the Bishop and when guarantees had been given that the parish would support a priest, Father Denis Quigley was appointed the first resident Parish Priest of Cwmbran. At his first official visit to the parish he met the teaching staff and school children and in the evening he was introduced by Father Fitzpatrick to his new parishioners at a concert in the Church. One of his first duties was to present an illuminated address and a purse of gold to Father Fitzpatrick who had been appointed Parish Priest of All Saints Church, Ebbw Vale. A presbytery was purchased on Clomendy Road and in January 1909 Father Quigley moved into his new residence ‘San Gerardo’.
The existence of a full-time Priest in the parish meant that the people of Cwmbran could have daily Mass with Rosary and Benediction on a Friday evening. The church was still used as a school during the week and every weekend the school furniture had to be moved out and the benches and kneelers moved into the Church. There was always plenty of willing help however and Father Quigley remarked that he never had to ask the people of Cwmbran a second time for any work to be carried out.
Father Quigley quickly began to involve the people of the Parish in various societies and met with great enthusiasm. He encouraged people to start up branches of the Catholic Young Mens Society, the Catholic Ladies Sewing Guild, St. Agnes’ Guild and the Altar Society – all meeting in the Infants schoolroom. A Social Studies class was formed with members meeting in ‘San Gerardo’ to continue their education.
A Building Fund was set up so that a separate school could be built. Subscriptions were collected weekly from all families. The school children also played a large part in fund-raising and their annual concerts were always very successful. Their first donation to the Building Fund was the £1.00 First Prize won by the school choir at the celebration to mark the Investiture of the Prince of Wales.
One of the major fund-raising schemes was the agreement of every Catholic employed at Guest, Keen & Nettlefold Works to pay a contribution from their wages each week towards the Building Fund. The management of G.K.N. not only approved this scheme, but agreed to make the deductions each week and to forward a cheque to the Parish Priest. This scheme continued until the late 1940’s when it was reluctantly discontinued by G.K.N.
A joyous day for the parish was 13th July, 1924, when the first member of the parish was ordained to the priesthood. Father Alfred Winsborough was ordained in St. David’s Cathedral, Cardiff, and celebrated his first Mass in the parish the following day.
1924 – THE SCHOOL IS BUILT
In 1924, after a long but worthwhile struggle to raise funds, Father Quigley approached the management of G.K.N. to negotiate the sale of some land to build a school. His negotiations proved far more successful than anyone dared hope because the firm sold the land to the Catholics of Cwmbran for the nominal sum of one shilling. When this announcement was made the men of the parish, led by the members of the Catholic Young Men’s Society, volunteered to give their free time to prepare the site and dig the foundations, thus following the footsteps of their predecessors sixty years before.
On the afternoon of Thursday, 22nd October, 1925, Father Quigley and the parishioners witnessed the culmination of their hard labour and sacrifices when the new Catholic school on Coronation Road, (now Llewellyn road) was opened and blessed by His Grace Archbishop Francis Mostyn of Cardiff. The building which consisted of five classrooms with accommodation for 160 children was designed by Mr.F.R.Bates. Archbishop Mostyn congratulated the parishioners on their great efforts and spoke of the importance of Catholic education. Father Quigley thanked Guest, Keen & Nettlefolds for the gift of the land and praised the firm for their help, not only to the Catholics, but to all the poor people during the difficult times.
When the teaching staff and the junior children had been transferred to the new school, the parishioners began cleaning and renovating the Church. The folding doors and the old furniture were removed and new furniture installed. The following Sunday was declared a Day of Thanksgiving.
September, 1926, brought the sad news that Father Quigley had been appointed Parish Priest of St. Helen’s Parish, Barry. On the first Sunday of October, when Father Quigley preached his last sermon as Parish Priest of Our Lady of the Angels to a very crowded congregation, which included many non-Catholics, he said :
“Priests will come and Priests will go, but the Parish remains because it is your Parish. I have spent eighteen wonderful years in your midst which I shall never forget. No-one could have been given better or more loyal support, and I sincerely hope and pray you will continue to give the same loyal support and co-operation to my successor.”
Some time later Father Quigley returned to Cwmbran when a large crowd of Catholics and non-Catholics filled the Olympia Cinema to give him a presentation.
1928 – THE PARISH HALL
Father Quigley was to be succeeded by the Very Rev. Canon Dent, but ill health prevented his continuing his duties in Cwmbran. Father Conway, recently returned from the African Missions, took charge of the Parish until April, 1927 when Father John Jarvis arrived in Cwmbran. He found a flourishing parish with many societies and, impressed by the enthusiasm and commitment of the parishioners, obtained permission from the Archbishop to begin constructing a Parish Hall. This was opened on the evening of 31st January, 1928, by Archbishop Mostyn, and parishioners were delighted to welcome back on that evening, Canon Quigley, the former Parish Priest, and Father Winsborough, a former parishioner.
During his address, the Archbishop said that despite many difficulties, the Catholics of Cwmbran had achieved all the things essential to a Parish, a Church to pray in and attend Holy Mass; a Presbytery; a school and a Parish Hall. Father Jarvis thanked the parishioners for their unity, generosity, loyalty and devotion.
The Parish Hall, one of the largest in the County, was soon in constant use by the parishioners for social evenings, meetings and lectures. A tennis court was laid between the school and the Hall and the Tennis Club came into existence. The back room of the Hall was equipped with billiard tables and used as a C.Y.M.S. Institute.
This Parish Hall proved to be a great blessing during the years of hardship of the 1930’s, because it provided a focal point for the parish and great community spirit existed. An Amateur Dramatic Society was formed, the billiard hall, the Tennis Club and the Celtic Football Team all provided entertainment. Father C.Re dy, the Parish’s first curate, worked hard with the youth, assisted by some senior members of the C.Y.M.S.
In 1933 a new Presbytery was purchased on Hill Top.
On 18th December, 1937, a second parishioner, Thomas Donovan, was ordained and on Sunday, 2nd July, 1939, the first ordination was celebrated in the Parish Church when Francis Poyner became a priest.
Despite the depression and high level of unemployment, the Church experienced considerable improvement. During this period new altar rails, vestments and sanctuary lamp were donated by generous benefactors. Stained glass windows on the sanctuary and in the body of the Church were endowed by various parishioners. Later, statues and Stations of the Cross were purchased. In 1936 members of the C.Y.M.S. collected amongst themselves to provide a pulpit for the Church. Also in 1936 was the first Corpus Christi procession to take place through the streets of Cwmbran.
In July, 1940, Canon Jarvis was appointed Parish Priest of St. Joseph’s, Penarth. His thirteen years in Cwmbran had been difficult because most of the labour force had been unemployed or on short time, so that funds had been scarce. However he praised the ‘ … co-operation of the parishioners who were always ready and willing to do all they could for the Church and the Parish Priest.’ The parishioners showed their appreciation when they crowded into the Parish hall and a presentation was made to him by Father John Cahalane who succeeded him as Parish Priest.
It was in 1946 that Llantarnam Abbey finally returned to Catholic possession when it was bought by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Annecy. Father Cahalane celebrated the first Mass there after a lapse of just over 400 years.
Few improvements could be made in the Parish during the war years, but in 1953 a more modern altar was purchased for the Church. By then the Parish had been completely cleared of debt and there was a balance in the bank.
Cwmbran was now developing as a New Town and, with the Catholic population having increased considerably, the Parish Church was badly over-crowded on Sunday. A second Mass centre was set up in a Hall in Pontnewydd, and Father Cahalane also acquired a plot of land on Avondale Road, Pontnewydd, with the intentions of building of Church in that area. Unfortunately in November, 1954, before he could carry out his plans, he was moved to be Parish Priest of St. Joseph’s Parish, Aberdare.
Father Cahalane was later succeeded by Father David O’Flynn who found a loyal band of workers who helped him to carry out further alterations to the Church. Two confessionals were constructed at the back of the Church and the choir loft extended. Later a new pipe organ was purchased by the parish in memory of Father Browne, an assistant priest of the parish who died in a car accident. New classrooms were built on the land between the Junior School and the Parish Hall.
Father O’Flynn continued Father Cahalane’s work in establishing a Parish in Pontnewydd. Fie acquired extra land on Avondale Road and the building of a new Church began.
On the second Sunday of June, 1961, the new Church dedicated to St. David, was filled to capacity when the first Mass was celebrated there. It was officially opened in July, 1961, by Monsignor Peter Gavin, Vicar Capitular of the Archdiocese of Cardiff. The new Church remained in the charge of Father O’Flynn, who with two and sometimes three assistant priests administered St. David’s Parish until 1963, when it was made a separate parish and Father Francis O’Donnell was appointed its first Parish Priest.
ST. JOSEPH’S CLUB
For many years some members of the Parish made great efforts to form a Catholic Social Club. Their enthusiasm and determination were rewarded in 1965 when St. Joseph’s Social Club was opened in the newly developing area of St. Dials. The original trustees of the Club were : Dr.F.O’Duffy; Mr.R.Jansen and Dr.B.Wilcox.
The Club officers were :
Chairman Mr. L. O’Toole
Secretary Mr. T. Cahill
Treasurer Mr. T. Crowley
Mr T.Crowley was unable to take up the position of Treasurer because he moved out of the area. Mr.P.McGrath replaced him. Mr.L.Kerry was nominated Vice Chairman. Mr.M.J.McClenchy was the Club’s first President.
The opening ceremony was performed by Mr.Leo Abse M.P. who said that he hoped that this venture would help unite the Catholic community and the non-Catholics together under one roof.”
So successful was the Social Club that in November, 1971, a further extension was opened by C.C. Oliver James O.B.E., Chairman of Cwmbran Council.
In December, 1967, Canon O’Flynn was appointed Parish Priest of St. Joseph’s, Swansea. During his time in Cwmbran Canon O’Flynn achieved a tremendous amount of work for the Church and the school. The gratitude of the Parish was shown by the large numbers attending his presentation, when a large number of clergy of other denominations attended the function.
A MODERN SCHOOL AND CHURCH
Father Trevor Driscoll replaced Canon O’Flynn as Parish Priest of Our Lady of the Angels Parish. He soon realised the need to provide further accommodation both for the Church and the school. The Infant School still resided in two rooms adjacent to the Church. The building was almost ninety years old and badly in need of modernisation. It was decided that a further extension be built at the Junior School site to provide four new classrooms, a hall and a canteen.
In January, 1971, Father Driscoll’s plans came to fruition and the Infant School pupils were accommodated in the modern classrooms they are still using today. Plans then went ahead for the extension and structural alterations to the Parish Church.
Work began demolishing the Infants School on 7th August, 1972. On 24th September an Organ Recital for parishioners was given in the Church and the following day everything was removed from the Church for the renovations to begin. For almost a year Mass was celebrated each Sunday in the Parish Hall. During the week the School Hall was used.
Despite several setbacks the shell of the new Church was completed by Easter and interior work commenced. As August drew near, few people believed that the Church would be finished on time, but on 14th August, 1973, Bishop Daniel Mullins blessed the new Church and officiated at the Mass. The Church was full and parishioners were delighted to see so many past Priests and Sisters who had been instrumental in the development of the Parish of Our Lady of the Angels. There were also representatives of many other denominations and civic dignatories.