History of Catholicism in Aberdare

St Joseph’s Church & Catholic School
(Part from Fr John Cahalane 1971)

Under the heading “Aberdare Mission,” the appended article appears in “Cambria’s Catholic Chronicle,” a bilingual monthly:-

As we stand on Craig-Rhiw-Mynach, and gaze down at the busy mining town of Aberdare, in the lovely valley of the Cynon, our thoughts naturally wander over its history, which forms itself into four periods. Then as we ponder over these, our imagination begins to work, and different pictures seem to rise before us in this small vale amongst the hills of Sir Forganwg.

First, we see the scattered huts of the early British days, and catch sight of strange uncouth figures, clad in skins, or stained blue with the juice of the woods. We hear distant echoes of the Druid’s chant, as they cut the mistletoe with golden sickles from the sacred oaks, in honour of their gods. Or we see processions of people, led by the Druids, wending their way down the valley, along the banks of the Cynon, and we shudder as we think of the gory sacrifices offered on the rocking stone above Pontypridd, to attend at which they are probably going.

Mountain mists seem to gather for a while, and then, as they clear away, we our second picture Catholic Wales.

Britons practising the Faith sent from Rome, by Pope Eleutherius at the request of the British prince, Lleurwg (Lucius). Later (in 1093) the hills resound with the terrible cries of battle, when Rhys ap Tewdwr, the prince of Dynevor, is conquered on Hirwaun common by Iestyn ap Gwrgan and his Norman allies.   Rhys ap Tewdwr (who actually died in Battle outside Brecon) not at Penrhys which is between the Rhondda Fach and the Rhondda Fawr, a monastery founded by his son, in order that daily the Holy Mass might be offered for his father’s soul, come some monks across the mountain, by the road called after them Rhiw-Mynach, to visit their brethren at the smaller monastery of St Elvan, the ruin of which may be seen in the wood of Plasdraw. Then, we see the little church of St John, built in the twelfth century, standing in its quiet graveyard, but (alas) robbed of the Faith of our Fathers.  There we see the simple agricultural folk going morning by morning to hear the Mass, there we see the babe baptized at the old font, and the dead laid to rest after Dirge and Requiem Mass have been said for their souls. We see the intense devotion of the people to the Mother of God, many of them making pilgrimage to the wonder-working statute and well of Our Lady of Penrhys.

The all is changed, and we fain would blot out the sight from our eyes. In the Vale of Cynon, as elsewhere, the plight of heresy has come down on the land. In despite of the Pope who said “Thou shalt not commit sin.” The tyrant Henry VIII, has changed the religion of Wales as of England, and to satisfy his greed for gold, has destroyed the monasteries of Penrhys and Elvan Sant. In the land of the Cymry the Faith died hard, though we know that Mass was sometimes said in the old homesteads of our forefathers by priests who came over by sea to labour for a short while, and then to suffer torture, butchery and death. But priests were scarce, Wales was thinly populated, the great houses were few, and by degrees a race grew up under the black joyless sway of Protestantism.

Then, we seem to awake from a dream, and below us in the valley, we see Aberdare of today, a large industrial centre with its many coal pits, its bricks works its railways stations, its town hall, its theatre and clubs, its handsome streets and fine shops, and its lovely parks. To find the daily Mass you must go, not to the little church dear to our memory of our Catholic forefathers; that has been stolen from us, but to the little church in Monk Street. To find the monks you must seek, not in the monastery of Saint Elvan, that lies in ruins, but a few miles away in the Priories of St Mary’s Merthyr Tydfil, and St Illtyd’s, Dowlais. The monastery of Our Lady of Penrhys has been destroyed, and her miraculous statue burnt, but Her Well is still miraculous; and the Mass is said in the church at Ferndale, dedicated to Her honour.

After what have well been called “the lean years” were passed, and “the second spring” had come, Aberdare was first served from Treforest, by Fr Marshall amongst others. Them Fr. Dawson, and for a time saying weekly Mass in a room in his house, and Sunday Mass, in the long room of the Cardiff Castle Inn, which then stood in Cardiff Street.

During these years of rapid progress, the population which flooded in, must indeed have been a very mixed one, attracted to employment in foundries and coal mines. Yet somehow, the percentage of Catholics amongst them was very small, compared with that of Merthyr and Dowlais just over the hill. Those two latter together, have a total population, equal of that of Aberdare yet the number of Catholics there is ten times greater than that of Aberdare.

Cardiff Castle Hotel, 26 Victoria Square
Cardiff Castle Hotel, 26 Victoria Square
(Picture courtesy RCTCBC)

The early days of Catholic life in our valley, when industrialism first came to it, is somewhat misty. It would appear that travelling priests, who were based in Abergavenny, Brecon and Cardiff, visited Aberdare on Sundays, for many years before the present Church was built. Usually, the Catholics attended Mass in a private room, generally at some Inn. The last place at which Mass was said, before the present St Joseph’s Church was opened, was at the Cardiff Castle Inn (later Victor’s Freed’s Music Shop), other Inns were used before that, Bailey Arms (now Barclays Bank). The Cross Keys (now the Rates Office) and others, as a rent of half a crown, in present coinage twelve and half pence, probably a workman’s weekly wage at that time.
The Bailey Arms, 12 Victoria Square (Barclays Bank)
The Bailey Arms, 12 Victoria Square (Barclays Bank)
(Picture courtesy RCTCBC)

In 1853 there were about 300 Roman Catholics in the town with a further 200 in Hirwaun, and it seems obvious that these were Irish immigrants either coming here directly from Ireland, or via Merthyr, to find work in the Iron and Coal industries, with a very small minority of local Catholics.

The Baptismal Register for the area commences at July 1854, when a child, Thomas Madden, was baptised by a Father Augustine Neary. Five more baptisms were entered for that years, and no further entries until 1860.

In 1860 fifty children were baptised by Father Bartholomew Casey, forty eight of that number are recorded to have been born in that year, a year of good harvest for the parish  census. Father Neary’s name occurs again, this time, at the beginning of the Marriage Register, when Thomas Loregan of Treforest was married to Margaret O’Connell of Newbridge.

Father Christopher Dugget followed Fr Casey. Looking through the Baptismal Register, it appears that Aberdare served such places, as Treforest, Mountain Ash, Hirwaun and Ferndale until each in turn became separate Parishes. From 1854 to 1866 the whole valley from Treforest to Hirwaun was served by only one priest in the area, until 1866 with Father Dawson, Aberdare became a separate Parish.

A Father Marshall came in 1863 and served here for three years.

Father Dawson became the first resident priest in Aberdare, he was the first parish priest of Tredegar in 1852. There was no church here when he came, and for two years or so, he celebrated Mass in some Inn. It was this good priest who, with the help of a Mrs Russell and a Mrs Evans built the present Church. It was completed and opened on the 3rd October, 1868. Fr Dawson remained in St Joseph’s until 1871. From 1868 there were 770 Baptisms entered, an average of 55 per year for the circuit mentioned above.

The Church was erected in 1868 and it was surely the vision of father Dawson, the parish priest, having built the church, to begin a school. Meanwhile, lessons of a kind were taking place in the back of the church, but under what conditions, how many children, and by whom, we have no record.

Fr Charles Limpens ministered here for five years, he died here, and is buried in the Old Cemetery in Aberdare.

Confirmation was first administered in the Church in 1873 by Bishop Brown OSB and by Bishop Hedley in 1877. The diocese was then that of Newport and Minevia.

Then came the gentle Fr Ryan, then who was a young priest.

Father Armand Hamelin, described at a “genial little French Abbe.” He came to St Joseph’s    in 1877. In his six years in Aberdare, he built not only the first Roman Catholic School in the area, but also, the School Chapel at Mountain Ash and Hirwaun. His greatest pride was in the establishment of the school, where he had met great opposition from the Aberdare School Board, who argued very strongly that there was no need for a Roman Catholic School.

The church already built, Father Hamelin had dreams of building a large convent and in 1877 he wasted no time in drawing up an agreement between himself and the Mother Superior of the Community of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary, based at Homerton, London, (and the approval of his Bishop) as follows:-

  •   The community undertakes to teach the Catholic Elementary Schools at Aberdare, Mountain Ash and Hirwaun and to provide a sufficient number of certificated and other teachers for the requirement of the Elementary Education act and to provide all requirements necessary to obtain the annual Government Capitation grant, which grant as well as school-pence (such fees?, as were collected from the children) and all other resources of School account revenue should be the property of the Mission (i.e. the Church).
  •   The Community undertakes to provide at least two English speaking sisters, who, as well as assisting in the Schools, should also, as far as possible, visit the poor and sick at their homes in the three Districts mentioned. The number of sisters must not be more than three, but may be increased in the future according to the wants of the Mission, as may be agreed upon.
  •    The Community undertake the Religious Instruction of the children and the Sisters will aid in all mission work. Also, if wanted, they will undertake all kinds of instructions, night-schools, industrial schools, etc., in connection with the Mission.
  •    The Sister shall make no collection whatever amongst the people, Catholic or Protestant, for their own benefit, or without the approval of the Priest, and, if anything be offered them on account of their services.
  •    The Sister shall make no collection whatever amongst the people, Catholic or Protestant, for their own benefit, or without the approval of the Priest, and, if anything be offered them on account of their services:-
  • It be money from the Catholics, there shall be an account of the same to the Priest and it shall be counted as part of their salary.
  • If it be an offering in kind either from Catholics or Protestants, they shall give no account for it.
  • If it be money from Protestant, they shall give no account for it.
  • All offerings received from benevolent friends shall be accounted for in the Book of the Community, if the money be for the poor or some good purpose.
  • The Sisters shall give their services gratis to the poor and sick whom they may be called to attend, Catholics or Protestants, but by no means will they be obliged  to attend:
  • Confined women until the end of their confinement;
  • Cases of syphilitic disease.
  • The Sisters are under the jurisdiction and authority of the Bishop, in spirituals and temporals, who will delegate to the incumbent of the Mission such authority.
  • The central and ordinary residence of the sisters shall be at Aberdare, but the sisters intended for Mountain Ash and Hirwaun shall reside at either of these places whenever their services are required there, namely for; Mass, Catechisms and Benediction.
  • The Reverend Armand Hamelin, on his part, shall give to the Community of sisters, thirty three pounds per year, and for each Sister certificated or uncertificated, to be paid quarterly, with which they shall provide for their food and clothing.
  • He shall also provide for the sisters a suitable home with all the necessary furniture for the schools and for the house itself, not including what they require for their personal use, of which furniture an inventory shall be made from the beginning, to which shall be added all new furniture that may come in to the house. This furniture shall remain the property of the Mission, which undertakes to renew and repair it, when necessary. The Sisters, however, shall be bound to take all due care of the furniture and fixings of the house or houses and if there be any destruction of loss through negligence, the Sisters shall be responsible.
  • The Mission shall also pay the Poor Rates and taxes charged upon the Sisters’ House and supply them with gas, fuel and water both for their own use and for the schools.
  • The Mission will repay the sisters the money they spend for their journeys to Mountain Ash and Hirwaun but when they have a house built of their own at those places, the Sisters will have no claim for journey expenses.
  • If any Sister shall fall sick, she shall be cared for on the expense of the Mission and, if any be infirm or unable to do her work she shall continue living in the house, provided she was at least 10 years at the Mission and was not over forty-five years old when she came first. In this case, another sister shall be sent to do the work and shall receive the salary instead of the infirm, who shall receive nothing.
  • If it should come to pass that any Sister should die, she shall be buried in the Catholic Cemetery at Aberdare on the expense of the Mission, and the priest shall say three masses for the repose of her soul.
  • The Reverend Armand Hamelin shall repay the journey expenses from London (second class) for each Sister newly come or changed on his demand. But, of any Sister be removed by will of the Reverend Mother, the journey expenses shall be on her own charge.
  • The present agreement shall terminate with six months’ notice on either side. The journey expenses back to London shall be charged to the party who gives notice, and in the case of dissolution of the agreement, the Sisters shall deliver back to the Mission all their furniture, according to the last inventory.
  • If any difficulty arise between the parties as to the fulfilment of the present agreement, it shall be settled by the Bishop in whose name the agreement is made.

At Aberdare on October 21st 1877
Armand Hamelin

J S Brown OSB
Bishop of Newport and Minevia
October 26th 1877.

Then in May 1878, he lost no time in applying to the Aberdare Education Committee for a grant towards the provision of a large room 75ft x 30ft (the building was as yet still under construction) when sufficient sums had been secured. This application was passed to the Aberdare School Board seeking their observations.

First Catholic School, Elizabeth St, Aberdare
First Catholic School, Elizabeth St, Aberdare

December 1878, the pupils of the Catholic School, who until then had been taught in the church in Monk Street, were directed to the present building in Elizabeth Street, the school being fully recognised by the Education Department.

The three story building known now as the Old School, was built in red brick, having Gothic style arched windows and doors, an impressive sight towering over the small cottages around, and the foundry below Nant Row. There were gardens, green grass in the present bottom yard, fruit trees and shrubs.

The first step in Father Hamelin’s marathon plan had been taken; the school had been built within the surrounding walls. It now remained to proceed with the building of the convent.

Added to this, as he was in sole charge of the three districts, he had plans to build Catholic chapels at Hirwaun and Mountain Ash, with the educational and spiritual needs of his ever-increasing flock being met by these worthy sisters.

Bute Hospital (Trap Surgery) Bottom of Abernant Road, Aberdare
Bute Hospital (Trap Surgery) Bottom of Abernant Road, Aberdare
(Picture courtesy of RCTCBC)

Bute Hospital

The Bute Hospital, founded and supported by the generosity of the late Lord Bute, one of the principal Catholic noblemen, and a large landowner in the district; has for more than thirty years helped the sick and consoled the dying, under the able nursing and untiring care of the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, the present superior, the Rev Mother Anselm, starting the work of the hospital in 1881.

3rd Marquess of Bute
3rd Marquess of Bute

Conversion to Rome, How it came about (3rd Marquess of Bute)

After the Marquess had made a lengthened tour abroad and returned to England, a   rumour, originating in Scotland, alleged that his Lordship had joined the Church of Rome. In   May 1867, he wrote to the “Weekly Register,” a Roman Catholic organ denying that he had any intention of becoming a convert to that Church but in the early days of 1869 it was publicly announced, and not this time denied by his Lordship, that he had been received into Roman Catholicism by Monsignor Capel at Nice on the eve of Christmas Day. In a leading article on January 9th, 1869, the “Cardiff Times” said: “That the step has deliberately taken in obedience to urgent taste; and leanings towards the forms, if not the doctrines, of the Roman Catholic Church, we have no doubt. We believe that the love of art exists in the mind of the Marquess as a thirst after the beautiful and the true, and, in so far   as this mental quality has governed its decision, that he has gone to Rome meaning to be       true to himself.”

Lord Bute’s Remains 17.11.1900

If Lady Bute’s arrival at the Mount of Olives with her husband’s heart is an episode with mediaeval associations, nothing could be more modern (observes the “Daily Chronicle “) than Lord Bute’s other wishes in regard to his obsequies.

His own great wish was that when his heart went to the Holy Land the rest of his body should be cremated in Scotland. The Roman decree which excommunicates all Roman Catholics who take part in carrying out cremations barred the way to the fulfilment of his desires. The nearest canonical short cut to the fulfilment of his wish was to fill his coffin with quicklime, and this accordingly was done.


The good Sisters of the Servants of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary, they did outstanding work in the parish for some thirty years from 1881 to 1912. Usually five in number, they lived for some time in Glannant St, and then moved to the Cottage Hospital, now the Trap Surgery, nursing and also teaching in the school. The little hospital was founded in 1881 and was supported by Lord Bute, thus it was known as the Bute Hospital. A plaque on the wall of the Sacred Heart Chapel in the Church bears tribute to the work of one of the Sisters, the inscription is as follows: “The two windows of this Altar were erected by the Congregation of the church, in thanksgiving to Almighty God, for the work of Sister Gonzaga in the school Church and Mission, during the twenty-five years from 1885 to March 1910.”

The sisters had not arrived, and the first headmistress of this new school was a Miss Kiley. She was succeeded in 1880 by a Mrs Benton who seemed to have left in the same year. Then a Miss Barry took over the headship.

Father Hamelin must have been very pleased to welcome the nursing sisters fromHomerton, London, who had come to run the new Bute Hospital, but he was still withouthis teaching nuns whom he had planned to receive form the same order (The Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary).

Father Hamelin, having taken of far too much he completely overstretched himself physically and financially. His convent was never to be. Entirely without money and deeply in debt, living in a bare Presbytery and having reached his crisis point, he was moved on by his superiors.

In five years, however, this tireless man had left us his wonderful legacy, the foundation of the school. He could leave with honour in that respect, despite his financial shortcomings.

He was replaced by Father James O’Reilly, who took over the parish in 1882, a young priest    of 26 who proved to be a charismatic character, in hindsight, an obvious miracle worker. He remained in Aberdare for 28 years, during which time he was able to raise money and clear the debts. He also built the Sacred Heart Chapel, the baptistery and sacristy, and erected the organ.

Sacred Heart Chapel, St Joseph’s Church Aberdare
Sacred Heart Chapel, St Joseph’s Church Aberdare

He also served for many years as a guardian of the poor in the Merthyr Union, He founded the Apostleship of Prayer, the Juvenile League of the Cross, the Catholic Young Men’s Society, and the Altar Society.

The teaching nuns arrived from London to join their nursing sisters. The school was placed in the very capable hands of Sister Gonzaga, who remained there for over 25 years doing wonderful work. A plaque in her honour is in place in the Sacred Heart Altar of the Church.

Memorial Plaque to Sister Gonzaga, St Joseph’s Church
Memorial Plaque to Sister Gonzaga, St Joseph’s Church

Eventually the school that was erected by Father Hamelin was found unsuitable by HM Inspectors and in 1908, Father James O’Reilly decided to build a new school utilising, for the purpose, the convent foundations laid by Father Hamelin. For this school he was fortunate enough to obtain free, the services of Mr G. Kenshole (architect and High Constable).

The new school adjoining the old was opened in 1911 by Bishop Hedley who remarked that   the people would do well to make the most of their priest while they had him. Meaning of those words became manifest when in March 1911, Father Hamelin O’Reilly, after a district pastorate of nearly 30 years, was removed from the parish to become Bishop’s secretary and later Vicar General, Canon of the Chapter, and Domestic Prelate to His Holiness the Pope, thereby receiving his reward for a lifetime of hard work in Aberdare, and changing his title by which he had been known for so long locally, namely Father O’Reilly VG. He left Aberdare for Brecon aged 56 and died in 1927 aged 71.

1882-1911Great things accomplished by this priest, who had the affection not only of his parishioners, but also of his fellow townsmen. On his departure from Aberdare, he was presented with an illuminated Address in Book form. The names of those who subscribed to the presentation are inscribed in the book: The High Constable, Chief Citizen, all the Professional men of the town, and several Ministers and Clergy of other denominations. Amongst these we find that of the local Vicar the Reverend Canon C.A. Green, M.A., who later became Archbishop of Wales, fraternal charity, for they saw in him a true friend and benevolent Pastor.

11th January the new Roman Catholic Schools at Aberdare were opened on Wednesday. The opening ceremony was performed by Bishop Hedley of Newport, with a gold key, the   gift of the builders. Also present were the Reverend Father O’Reilly, parish priest, headmistress Sister Gonzaga, and other Reverend gentlemen. Also Mr Kenshole, High Constable, Mr J.W. Hurst, Frank Williams, William Eschle, T Roderick, Mrs Davies (Aberdare Education Committee); Councillors W. Thomas, T. Walter Williams and T. Lewis, J.P.

Father O’Reilly left in 1911, and was succeeded by a Father Sutherland who remained until 1916, and he was followed by a Father Hallaran who served until 1918.   

Fr. Sutherland then began preaching at Aberdare, for the honour of God and of His Blessed Mother. During the short he has endeared himself to the hearts of his people; he had furnished the club and guild-rooms, started the Guild of St Agnes, taken great interest in the Catholic Young Men’s Society, and has done a great work in encouraging the young children to Holy Communion, and teaching them to visit the Blessed Sacrament daily. He was returned for the Town Ward in contest election for the Board of Guardians.

Miss Isabella Dickson took up post as an Infant teacher at the school under Sister Gonzaga. She remained at the school for 25 years. Much respected and loved, she was a wonderfully efficient Infants teacher

Sister Gonzaga retired to her convent and died there at Chigwell on 2nd June 1922. Her family name was Margaret Cleary.

Father Flood later Canon Flood, arrived as priest in 1918 and stayed for 11 years, during that time, he made many improvements to the property and extended the presbytery to its present size. He left in 1929 to become Parish Priest of Merthyr.

A Canon Dent followed and remained for 4 years.

Father John Forbes became priest in 1933. He was already in the Parish as a Curate since 1928, and he spent a total of 27 years in St Joseph’s. Most of that period was a difficult one. The 1930’s were years of depression, mines were closed locally, the Iron Works at Abernant finished, parishioners were unemployed, and whole families left the district in search of work. They were difficult times for everyone, but by the help of Concerts, Plays, etc., the Parish was kept solvent. Then during the Second World war, there was an influx of   Evacuee children from Birmingham and Cardiff, and during this period a Mass Centre was started in Godreaman.

Times were now improving, and Father Forbes began a very necessary improvement to the   school, the building of a new cloakrooms, this work was completed shortly after he had left to become Parish Priest of St Joseph’s Swansea in 1955. He earned the respect and the affection of the people of Aberdare, and proof of this was reflected, when he returned within a month, to a happy reception in the School to receive a Cheque for £500. The Parishioners well and truly made up for the tough times, during which he ministered to them in the poor days of the thirties. He left a good credit balance in the Bank for the Parish.

Father John Cahalane followed Father J. Forbes in 1955. After the long years of depression,   the property needed attention, and during the fifteen years here Father Cahalane spent some £15,000 in the church, House and School. The old organ was replaced by a modern Pipe Organ costing £3,000. Rhodesian Teak flooring replaced the worn Terra Cotta tiles, in the aisle and sanctuary. New electric lighting system in the Church and House. Suspended ceiling in Church, and new Christmas Crib Figures and new Vestments etc. The Freehold         Rights of the property was bought in 1964 for the sum of £250 plus legal costs, and many improvements were made to the Presbytery.

For many years, a Curate was necessary in Aberdare, as Hirwaun was part of the Parish until Hirwaun became separate Parish in March 1937, in fact, for many years after that, Aberdare supplied a priest there every Sunday, until general permission was granted for Priests to Triplicate when necessary. The latter changed things considerably, and the introduction of evening Masses meant that Hirwaun no longer needed assistance; it also meant the end of Godreaman as an out-station. Thus, a Curate was no longer required at St Joseph’s.
Financially, it meant a considerable saving to the Parish, and a further saving occurred when our School changed from an all-age school, to a Junior Mixed and Infants School in 1967, for previous to this Aberdare parish was responsible for payment of Bus Fares for school children from Hirwaun and out-lying areas, which amounted to a hefty annual sum.

Fr Cahalane retired in February 1970, at the age of 76. He left a very substantial sum invested with the Archdiocese for the Parish Fund. It represents the generous giving of a kindly people, who supported their Parish well and freely.

I who had been their Parish Priest for 15 years, in gratitude pay this tribute to them.

In February 1970, Canon B. Cosulich succeeded Father Cahalane as Parish priest of St Joseph’s Aberdare.