Compiled by Fr John Cahalane 1971
Historians and archaeologists provide us with ample evidence that Catholicism existed in the Aberdare area, as far back as the early centuries, sometime circa 400 AD. We have, for example, local place name as Groes Bychan, Abernant-y-Groes etc., which suggests that Celtic Crosses may have stood upon these sites.
The present Town Hall in Aberdare was built on the site of a Tavern named Bon-y-Groes, meaning stump of a Cross, we are informed that these Crosses were erected after the Norman Conquest, in the time of the Cistercians. Religious Services at these Crosses were probably conducted by Celtic Monks, from Llandough and Caerleon. At Plasdraw half a mile from the centre of Aberdare, the ruins of a Cistercian Chapel or hermitage, could be seen until the beginning of this century. The Pre-Reformation Church of St John the Baptist in the town, now used by the Church in Wales, existed at the same time as the Hermitage at Plasdraw. The Cistercian monks in both places, catered for the needs of those working on their farms, and grazing of the Common Lands. These monks were attached to the abbey at Caerleon, which later moved to Llantarnam Abbey at Cwmbran.
The late Reverend Ivor Parry, a brilliant scholar, in a paper read Historical Society of Christianity in Aberdare informs us that “St John’s was erected in 1189, the Services and the Sacraments in the Church in Aberdare were conducted in Latin. In matters pf religion, Aberdare was firmly linked with Rome, and so matters continued until the Tudor times.”
By the 16th century the identity of Aberdare as a separate Parish was well established, but with the dissolution of the Monasteries, the lands at Llantarnam including the manor of Penrhys and farms at Aberdare, were confiscated and transferred to the New See of Gloucester and remained so until the disendowment of the Church in Wales in 1920.
In the 16th century Aberdare consisted of just a few houses clustered around St John’s Church, with scattered farm houses around the district. But the discovery of rich seams of coal, and iron ore in the area, changed all that, and by 1830 the population had risen from the scattered few, to the number of 3,000, doubling itself every ten years until 1861 when it had risen to 32,000 and 1900 it reached its maximum of 43,000.
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.
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 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.
A 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.
Father Armand Hamelin, described at a “genial little French Abbe.” 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.
Father James O’Reilly, who later became Vicar General of the Diocese in 1914, came here in 1882. Of the many priests who ministered in St Joseph’s, this good priest must certainly be the outstanding one. He did tremendous work during the 28 years he spent here. It is written of him that: “He built up a Catholic people with a true Catholic spirit and tradition. He found our little church bare; he left is beautiful and fit for the worship of God. He found a poor school/chapel in Mountain Ash, then served from Aberdare and left a magnificent Gothic Church free from debt. He found an unfinished building in Hirwaun, and left a useful Chapel with cottages. He found an empty Presbytery, and left it a comfortable home for a priest, He built the Baptistery, the Sacristy and the Sacred Heart Chapel. He built our New School which was opened in January 1911, by Bishop of the Diocese, and he served for many years as Guardian of the Poor in the Merthyr Union.
Great things accomplished by a great 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.
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 first burial recorded in the Register was in 1876. From that year until 1920, deaths numbered 240. It is interesting and sad to note, that over a third of these deaths were children under 10 years of age, and that seventy of these died in infancy, i.e., as babies. It is a tribute to modern medicine and Medical men, that this trend of infant mortality is a thing of the past. It may be added, the same may be said of the other end of the scale.
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.
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.