Building » Aberdare – St Joseph

Aberdare – St Joseph

Monk Street, Aberdare, CF44 7RF

An untypically neo-Romanesque design of the 1860s by Benjamin Bucknall, which together with its contemporary presbytery forms a group of high townscape value. Furnishings of note include stained glass window by Hardman and a reinstated set of painted copper altar panels from the former high altar. The baptistery and Sacred Heart chapel are sympathetic slightly later additions.

Aberdare developed rapidly in the nineteenth century following the discovery of rich seams of coal and iron ore. From 1830 to 1861 the population grew from 3,000 to 32,000, reaching a peak of 43,000 in 1900. As in many industrial areas of South Wales, this increase included many Catholic immigrant workers and their families, mainly from Ireland but also from Italy. Initially the Catholic community was served by travelling missionary priests from Abergavenny, Brecon, and Cardiff, with Mass being said in various properties in the town including the Bailey Arms, the Cross Keys and the Cardiff Castle Inn. A mission was established in 1854, by the Rev. Augustine Neary (evidenced by baptismal registers and the Golden Jubilee window of 1904).

By the early 1860s Aberdare was serving Treforest, Mountain Ash, Hirwaun, and Ferndale. It acquired its own mission priest (the Rev. John Dawson) in 1866, who with the help of local supporters (Mrs Russell and Mrs Evans) was able to secure funds to build a church and presbytery. Construction began in 1866 and the church was opened on 3 October 1868. The Cardiff Times reported:

‘On Sunday last the Catholic Church just erected at Aberdare— whose incumbent is the Rev. John Dawson, who by his kindness of heart and urbanity of manner, is well respected by all—was solemnly opened by the Right Rev. Bishop Brown. The ceremony commenced with high mass, coram episcopo, or in the presence of the bishop, who, vested in his pontificals, occupied a throne on the left side of the chancel. The Rev. Peter Lewis, of Swansea, sang the mass, assisted by the Rev. Fathers J. Vaughan, of Belmont Priory, near Hereford, and F. Signini, of Cardiff, as deacon and sub-deacon. Several of the catholic clergy were also present. The church was densely filled by a respectable congregation of both catholics and non-catholics, who displayed a very friendly feeling on the occasion. Haydn’s No. 1 Mass was beautifully rendered by the catholic choir of Swansea, assisted by catholic singers from Newport, &c. The Bishop preached an impressive sermon, which was attentively listened to. After mass luncheon was served at the Cardiff Castle Hotel, of which a very large company partook. The evening service consisted of vespers, followed by a sermon by the Very Rev. Prior Vaughan, of Belmont Priory, and solemn benediction. An equally numerous and attentive congregation was present. The church is a simple but ecclesiastical-looking and substantially-built edifice. Its architectural features are derived from types which exist in the ancient christian churches of Syria. The internal dimensions are 60 feet by 32, and 36 feet in height; and altogether, including the gallery, the church will seat upwards of 400 persons. Attached to the church is a convenient presbytery, or residence for the priest, which is approached from the street through a garden court very tastefully laid out. The cost of the buildings, including church, presbytery and boundary walls, the altar, which is of stone, the benches, &c., together with architect’s fees, has been under £1,100. The work appears to be well executed. The architect is Mr. B. Bucknell, of Swansea, and the builder Mr. Richards of Aberdare’.

The Rev. Armand Hamelin, described as a ‘genial little French Abbe’ served at Aberdare from 1877 to 1882, and built the first Catholic school in the area as well as the school-chapels at Mountain Ash and Hirwaun. In 1881 a cottage hospital financed by the Marquess of Bute (the Bute Hospital) was established in the town; it was run by the Sisters of the Servants of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, who ministered in the parish from 1881-1912.

At an undetermined date during the time of the Rev. James O’Reilly (1882-1911) the baptistery, sacristy, and Sacred Heart chapel were added. Fr O’Reilly was also responsible for the completion of the chapel-school at Hirwaun and the building of the present church at Mountain Ash. The architect for the latter was Bernard Smith of London, and it is quite possible that he prepared the designs for the additions to St Joseph’s too. Alternatively, they might be early designs by F. R. Bates, who had a penchant for polygonal projections (cf Ferndale, 1912). In 1910 the Sacred Heart chapel was furnished with stained glass by Hardman & Co of Birmingham in honour of Sr Gonzaga, who ministered in the church, school and mission from 1885-1910 (The Tablet, 26 March 1910).

The presbytery was extended in the 1920s. Later, the Rev. John Cahalane (parish priest 1955-70) carried out alterations and improvements to the value of £15,000, including a new organ, sanctuary reordering and replacement of tile floors with Rhodesian teak. More recent changes have involved the conversion of the baptistery to an entrance, and removal of the plaster ceiling in the nave, revealing the original timber roof construction. Six painted copper panels from the former high altar have been salvaged and remounted on the east wall of the sanctuary.

Today the church is clustered with Mountain Ash and Hirwaun, and is served from Mountain Ash.


The church is in neo-Romanesque style (or Syrian, as described in the Cardiff Times, 1868). On plan it consists of an aisleless nave with later polygonal side chapel and western baptistery, and a lower square-ended sanctuary with single-storey attachments. It is built of randomly coursed stone with yellow sandstone dressings (some of which are painted) and slate roof coverings. The gabled entrance front has a central round arched doorway with tympanum carved with an alisée patée cross. Above is a stepped round-headed triple lancet window. The polygonal baptistery abuts the entrance to the south, with carved reliefs of the heads of Our Lord and Our Lady on either side of a pointed trefoil-headed entrance. The polygonal chapel projecting from the south side of the nave has two round-headed windows; beyond this are two short round-headed lancets with a round window above and two single larger round-headed lancets with higher cills. At the east end the sanctuary is gabled and is under a lower ridgeline; a single large round window is placed centrally. Above, the east wall of the nave has been faced with slate. There is a projecting room to the south, a lean-to brick outhouse to the east and the sacristy and presbytery are beyond. On the north side is a paved area and approach to the church and presbytery. The north elevation has two pairs of round-headed lancets, each with a round window above, and single larger round-headed lancets in the other two bays. There is a doorway with red brick surround beneath one of the larger windows.

Inside, a stair in the northwest corner of the in the narthex leads up to the gallery. Below is a confessional, its doors with stained glass of Art Deco character. To the southwest is the former baptistery, now used as the regular entrance porch, its floor of reconstituted marble with large marble blocks and central pointed quatrefoil detail. There is a stained glass window of St John the Evangelist (in memory of John Breheney d. 1980). South of the baptistery is the Sacred Heart chapel. It is raised up one step and has ornate painted steel and brass gates with a painted central detail of the Sacred Heart; the floor has encaustic tiles and the marble altar is set on a reconstituted marble step. There is a timber statue of the Sacred Heart on the altar and stained glass and a brass plate in honour of Sr Gonzaga. A carved wooden relief of St Joseph and the infant Christ is in memory of Danny and Agnes Rees.

The nave is of three bays, with a teak floor; the walls are plastered and painted and the ceiling is timber and barrel vaulted. A plain round arch with chamfering at the sides separates the nave from the sanctuary. On either side of the sanctuary arch are plaster statues of Our Lady of Fatima and St Joseph with the infant Christ, and over the arch is a banner of St Joseph. The sanctuary is raised above the nave by two steps and has a forward altar of reconstituted marble with an applied relief of the Last Supper.

The following furnishings are of note:

  • Six painted copper panels on the east wall of the sanctuary feature saints and religious; from left to right, St Vincent de Paul, St Catherine of Siena, St Juliana Falconieri, St Thomas Aquinas, St Aloysius Gonzaga; and St Hildegard of Bingen. They formed part of the reredos of the original high altar and were recently recovered and reinstated in the sanctuary. The date and artist have not been established.
  • The three windows in the first bay of the north side depict the Eucharist (dated 1906), St David, and St Patrick; they all appear to be by the same manufacturer.
  • The window in the following bay depicts Our Lady of Good Counsel, after the image in the Augustinian church at Genazzano, near Rome.
  • The window of the easternmost bay on the north side depicts Our Lady of Lourdes; the inscription states it was fitted in 1894 in commemoration of the Golden Jubilee of the foundation of the mission.
  • The three windows in the first bay of the south side depict St James, St Peter, and St Paul; they all appear to be by the same manufacturer.
  • The window in the following bay depicts St Michael and the souls in purgatory.
  • The window of the easternmost bay on the south side depicts the Betrothal of Our Lady and St Joseph.
  • The windows in the Sacred Heart Chapel of St Aloysius and Bl. Margaret Mary are by Hardman & Co. and were installed in 1910.
  • A Baroque brass and marble holy water stoup in the sacristy is said to be French (so possibly given by Fr Hamelin, mission priest 1877-82). It has hinged doors with repoussé reliefs of the Annunciation, a baptism, knights receiving Holy Communion, and ordinations.


The church and presbytery were listed Grade II in June 2023, following Taking Stock. List descriptions at:’

Heritage Details

Architect: Benjamin Bucknall

Original Date: 1868

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Grade II