High Street, Bala, LL23 7AE
A town centre property said to date originally from 1609, making it the oldest Catholic church building in the Diocese of Wrexham. A simple chapel was established in 1947-48 in an old stable block behind what had been a fish and chip shop. Said to be the first church outside Portugal dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima, it is a popular place of pilgrimage. The church is largely hidden away behind the buildings on the High Street frontage, but the group makes a good contribution to the Y Bala Conservation Area.
There was a small Catholic presence in Bala in the nineteenth century, for whom a Jesuit priest based at Ruthin would occasionally say Mass, but this ceased before 1875 and it was not until the 1932 that Mass was said on a regular basis in the town, served from Dolgellau and held in the Victoria Hall. Around 1935 Fr Eric Green (parish priest at Dolgellau) purchased a site near Bala Lake for the construction of a church; he drew up building plans himself (The Universe, 25 August 1935), but the scheme came to nothing.
In 1937 the Sisters of Nazareth opened a Convent at Llanycil, a quarter of a mile away from the town, and despite there being no church a parish was established, with the chaplain to the Sisters also serving as parish priest. The convent, Victoria Hall and various local houses served as Mass centres and gradually the Catholic community increased. Chaplains served the parish until 1946, when a Dutch Dominican, Fr James Koenen OP was appointed full-time parish priest. Fr Koenen had a great devotion to Our Lady of Fatima and encouraged the parish to pray especially to her for the foundation of their own church. A few months after his arrival Fr Koenen saw a property for sale, a former fish and chip shop and café, with house and stables to the rear. Within four months the parish raised £1,800, enabling purchase of the property.
The property, which is said to date back to 1609, is believed to have been the location of the first Welsh Baptist service held in Wales (Fatima Findings, September 1955, p. 3). Bala being a Calvinist Methodist stronghold, there was some opposition to the opening of a Catholic church in the town.
In 1947 work began to convert the building for use as a church and presbytery. Geoffrey Webb, Professor of Art History at the Slade School of Fine Art, was consulted on the choice of architect (letter in diocesan archives dated 22 December 1947) and recommended Sebastian Comper or William Henry Randoll Blacking (respectively the son and a pupil of the noted Anglican church architect J. N. Comper). Neither was engaged, probably due to the limited funds of the community, and Fr Koenen and members of the congregation undertook much the work themselves. The panelling for the sanctuary was supplied by Hayes & Finch of Liverpool.
The church opened on 15 June 1948, and is said to be the first outside Portugal to be dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima. Present at the opening were the Portuguese Vice-Consul and the Consuls-General for Panama, Chile and Salvador (The Catholic Times, 20 June 1948 p. 2). A statue of Our Lady of Fatima, blessed by the Bishop of Leiria in Fatima, was presented to the church; on arrival at Liverpool docks in 1948 it was transported in an open-top car via Chester, Wrexham, and Llangollen to Bala, where it was carried in procession through the town.
As well as being the parish church for Bala, the church became a centre of devotion to Our Lady of Fatima. Bala was seen as the heart of Protestant Wales, and Fr Koenen saw the development of a Catholic stronghold here as a major step in restoring the Catholic faith in Wales. The town quickly became a place of pilgrimage and on Sunday 4 July 1954 witnessed one of the largest demonstrations of the Catholic faith in Wales in modern times, when 20,000 pilgrims attended High Mass celebrated by Bishop Petit of Menevia on the shores of Bala Lake.
To mark the Millennium in 2000, a confessional was converted into a shrine of Our Lady of Fatima. Built by local builder Ellis Gwyne Jones, this incorporates sculpted Welsh slate detailing by Mike Watts and a stained glass window representing the spinning sun of Fatima, designed by Sr Jen Bronham, a Loreto Sister from South Wales, with the assistance of the stained glass artist John Shannon (The Liverpool Daily Post, 9 December 2000).
Today the church is again served from Dolgellau and remains a popular place of pilgrimage.
The presbytery and piety shop are located on the high street, with the church at the rear, accessed via a covered passageway to the side of the shop and a walled courtyard beyond. The buildings are of rendered rubble coursed stone construction, the render on the street frontage lined out to imitate ashlar. The roof coverings throughout are slate. The presbytery is two-storied, with a gabled first floor and dormers over the piety shop and to the rear. There is a tiled image of Our Lady of Fatima from Portugal on the wall of the presbytery. A carved wooden date plaque on the wall in the courtyard records the purported date of the building (1609). The church is a single-storey former stable block of five bays with a pitched roof and timber wall-mounted bellcote with plaque marking the date of its erection (25 March 2005), and projecting side chapel/shrine. The windows are wide lancets with opaque double glazed units in uPVC frames, and the door is arched.
Inside, the church is 55ft long and 15ft wide, and is able to accommodate 120 people. The nave is of four bays, with windows in the west and north walls and two small skylights. The original timber-framed roof is exposed, and is of raised cruck construction, with exposed studwork in the gable end of the sanctuary. The floor is oak but covered with carpet in the nave and sanctuary and slate in the side chapel/shrine. The walls are lined with concrete slabs with large mortar joints to the height of the roof beams and plastered above, all painted white.
At the west end is a carved oak statue of St Jude, of uncertain provenance. The side chapel/shrine has slate lined walls with carved words from the Magnificat in Welsh and English, and there is a stained glass window representing the spinning sun of Fatima (further details above). The statue of Our Lady of Fatima, presented in 1948, is of painted wood and is from Portugal. The distinctive Stations of the Cross are also believed to be Portuguese; painted ceramic and circular, they have central reliefs and painted Welsh text on the lower rim. The font is located at the east end of the nave, and is of carved and painted stone, octagonal with quatrefoil and painted shield details, with a brass and enamelled dome cover. The benches are of pitch pine and were acquired by Fr Koenen from a local Methodist chapel.
The sanctuary is up one step and its walls are panelled with oak. The altar installed after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) is of table type, slate with carved ‘A’ and ‘Ω’ on the uprights highlighted in gold paint. The tabernacle plinth matches this, while the tabernacle itself is of brass cylindrical type with domed top, applied leaf and ‘IHS’ detail and coloured glass beads. The crucifix above the tabernacle was carved by Ferreira Thedun, who carved the miraculous statue of Our Lady at the Shrine in Fatima. The ambo is oak and probably original, while the celebrant’s chair is more recent and also of oak, with a carved cross detail.
Original Date: 1609
Conservation Area: Yes
Listed Grade: Not Listed