The Walk/Park Terrace, Merthyr Tydfil, CF47 8RG
A substantial Early English Gothic design for the Benedictines, and J. S. Hansom’s only Catholic church in Wales. It has a notable townscape presence, and an impressive internal volume. Original or early furnishings of note include a fine reredos in memory of the priest who built the church and some good stained glass. The attached brick-built presbytery slightly predates the church. The buildings and site make a significant contribution to the Morgantown Conservation Area.
Merthyr Tydfil takes the second part of its name from St Tydfil, a daughter of Brychan, King of Brecon in the fifth century, who is believed to have been martyred at Merthyr in around 420 AD. The history of the modern Catholic mission to Merthyr is not altogether clear. Cramer (1993, p.5) writes that ‘our sources are nearly all secondary, do not entirely agree, and commonly lack the definition we would like; eventually a diligent worker digesting the diocesan archives in Cardiff might establish the facts more clearly’. In 1797 the small number of Catholics in Merthyr were served by a priest based at Brecon. Between 1801 and 1841 with industrial expansion the population of Merthyr grew from around 8,000 to 35,000 (Attwater, 67). In 1838 Mgr Peter Augustine Baines OSB, Vicar Apostolic of the Western District, wrote a report to Rome recording the Catholic population of Wales as 6,250, of whom over half were in Monmouthshire and some 940 in Merthyr (Attwater, 75). During the first half of the nineteenth century Merthyr and Dowlais became one of the most significant centres for the Catholic revival in South Wales, starting in the 1820s, with an influx of Irish labourers to the local ironworks and collieries.
A mission was established in 1825 or 1827, served from Newport by the Rev. P. Portal; for a chapel he used an old loft over a slaughterhouse at Pondside. By 1840 Merthyr was one of sixteen missions serving the fast-growing Catholic communities of the mining region of South Wales, but many of these were without dedicated Mass centres. In 1839 the resident priest was the Rev. James Carroll, an Irishman, who lived in a workman’s cottage, beside which he had a makeshift school for around fifty children. Mass was said each Sunday, in the loft chapel and another was said six miles away in a wash-house (or public house, accounts vary) at Rhymney. Eventually Fr Carroll obtained land at Dowlais for the construction of St Illtyd’s church in 1844-6 (qv).
In 1859 the Benedictines took over the Merthyr mission at Merthyr with the Rev. Placid Sinnott OSB taking charge. He was given the use of four houses in Georgetown and intended to build a church but the landlord, Lord Dynevor, refused and so a school and hall was established instead, with a reserved space for the Blessed Sacrament.
In 1864 or 1865 Fr Sinnott moved to Rhymney, and Bishop Brown of Menevia entrusted the Merthyr mission to the Carmelites, led by a Dutch priest, Fr Elias van der Velden. In 1867 a fundraising appeal was launched for a church and monastery, but this did not bear fruit, neither did a proposed mission at Troedyrhiw. The Carmelites withdrew in 1878 and the Benedictines returned, under Fr Bernard Sanders and Fr Dunstan Ross. Fr Ross produced a scheme for a house which his successor, Canon Stephen Wade built in 1884-5. Costing just over £1,000 and known as the Priory, this is the present presbytery. Cramer attributes this to E. W. Pugin, which cannot be correct since the architect died in 1875. It may be by the successor practice of Pugin & Pugin, who at this time were working for the Benedictines at St Joseph Swansea and Belmont Abbey. Or perhaps more likely it is by J. S. Hansom, who built the church of St Mary; more research is needed.
Canon Wade then set about the building of a church, on land given by Col. Morgan (whose family owned much of the eponymous Morgantown district). J. S. Hansom of London was appointed architect and Thomas Rees of Merthyr Vale the contractor. The foundation stone was laid in 1893 and the church was opened on 27 September 1894 in the presence of the Bishops of Clifton and Newport. The church was described by The Tablet:
‘The church is a substantial and imposing edifice, and Canon Wade, the priest in charge, and his congregation are to be congratulated upon the fact that in ten years they have raised nearly £6,000 towards the building fund. The Church has been built from the plans of Mr. Joseph L. Hansom (sic), F.R.I.B.A., London, by Mr. Thomas Rees, contractor, Merthyr Vale. The walling is of Pwllypant stone relieved by box-ground Bath stone dressings. The interior facings are of Corsham Down Bath stone, as also are the pillars and all the inside stonework and arches. The interior consists of a nave, north and south aisles, and north and south transepts. Through lack of funds, the whole of the plans could not now be carried out, and the extensions, to be made later on, will include two side chapels, two sacristies, an organ, left and side chapels, and confessionals off the south aisle. The style is Early English. The facade at the west front has a charming appearance. The roof, which is of pine, is open timbered, formed of pointed principals, with collar beams. To provide for the future arrangements three arches have been erected at the eastern end for the sanctuary and side chapels. In addition to the west end entrances, there are entrances at both transepts. The total length of the nave is 84 feet, which will eventually be extended to 120 feet. The height from floor to ridge of roof is 56 feet. The opening ceremony was attended with the gorgeous ritual, the impressive ceremonial, and the exquisite music which the Catholic Church employs to add to the dignity of such functions. The sacred edifice was crowded, and beautifully decorated, especially in the vicinity of the altar, with its many lighted candles’.
The sanctuary and sacristy were added in 1904 (Wills, 1931), probably to Hansom’s designs. A hall was built on Bethesda Street in 1905 (later an infants’ school). Canon Wade died in 1909 and a high altar was erected in his memory, consecrated by Bishop Hedley on July 1910. In the same year altar rails in memory of a Mrs Bernasconi and a font were installed. In 1921 the organ gallery was erected by the C.Y.M.S. of the parish, in memory of their deceased members, and in 1924 the Lady Chapel (now a side chapel) was solemnly opened and blessed by the Abbot of Ampleforth.
The Benedictines departed in 1930, and the parish has since been served by diocesan clergy. In 1934 a new parish hall was opened by the Mayor of Merthyr Tydfil, with Archbishop Mostyn of Cardiff in attendance; it appears to be no longer in use. In 1992 the sanctuary was reordered by Nigel Dees of Hereford, with a freestanding altar provided using marble from the former altar rails. The mensa from the Canon Wade memorial high altar was set into the sanctuary floor and other parts were used as a base for the tabernacle. An ambo was made from the former pulpit and the organ replaced by an electronic instrument. An addition to or remodelling of a lean-to addition to the north aisle (providing WCs) may also date from this time. Today St Mary’s is the principle church of the four churches of the Merthyr Tydfil parish.
The church is described only briefly in the list entry (below). That account can be supplanted by that from The Tablet in 1894 (above) and the following.
The church is in thirteenth century Gothic style, constructed of randomly coursed Pwllypant stone with Bath stone dressings and slate roofs (partly pantiles on the lean-to extension to the north aisle). On plan it consists of an aisled nave with transepts and a square-ended sanctuary with side chapels. The west front is tripartite, with buttresses framing a gabled porch with an arched doorway of three orders. There are five-light stepped lancet windows to the west and east fronts, triple lancets over paired lancets in the transepts, triple lancets at the east end of the side chapels, paired lancets in the nave and clerestory and paired lancets with plate tracery in the clerestory of the sanctuary. The transepts and side chapels are under lower ridgelines.
The interior is majestic and spacious, with Corsham Down stone used for the architectural detail. A modern glazed screen at the west end forms a narthex with a piety stall and archway through to the WCs in the north aisle lean-to addition. Above the narthex is a gallery accessed by a modern spiral stair in the northwest corner. The nave is of three bays, the arcades with octagonal piers with moulded capitals and arches with connected hood moulds, all painted. The timber roof is of king-post construction with wall posts springing from moulded stone corbels. A panelled confessional (with cusped blind tracery) and Lady Chapel give off the north aisle. The transept arches are taller than the nave arcades. The wide chancel arch is set on half-column responds. The sanctuary is arcaded to north and south, with stout polished granite columns with painted stone bases, capitals and moulded arches. The chancel roof is timber barrel vaulted, the chief ribs rising from tall stone wall posts. To the north is a Blessed Sacrament Chapel, to the south a Sacred Heart Chapel.
The following furnishings may be noted:
Reference Number: 11393
Date of Designation: 13/01/1988
Date of Amendment: 13/01/1988
Name of Property: Our Lady of the Rosary Roman Catholic Church
Unitary Authority: Merthyr Tydfil
Location: Occupying an elevated site above Brecon Road, between Pontmorlais West and The Walk.
History: 1893-4. “Built by Tom Rees of Ynysgored for Canon Wade”. Plan form of chancel flanked by gabled chapels, aisled nave, lower transepts, W porch. C13 Gothic style.
Exterior: Snecked facings, pained freestone dressings, slate roofs with parapeted gables and crucifix finials, elongated corner buttresses without set-offs. 5-light stepped E window with cusped lights and linked hoodmoulds; cinquefoil above clerestory. W front with triple gable-light over stringcourse, stepped 5-lancet window with hoodmoulds, attached shafts etc. Gabled porch under sill-band, moulded trefoil-headed doorway of 3 orders flanked by gablet-buttresses, double boarded doors up steps.
Interior: Interior of 4-bay chancel with attached shafts to springers of panelled pointed ceiling; 5-bay nave with openwork trusses and alternating round and polygonal piers, lean-to aisle roofs.
Architect: J. S. Hansom
Original Date: 1894
Conservation Area: Yes
Listed Grade: Grade II