New book celebrates history of Lancaster church

A new chapter in the history of St Joseph’s RC Church will be celebrated online this autumn.

Monday, 12th October 2020, 3:45 pm
Fr Philip Conner's dog, Bosco, takes a rest in a wheelbarrow during work on the new community garden.
Fr Philip Conner's dog, Bosco, takes a rest in a wheelbarrow during work on the new community garden.

October 20 sees the launch of a new book telling the story and history of the Skerton church.

The imaginative format features two books in one and includes colourful illustrations by Rebecca Sheerin with clever graphic design by Rob Hotchkiss combined with old photographs of people connected to the church and events which have taken place there since it opened in 1901.

The Grade II listed church was restored last year, thanks to a £194,400 Heritage Lottery Fund grant, and the book reveals not only the story of the building and parish by creative writer Ruth Baker, but also charts the history of Catholicism in Lancaster.

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The new book, which will be launched on October 20.

“As part of the work funded by the HLF grant we wanted to reach out to the wider community and find a completely different way of presenting its story in book form,” said parish priest, Fr Philip Conner.

It’s a story that covers the area’s role in the Reformation and Lancaster’s 14 Catholic martyrs who were tried at the Castle and executed for their faith at a site near Williamson Park.

It moves on to explain how the Coulston family, who gained wealth through the leather trade, helped to establish the parish of St Joseph’s. Margaret Coulston paid for a new Catholic school in Skerton and then donated the nearby land and house where she lived to build the church. She saw it open and in 1909 was buried outside the entrance where a memorial cross marks her grave.

The history, compiled by architectural historian James Crowley, includes chapters on Gillows who produced the church’s beautiful woodwork, and architect Peter Paul Pugin, of the famous Pugin family, who designed St Joseph’s.

Ruth and Phelim Kennedy seal their lockdown wedding with a kiss in St Joseph's new community garden.

The book also covers the war years and emphasises how Skerton suffered particularly during World War One with 41 people lost from the streets downstream of Skerton Bridge between the river and Lune Street and a further 75 in the area between Aldrens Lane, Pinfold Lane and the river.

After the Great War in 1919, St Joseph’s celebrated its first ordination into the priesthood, a local lad, James Duffy, whose family lived near the church before it was even built.

World War Two saw 19 men from the parish killed including a Polish airman who had recently married at St Joseph’s, and also the addition of evacuees from Salford and Essex who attended the school.

Among memorable moments in the post war years were the canonisation of two of the Lancaster Martyrs in 1970; the opening, in 1986, of the nearby St John’s Hospice; and the launch of St Joseph’s Amateur Operatic Society which performed for more than three decades.

A tour of St Joseph's Church during the recent Heritage Open Days.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic hit, St Joseph’s has continued to make its mark on history by providing online services for the first time.

Parishioners have also been trained as tour guides and took part in September’s Heritage Open Days when the church’s new community garden was opened to the public.

The garden behind the church has been another lockdown venture, created by volunteers, and has already produced vegetables and fruit for jam. It was even the unusual location for a reception after Lancaster couple Ruth and Phelim Kennedy’s lockdown wedding at the church.

“Heritage Open Days gave us the impetus to look outside ourselves,” explained Fr Philip. “When lockdown hit, a sense of fear built up in the community so we developed various initiatives.”

Margaret Coulston, centre, who donated land and money to build St Joseph's Church. Also pictured are Mrs Smith and Fr Thomas Murphy.

Outreach has included the Guardian Angels who’ve kept in contact with the housebound and those living alone while other volunteers have run errands.

The church has continued its support of the Food Club at the Melbourne Club and adapted Little Joe’s Clothes Club. Five new Facebook groups have been introduced too including a children’s corner and one for prayer and worship.

The book, priced £5, is available from the church or can be posted out for £7. The book launch takes place online at 7pm on October 20 and anyone wishing to participate should email [email protected] for the Zoom code or contact through the website here