Nostalgia with Margaret Watson: Sad closure of our churches in the Dewsbury area

It is sad to see diminishing congregations in our churches when you consider there was a time when entire families went to church on Sundays

By Jane Chippindale
Thursday, 21st July 2022, 12:48 pm
Updated Thursday, 21st July 2022, 12:48 pm

Margaret Watson writes: Last week I wrote about Dewsbury’s Minster Church and the history behind it and how fortunate we are to have it in our midst.

I also mentioned how members of other churches in our local communities are struggling to keep their places of worship going.

It is sad to see diminishing congregations in our churches when you consider there was a time when entire families went to church on Sundays.

LONG SERVICE: Canon McMenamin, of St Joseph’s Church, Batley Carr, receives a cheque for £400 from a longstanding member of the church, Mr Battle, on behalf of parishioners

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    They contributed financially to their upkeep and in many churches you can still see plaques, pews, statues and leaded windows presented by grateful benefactors.

    Many children followed their fathers and grandfathers into taking over various positions within their church as church wardens, bell ringers and members of the choir.

    In Dewsbury Parish Church there were periods when there would be three generations from one family serving in the choir at the same time.

    Some years ago Robert Benton told me how there was once five families with a father and son who were all members of the church choir.

    In one case there were two sons, and in another, a grandfather as well, which I’m sure must have been a record at the time.

    Many changes have taken place in this district over the years but the greatest by far must surely be in the way we live our lives, both privately and socially.

    Since all the mines and factories have closed down, the jobs we now do are vastly different.

    Pubs and clubs are fast disappearing, and the cinemas which provided entertainment six days a week went long ago.

    They have been replaced by a video and a can of beer from the supermarket, not a patch on a night out at the Playhouse Cinema followed by a drink at the Great Northern.

    Not everyone, I agree, spent their leisure time in these places, for there were many who spent their evenings in quiet contemplation in church or listening to the radio at home.

    There were also many societies, clubs and amateur dramatic groups, many of which are no longer with us, and those which remain are struggling.

    Few people turn out at night these days, and when they do they travel by car and taxis, which leaves our town centres even more deserted.

    How different it was when Dewsbury was crowded at night with people going to or coming from the pictures and pubs.

    By half past ten, after the pubs closed and the National Anthem had been played at the cinema, everyone rushed to catch their last bus home. No ringing for taxis in those days.

    From an early age children learned how to interact with people because they were all around you, standing at the bus stop and queuing up at the Co-op.

    Children spent their spare time playing in the street, going to church or the pictures, and if we were lucky, having a bag of chips on the way home – the nearest thing we had to dining out in those days.

    I still remember those warm summer nights when I’d lie awake in bed listening to my parents sitting on the doorstep chatting to neighbours.

    Everyone who passed called out “goodnight” and there was always the added entertainment of a touching serenade from a neighbour on his way home who’d had a bit too much to drink.

    I have seen all these changes take place one by one but the saddest change for me has been watching the closure of our churches.

    We can still get our alcohol from the off-licence and our entertainment from the telly, but where will we get our spiritual comfort when all the churches have gone?

    I never thought I would see a Catholic church close, because they were always packed to the rafters, but sadly I’ve seen two of them, St Thomas More’s in Chickenley, and St Anne’s in Thornhill Lees.

    However, Catholic churches aren’t closing because of falling numbers, although they are not as full as they used to be, but because they haven’t enough priests to serve them.

    Not as many young men are joining the priesthood as they once did.

    This has left some churches with no alternative but to merge with other Catholic churches.

    St Paulinus in Westtown, and St Joseph’s in Batley Carr, have been forced to merge, and now priests have to look after two or three churches where once they only had one.

    In my day a church didn’t just have a parish priest, it also had a curate to help him, sometimes two.

    Parish priests stayed at their post until they died, which was certainly the case with our parish priest Fr McMenamin, later to become Dean McMenamin.

    He was parish priest of St Joseph’s Church, Batley Carr, for nearly 40 years and throughout that time we always called him simply “Father Mac”.

    In 1947 when he celebrated his 50th anniversary as a priest, I was six years old, and although I cannot remember the event, I most certainly would have been among the 250 children who attended a special party he gave for us.

    Even the Pope had a part to play in the proceedings that day by sending his apostolic blessing to “Father Mac”, which caused something of a stir in Batley Carr, I can tell you.

    Our headmistress, Sister Stella, also presented him with an illuminated scroll in which she extolled his outstanding virtues, his zeal, undeviating kindness and cheerfulness of disposition.

    The congregation presented him with a cheque for £400, a mighty sum in those days, and Barry Collins presented him with an envelope containing £30 collected from the schoolchildren.

    Many other churches in Dewsbury also had long-serving priests and vicars, including Canon Coney at Thornhill and Canon Brown and Canon Rees at Dewsbury Parish Church.

    There were no women clergy in those days and there still isn’t in Catholic churches, but perhaps that might change as well.

    You never know.

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