The Nostalgia Column with Margaret Watson

Margaret Watson.
Margaret Watson.

THE last Mass at St Thomas More Church, Chickenley, two weeks ago, was attended by many former parishioners who once lived on the Chickenley Estate.

They wanted to say their last farewell to a church which had been their spiritual home for many years.

Happy days at St Thomas More Church: Fr Peter Nealon, Fr Andrew Daley, Fr John Leonard, Tommy Frain and Fr Duffy at a church reunion some 25 years ago. The four priests served at the church at various periods in its history.

Happy days at St Thomas More Church: Fr Peter Nealon, Fr Andrew Daley, Fr John Leonard, Tommy Frain and Fr Duffy at a church reunion some 25 years ago. The four priests served at the church at various periods in its history.

In my article, written before the church closed, I mentioned some of the names of those early pioneers who had helped built the church.

I asked readers to send in any names which may have been left out, and I’m glad to say I received letters from quite a few.

The first came from Michael Shires, who wrote:

“I have just read your wonderful article about St Thomas More Church. It certainly brought lots of memories flooding back.

“My mother, Mary Shires (nee Whelan), devoted a considerable amount of time at St Thomas More, particularly to the Mother’s Union before she passed away.

“It was also the church where I was Baptised and celebrated my First Holy Communion.

“I look back fondly on my Sunday mornings driving down Owl Lane with my mum to go to church.

“It is the reason I take my sons Aiden and Joseph to Our Lady of the Wayside in Shirley, Solihull, where we now live.

“As you say in your article, the church was filled by lots of wonderful people who I remember, such as Jack and Paula Briggs, Herbert Taylor, Tom and Ruth Walsh, Betty and Tony Murray etc.

“I can always remember how my mum used to insist on calling the church by its full name when others in the diocese always used to refer to it as just Chickenley.

“No-one ever used to say Westtown to describe St Paulinus!

“My dad attended the last Mass and said it was standing room only (just like it was at the 50th anniversary mass – which I attended).

“It just shows that if people who lived locally still bothered to attend regularly it no doubt could have kept going for many years.

“I can always remember how my parents used to attend lots of social events in the church hall and my mum telling me how the decision to remove the workings of the bar in the church hall would be a hammer blow.

“Whilst the holding of church dinners and celebrations at Hanging Heaton Golf Club were perhaps more enjoyable and fashionable, it certainly hits a church’s finances when it no longer operates its own socials.

“I also think that churches here, and in most places in the UK no doubt, are suffering from de-population, for example, my brothers and I all now live too far away and attend different parishes where we live.

“A sign of the times no doubt, but generally, how many churches and other community institutions are no longer the social hub of society?

“Still, I always try to think that on occasions like this, we should be glad that something wonderful happened (the building of St Thomas More Church) rather than sad when it is over.

“I will always be forever grateful to Willie Manning and his fellow parishioners for creating what was a wonderful institution and part of my childhood.

“Do keep up the good work with your nostalgia column I love to read it. It always reminds me of home.”

Another email came from Annie Hodgson (nee Sykes], who after reading my article wrote in to add her mother’s name to the list of pioneers.

She wrote:

“Just read your Nostalgia Column and wanted to add my Mum – Ada Sykes, now Robinson – to the list of those who attended St Thomas More’s from the 1950s.

“She moved to Chickenley in the early 1950s, brought up four children there, and attended St Thomas More up to the early 2000s when she moved to Middlestown.

“She was a member of the Mother’s Union, helped out at all events – bingo, bazaar, jumble sales, and also helped out on the altar and in the vestry.

At the age of nearly 94, my Mum attended the last Mass at St Thomas More with me and other members of the family, my sister Kath.

“It was a very emotional morning. The church on the estate (it’s NOT a village) where we grew up, closed its doors after the final mass at 11am.

“The decline in attendance- 25 on Saturday evenings and not many more on Sunday mornings – plus the repairs needed to the roof and building, have forced the closure.

“Ironically, it was packed at the last service mainly with people, like me and my sister, who wanted to say a final farewell.

“I didn’t think it would affect me given that I haven’t attended church regularly for more years than I care to remember, but it was still a Christmas Mass, (The Epiphany}, and we sang ‘Away in a Manger’ which brought back so many childhood memories, and I crumbled.

“This might sound daft, but when you’re little it’s not all about ‘religion’. For us it was a community centre where our Mum got us involved in Christmas bazaars, bingo, coffee mornings and jumble sales. We saw so many familiar faces at the last Mass and we enjoyed chatting to everyone.”

Another reader, Ann Audsley, contacted me to ask what would happen to the plaque in the church which held all the names of all the people involved in the construction of the church and the money-raising.

Her father, Johnny Callaghan, was one of the men committed to the building of the church and his name was proudly shown on the plaque.

I have been making enquiries on behalf of Ann, and I can assure her that the plaque is in safe hands. And, although the future of the building has not yet been decided, at least the presbytery next door is still occupied.

All the priests, who served the Chickenley parish over the past 60 years, lived in the presbytery, and were always available to parishioners, day and night, four of whom are pictured above.

The first priest, although not in the picture, was Fr Manus Moynihan, followed by Fr James O’Flynn.

Two others not pictured were Fr Mark Knowles and Fr Eric Cheetham.

If there were others which I haven’t mentioned please let me know by emailing me at and I will add their names in a later column.