A 14-year battle over the closure of an Aberystwyth church exposes the stark realities of Welsh Catholicism today

Rarely can a parish church have inspired as much passion as Our Lady of the Angels and St Winefride, in the centre of Aberystwyth, on the coast of west Wales. For 14 years its fate has hung in the balance, as bishops, diocesan officials, priests and lay people have debated, argued and fought over its future.

Today St Winifride’s is dark. There was no Midnight Mass at Christmas, no carol service, no crib. Masses are held in a school hall or similar location. Meanwhile, out of town, the lights are on in workmen’s cabins next to the abandoned, dilapidated 1970s edifice of the Welsh Martyrs Church in the suburb of Penparcau. The local bishop, Tom Burns of Menevia, announced early last year that it would need renovations costing £360,000 to replace St Winifride’s as Aberystwyth’s parish church. A benefactor has provided the money and Welsh Martyrs will reopen later this year. Bishop Burns is praying that it will be a solution to the dispute between the diocese and very vocal parishioners in Aberystwyth still campaigning for St Winifride’s to reopen.

The row over St Winifride’s has its origins in a previous parish priest suggesting that the main parish church should move to suburban Penparcau, next to a hospice (which later closed). Relocating the church was taken up first by the previous bishop of Menevia, Mark Jabalé, and then pursued by Bishop Burns, who closed St Winifride’s five years ago.

Among the parishioners who have fought tenaciously to try to save St Winifride’s is Daniel Huws. “The parish has been in agony for over a decade and what has happened is a tragedy for us,” he says.

There is a sense that here the campaigning parishioners and Bishop Burns are on common ground. Reflecting on the St Winifride’s saga, including the rapid turnover of five priests in nine years there, the bishop says: “No other parish comes close to this experience.”

At the heart of the dispute are the location of the church and the condition of St Winifride’s. Bishop Burns says the diocese had no alternative but to close St Winifride’s after the Catholic Church Insurance Association declared that the building had structural and subsidence problems and would need major works to make it safe for worshippers. But the parish campaigners have had several surveys of their own done which, they say, show no sign of structural weakness.

Mike Maloney, who commissioned the last survey, says that even now the closed building could be used. “We have gone inside and it is watertight and salvageable,” he explains. “You can easily fit 250 people in St Winifride’s. At Penparcau, the diocese acknowledges there’s only space for 150.”

The parishioners say St Winifride’s repairs would cost around £600,000. The bishop counters this with an estimate of £3 million, a sum he describes as “an insurmountable financial burden on parishioners for decades and generations to come”.

There are similarly opposed views on location. Bishop Burns argues that suburban Penparcau is growing. The campaigners say it’s miles up a hill from Aberystwyth, with virtually no public transport on Sundays, two miles for the students to walk from the university, and out of the way of tourists and visitors. People in the town, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, could pop in at any time to a centrally located church, they say.

The arguments continue over architecture. Various conservation organisations, including the Royal Commission for the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, say St Winifride’s should be preserved. The planning authority, Ceredigion County Council, is not in favour of demolition. Neither is the town council. But Wales’s main heritage body, Cadw, refuses to list St Winifride’s.

It seems like deadlock, with both sides stubbornly holding to their arguments. The row can’t look good to outsiders, although the parish has continued to thrive, partly due to Polish migrants and university students, and three people are going forward to train for the priesthood.

Bishop Burns is longing for the re-opening of Welsh Martyrs to signal a fresh start. “For the sake of harmony and the well-being of the Catholic community and the good reputation of the Catholic Church,” he says, “I have appealed to everyone for reconciliation … and to move forward together in healing old grievances.”

There could yet be a glimmer of hope. Campaigners’ appeals to Rome for help came to nothing, with the Congregation for Clergy decreeing that the church should be demolished, its site thus reduced to “profane but not sordid use”. But congregation prefect Cardinal Beniamino Stella did voice concern about “the ongoing consequences of this large parish in a university town being without a parish church for such a prolonged period”.

Bishop Burns admitted to me that while the Welsh Martyrs refurbishment was a viable response to Cardinal Stella, it was “not necessarily a permanent response to His Eminence’s concerns”. It seems he wants the campaigners to give his plan a chance, and then the Penparcau site might later be disposed of and proceeds used for a new church back in Queens Road, the location of St Winifride’s.

This battle over a much-loved church is not just a little local difficulty. It highlights how pastoral and cultural concerns overlap and cause conflict. There is the issue of the place of Catholicism within a community.

As another parishioner, Lucy Huws, says: “Penparcau means there will be no Catholic presence right at the heart of Aberystwyth. We will be at the margins.”

The row also reveals the strain that location can place on pastoral relationships. To the bishops’ conference in London, Swansea (where Bishop Burns is based) and Aberystwyth might seem near to one another – they are both in Wales. But they are 75 miles apart, with lengthy cross-country journeys by road or rail. The bishop, visiting each year, inevitably seems a distant figure.

The Catholic Church in Wales lacks Welsh prelates. The last two bishops have been Englishmen. Bishop Burns, who is undoubtedly trying to empathise with his Welsh flock, has said that renovating a church dedicated to the Welsh Martyrs, canonised in the 1970s, is a special moment because no other church in Wales is dedicated to them.

But it is the spiritual legacy of St Winifride’s that matters in Wales, rather than a 1970s building. For it was in Aberystwyth that the Irish Carmelites came in the 1930s to nurture a Welsh-speaking Catholic priesthood. All the Carmelites were taught Welsh and Latin by one of Wales’s greatest heroes, Saunders Lewis, the Catholic convert who founded the nationalist party Plaid Cymru. The Catholic Herald noted in 1983 that in the previous year Lewis, then 88, had made a plea for Mass to be said in Latin in Wales rather than in the “foreign language of English” which, he pointed out, was “a later arrival”.

Wales, like the rest of Britain, is changing. There are plenty of Catholic migrants in Aberystwyth today, for whom the Welsh language is not a passion. Bishop Burns has to minister to them all. But a town’s and a people’s history do matter, which is why the campaigners for St Winifride’s will continue to hope against hope that Catholicism will return to the heart of their town.

But first, they have no option but to give Penparcau a chance. After 14 years of trauma, could 2018 yet be a year of reconciliation for the Catholics of Aberystwyth and their bishop?

Catherine Pepinster is a former editor of the Tablet and the author of The Keys and the Kingdom – the British and the Papacy (Bloomsbury/ T&T Clark)

This article first appeared in the January 12 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here