Originally a small hamlet, Sowerby Bridge in Saxon times, had a little church called St Peters (at the top of the hill), which was, of course, before the Reformation, Roman Catholic. Just before this, in 1526, during the reign of Henry VIII, a new church was built on the banks of the River Calder, but ten years later, when Henry split from Rome, this church became Anglican. For the next three hundred years, there was very little Catholic activity in Sowerby & the adjoining areas. However, in 1836 the foundation stone for St Mary’s church in Halifax was laid. Roman Catholic worship was reborn in Calderdale & there was a growing population in the valley due to the textile & engineering works which were powered by the water, & later steam, of the River Calder. Many Irish immigrants had also emigrated to Halifax and the outlying villages, & were , in the majority, Catholics.
In the 1870s Father Joseph Geary, parish priest of St Mary’s, set up missions in Hebden Bridge and Luddenden Foot. Mass was held in the Co-operative Hall, & the Catholics from Sowerby Bridge were among the congregation. Father Maximilian Tillman became the first parish priest of Hebden Bridge & set about raising funds for the churches of St Thomas’s in Hebden Bridge & St Walburga’s at Luddenden Foot, though these churches are now incorporated to the present parish of the Good Shepherd at Mytholmroyd.
The Hebden Bridge church was opened in 1896, with Father Joseph Russell, the curate at St Mary’s, rented a mission room in Hollins Mill Lane where Masses were celebrated. When the new Luddenden Foot church was opened a year later, Sowerby Bridge was incorporated into that parish & Father Tillman discontinued the local Masses . This meant that the Sowerby Bridge Catholics had the choice of either walking to St Mary’s in Halifax or to St Walburga’s at Luddenden Foot.
This continued until 1908 when Father Tillman was replaced by Father Marchal. His curate, Father Barton Brown, a recent convert from the Anglican church, re-started the Sowerby Bridge services in the old mill off Wharf Street. At the same time Sowerby Bridge was allied with West Vale & Elland under the charge of Father Patrick Kealy. In 1913 a hall was opened under the Victoria Assembly Hall in Bolton Brow, which the Catholics shared with the Salvation army! Father Kealy was also the Minster for the West Vale Catholics.
A new chapter began in the lives of Sowerby Bridge Catholics when a large local house, Underbank Hall, was bought by the church for £1,500. Underbank Hall was a very interesting place. Up until 1800 the house was called Broad Gates & was situated on one of the oldest houses in the district dating back to the 15th century. This was discovered when the house was being demolished in 1983 when the original medieval timber framework was found encased in stone. An old oak beam taken from the one of the old bedrooms of the old hall is carved with the inscription "MAD ANNO DNI 1558 BY L.W. FOR I.W. GODLYNES IS GREATE RECHES IF A MAN BE CONTENTE THEREWYTH" which translates "Made in the year of our Lord 1558 by L.W. for I.W. Godliness is great riches if a man be content therewith. "The families associated with the house were the Waterhouses, Wainhouses, Edwards, Listers, Pollits & Bates.
In 1919 work began on building the first Roman Catholic church. The house was converted into the presbytery & part of the stone used to build the adjoining church, which later became the parish hall. The foundation stone was laid by Councillor Henry Blackburn, a convert to the faith & blessed by Canon Foley & the opening ceremony performed the following year by Bishop Cowgill. In 1921 Sowerby Bridge was designated as a separate parish with Father Kealy as the first priest. The beautiful statue of Our Lady which stands in the grounds was donated by the widow of Mr David Moore, a convert, in memory of her late husband & son Edward who was killed in the first World War.
In 1928 Bernard Blackburn was ordained by Bishop Cowgill & in 1931 Father Kealy celebrated his Silver Jubilee. By then the number of parishioners had grown & Father Kealy put forward the idea that a larger church was needed. In 1934 the foundation stone for the new church was laid by Bishop Cowgill, with Mr Blackburn laying the inscription stone for the Angelus bell tower. Later that year the present church was opened and blessed by Bishop Cowgill in an impressive ceremony with a large number of priests & civic dignitaries attending.
The new church was built in the Romanesque style, designed by Mr Richard Byrom & constructed by W Parker and Son of Sowerby Bridge. It was built from stone from nearby Southowram quarry and had room for 300 worshippers. Work started to convert the old church into the parish hall and over the next few years major efforts were made at fund-raising by all sections of the parish. During the 1930s the church was a busy focal point of activity in the area, with many colourful processions brightening the main street through the small town - Palm Sunday, May processions, the Feast of Christ the King and Corpus Christi, and biggest of all, when all the churches united & donned their best clothes, Whitsuntide.
Father Kealy’s housekeeper , Miss Kitty Davey, trained the children for the First Confessions & Holy Communion and Mr Blackburn trained boys to be altar servers. Also keeping up all the good work were the Children of Mary, the Guild of the Blessed Sacrament ,the Eucharistic League and a St Vincent de Paul group.
In 1939 The Second World War broke out & many of the men from the parish were called to the front. Father Kealy, despite help from his curate Father Geaney, retired the following year due to ill health. He retired to Abergele where he died in 1953. Father Thomas O ’ Kane took over the reins as parish priest. He was a native of Co Derry, ordained in 1930 & served in Dewsbury before taking over St Patrick’s.
After the war life began to return to normal & the parish began to grow again, with an influx of Polish settlers joining the congregation This made the need for more Catholic schools urgent, but at the time there were only two, St Mary’s in Halifax & St Patrick’s in West Vale, both had long waiting lists. For others there were Catechism classes, while the many organisations continued to flourish, the Guild of St Agnes the Children of Mary, Union of Catholic Mothers & a Catholic Men’s Society.
During the 1950s the parish split into two with the rapidly expanding Polish community acquiring its own priest, Father Thaddeus Gaik, in 1951. Both priests worked well together, while Father O’ Kane was a familiar figure around the streets of Sowerby Bridge on his pastoral visits, accompanied as always by his faithful dog Wendy. However, in 1952 he left to take up a new parish in Wath on Dearne, where he remained until his retirement in 1978. He ended his days with the Little Sisters of the Poor in 1985, aged eighty.
The Sisters of Sowerby Bridge
As already explained, the Irish Sister of Charity came to Sowerby Bridge at the invitation of Father Roddy, in order to found a school. They were an unusual sight in the little town in their long black habits and veils, but soon they became part of the local scene. As well as teaching, the sisters visited the sick and dying and because of their pastoral role, it soon became apparent that they needed wheels! Accordingly a van was produced by the parish, nicknamed St Michael. However, it was somewhat more temperamental than it’s heavenly namesake and frequently broke down. However, seemingly being dressed in a nun’s habit had it’s advantages and the sisters were never short of offers of help when St Michael had one of his technical malfunctions or refused to get going!
The sisters lived in a house in Victoria Avenue, and it was enlarged in 1965 when another sister arrived to work with the Leeds Diocesan Rescue Society as a local social worker . As the school became more and more under the wing of the Local Education Authority the sisters moved into other areas of work. The worked in Halifax in the parish of St Mary, helping to run the Catholic Deanery Youth Club and also assisting Asian women integrate into the local community. Another sister arrived to work in the Colne Valley area in 1980.
The sisters motto is "The Love of Christ Drives us on " and they certainly lived up to it during their years in Sowerby Bridge. Sadly in 1998, due to changing social circumstances , it was decided that they end their apostolate in the area and the sisters made their sad goodbyes to an area they had come to love.