A short history of the Catholic Church of St. Winefride’s in Welshpool

Tradition has it that the Catholic Faith was brought to this part of Wales from Britanny about half a century before the coming of St. Augustine. The first chapel in the town was built about the 6th century by the local St. Llewelyn together with St. Cynfelin. St. Llewelyn is said to have set up a flourishing seminary for the training of priests here. The original chapel was probably in the Mill Lane area. Fragments of this building were still to be seen in the 17th century. About two miles outside the town on the road to Oswestry, there is a lay-by with a stone to commemorate the nearby monastery of Strata Marcella. This was a Cistercian foundation dating from 1170 and started by Owain, son of Gruffyd, Prince of Powys. The site is down by the riverside in a field, and was named after a Celtic saint, St. Marchell, who founded a religious house on the same spot in the 6th century.

On 04 February 1536, the monks were driven out of Strata Marcella, never to return. The stones of the monastery were used in various buildings. Nothing now remains.

The present Parish of St. Winefride’s covers the town of Llanfyllin about 12 miles from Welshpool, and further up to the moors past Llangwnog, to the north 9 miles to Four Crosses ( at the border with Shropshire ), and up to Montgomery to its south east.

Welshpool must be one of the few places in Wales which except for the period from 1801 to 1830 has an almost unbroken history of the Mass celebrated right from the Celtic times through the period of persecutions to the present day. During the Reformation, the last Mass at a consecrated site was celebrated in St. Mary’s Church, built in the 13th century. After the death of Queen Mary, the faithful loyal to the old Faith found a good patron in the new owners of Powys Castle, the Herbert family of Powis.

Through the Reformation the faithful gathered at various times for Mass at Crowther Hall at Pool Quay (on the way to Oswestry), at Powis Castle, at the home of Ruffe family in Buttington Hall, at Guilsfield (at the home of a junior member of the Plowden family from Plowden Hall, near Craven Arms), at Rhydestkin in Ardleen at the home of one Mr. Fox and and at Gunrog Fawr in Welshpool. Unfortunately, although the Catholic Relief Act of 1793 allowed Catholics freedom of worship, from 1801 to 1830 was one long stretch when no Mass was offered in the Welshpool area, because by that time the landed Catholic gentry had somehow died out, or moved out of the area. The 2nd Creation of the Earl of Powis had died childless, and the estate passed into the hands of Edward Clive (son of Robert Clive) who married the Earl’s sister; and the 3rd Creation of the Earls at Powis Castle had no Catholic connections, nor does it seem that they wished to maintain any Catholics on their staff.

Things looked up as a marine store dealer named Andrea Parnesa settled in the town in 1830 in the house now known as Hen Blas (formerly Trafalgar House) next to the present health centre at Salop Road. At first he used to make a 40 mile round trip to Shrewsbury every Sunday to attend Mass, but in 1837 he managed to persuade Fr. Eugene Egan to travel from Shrewsbury once a month to celebrate Mass for his few friends and families at his home.

In 1841, Andrea Parnesa (later changed to ‘Parness’) moved house to the Packhorse Inn
(from the Tudor times) which stood at the car park of the present church site. Here he converted an upper room into a chapel, and Mass continued to be celebrated by visiting priests from Shrewsbury once a month. Mr. Parness died in 1860, and left the Packhorse Inn as an endowment for a future Catholic Church in town. In 1866 the converted chapel was constituted as the original Catholic Church in the town, and dedicated to
St. Winifred.  According to the baptismal record of the time, the majority of the faithful were Irish who were not only engaged as petty traders, but were members of the local militia stationed nearby.

One census taken very early after the Church’s establishment showed 40 Catholics in the morning service, 50 in the afternoon, and 30 children attended Sunday School. The Catholic population of the parish varied and fluctuated with the two world wars, beginning with the influx of refugees, from as far off from Belgium, children evacuees in 2nd World War looked after by the religious sisters, Italian and German prisoners of war camps in the area, and hostels set up at Chirbury and Llwydiarth. A notable parishioner during the war was Lady Hermione Herbert, Countess della Grazia, the daughter of the 4th Earl of Powis
(the present Creation); she converted to the Faith on her marriage to the Italian Duca della Grazia in late 1920s. She was an active member of the church, and for many years Mass was also celebrated at a chapel in the Castle until the Countess’ death. The chapel therein has now been converted into a bedroom (!).

In the 1950s it was soon evident that the tiny converted church at the Inn was not sufficient to accommodate the local congregation; besides it became difficult due to an increase of visitors in the summer months, and the parish priest, Fr. (later Canon) Earle, set about the task of building the new church, by fundraising and private donations from parishioners, and well wishers. The present building was built at the cost of £16,000, and dedicated on Sunday, 25th August 1963 by Very Rev. John Petit, Bishop of Menevia (as the Diocese was then known, until the present creation of Diocese of Wrexham in 1987).  Canon Earle served in the parish for 26 years, died in 1976 and was buried in the cemetery opposite the church.

St.Winefride is a modern church with steep slanting Swiss chalet-like roof, its interior has highly polished cedarwood arches. It has two stained glass windows, one of which is a rhombus and follows the style of the architecture closely. This window was made by the monks of Buckfast Abbey, has a representation of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and is a gift from Mr. R.W.Naylor of Brookside, Chirbury, whose firm was responsible for the erection of the new church.

The Stations of the Cross are cut into Welsh grey slate, executed by George Thomas of Liverpool. The altar is made of three pieces of Sicilian marble.

In 2009, the Presbytery adjoining the Church underwent minor changes, for the construction of a Parish Room that was long felt needed and was possible only due to a generous benefactor and help from most unexpected donors just when finances looked a bit strained and tight. The facilities therein are much appreciated by local agencies, which is much helped by the availability of increased space in the car park.

The present parish priest besides his responsibility at St. Winefride’s, is also parish priest of the parish church of God the Holy Spirit, at Newtown and its sub-parish church of Our Lady and St. Richard Gwyn at Llanidloes.