History of our Parish

Our town developed around a former Anglo-Saxon village which over 100o years ago included an ancient church of St Cuthbert and fragments of Saxon cross-shafts in the present Anglican church suggest a possible Christian presence as early as 8thC.

From Norman times to the Reformation much of the land in the area was owned by the monks of Durham whose prior had a manor house in Beaulieu, the site of which is in the middle of Low Grange Estate. The manor was also believed to be a place for the sick monks needing relaxation and rest.  At nearby Wolviston there was a chapel named after St Mary Magdalene in the 12thC.

At the time of religious upheaval at the Reformation there was a rising in the North led by the Earls of Northumberland and Westmorland in 1569, to restore the ancient practices of the Catholic Faith, particularly the Mass.   22 men from Billingham, 10 from Cowpen, 19 from Wolviston and 10 from Bewley joined the uprising.

When it failed retribution by royal authority was harsh and brutal: 5 men from Billingham were executed, 2 from Cowpen, 4 from Wolviston and 3 from Bewley.

Thomas Watson, a Billingham yeoman, was questioned and claimed he knew of a priest called Hartborn who said an illegal Mass at Long Newton and Sedgefield and had re-erected altars for Mass and that the Billingham altar stone was hidden in the church choir.

By the time of James I (ascended the throne 1603) the Catholic faith in Billingham had departed. The chapel at Low Grange belonging to the Prior at Durham was in ruins and eventually became forgotten as it was obscured by the farm buildings of which it made part.

In 1767 it is reported that about two dozen Catholic families lived in the whole area of Billingham, Norton and Grindon.

Two events changed all this- first the establishment of ironworks along the banks of the Tees due to the discovery of iron ore in  the Cleveland Hills, and second, the steady supply of labour made available by the effects of the famine disaster in Ireland and migration from rural areas.

Roman Catholic parishes were set up in Middlesbrough about 1840 and in Port Clarence in 1865. By 1879 Fr Michael Bourke was able to build a school-chapel there, and in 1900 to have his Pugin-designed church dedicated to St Thomas of Canterbury, opened by blessed by Bishop Pearson.

So it was the 20thC  which saw the Mass return to Billingham. Those who flocked to find work at the “Synthetic” found their “church” was the rented Memorial Hall (1929) in Southview served from the adjoining existing parishes. For Benediction they walked or took the tram to Norton.

Fr Eric Connell was the first post-Reformation priest in the village in 1931 saying Mass in his home at 80 Station Rd until the presbytery and school were built in 1933.

When Fr Connell left in 1954 the school hall still served for Mass.

 It was his successor, Fr Kerwick, who was responsible for the building of the present church (architects Crawford and Spenser, builders Hudson Bros) opened and blessed by Bishop James Cunningham on June 7th 1959.  When Fr Kerwick retired in 1982 

Fr Thomas McCormack arrived and by 1984 had completed the re-ordering of the sanctuary- the original altar of Connemara marble was re-fashioned and the spare marble used for the lectern, presidential chair, and the pedestal for the Blessed Sacrament.

As the village became a thriving town, new housing was built north of the railway. Mass was said in The Swan Hotel on the old A19, Wolviston Road,  beginning in June 1947.

A new parish, Holy Rosary, was erected in 1949 and Fr Eoghan Brady, came on 13th Nov 1949, as the first parish priest, with a birthday present of £500 to set up a temporary church in an army hut situated on the corner of Buxton Gardens and Grosvenor Road. It was blessed 14th May 1950. He purchased Greenholm, on Wolviston Road,  as a temporary presbytery (now Billingham Catholic Club).

The original site for Holy Rosary church was to be near the present Whitehead Park but negotiations achieved the present site. Fr Brady died 15th October 1957 and Fr Marron saw to the completion of the church building (architect Crawford, builder Keelan), costing £40,000.

 Fr Deegan had arrived as the 2nd parish priest on  29th Nov 1959. The church was opened by Bishop Cunningham 22nd September 1960 (able to seat 486), followed by the school in 1961. The former presbytery had served as a school but on the completion of the new school it became “Billingham Catholic Club”.

Further growth meant a another division and the next parish of St Joseph was formed in 1961 with the area east of Marsh House Avenue . Again the famous “hut” was moved to the site of St Michael’s and served for Mass for about 16 years.

When the first parish priest, Fr Arrowsmith, died Fr Head moved there from Holy Rosary in 1976. Fr Keoghan arrived to be parish priest at Holy Rosary and remained as such until 1994. During his time the sanctuary was re-redered and in 1977 the original stone altar was brought forward and a new crucifix placed ion the wall. In 1984 the altar rails were removed, the baptismal font was e-sited to the right of the altar and a new stone lectern to the left. Fr John Butters arrived in 1994 as the fifth and present parish priest.

In 1978 St Joseph’s  church was opened by Bishop Swindlehurst and St Thomas’ church in Port Clarence was closed down and like most of the then Port Clarence was demolished. The bodies of the priests who had been buried there were now reburied in Billingham Cemetery.

Fr David Taylor arrived in 1992 to succeed  Fr Tom McCormack and when Fr Head died in 1990 he was replaced by Fr Nicholson who retired  when Fr Kevin Dixon became PP. Fr Taylor left to go to St Peter’s Gateshead 2003 and Fr Dixon to Sunderland in 2004. Our town continues to grow with the expansion of the Wynyard housing and of course the Catholic community includes part of Hartlepool Borough, viz. Newton Bewley. Permission to amalgamate was sought during the course of 2010 and I n early 2011 Bishop Seamus Cunningham issued a decree which suppressed our three parishes and erected one new one under the title of St Thomas of Canterbury, thus the circle was complete going back to the patron saint of the mother parish in Port Clarence.

In December 2013 the parish erected the new Pastoral Parish Council (minutes can be found on the Pastoral Parish Council page at the top of this page) with Mr B Scott elected Chair.