Burntisland's Churches - Part 8

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by Iain Sommerville

Part 8 - The Catholic Church

For the five centuries leading up to the Reformation of 1560, the national church in Scotland was Catholic. Burntisland's Kirkton Church was therefore the town's first Roman Catholic Church, and served as such from the 12th century or earlier to the Reformation. (The Kirkton Church was discussed in Part 1 of this series.)

The pre-Reformation national church had enjoyed a special relationship with the Pope and with Rome, but that was to end abruptly on the first day of August, 1560. When the Scottish Parliament met on that fateful day, it decreed that Scotland would thereafter be a Protestant country with a Protestant national church.

This declaration was immediately followed by draconian anti-Catholic legislation. In particular, it became an offence, punishable by death on the third conviction, to say or to hear Mass.

Around 1560, Protestant mobs desecrated and destroyed Catholic monasteries and churches. Considerable damage was done to Dunfermline Abbey. Priests and monks were involved in the removal from the Abbey of holy relics for safe keeping, and these included the head and hair of St Margaret, who had died in 1093. Some commentators have suggested that these were concealed in Burntisland (later Rossend) Castle for over 30 years until 1597, when they were taken to the Continent. Recent investigations by local historian Bruce Durie throw doubt on this claim, although there is some evidence that it might be true. We shall probably never know what really happened.

Persecution of the Scottish Catholic minority continued for most of the 17th and 18th centuries, reaching its height at the time of the Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745. By 1755, it was reckoned that there were only eight Catholics in the whole of Fife.

In 1793, the anti-Catholic measures were eased, and with the passing of the Emancipation Act in 1829 they were effectively abolished. The Catholic Church began to recover and develop, helped by the increase in immigration from Ireland, and in particular County Donegal.

It would, however, be some time before there was a revival in Burntisland. The minister of the Parish Church, writing in 1836, compared his own flock of some 330 families with the number of Catholic adherents - which he put at three or four individuals.

Burntisland's handful of Catholics were adaptable, and made use of whatever accommodation was available for their services. The records show that Mass was said in 1877 at an address in Somerville Street. In the following year, Father Joseph Bernard Hare opened a new mission station in the town, and Mass was celebrated every six weeks in a former sail loft in the High Street.

The development of the shale oil works at Binnend in the 1880s brought a substantial number of Catholics to the area. They were mostly of Irish descent, and typically arrived in Burntisland via the shale mines of West Lothian. Many were Gaelic speakers.

The arrival of the shale workers meant that larger premises for church services had to be found quickly. In 1882, the Kirkcaldy area priest, Father Patrick Fay, applied to Burntisland Town Council for permission to use the Burgh Chambers for the saying of Mass. This provoked a debate among the councillors, with some taking the view that the Burgh Chambers should not be used for missionary activities.

However, as the Scottish Coast Mission already held religious services in the Burgh Chambers, it was agreed that, in fairness, the Catholic flock should be allowed to do likewise, and free of charge as well - although, two years later, the Council decided to impose a charge of five shillings per evening.

The Old Chapel at the Lochies

The Old Catholic Chapel

This solution was a short term one, and the church continued to search for a permanent home. In 1886, they found suitable accommodation at the Lochies, which they were to occupy for the next 88 years.

The building was known as the Lochies Schoolrooms, and it was on the site now occupied by the modern house at No 122 Kinghorn Road. It was the westernmost of a group of three buildings, which may at one time have formed the campus of a private school. There was a private boarding school in that area around the 1880s, known as the Lochies Academy and apparently with a fine reputation. We also know that the eastern building of the three - the Sands Hotel - was, in the early 20th century, a private day school and boarding school for girls. This building was subsequently occupied as a private residence by Mr Davidson of Biggar, Fleming & Davidson, motor engineers; then it became a nursing home; and later the Orcadia Hotel when it was bought by Mrs Linklater from Orkney.

The opening of the Lochies premises on Saturday 5 June 1886 was one of the most significant events in the history of the Catholic Church in Burntisland. Here is how the following week's Fife Free Press reported the occasion:

"On Saturday last the Roman Catholic Archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh [Archbishop Smith] solemnly blessed and opened the Lochies School-Rooms, Burntisland, as a place of worship for the Catholic inhabitants of Burntisland, Binend and Kinghorn. The altar was tastefully decorated with flowers &c under the direction of the Rev. G. Dowling, assisted by Mrs. Coull, Southhill. Owing to the removal of Rev. F. Monaghan, who has been sent as assistant to the Rev. T. O'Neill, Broxburn, the Rev. George Dowling, incumbent of the mission, alone assisted His Grace in the opening services.  After the services His Grace was presented with an address, in which the Catholic inhabitants of the above named places expressed their feeling of great delight in having His Grace among them on such an auspicious occasion. His Grace, in reply, after exhorting the Congregation to lead sober and exemplary lives, said he hoped the time was not far distant when the Catholic population of these places would have a beautiful church of their own erected in their midst."

The availability of an Archbishop to conduct the ceremony was a direct result of the Pope's decision, taken only eight years earlier, to restore the Scottish Catholic Church hierarchy including two Archbishoprics.

With their new home at the Lochies, the congregation were ready to welcome the Catholic newcomers - again mainly of Irish origin - who arrived in Burntisland to work on major projects such as the building of the railway to the west (opened in 1890), the East Dock (1901), the aluminium works (1917) and the shipyard (1918). And there was more room now for the many holidaymakers who wished to attend a service.

The Burntisland Shipbuilding Company became the Catholic Church's landlord when it bought the schoolrooms and the building (comprising two houses) between it and the Sands Hotel, probably around 1918. It needed the houses for accommodation for key staff, but services were allowed to continue in the schoolrooms as before.

The next major step was the church's outright purchase of their temporary Lochies home from the Burntisland Shipbuilding Company in 1923. This paved the way for subsequent redevelopment, and the conversion of the building to a proper chapel.

A New Parish

A few years later, the church authorities reckoned that the number of Catholics in Burntisland, Kinghorn and Aberdour had grown to the extent that they could sustain their own parish. And so St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Parish, based in Burntisland but catering for all three communities, came into being on 5 October 1930. Prior to that, Burntisland had been part of Kirkcaldy's St Marie's Parish.

The new St. Joseph's Parish needed a permanent priest, and the first to fill this post was Father Thomas McCann. Initially he had to stay in the Kingswood Hotel, while the search went on for suitable accommodation for him. In 1931 the former Coastguard Station in East Leven Street became available, and the Catholic Church secured it for 1,450. This house, which has always gone by the name Nellfield, is now the home of the Editor of the Burgh Buzz.

The ground floor of Nellfield served as the church hall, and hosted many social and fundraising events, including the Christmas fetes. The gardens were cared for by the priests, with varying degrees of success. They managed to survive the eccentric attentions of the much loved Father Patrick Quinn - whose attempts to control the weeds with a flamethrower caused consternation among his neighbours and are still remembered.

During the Second World War, the Catholic congregations in this area were boosted by the arrival of Polish troops who were stationed locally. Some of them put down roots here when the war was over, and became permanent members of their congregations.

Father McNallyThe Move to Cowdenbeath Road

By the early 1970s, the chapel at the Lochies was proving inadequate for its task, and the old Drill Hall in Cowdenbeath Road was purchased. There was sufficient room there for the development of a new chapel, and for a home for the Parish Priest as well. The priest at that time was Father Anthony McNally (pictured left), who is still remembered with great affection in the town (and who, incidentally, is still alive and well at the time of writing - April 2003). It was Father McNally who organised the move to the new location, a move which brought the Catholic Church close to its original site at the Kirkton Church.

The appointment in 1969 of Gordon Gray as the first Scottish Cardinal since the Reformation was widely applauded and, together with the later visit of Pope John Paul II to Scotland in 1982, did much to raise Scotland's international status.

The inaugural service in the new chapel took place on 10 March 1974, and proved to be a historic occasion. Not only was Cardinal Gray present, but a new priest was ordained by him - the first ordination to take place in Burntisland since the Reformation.

The linked congregation in Kinghorn has an interesting Burntisland connection. The church in David I Street which they share with the Episcopal Church is the old 'Tin Church' from Burntisland which was featured in the last article in this series - although it has of course been significantly improved!

Since 1999, the Parish Priest in Burntisland has been Father Daniel Doherty. He himself is now having to plan and execute the building of a new chapel, which will be on an unused part of the Cowdenbeath Road site. At the time of writing (April 2003), building work has not yet begun, but the project is at an advanced planning stage.

Father Doherty and his flock have been active in the Burntisland ecumenical movement, 'Churches Together', which has seen strong links developing between the four main churches in the town.

Cardinal Winning

Cardinal Gray died in 1993. The following year, the Pope elevated Tom Winning, the son of a Lanarkshire steelworker, to Cardinal. Tom Winning was a man of controversial views, but above all a champion of the poor and underprivileged. Many folk of all denominations were looking forward to hearing him preach in Burntisland Parish Church on the morning of Sunday 17 June 2001, as part of the King James Bible celebrations. Illness prevented him from coming to Burntisland in person, but his address was read to the congregation - who were shocked by the news they received later in the service, that Cardinal Winning had died that morning.

I'll leave the last words to Cardinal Winning, words which he had planned to deliver in person in June 2001: "Here in Burntisland, four centuries ago, a very significant step was taken in building a Christian civilisation which has weathered the storms of the years. But that storm still rages and our society still needs to hear God's word and be challenged by the values of God's Kingdom and the person of Christ. Today more than ever we need to rebuild that civilisation of love in the face of waves of secularism, indifferentism and materialism."

  Iain Sommerville 2002

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