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.
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