Sunday 8th March 1959 was just a working day like any other for Mr Stanley Clark when he set off early from his home on Preston Road, Whittle-le-Woods to cycle to his job at a farm in Withnell Fold, just a few miles away
As he approached St Chad’s church he saw what he thought were lights shining inside. Drawing nearer he realised they were flames burning out of control. Mr Clark quickly pedalled down to the Police Station in Wheelton where he reported what he had seen. After alerting the Fire Service the police officer on duty phoned Fr Cyril Pilson, Parish Priest at St Chad’s since 1952. The time was shortly before 6.00am.
In response to the call Fr Pilson hurriedly pulled on a shirt and socks over his pyjamas and made his way from the presbytery where he lived along a short passage way to the sacristry. However, when he opened the sacristry door leading into the church he was beaten back by the heat and choking smoke. He tried a second time and was again forced to retreat. In a third attempt Fr Pilson put a dampened handkerchief over his face, dropped onto his hands and knees and crawled into the church.
Feeling his way as best he could he reached the altar rails where he stopped for a few seconds and said a short prayer. On looking up he saw that the smoke had cleared enough for him to make his way up the altar steps to the tabernacle and to remove the ciborium containing the Blessed Sacrament which he then took to a place of safety. Talking to reporters later he told them, “My first thought was to rescue the Blessed Sacrament” but, in his typically modest fashion he made light of the danger he had faced, which wasn’t fully recognised until a few days afterwards.
A neighbour, Mr Reeder, the rear of whose house overlooked St Chad’s had also put in a 999 call after hearing what he said sounded like ‘coal being shovelled’ and seeing smoke rising from the church and by 6.30am the ridge of the church roof was ablaze.
Six fire engines from Chorley, Leyland and Bamber Bridge attended as well as a turntable escape brought in from County Fire HQ, Preston. The firemen used water from a nearby pond that was fed by Whittle Springs once noted for their curative properties.
Fanned by a strong easterly wind the flames quickly spread along the roof through the cavity between the slated exterior and the wood and plaster church ceiling. Some of the firemen climbed ladders onto the slates where it was necessary for them to break through in order to fight the fire from above. Others battled inside and directed their hoses upwards, all the while enduring the showers of debris, slates and roof timbers falling down upon them. Photographs show the fire-fighters scaling ladders that appear to be precariously flimsy compared to those used today.
Soon, around 70 parishioners began to arrive for 7am Mass and looked on in horror at the devastation before them. Many were in tears and a number bravely helped to rescue vestments, altar linens and other items from the sacristry before firemen directed everyone away to a safe distance. Fr Pilson, too, was evacuated from the presbytery and is said to have sat in his car where he was served sandwiches and hot drinks by neighbours.
Investigations carried out later pointed to the seat of the fire being somewhere in the choir loft as the whole of this area, the organ and choir stalls were completely destroyed as was the staircase, and a gas meter near the stairs suffered serious damage. The church had no gas supply, only the presbytery, where, until services were restored, cooking had to be done over a coal fire and candles provided lighting as the electricity supply was also cut off. Forensic experts took away a number of objects but this was stated to be simply routine action. An unknown man, who left the church at 8pm on Saturday evening at the request of Fr Pilson, was not sought by police as there had been no sign of fire when the usual check of the church was made at midnight.
Once firemen brought the flames under control the full extent of the damage became all too clear. The roof was almost completely destroyed both by the fire and the actions of the firemen while fighting the blaze. Above the white marble altar, upon an intricately carved canopy, stood a magnificent wooden tableau depicting the Crucifixion with Our Lord on the cross between statues of Our Lady and St John. Much of the painted surface was burned away and the structure was never replaced. A parishioner who ventured through the porch way whilst smoke was still rising from the debris covering the church floor, shook his head and was heard to mutter, ‘There will never again be such a high altar’.
Falling slates and roof timbers had damaged some of the pews, and a new sanctuary carpet and a new missal on the altar were destroyed. Fortunately, however, Our Lady’s altar, paintings of the Stations of the Cross and the carved stone font, along with wooden statues of St Chad and the then Blessed Edmund Arrowsmith, later to become Saint Edmund Arrowsmith, which stood either side of the transept were found to be only a little the worse for the fire.
During the previous year many hundreds of pounds had been spent on the church building; dry rot in the roof was repaired, new gutters and downspouts erected and 16 very beautiful stained glass windows installed. Work on the final two windows was only completed on the previous Friday, just 36 hours before the fire started.
The school, which stands in close proximity to the church, became the focal point of activity over the coming weeks and months. A temporary altar was erected on which were put the rescued ciborium, vestments and altar linen and it is reported that, later on Sunday, at 5pm, around 300 parishioners filled St Chad’s school to attend Mass which was celebrated by Fr J Taylor of Lisieux Hall. There was no seating and the congregation either stood or knelt as best they could. Ironically, Mass had been celebrated in the school 70 years earlier when it was made necessary by the re-roofing of the church.
On Tuesday 10th March, several hundred parishioners crowded into the school again to hear Fr Pilson announce “We might have to face a bill of at least £30,000 and we will receive £8,000 at most from our insurance cover. We are in desperate straits”. Despite this daunting prospect a local newspaper article described the meeting as one where ‘good humour and cheerfulness prevailed’ as Fr Pilson went on to declare, “I propose, every Friday night to go round the district with my hand out”. He reminded everyone that there was no use in being down in the dumps about it. What was wanted were willing workers to help themselves to build a new house of God. He flourished letters from Rawtenstall, Southport, other Chorley churches, Blackburn, ‘two ladies in Southend’, Wigan, Guildford, Peckham and Reading which had enclosed money gifts totalling £186.7s.6d. He thought television and newspaper publicity were responsible for these and many others that had already been received.
The President of the Men’s Guild, Mr J J Turner said the meeting had been called to face the immediate difficulties caused by the fire and, in particular, the identification of a venue where Mass could be celebrated. But before moving on to discuss these matters he thought prayers should be said in thanksgiving that St Chad’s had its Parish Priest still with them. This was in reference to the courage with which Fr Pilson entered the blazing building to rescue the Blessed Sacrament. Not many had realised what Fr Pilson had actually done as he himself had been at pains to play down his actions.
In response to questions about a possible venue for Mass and other services Fr Pilson had an announcement to make. That afternoon, Archbishop J C Heenan had visited the church and had expressed the opinion that the school be used for Sunday services. It was also proposed that they place the Blessed Sacrament in the school.
Very soon after the disaster struck, the Anglican Vicar of Heapey, the Rev J J Loxham, had offered the use of St Paul’s church in Wheelton, one of two churches in his parish. Fr Pilson told the meeting that both he and the Archbishop were profoundly moved by this ‘very godly act of Christian Charity’ which had been made. “But,” he said, “The majority of parishioners have been at St Chad’s for most of their lives and their fathers and grandfathers before them. They had built up a tradition of Catholic worship here and it would be a severing of tradition if they were to leave this place.”
It was unanimously agreed to send a letter to Rev Loxham expressing the parish’s heartfelt thanks for his most kind and generous gesture and explaining the reasons for the wish to stay within the church’s immediate vicinity. The meeting went on to decide that Mass should be said in the schoolroom on Sundays at 8.30am, 10.40am and 6.40pm along with Benediction at 4pm. Many men from those assembled volunteered to serve on a rota basis to prepare the schoolroom for the Sunday services and then to reinstate the furniture ready for school on Mondays. Arrangements were also made for other men to serve on church restoration and salvage committees.
Fundraising began in earnest and the school provided a venue for all kinds of events: Sales of Work, Bring and Buys, Jumble Sales, Fancy Fairs and Concerts. The Club, now called the Parish Centre, also played host to Bingo nights, Hot Pot Suppers, Snooker and Crown Green Bowling events. One parishioner remembers, as a young teenager, how she and a number of friends walked for miles calling at every house in the area selling raffle tickets for a Readicut latch-hook rug her father was busy making at home, the proceeds of which went to the church restoration fund.
Archbishop J C Heenan visited St Chad’s again 14 months after seeing the stricken church on the day after the fire. This time, however, on May 11th 1960, he came to celebrate the first Mass in the newly rebuilt and refurbished church. The occasion was one of mixed emotions for parishioners – gratitude, joy and a sense of achievement that the parish again had use of its church but also some sadness that the former, much loved edifice had been taken from them in such a heartbreaking way.
St Chad's Fundraising Bazaar of 1896
Over many years the parishioners of St Chad’s have had a number of opportunities to practise fund raising and there is a fascinating newspaper cutting in the Parish archives which reports on a Bazaar held, again in the school, towards the end of 1896. The article tells us that “The church for several years had been by no means in as desirable a condition … as might have been wished and matters had come to such a state that it was considered imperatively necessary to carry out repairs and alterations which would be completed in the course of a few weeks”.
It was estimated that the work would cost £1200.00 and to meet it a bazaar had been ‘most energetically promoted by members of the congregation’. There was a ‘large and fashionable attendance at the opening ceremony’ which was performed by Reverend Dean Lennon, formerly chaplain at the workhouse. He reminded those present that “They were there to restore and improve that old place which had been so many years in existence and which had been instrumental in promoting the honour and glory of God and ... in bringing redemption to many thousands of their ancestors, relatives and friends. The old chapel was gloomy, dull and it was also unsafe. A place not worthy to be called a house of the Lord”.
Other eminent guests included 7 priests from Chorley and surrounding parishes and the vicar of Leyland who was formerly vicar of Heapey and whose presence was cordially welcomed by those present. Many other local gentlemen attended and Fr Holden, St Chad’s parish priest, presided.
In the schoolroom ‘heavily laden stalls,’ (4 plus refreshments), ‘were ranged down one side and the embellishments characteristic of such undertakings made it so that the room presented an attractive and charming appearance.’
An ‘admirable hand-book’ was issued which provided a history of Catholic worship from the times when local people from across the area gathered at Wood End, Clayton-le-Woods, St Helen's Well in Whittle, in the upper room of a property at Slate Delph, Wheelton and to the time when the first church, dedicated to St Chad, was built on the present site in 1791.
The report describes “Articles of every description on sale and specialities consisted of a piano, ladies’ and gentleman’s bicycles and a sewing machine” all of which were to be sold by auction. “In the entertainment line” there was “an interesting museum and picture gallery and a ‘real Father Christmas’ who gave presents to the little ones and advice for the coming year to the older ones”. Each evening Wheelton String Band “enlivened the proceedings by discoursing selections at various intervals”.
Receipts on Wednesday amounted to about £150. The Bazaar was closed on Thursday but opened again on Friday afternoon before a good attendance and continued again on Saturday.
A particularly interesting feature of this newspaper report lies in the names of many of the people connected with the Bazaar, names that are still very familiar today within St Chad’s parish – Bell, Clapham, Snape, Livesey, Page, Clayton, Ellison, Hayes, Waring , Sherrington, Green, Walmsley, Roberts, Sefton, Lancaster and Smith.
It is very likely that descendants and relatives of these people were also affected by the 1959 fire and who helped raise funds to restore the church from that disaster just as enthusiastically as had been reported in the staging and support of the 1896 Bazaar.