Soeurs de Saint Joseph d'Annecy

The Catholic Church in the Rhondda
Growth and Decline 1886-2019.

The undulating green hills overlooking the Rhondda Valleys tend to hide a history of coal mining, hard work, suffering but also prosperity in the Rhonda Valley towns. A section of the local cemetery, where the grave stones bear the inscription of so many Irish and Italian names, reminds the visitor of the generations who gave birth to the Church in this region.

The story of one family, told by Sadie, now 93 years old, illustrates a typical history of how the Irish came to Tonypandy back in the 1880’s. Her grandfather died young leaving her grandmother to work a farm and care for her four children. She was unable to make enough money to pay the rent on this farm so she was evicted from her home. She took her youngest child James, Sadie’s father, with her and moved in with her brother to work on his farm. The other children were cared for elsewhere.

James grew up and at the age of 24 decided to go to Wales to find work. On the boat he met a man who said there was plenty of work in Tonypandy in the mines so the two travelled on together. At that time it was usual for families to take in lodgers to boost their income so James lodged with a family and went to work in the local coal mines. At that time there was no Catholic Church but a priest came from Cardiff to say Mass in a public house about four miles from Tonypandy.


                                                                                                                            Terril: Mine cuttings


Eventually, Cardiff Diocese bought a plot of land in Tonypandy and the Irish men, after a hard day’s work in the mines, set about fetching stones from the quarry and building the Church. It was opened in 1886 thanks to the hard work of the volunteers who were mostly Irish.

James married a Welsh girl who became a Catholic and they had four children, Sadie being one of them. She remembers her mother cleaning and scrubbing the Church floor on her knees. The Church was then heated by an open coal fire. Sadie, like her mother, continued to clean the Church in her day and at present Sadie’s daughter, now about 65, with two other ladies continue the good work.

The Church is now carpeted, re-decorated and centrally heated. There will not be a next generation of this family to take over as the young people, like so many others, have left the valleys to find work.

The first priest in Tonypandy was a Fr. Bray and he was succeeded in 1894 by Fr. Griffiths. People were poor and were not able to support a priest. Fr. Griffiths died of malnutrition despite the fact that local people, mostly non-Catholics, often gave him a bowl of soup knowing that he, in turn, frequently gave what he had to poor families. However, as the years went by and the Congregation grew, both the town and Church profited from the miner’s incomes.

In the 1920’s two other churches were built in the Rhondda valleys, Treorchy and Ferndale but when, in the 1960’s the mines closed, congregations grew smaller and these two churches were also closed, much to the regret of the local people.

Tonypandy survived partly because it was attached to the one Catholic Primary School. By 2016 there was no resident priest to say Mass so the Bishop asked for two Sisters to help out. Now a visiting retired priest comes at week-ends to say Mass and two Sisters, Berenice and Joanna have moved into the Presbytery to care for the spiritual needs of the people -particularly the sick and housebound. It is very rewarding work to be able to bring Holy Communion and some comfort to people whose ancestors kept the faith alive in this area for one hundred and fifty years,

About one hundred people attend Mass every week-end. Many are from the Philippines who work in local hospitals and have young families. The Welsh/Irish/Italian parishioners are generally retired people.

The Italians also made a great contribution towards the Church in the Rhondda Valleys - but theirs is another story which is very well worth recording.