St Begh's Church

The Catholic Church began its mission in Whitehaven in 1706, when Dom Francis Rich, a Benedictine of Saint Gregory's, then at Douai, arrived in Cumberland to serve the growing Catholic population. This began a much appreciated Benedictine presence in Whitehaven, which continues to this day.

Because of anti-Catholic laws, the exact location of where Father Rich was based in Whitehaven is not known. However, there is a strong possibility that Father Rich stayed at least part of the time with the Fletcher family of Moresby Hall, who were still Catholics in the early days of the mission. The Curwen family of Workington Hall also belonged to the Catholic faith until 1727.

In 1761, a chapel was constructed on a site at Chapel Lane / Catherine Street. The Benedictine missioner to Whitehaven in 1761 was Father Amos Bolas, O.S.B.

In 1781, Father Oswald James Johnson, O.S.B. arrived at Whitehaven. In 1786, he was involved in the conveyance of the property at Chapel Lane / Catherine Street. The property was extended into Duke Street. It remained the Catholic chapel of Whitehaven until 1834, after which it is used mainly as a school for some years. Father Oswald James Johnson, O.S.B. was in charge of the Whitehaven mission until his death in 1818. Father Johnson's replacement in charge of the Whitehaven mission is Father Gregory Holden, O.S.B. of Downside Abbey, Somerset.

Following a cholera outbreak in Whitehaven and Father Holden's role in resolving a miner's strike, a new Catholic Church was built at Coach Road with land and stone being provided by the Earl of Lonsdale. Two nieces of Father Oswald James Johnson, who had been in charge of the mission until 1818, are known to be among the most generous benefactors of the new church. The new church is dedicated to St Gregory. The previous Catholic chapel was retained for use as a school. The teacher of the children is Father Holden.

The Church was built and designed by A. Welby Pugin. At the time it was regarded as one of "the most striking" Catholic churches, "altogether bold and novel." The cost of the whole structure was £5,000. One hundred and fourteen years later, in 1982, it cost over £100,000 simply to repair, restore and re-decorate St. Begh’s to its original standard of stability and finish. Included in the restorations were facilities for Mothers and Babies, for Children's Liturgy, for recording cassettes for the sick and access for the disabled.

The lofty open timbered roof, and the beautiful proportion existing between the various dimensions, give the interior the appearance of extreme lightness and elegance. Perhaps the most noticeable feature of the church is the elaborately carved and gilt altar and reredos standing within the apse-shaped chancel. The floor of this portion of the church is of dark polished oak. On each side of the sanctuary is a small oratory chapel. The chancel is lighted by three beautiful stained-glass windows; the centre one bears a representation of the Crucifixion, and the others are rich in ecclesiastical symbolism. Two mural figures of the patron saints Begh and Gregory adorn the walls of the sanctuary. The aisles are divided into four bays by elegant arches resting upon octagonal columns.

The foundation stone of the Priory Church was laid by Bishop Dorian in 1865, during the incumbency of Dom Dominic Lynass, and the Church was opened for worship on 29 October 1868. The Church was dedicated to Saint Gregory and Saint Bega, an Irish princess, who fled to Cumbria to begin her mission to the native people.

In 1993, further work took place to enhance the beauty and dignity of the Sanctuary. A permanent stone altar was erected and the Sanctuary floor was re-carpeted. The pinnacle tower, that had originally housed the Most Blessed Sacrament, which had been removed from the church was, once again, after restoration, returned to the Sanctuary as a fitting Sanctuary House, thereby restoring the Blessed Sacrament to its central point of importance and reverence. The ceilings in the Lady Chapel and also St. Benedict’s Chapel were restored to their former glory, with appropriate stencilling. The old oak gates were also returned to the side chapels and all the Sanctuary was restored. The Miners' Chapel at the back of the church, containing the statue of Our Lady of Sorrows, was also restored, thereby emphasising the importance of the history of the mining community of this town. Today, St. Begh’s church is considered to be one of the finest Catholic Churches in the north of England.

Today the Mission is served from Belmont Abbey, Hereford and the local people are still deeply appreciative of their Benedictine heritage. St Begh's is seen as the mother Church of the area and is a worthy monument to all the devotion and hard work of many generations of Clergy and Lay people. The monastic Community are always delighted to welcome visitors, believing Benedictine hospitality to be one of the foundation stones of their apostolate.

The name "Begh" is a derivation of "Bega" or "Bees". At St. Bees was a priory in the village then known as Kirkybee, (Church town of Bega), a name which enshrines the legend of an Irish princess, who had dedicated herself to Christ.

Bega fled the royal court rather than marry a prince from Norway. Tradition states that she was miraculously transported to Cumberland, in England. There St. Oswald counselled her in a hermitage, and St. Aidan received her vows as a nun. Bega founded St Bee's Monastery. She served as abbess there until her death. She is also remembered in the village of Kilbees, in Scotland. Around her name, and particularly around a bracelet which she left with the community when she sought safety elsewhere, there has grown up a variety of legends.

Inside St Begh's Church, Whitehaven
Inside St Begh's Church Prior To Renovation


Whitehaven had been small harbour and fishing village from 13th century or earlier. Expansion began in mid-17th century with building of piers by Lowthers 1632-4 and 1679-81 and granting of market charter 1660. By the 1680s it had grown rapidly, expanding from village of c.30 households in early 17th century to a town of over 1,000 inhabitants by 1685, which more than doubled to 2,281 by 1696. Sir John Lowther had laid out grid of streets by 1680s, making Whitehaven the earliest planned new town in post-medieval Britain.

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