By Lawrence R. Gregory
In the immediate years after World War Two, Eccles Borough Council began a programme to clear unfit dwellings, and to replace them with new council houses. In January 1953 the council completed the purchase of Brook House Farm between Peel Green and Barton Moss, and subsequently built several hundred new houses.
The site for a proposed new Catholic church covering 2025 square yards was laid out in January 1955, and was purchased by the Diocese for £560. Francis A. Kerr was employed as architect in 1957. The overall cost of St Gilbert’s came to £17,553.
The Eccles & Patricroft Journal
31st October 1959
The new St Gilbert’s Roman Catholic Church on Brookhouse Estate, Peel Green will be opened on Nov 9th, when it will be blessed by the Bishop of Salford (the Rt. Rev. G.A. Beck) who will afterwards say the first Mass in the church.
The new church will be the sixth Roman Catholic Church in the Eccles area and it is the third to be built since the war. As previously announced in the Journal, the boundaries of the Roman Catholic parishes have been revised and the new church will serve the newly created parish of St Gilbert’s, which will extend from the west side of Schofield Rd and Thorpe St, Peel Green, on to Barton Moss, taking in parts of the former All Saints’ and St Gilbert’s parishes.
The new church, which is situated at the junction of Brookhouse Ave and Northfleet Road, is of traditional design and will seat about 250 people. A new presbytery is being built alongside.
Taking charge of the parish is the Rev. Fr. J. Lakin who was formerly curate with Fr. D. Burke. Fr Lakin was born in the parish of St Anne, Ancoats, and trained for the priesthood at St Bede’s College, Manchester from 1930-37, and at St Cuthbert’s College, Ushaw from 1937-43. He was ordained at Salford Cathedral in July 1943, and afterwards served as supply chaplain at Withington Hospital and as chaplain at Moston Cemetery. From 1944 to 1953 he was at St Augustine’s, Chorlton-on-Medlock, followed by a brief spell at the Church of Mount Carmel, Ordsall. From there he moved in 1953 to St Joseph’s Home, Patricroft, and in 1955 was appointed curate under Fr Burke.
The Manchester Evening Chronicle
10th November 1959
The new £19,000 St Gilbert’s church on the Brookhouse estate, Peel Green, was opened and blessed last night by the Bishop of Salford, the Rt Rev G.A. Beck.
Bishop Beck, accompanied by parish priest Father J. Lakin first blessed the outside of the church. Then following the Litanies, he blessed the inside. The church was packed to capacity – many were standing – as the bishop conducted the first Low Mass. There were approximately 300 parishioners and guests inside the church, but a large crowd had to wait outside.
Said, Fr Lakin today: “I am now very happy. At last our church is open. We started services this morning when I conducted the first weekday Mass. Now we are in full swing”.
The church and adjoining presbytery were designed by Eccles architect Dr F.A. Kerr of Albert Road, who was among the guests at the opening. St Gilbert’s is built in the middle of an expanding council-house estate. Among the other visitors at the opening were the Mayor of Eccles, Alderman Mrs Edith Boddan, and the Mayoress Mrs I. Priestnall. More than 30 priests from the Salford Diocese also attended. Other guests included Councillor Joe Tooley, leader of the Labour group on the Eccles Town Council and a parishioner at the new church, and Mr J. Varlet, divisional education officer.
Canon Joseph Lakin
1st Parish Priest 1959-1966
Fr Lakin recorded in the Parish Log Book that he initially introduced two Sunday Masses, 9am & 11am. On the first Sunday after the opening of the church, 327 people attended Mass, with 164 at 4pm Benediction. The following month he introduced an additional 6pm evening Mass.
In December 1960, Stations of the Cross were erected at a cost of £140, and a new tabernacle was donated by Miss Cecilia Dyson in memory of her late sister Margaret Dyson, who had been Headmistress at St Mary’s Infants School, Eccles. In June 1962 Bishop Beck undertook the first Confirmation at the parish, confirming 95 individuals.
An organ was installed at the church in February 1963, the money for which was largely donated by Mr Terence Keaveney, and in September 1964 Fr James O’Brien CMS gave the first Parish Mission. That same year a branch of the Legion of Mary was begun at St Gilbert’s.
Fr Lakin remained in charge at Brookhouse for seven years; he was appointed an Honorary Canon of the diocese in 1965. In 1966 Canon Lakin was appointed parish priest at St Thomas of Canterbury, Higher Broughton. In 1972 he became Chaplain to the Good Shepherd Convent, Blackley where he remained until his death in 1987. He was appointed Monsignor in 1978.
Father Thomas Ginley
2nd Parish Priest 1966-1968
Thomas Ginley was born in 1905, and ordained in June 1929 at St Chad’s, Cheetham Hill. He had served as parish priest at St Joseph, Nelson (1951-1955), and at St Thomas of Canterbury, Higher Broughton (1955-1966). In effect he exchanged parishes with Canon Lakin.
Fr Ginley’s first entries in the Parish Log Book mainly concerned the state of the presbytery:
“On taking over the parish I found the presbytery sparsely furnished and a great lack of cupboard space in the sacristy. One bedroom needed completely furnishing and two needed carpets. The solution of all these and other furnishing problems should be finalised by the end of the year”
Fr Ginley was aged 61 when he came to Brookhouse and was in poor health. His time in the parish would subsequently last only two years, ending in September 1968. Fr Ginley then retired to a private house in Sale, Cheshire where he died nine years later in April 1977.
Father Denis Sheeran
3rd Parish Priest 1968-1985
Denis Sheeran was the longest serving parish priest at St Gilbert’s, completing seventeen years. He was born in 1909 in central Salford, and was educated at St Bede’s College, and at Valladolid. He was ordained at the Cenacle Convent in 1936.
Fr Sheeran recorded in the Parish Log Book upon his arrival that average Sunday Mass attendance was 355. He immediately began undertaking maintenance on the parish buildings, including, painting and decorating the church for the first time, and upholstering the kneelers. The renovations cost £742. In May 1969, the second parish Mission was held, given by Fr J. Cantwell CMS.
In July 1969, the altar was moved forward to enable the first Mass to be held facing the people, Fr Sheeran recorded in the Log Book that the new forward facing altar was “appreciated very much by the parish”. In November of that year the Parish Newsletter was printed for the first time.
In 1970, Mr G. Turner, of 32 Monk Hall Ave, Eccles, built a new set of sanctuary furnishings for the church, comprising of, a credence table, clergy throne, pulpit, monstrance stand, and a double prie-dieu. That same year a new set of vestments were donated.
In May 1973 a new Altar of Our Lady was erected. By October 1975 major repairs were required following the discovery of dry rot in the church roof, further structural problems were discovered in the roof of the presbytery and sacristies. In 1979 the church heating was converted from oil to gas. The church roof was re-felted in April 1983.
There were three parish societies active in the 1970s and 80s, a branch of the UCM existed for a short time, but it was disbanded in November 1971. A conference of the St Vincent de Paul Society was also active, and the Parish Log Book records that in 1980 they had twelve members and had made 1399 visits.
In 1974, average Mass attendance dropped below the 300 level for the first time, and would never recover. In June 1978, with attendance continuing to decline the evening Mass ceased. By 1981 attendance had dropped below the 200 mark. On the 9th November 1984, the parish celebrated its Silver Jubilee, Mgr Lakin returned to celebrate the Mass.
Fr Sheeran was forced to retire in 1985 due to ill health and spent his final years at Nazareth House, Prestwich where he died in April 1993, age 83.
Fr John P. Fay
4th Parish Priest
Fr Sheeran was replaced at Brookhouse in March 1986 by the 66 year old Fr Jack Fay, who was best known as a long standing Master at St Bede’s College, and who moved from St Catherine’s, Didsbury, after he had requested a smaller parish. Fr Fay however made no entries in the Parish Log Book; so tracking the developments in the parish during his time is very difficult.
Surviving records tell us that in 1986/87 he undertook plans for a remodelling of the interior of St Gilbert’s, these involved partitioning the rear third of the nave to create a social space, creating a new side entrance, and improving security arrangements. It was hoped that the creation of such a space might revive parish life and increase community use of the building. It is not clear to what extent these plans were carried out.
In 1991 after only six years at St Gilbert’s, Fr Fay retired to Lymm, where he died in December 1999.
Fr Kevin Foulkes
5th Parish Priest
Fr Foulkes arrived in March 1991, having previously been curate at St Teresa’s, Irlam. He recorded in the Parish Log Book upon his arrival that Sunday Mass attendance was by then down to 134.
He undertook work to erect a new wall and railings to separate the church property from the road, the presbytery was redecorated, and new church plate and vestments were purchased. The church, house and sacristies were all entirely re-roofed in 1994, and the church was redecorated that year, with all the furniture and fittings being refurbished.
In August 1997, Fr Foulkes was appointed parish priest at Our Lady’s Church, Haigh. Following his departure no further entries were made in the Parish Log Book by his successors.
The Latter Days of the Parish
Fr Mark Hawksworth served for a year as 6th parish priest at Brookhouse from 1997-1998. In August 1998 he was appointed to St Joseph, Audley Range, Blackburn. Sadly he would leave the priesthood the following year.
Between 1998 and 2009, St Gilbert’s was looked after by Fr Terry McCann, an ex-Anglican vicar who had come into full communion with the Catholic Church. Fr McCann continued living with his family in Mosley Common and served St Gilbert’s from there.
The new century witnessed a steep decline in Mass attendance at St Gilbert’s. Diocesan statistics reveal that by the year 2000 figures had hit the 100 level, and continued to drop after that. By 2006 there was an average of only 62 people coming to Mass on Sunday. The parish was earmarked for closure at the time of the 2003 Faith in the Future consultations, but it was agreed that it could remain open for as long as Fr McCann was able to continue serving it.
Fr McCann died suddenly in September 2009, age 65. Following his death St Gilbert’s was served for a short time from the Holy Cross, Patricroft by Fr Michael Ryan. In November of that year, Bishop Brain celebrated Mass in commemoration of the Golden Jubilee of the parish, but the 50th anniversary celebration was to serve as St Gilbert’s ‘swansong’ and permanent closure followed soon after.