On May 31st, 1881, the work of the Sisters of Charity of St Paul the Apostle began in Birstall. No convent existed in Birstall at that time and it is recorded that the sisters travelled each day, by tram, from the nearby St. Mary’s Convent at Batley. The school had been erected in 1877, shortly after the Education Act of 1870 had enabled Catholic schools to be established in England. It is interesting to note, that Birstall did not have its own church at that time. Mass was celebrated in the “upper room” of the New Inn. From 1877 the school was used as a Mass centre. It was not until 1901 that the church of St. Patrick’s was built.
Birstall at that time was a place of poverty and deprivation. The only sources of employment were in the building of the newly established railway and in the woollen mills. Indeed the entire valley from Birstall, through Batley to Dewsbury was known as “The Heavy Woollen District”. The people worked long hours, for little pay and this was reflected in the lives of the children at St. Patrick’s School. The school log-book records absences due to severe ill-health, child-labour and lack of clothes and footwear. This was the situation into which the pioneer sisters first came. Their apostolate was not only to the children but to their families and the elderly and sick of the parish. The Congregation withdrew from Birstall in 1884 until September 30th. 1902. The reason for this remains a mystery!
The Congregation returned on October 1st. The daily tram journey of the sisters from Batley to Birstall ceased in 1916 when a house beside the school and church was acquired as a convent. The sisters remained there until 1951 when Bishop Heenan (Bishop of Leeds) advised the Congregation to purchase a house large enough to incorporate a chapel where the Blessed Sacrament could be reserved and Mass celebrated. In 1951 the sisters moved to the present house, a short distance away, which was dedicated to St. Joseph. Time passed and both school and parish continued to thrive and expand, served by the continuous support and hard work of many sisters. By 1965 the original school could no longer serve the needs of the staff or pupils and a new school was opened. This building has since had three other major adaptations and alterations, including the erection of a nursery to serve a growing Catholic population. In 1971 a new church was also built immediately opposite the former convent.
Now in 2009, one hundred and twenty eight years since the first sisters set off on their journey by tram, there are still three Sisters of St. Paul in Birstall! Burgsteall (the place of a fortified homestead as it was known in the Domesday Book) or Birstall, as it is known today, has but few claims to fame! Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen was born here and Charlotte Bronte was a frequent visitor, using many of the local buildings and people as the basis for her writings. Her novel “Shirley” was set here. The Luddite riots of the Industrial Revolution started here. Much of the work and dedication of all the sisters who have served here will, like Birstall itself be unknown and unrecorded. Yet seeds have been sown which will, one day, burst into life.
OUR MINISTRY TODAY
Vicar for Religious in Leeds Diocese
Co-ordinator for Wakefield Partnership of Catholic Schools
Parish Co-ordinator for R.C.I.A. Sacramental Preparation
Teaching Primary School/ R.E. Co-ordinator
Diocesan Working Party for Diocesan Renewal Programme