Wearside Echoes: Rejoicing in a ‘proper church’

A church to admire
A church to admire
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THE creation of a new £50,000 church was hailed as “a great day for the Roman Catholics of Murton” by The Echo in 1964.

Hundreds of parishioners braved the December chill to celebrate the opening of St Joseph’s – a “day for which they strived for years.”

As the Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle officially blessed the new church, an Echo photographer captured the happy smiles of the crowd.

“It took a great many years for Murton Catholics to get a ‘proper’ church,” said local historian and author PJ McPartland.

“They had to worship in the chapel of the local Catholic school, which opened in 1899, until the first church was acquired in 1931.

“This was a prefabricated ‘tin’ church, which served parishioners for 30 years until it was replaced by the present church.”

A rare picture of the interior of that first tin church is reproduced on this page, courtesy of PJ, as well as other early Murton church scenes.

“One shows Miss Rennison, the housekeeper of parish priest Father Martin McDermott, digging the first sod of the tin church in 1931,” he said.

“Fr McDermott can also be seen on the picture. He died that same year, and is buried in St Joseph’s churchyard.”

Also included among PJ’s photos is a shot of Fr McDermott and his altar boys, which was taken in the early to mid-920s.

“The boy on the extreme right, James Rankin, was for many years the barber in Murton, as was his father – also called James – before him,” said PJ.

“A third generation James Rankin also cut hair at the shop in his spare time, but became a teacher and lecturer rather than a full-time barber.

“The boy who is second right on the same photo, James Slater, was killed in action in Burma during The Second World War last war at the age of 33.

“He had been a miner at Murton Colliery, but volunteered just before the outbreak of war. He was killed at the Battle of Kohima in 1944.

“I’m sure the names of these boys will still be remembered by people in Murton.”

The final photo provided by PJ, author of the Murton-based book Pit Boy, features another Murton parish priest – Fr Arthur Vernon Wills.

“He was Fr McDermott’s successor at St Joseph’s and a parish priest in the 1930s,” said PJ.

“My mother used to work part-time at the presbytery and, when I was born, Fr Wills brought me a silver medal and some rosary beads.

“I don’t remember him as a child, but I did meet him years later, when he was a priest in rural Northumberland, and I still have both his gifts.

“At the time of his death, Fr Wills was in his late nineties and was the oldest priest in the diocese of Hexham and Newcastle.”

PJ was left these wonderful old photographs by his father, although he has “no idea” where they originally came from.

“I don’t believe many people will have seen them. I’d never seen them before, until my father left them when he died,” said PJ.

“He was born in 1904 and was a lifelong member of the church. He would have known all of the people in these pictures during his time in Murton.”

Although the present St Joseph’s Church only dates to the 1960s, a wealth of history can still be found within its graveyard.

“I believe St Joseph’s is unique in one respect, as at least half-a-dozen parish priests are buried in the churchyard,” said PJ.

“Fr McDermott was the first, but others include Fr Conway, Fr Keane, Fr McShane and Fr Gits, of St Cuthbert’s at New Seaham.

“Apparently, Fr Gits had studied at Ushaw College with Fr Conway and the pair were great friends for many years.”

PJ, who was brought up in Murton, but now lives in Seaham, intends to preserve and treasure the old church photos for the future and added: “I just thought they might interest Murton people. They show a little bit of the history of our village.”