Catholic Llandeilo

A History of St David’s Parish


To most British people Christianity, if they think of it at all, is effectively a synonym for Protestantism. But of course, this particular branch of the countless Christian belief systems is less than five hundred years old. It made its first appearance in northern Europe in the 16th century as a breakaway from the much older Catholic Church, which had itself emerged out of the ashes of he Roman Empire in the fifth century.

The German Catholic priest Martin Luther famously made the break with Rome when he nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenburg Church in 1517 in protest at what he, and many others in Europe, saw as the degeneration of the Roman-controlled Catholic Church. What became known as the Reformation had begun. The English King Henry the Eighth initially took the side of Rome in this controversy, earning himself the title Fidei Defensor ( Defender of the Faith ) from Pope Leo X for writing a treatise against Martin Luther.

Henry the EighthHenry VIII, the creator of English Protestantism

But when Henry the Eighth couldn't persuade the same Pope to grant him a divorce from his first wife Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn, he hit upon the novel idea of forming his own church instead, making himself head of it in the process, and was thus able to grant himself his own divorce. And so the English Protestant Reformation was born in 1536, in unique circumstances that owed nothing to the religious convictions that had steered other churches in this direction. Ever since William and Mary came to the throne jointly in 1688 all English monarchs have been Protestant, yet despite this the letters FD, standing for the Catholic -conferred title Fidei Defensor , are still engraved on the British coinage to this day, proving that English monarchs either have a well-developed sense of irony or are too stupid to notice the contradiction.

But it wasn't long before the new Protestant religion of Henry VIII was to experience splits of its own, eventually leading to the bewildering number of non-conformist faiths we see today, and even more which have since disappeared. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a whole menagerie of weird and wonderful Protestant sects was loosed on an unsuspecting England. Within a century of Henry the Eighth's death in 1553 a bloody civil war would be fought between Royalists and Republicans with religion at its heart. Here, Puritans and Quakers; Presbyterians and Episcopalians; Arminians, Baptists and Anabaptists; Ranters, Levellers, Diggers, Congregationalists, Fifth Monarchists, Millenarians, Muggletonions, and more, jostled for position and Henry's Anglican Church was in serious jeopardy for a while.

Some sort of order was finally restored only in 1660 when the monarchy, and with it the supremacy of the Church of England, was restored after twenty years of a Cromwellian interregnum. And it wasn't until 1688, when the English unceremoniously dumped the Catholic King James II in favour of a Dutchman, William of Orange, that the Protestant ascendancy was finally secured.

And in the midst of all this ferment Catholicism was still bubbling away, often clashing violently with the Protestant authorities.

For many years Catholicism was persecuted in England and Wales and those who celebrated the Catholic Mass did so in secret and at genuine risk to their lives, for literally thousands died in pursuit of their faith. In the Catholic regions of Europe, Protestants were subject to the same persecution, torture and violent death by the Inquisition, so no-one comes out of this infamous period in European history with any credit. (Today's wars between Christian and Islamic fundamentalism for control of middle-eastern oil is only the latest demonstration of how indifferent organised religion can often be to human life.)

But despite this persecution, Catholicism still hung on in Britain, often receiving a boost to both morale and numbers by immigration from Catholic countries, most notably Ireland, or the missionary work of Jesuit priests smuggled into the country from Catholic France and Spain. One particularly outdated legacy of this anti-Catholicism is that the King or Queen of the United Kingdom cannot marry a Catholic. They could in principle marry any serious criminal or deranged mass-murderer who takes their fancy, but not a law-abiding Catholic. Some English monarchs have actually been serious criminals or deranged mass-murderers so perhaps that's why there's no prohibition against marrying any.

What follows is the official history of the Catholic Parish of St David's in Llandeilo, a parish which, due to considerably fewer Catholics in the area, has a far larger geographic range than the Anglican Parish of Llandeilo Fawr. For Llandeilo, like the rest of Wales, is overwhelmingly Protestant, with its non-conformist denominations outnumbering Henry the Eighth's Anglican creation, both in the number of worshippers and the number of places for them to worship.

by Alan Randall, 1987


The Catholic parish of St. David's, Llandeilo, covers an area of 155 square miles of rural West Wales, the land having a varied and often spectacular scenery. It is divided into two by the fertile valley of the River Tywi. In the south-east the parish is skirted by the Black Mountain and to the north-west the land climbs gradually through a rugged upland area to a 1,300 ft. summit. Here the area is covered by the Brechfa Forest, and is bisected by the Cothi and Dulais valleys and their tributaries.

The parish contains a total population of 9,200 centred on the small market town of Llandeilo, but spread throughout many small villages, hamlets and isolated farmsteads.

The Catholic community of 130 people is relatively small. Though the parish was formally set up in 1973 it contains an area that has witnessed the survival of an almost continuous Catholic tradition dating back to the sixth century and possibly earlier.

St. Teilo's Church
St Teilo church, Llandeilo, a classic example of the Catholic/Protestant divide. The 15th century watch tower (all that remains of the medieval church building) is Catholic. The nave is Protestant, built in 1850 after the medieval nave was demolished. The first (Catholic) church was erected on the same site in the 6th century.

The name of the parish preserves the link between the present Church and the early Church in the area, and to two of its great saints, David and Teilo.

Saint David or Dewi Sant, Patron Saint of Wales was born about 500 AD. An early "Life", the Vita Davidas was written by Rhigyfarch about 1095. Like many such lives it is a mixture of folklore, oral tradition and historical fact. David was the son of a prince of Ceredigion - Sant, and a maiden Non. He was educated at Henfynyw by Paulinus whom David cured of blindness, and later undertook a preaching tour founding churches and monasteries. These include Llanarthne - a 'clas' church or Mother Church in Celtic times and St. Davids. It was at St. Davids that David lived an austere life of daily toil in the fields and long hours of reading, writing, prayer and worship. He died on March 1st, the exact year being unknown.

Teilo was a relative, friend and disciple of St. David. The earliest evidence of his cult is the Gospel Book of Chad written about 700 in Ireland. There are entries in the margin dating from the 9th century that show he was venerated in South Wales as the founder of a monastery, probably at Llandeilo Fawr - the chief church of Teilo. There is a long and elaborate life in the "Liber Landevensis". Teilo was born at Penally near Tenby, and like David studied under Paulinus. He is associated with David and Padarn on a pilgrimage or visit to Jerusalem where he was proclaimed bishop by the Patriarch. Following an outbreak of Yellow Plague in 547 Teilo took his community to Brittany where he stayed seven years and seven months. There are many dedications in Brittany to him, and he is represented in statues and stained glass, wearing a cope and mitre and riding a stag. This is a reminder that Teilo chose a stag as a swift mount when a local ruler in the Cornoville district offered him all the land he could encircle between sunset and sunrise.

It was Llandeilo however that became the centre of Teilo's missionary work, and there are numerous dedications to him in churches, chapels and holy wells in South West Wales. With David he was instrumental in spreading Christianity into Central Wales and the English border.

Teilo died in the middle of the 6th century possibly at Llandeilo. His name is also associated with the See of Llandaff, and his tomb is in Llandaff Cathedral. In Wales his feast is kept on February 9th.

The present St. Teilo's church in Llandeilo was probably built on the site of Teilo's original 'clas'. The Church has been rebuilt several times, most recently in 1850, but still retains its 15th century tower. In the Church are two stone cross heads dating from the 9th to early 10th century. Nearby in a grotto in Church Street, Llandeilo is a well once called St. Teilo's Baptistry and resorted to as a healing well.

The Pre-Reformation Period

The Llandeilo area is replete with ecclesiastical remains from the Norman and Pre Reformation periods, of churches, chapels and holy wells. Most striking of all is Talley Abbey, an ancient abbey standing a few miles north of Llandeilo at Talley or Talyllychau ('at the end of the lakes'). It was described by Giraldus Cambrensis in the 12th century as situated in a "rough and sterile spot surrounded by woods on every side and beyond measure inaccessible and sufficiently meanly endowed". Even today the waters of its lakes and the wooded slopes of its surrounding hills provide an ideal setting for the life of peaceful seclusion which the monks enjoyed.

Talley Abbey was founded by the Lord Rhys - Rhys ap Gruffudd (1132-97), one of the great Welsh princes of Deheubarth. He was a generous benefactor of several other religious foundations including Whitland and Strata Florida abbeys. The founding of the abbey at Talley was probably part of a genuine desire to provide for the spiritual needs of the community under his dominion. Richards, however, has gone further, believing that the gifts made by the Lord Rhys and his descendants to Talley link back to Teilo himself, reflecting the "territory which made up the old parish of Teilo". He thinks there was a close relationship between Teilo and his mother church of Llandeilo Fawr and the Royal Dynasty of Dinefwr. Talley was the "inheritor of much of the spiritualities and temporalities of Teilo himself".

It was the only Premonstratensian monastery in Wales and was based on an Order founded at Prémontré, France, in 1120, adopting the Rule of St. Augustine and the ideals of the Cistercians. Like the Cistercians the Order wore a white habit, also adopted their simplicity of ritual and architecture, and abstained from flesh meats.

Amongst the churches appropriated to the Abbey were the ancient 'clas' of Llandeilo Fawr and the chapelry of St. David at Dinefwr. The Abbey itself was to become thoroughly Welsh in character, many of its monks being Welsh. Though little now remains of the Abbey its once large church included six chapels and a central tower rising to 95 feet. The Abbey was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and St. John the Baptist. A 15th century Talley Abbey seal in the Castle Museum, Norwich, shows a seated abbot, robed and mitred, his hands clasped in prayer. Above him in Gothic characters is written "Ave Maria", and in the upper part of the seal is the Agnus Dei. On either side is a lily, the traditional symbol of Our Lady. The legend reads "S'ABB'TIS CONVENT' MON'STRI B'E MARIE DE TALLEY".

Unlike the Cistercians the White Canons undertook parochial responsibilities though these were often hampered by the Abbey's remote location. In 1410 for example, the abbot and convent complained that the visitors summoned them to places fully eighty miles from the Abbey.

At the Dissolution of the Monasteries from 1536 onwards, there was a religious community of 8 canons, and monastic revenue was assessed at £136. What happened to the Canons is uncertain. Abbot Retheric was given a pension of £24 and James Nicholas migrated to St. Bartholomew's London. Others perhaps entered continental monasteries, became parochial clergy, or became vagrants, It has been suggested too that a monastic tradition continued for many years in the isolation of the hills. The land in close proximity to the Abbey was retained by the Crown, forming the Royal Manor of Talley. The outlying granges were variously disposed of; the estates of Golden Grove and Abermarlais amongst the main beneficiaries.

Reformation and Recusancy

In the early years of the Reformation the Llandeilo area like much of rural Wales had been largely insulated by speech and geographical remoteness from the forces of change coming from England and the English language.

However, in the 25 years following Henry VIII's breach with Rome "changes of a very far-reaching and significant kind were introduced. The authority of the Pope over the Church was shattered, and replaced by the royal supremacy. Some of the most venerated and characteristic institutions of the Medieval Church, the houses of religion, were dispossessed in the greatest act of land nationalisation in British history. Shrines and pilgrimages, the foci of so much popular devotion, were largely swept away".

What is significant and puzzling is that in Wales there was no real widespread rebellion against the changes introduced by the Reformation nor indeed was there any protest at the return to Rome in Mary's reign. It has been argued that the Welsh "had been less deeply committed to the doctrines of the Catholic religion at the end of the middle ages than has often been suggested".

What is clear is that the Catholic Church faced increasing persecution. In 1534 the Act of Succession made it a capital offence to deny the validity of King Henry's marriage. The following year saw the Act of Supremacy making it High Treason to refuse to acknowledge Henry as the only Supreme Head on earth of the Church in England.

By the Act of Uniformity 1559 all were required to attend services in the established church. Recusants were those who absented themselves from such services, and they became liable to various penalties. It was hoped that regular attendance would eventually lead to spiritual conformity.

Surveys in December 1569 and January 1570 suggest that most people in the diocese of St. David's had conformed by then. Bishop Davies reported "no recusancy, neither non attendance at church services nor non reception of communion", existed within his jurisdiction. He did admit that "the retention of Catholic practices was strongly evident". A 1577 survey of the same diocese showed there was one Catholic recusant though some others who attended church "favoured the Roman Church".

These surveys no doubt underestimated the true extent of recusancy at the time in West Wales. But as far as the Llandeilo area was concerned there were no leading families of recusant gentry to provide foci of Catholic opposition to the established Church or who could offer leadership and protect priests. A list of influential 'Catholics' drawn up in 1574 by an adherent of Mary Queen of Scots includes four people from the Llandeilo area - one 'knight', Sir Henry Jones of Abermarlais and three 'gentlemen', Sir Henry's son Thomas, brother Richard and brother-in-law Griffith Rice of Newton (Dinefwr). However, none appear on a similar list for 1582 and it is likely that they had conformed by then three of them becoming High Sheriffs of Carmarthenshire.

It was the seminary priests who were to keep the Faith alive and indeed promote a revival of Catholicism. A seminary at Douay opened in 1568 and began supplying priests to this country in 1574. The Jesuits too launched their own mission in 1580. This led to an intensification of persecution and to the increasingly severe legislative measures of 1581, '85, '87 and '93. There were penalties for saying Mass, harbouring priests, and not attending church, which included fines, forfeiture of goods, imprisonment, torture and the ultimate penalty - death for high treason.

Amongst the seminary priests who worked in and around the Llandeilo area in the late 16th and early 17th centuries was Morgan Clynnog. He trained at the English College in Rome, where his uncle Dr. Morys Clynnog was Rector. He was one of the first to take the Mission Oath in 1579, coming to this country in 1582 with Griffith Ellis. In a letter dated 1587 we learn that "… Mr. Eles, Mr. Morgan Clenocke and others do well and verie much good".

Morgan Clynnog can be traced baptising, reconciling, sending students to Douay and Valladolid and organising the distribution of books from Penlline in Glamorganshire where he lived for some years with Jenkin Turberville. He "worked in cordial co operation with the Jesuits and other secular priests for at least thirty-seven years" and is last heard of on 2nd December 1619.

Another priest known to have worked with Morgan Clynnog at Llandeilo is Phillip Williams or William Phillips. He could possibly be William Phillips of Monmouth, the nephew and pupil of Fr. John Williams. It may be that the Jesuit Fr. John Bennet also served in this area. He was protected by the Barlows at Slebech between 1601 and 1605. He covered most of Menevia travelling "Wales all over, and that for the most part on foot", for 35 years. For several of these Fr. Bennet suffered from the effect of earlier tortures.

An interesting insight into the Catholic underground in this period can be obtained from an investigation into recusancy by Edward Donne Lee and Phillip Williams at the Carmarthen Sessions of August and September 1591. Those questioned were mainly from the Llandeilo area and had been present at Mass or harboured priests.

Both Morgan Clynnog and Phillip Williams (or William Phillips) had said Mass, but little is learned about them from the depositions. On April 10th, 1590 Phillip Williams had stayed with David and Anne Delahay at their house in Llanegwad. Here he said Mass for them, attended by Delahay's miller and an old woman "whome they called nurse". David Delahay was already known to the authorities as a recusant. In 1586 he had been "presented" for not coming to Church or receiving holy communion for four years.

Fr. Phillip Williams then moved on to Llandeilo where he stayed at the house of Jane Lloyd, a widow, from Sunday 12th April, 1590 to the Wednesday. Here he said Mass in the presence of Humfrey Johnes, Jane Lloyd, John Lloyd and Richard ap Hoel. On 15th April he moved to the house of Thomas ap Owen Harry and his wife Gwenllian, where he said Mass for them which was also attended by Owen Harry and Humfrey Johnes.

David Williams, one of the witnesses, who was a son of Jane Lloyd, reported that Morgan Clynnog had also said Mass at his mother's house. Here Morgan Clynnog heard confessions and reconciled several people to the Catholic Church. Amongst those present at Mass he cited David Williams, Jane Lloyd his mother, John Lloyd his brother, Charles Lloyd, his uncle, Hugh Lloyd, his uncle's brother, and Thomas Turberville. We learn from the records however that John Lloyd returned to the Church of England, "being young and not understanding the danger ... did afterwards when he was better informed renounce the Romish Church ... and is heartily sorry for what he did against the law and sheweth it upon his knees with tears".

From the evidence it is clear as to the lengths the faithful were prepared to go to have their children baptised. Anne Delahay gave birth to a son at Jane Lloyd's house in Llandeilo. The child was taken by Gwenllian Evor, a nurse, Hugh Lloyd and a maid to a deserted church some two days journey from Llandeilo, situated between Aberavon and Margam. Here the child was baptised Andrew by Morgan Clynnog "and there were present many thereat … and this to the number of eight score".

The success of seminary priests like Morgan Clynnog led the Privy Council to comment in 1592 that in the Welsh counties "by means of seminaries there is a daily infection and falling from religion" and led it to instruct the Earl of Pembroke to inquire into "Jesuits and seminaries and such lewd and suspected persons as do lurk in these remote places". The following year he was to complain to the Queen that the inhabitants of West Wales "are in religion generally ill affected, as may appear by their use of pilgrimages, their harbouring of mass priests, their retaining of superstitious ceremonies and the increase of recusants".

A letter from the Privy Council to Sir Thomas Jones and others in June 1592 noted that "there are divers sorts of people in the County of Carmarthen that do use to repair as well in the night season as other times of the day unto certain places where in times past there have been pilgrimages, images or offerings …" He was to take action to "cause those superstitious and idolatrous monuments to be pulled down, broken and quite defaced" and those frequenting such places were to be arrested, "strictly examined and severely punished".

At Llandyfan, a well known as Ffynnon Gwyddfaen was a popular source of pilgrimage. A large number of pilgrims were apprehended there in 1592 and brought before a local magistrate and squire - Morgan Jones of Tregib. A Bill of Complaint was brought against him in the Star Chamber because he refused not only to imprison them but also to examine them. Jones considered their action harmless, viewing them as "poor, sickly persons who had gone to the well to bathe, hoping by the help of God thereby to have their health". Two hundred or more people remained unapprehended at the well, indicating its importance as a source of pilgrimage, a continuity of tradition and the sympathy of a local dignitary towards Catholicism.

A chapel had been erected at the well in Medieval times and survived until the end of the 18th century. It was later used by Baptists, and Soar Chapel was built near there in 1808. The well was believed to possess curative qualities and was described in 1813 by Nicholson as "efficacious in the cure of paralytic affections, numbness and scorbutic humours".

The above evidence and that derived from official returns of recusants suggest a survival of Catholicism in the Llandeilo area, more so than elsewhere in Carmarthenshire. The official returns are not always accurate and have led more than one historian to suggest that the small numbers involved were just "flotsam on a dark tide of papist feeling" amounting to "little more than a haphazard collection of unfortunates". What they do confirm is the absence of any "considerable gentry". The ten recusants from Carmarthenshire convicted in March 1606 were from the Llandeilo area. No gentry were included, but there were four yeomen and a spinster from Llandeilo, two yeomen from Llandyfeisant, a weaver from Llanfihangel Aberbythych and the respective wives of gentlemen from Llandybie and Talley.

The 1624 Return included Thomas David Williams a gentleman from Llangathen; Jane, wife of Rees Williams Esquire; and from Llandeilo - Walter Lloyd "gentleman, aged about forty years, and his wife for the like, whose estate is uncertain, who for a long time hath been a noted recusant and great seducer of the people".

Of 19 Carmarthenshire recusants presented at the Great Sessions in July 1637, 11 were from the Llandeilo area. Once again Walter Lloyd and his wife were included; others were yeomen, husbandmen and their wives, and widows".

The survival of Catholicism in Wales in this period owed much to the missionary work of the Jesuits. In 1622 the Jesuit Mission of St. Francis Xavier was opened at Cwm near Monmouth. Though predominantly serving the Catholic stronghold of Monmouthshire, up to 20 priests were based there on occasions. It is Cleary's view that the Jesuit contribution to the Catholic life of Wales "comprises a surprisingly large, though neglected, effort."

How much, if any, influence the Jesuits had in keeping the faith alive in the Llandeilo area can only be speculated upon. Clearly, there were Catholics in this area who could have been sustained in their Faith by priests from Cwm. We learn from a report written in the 1650's that the Jesuits "underwent great fatigue in traversing the mountainous country to visit the poor Catholics who were unable to maintain a priest amongst them".

It is also known that Saint David Lewis came to Cwm in 1648 and "for thirty-one years he tramped the countryside, always on foot and mostly by night, baptizing, hearing confessions, reconciling lapsed Catholics and saying Mass ...". He was Rector of Cwm 1667-72 and 1674-9.

From 1642 to 1679 a secular priest William Lloyd served at Brecon and may also have been available to the faithful at Llandeilo.

The Religious Census of 1676 shows that there were still Catholics at Llandeilo. Although it records only 14 'papists' for the whole of Carmarthenshire, five of these are at Llandeilo and one at Llandybie. Two years later Titus Oates published his fabricated evidence of a Catholic plot to murder the King and replace him with the Catholic Duke of York. The persecution of Catholics under the Penal Code was usually haphazard and fitful but after the Oates conspiracy there was a massive priest hunt and persecution. It claimed the lives of several martyrs including two Jesuits from Cwm, David Lewis, and Phillip Evans.

Though this persecution aggravated the decline of Catholicism in Wales it still did not wipe it out completely. In 1687 Fr. Pacificus Williams started a Franciscan mission at Abergavenny.

As late as 1700 a priest named Samuel Davies, a gentleman of Llandeilo, was prosecuted at the Great Sessions in Carmarthen for saying Mass at Llandeilo. It was charged that Samuel Davies "now and formerly a popish priest said mass in the mansion of John Morgan of Llandeilo Fawr and administered the sacrament to a certain Mary Lloyd and Mary Price according to the Roman use, against the statute. It is more than likely that this is a Mr. Charles alias Samuel Davies who is identified by Lynch as living with the Jones family at Llanarth from 1707 until his death in 1761 at the age of 84 years. From Llanarth he is recorded as serving the Catholics of South Wales.

How, or if, the spiritual needs of the faithful in Llandeilo were served up to the end of the 18th century and early 19th century is difficult to say. Catholicism certainly appears to have "reached its lowest point in Wales" in the eighteenth century.

In 1704 a return from Carmarthenshire noted "there are about half a dozen papists in the whole county, but these are very inconsiderable". In the following year we learn there were only six priests on the Jesuit Mission. Tennison's Visitation in 1710 recorded that in TaIley "there are two reputed papists John Weston and his wife". Catholics were becoming few and far between. In 1759 one was suspected at TaIley.

Abergavenny had been served from 1687 by the Franciscan Missionaries, and its baptismal records show that Catholics were prepared to travel long distances to secure the services of a priest. In 1769 the baptismal records of Abergavenny show that Thomas and Mary Hughes both servants at Taliaris had their son Thomas baptised there. Godparents were the child's brother, by proxy, and Mary Thomas of Llangathen. Yet two years earlier a return of papists had been called for in St. David's diocese and this had identified only one Catholic in the Llandeilo area - a midwife who lived at Llangathen. Perhaps this was Mary Thomas.

By 1780 one Welsh secular priest had survived. This was Fr. Edward Jones who lived at Llanarth and who was in charge of an area which included Brecon, served by him every three months.

By 1789 Brecon had its own priest, John Williams. From 1817-1818 Lewis Havard worked at Brecon. Poole records that "Like his immediate predecessors in the Catholic mission of S. Wales, he used to strap his vestments and communion plate on his back, and make frequent journeys on foot from Brecknock to Abergavenny, and other neighbouring towns, for the purpose of ministering to a few scattered adherents of his church.

The Jesuits too had continued operating in South Wales. Father Robert Plowden writing on the South Wales mission in 1814 described it as serving the "whole course of South Wales wherever there were Catholics from Cardiff to Milford Haven inclusively". The mission was based at Bristol, the priest crossing by ferry to Cardiff, and from there travelling to Cowbridge by post chaise. This became know as the "Riding Mission" when great distances were covered on horseback and seems to have been operated from 1744 when Fr. Scudamore left Wales. Other priests who served on this Mission included John Baptist de Ia Fontane, Thomas Brewer and his brother John, and Fr. Massie. Fr. Plowden was based at Swansea between 1787 and 1804. In 1811 an appeal was made for funds for a church at Swansea to provide for the spiritual needs of "... Catholics scattered about between Monmouthshire and the extremity of Pembrokeshire". The church was built by 1813 and attended by a priest from Brecon 4 or 5 times a year.

by Alan Randall, 1987

Part 3

Toleration and Emancipation

The Relief Measures of 1791-2 greatly improved the conditions of Catholics, and at the same time public feeling was becoming more tolerant. But by then, in Wales "though a handful of adherents lingered on, the heart had gone out of the old faith until it was revived again with the advent of a wave of Catholic immigrants in the nineteenth century".

Indeed this was the Church described by the Vicar Apostolic, the Rt. Rev. Dr. Brown in 1845 as a lonely remnant of Welsh speaking Catholics and growing migration of poor Irish. To him Wales had been neglected; Welsh speaking priests had not been sent to their native country and consequently Wales had a claim of justice on English Catholics. His view was that "The Welsh seem, therefore, to have gradually ceased to be Catholics for want of instruction and ministry, rather than to have embraced the Established Creed".

Even in the early 19th century however, Dr. Brown felt of the Welsh that "There was a lingering attachment to the Religion of their fathers, although its tenets were forgotten, and that certain traditional remains of Catholic devotions were long kept up of which the origin and meaning were not remembered by the people".

In 1842 the Vicariate of Wales was in a sad state "its destruction is in every way extreme". The stark description of the state of the Church in Carmarthenshire is summarised in the Catholic Directory of 1845 as "No Chapels! No Mission-houses! No School-houses! No Mission Fund! No Missioners!"

In 1842 Bishop Brown planned to appoint two travelling missioners, one at least fluent in Welsh who "shall sow the seeds of divine truth where they cannot be otherwise conveyed, and lay the foundations of future permanent missions".

In the same year Fr. Peter Lewis was appointed missioner apostolic, and was to serve in Milford Haven 1844, Haverfordwest 1845, then Pembroke Dock, before coming to Carmarthen in 1850. There he established a Mass Centre in Water Street and was instrumental in the building of St. Mary's Church.

By the late 1840s there were a few Catholics scattered around Llandeilo and its district, in the main probably Irish immigrants. With the arrival of Fr. Peter Lewis they could be served occasionally from Carmarthen. Abermarlais became the Mass Centre for this area. At the time it was occupied by Captain John William Arengo Cross, his wife Maria Teresa and their three children and staff. It is likely that a number of the staff were Catholics. The 1851 Census records six members of staff at Abermarlais. It is probable that at least three, the governess, a teacher and an Irish servant were Catholics.

There were of course other Catholics in the area. The records of St. Mary's Church show that Norah Hickey was baptised by Fr. Peter Lewis in 1851 at Abermarlais. She was the child of John and Catherine Hickey, and the Godparents were Cain Mahoney and Ann Griffin. How many others there were is difficult to say.

At the end of 1851, Fr. Lewis left for Brecon and was succeeded by Fr. Lewis Havard Jnr. Like his uncle and namesake before him he did much to bring the faith to his native Welshmen. He was renowned for his Welsh sermons and remembered for "the warmth of his deep faith and unaffected piety". As "Missionary.Rector" Lewis Havard served Carmarthen and its several widely separated stations from 1852 to 1864.

It was during Fr. Havard's time at Carmarthen that an attempt was made by Miss Catherine Richardson to have a Catholic Church built at Manordeilo near Llandeilo. She was described by the Anglican Bishop of St. David's as a "pious lady" and a "warm partisan and munificent patroness" of the Catholic Church. Indeed, she had funded St. Mary's Church, Carmarthen, built in 1851/2. Sadly, for the Catholics of the Llandeilo area "no more than the walling of the nave with its roofs got completed" before the scheme was abandoned "because it was impossible to obtain a footing in the neighbourhood". The partly constructed building was sold some years after to the Church of England for £275.

"Under the superintendence of Mr. J. Harries, Architect, Llandeilo, the transepts and a bell turret were added, and the niche in the gable intended for a figure of the Virgin, made a passage for light, and the whole completed". The completed church, St. Paul's, was opened in November 1860 having cost £1,100.

Financially, the mission centred on Carmarthen was a poor one. In 1856, we learn that Lewis Havard's mission was "dependent for support entirely upon alms, and the scanty resources of the diocese". One of the main benefactors was Mrs. Arengo-Cross. Writing to his bishop Fr. Havard records "nobody I am sure acknowledges more deeply than I do the zealous support given by Mrs. Arengo Cross to the cause of our Holy Religion". She had been responsible for setting up a school for poor children at Carmarthen in 1854, providing £5 a year and a house for the school teacher.

At Abermarlais Mass was said on the last Sunday of every month. Fr. Havard also reported that Mrs. Arengo-Cross paid his "travelling expenses to and from Abermarlais and I take it that she does so with the intention to exempt the few people there from all application for that object."

Abermarlais continued as a Mass centre until 1861 when Mrs. Arengo-Cross died. In that year her family moved to Iscoed near Ferryside. The 1861 Census records five servants at Abermarlais, four of them, Mary Driscoll, Ann Wilde, Catherine Cotter and Ellen Mahoney were originally from Ireland. It is unclear whether or not they moved too but these names do recur in church records for the Llandeilo and Llandovery areas.

The loss of Abermarlais probably meant that the few Catholics that remained would have had to be content with less frequent visits by priests. It is possible that Mass was said at Glanbrydan Park when Catherine Richardson lived there. Alternatively the faithful would have had to travel to Carmarthen.

The Coming of the Passionists

In 1888 a Miss Lascelles asked the Provincial Superior of the Passionist Order to set up a Passionist Mission at Tenby. This request was supported by Bishop Hedley and the Passionist Fathers came to Tenby in that year. A year later the Passionist Fathers Dominic O'Neil and Fr. David moved to Carmarthen. In 1890 Fr. Placid Waring took over as Rector. It has been suggested that this move was a result of an appeal to the Passionist Order by Bishop Hedley who was concerned about the spiritual needs of Catholics living in isolated areas in Carmarthenshire.

The size of the mission taken on by the Passionists was large in that it "embraces the towns and hamlets beyond the picturesque Vale of Towy, and .... the villages scattered in that district as far as sea-girt Pendine". In fact the Carmarthen Mission covered the former counties of Carmarthenshire and Radnorshire, and parts of Pembrokeshire, Cardiganshire and Breconshire. From their base at Carmarthen the Passionists attended various stations at Cardigan, Aberystwyth, Llandrindod, Ammanford, Llandovery and Llandeilo. With such an area to cover it is not surprising that Mass was said only at irregular intervals at each place. In 1894 for example it was reported that "Mass has been twice a year" at Llandeilo. In the same year the size of the Catholic congregation in the Llandeilo/Llandovery area numbered only eight persons.

In 1909 Abermarlais Park once again became a Mass centre serving the spiritual needs of the Llandeilo/Llandovery area and beyond. Mass was held at the private oratory of Mr. Henry Hunter and the Hon. Mrs. Hunter. Louise Hunter was the daughter of the twelfth Lord Dormer by his first wife. Mrs. Hunter had moved to Abermarlais in 1909 and on May 2nd that year a public oratory was opened there, the first Mass being said by Fr. George Dobson, CP. It was then said regularly every week. John Rudd records that "many of the Catholics living scattered thereabouts attended. Some of the Llandovery people were fortunate enough to share 'lifts' on the Driscoll's trap. Mrs. Hunter paid 5/- towards the cost of hiring a brake to bring the people once a month".

From 1911 the Passionists travelled on from Abermarlais once a fortnight to say Mass at Llandovery.

The full services of Holy week commenced at Abermarlais in 1923. There are references to canonical visits by the Bishops who stayed at Abermarlais as guests of the Hunters. In October 1920 for example Bishop Francis Mostyn visited Abermarlais to confirm nine young people from the Llandeilo and Llandovery areas belonging to the Manning, Dowling, Driscoll, Evans and Wells families.

In 1927 there were fourteen confirmations by Bishop Vaughan, of children from the families of Evans, Williams, Fury, Wells, Cooper, Dowling, Hayes and Brewer. At that time the total Catholic population in Llandeilo/Llandovery was estimated at only fifty or so. Amongst the Passionists serving this mission older parishioners still remember with affection Fr. Thomas Heffernan CP, and also Fr. Finian Connell CP who cycled many miles seeing to the needs of the faithful.

Henry Hunter died in June 1934 and Mrs. Hunter decided to leave her home at Abermarlais. Mass was said there for the last time on November 23rd, 1936 by Fr. Germain Conway, Rector of St. Mary's Carmarthen.

With the closure of Abermarlais the faithful were forced to look elsewhere. Occasionally Mass would be said at the house of Lawrence Lee at Heol y Garreglas, Llandeilo. Otherwise local Catholics would have to travel to Ammanford, Llandovery or Carmarthen.

It is noteworthy that a contemporary report records that "there are numerous Catholics scattered over the county who travel regularly thirty miles or more each way to fulfil their religious obligations, and the priests at Carmarthen have at times to go thirty to forty miles on a sick call".

The Second World War witnessed a significant increase in the Catholic population of Llandeilo. In June 1940 staff and pupils from Coloma Convent School Croydon were evacuated to Llandeilo. A local paper announced their arrival.

"The evacuees arrived on Sunday at 6.40 p.m. They numbered above 200, and the arrangements were carried without a hitch. They were taken from the station to the County School for tea and medical examination. The evacuees included a superior lot of girls who were in the Secondary Schools of the London County Council. They were accompanied by their teachers and sisters of the R.C. The children from Bootle are expected on Thursday".

Sister Mary Clare, one of the sisters involved has recalled her time in this area. Her account is reproduced here:

In August 1939 about 500 pupils with approximately 20 staff including the Head Mistress, Mother Winifride and four Sisters evacuated their school Coloma, Croydon and set out, for what was then an unknown destination.

All wore labels and carried gas masks. Tearful parents watched the exodus, as well as those left behind for whom other plans were made.

The unknown destination proved to be Eastbourne but six months later danger loomed from across the Channel and once more there was an exodus this time, to a little known town called Llandeilo in South Wales, about fifteen miles from Carmarthen.

There a tired and bedraggled group arrived late at night walking in procession along the one street to a large hail, to be sorted out and taken to allotted billets. Curious faces appeared at doors and windows eager to see Roman Catholic nuns and Convent school girls, never had such appeared in that vicinity and villagers were eager to see what they looked like.

Finally when all children were claimed and taken to their temporary homes the sisters alone remained with their luggage - it looked as if nobody had the courage to house them - finally a few brave householders came forward and offered temporary lodging, so a small community of five found themselves divided out, one to a family. The hosts and hostesses were certainly very kind and helpful, but it was a strange experience for sisters who had spent five or ten or more years within the Convent precincts to find themselves adrift in a strange world. There was no Catholic Church in the area, or parish priest to advise. However the Passionists at Carmarthen were notified of their arrival and arranged to come for Mass on Sundays. Where to celebrate it was a problem, however the proprietor of the local public house, The Kings Head, came to the rescue and offered a room for Sunday morning. This was greatly appreciated and so Mass was offered there for two years.

In the meantime accommodation was offered to the Sisters in Ammanford, where they could have daily Mass. Later however as rumours of imminent invasion spread the Head Mistress decided that we should all be together in Llandeilo, where the children were, also they now shared the local County School and playing ground. The Head Master and his staff were always kind and helpful in every way. He allowed us to use the school hall for Mass occasionally and this was indeed most kind and broad- minded of him at that time. We left Amman ford regretfully, but settled into the more restricted life of Llandeilo.

They were soon accepted by the people and shared their life to some extent, taking part in local functions etc.

There was an Army unit stationed there for a time - a Chaplain (Catholic) also arrived after the evacuation from Dunkirk, but didn't remain long much to the regret of the Sisters who had short lived hopes of daily Mass. (The Catholic population of the area was boosted by an influx of American soldiers to Dinefwr Park.)

During this time Coloma School had reopened and classes were resumed there. Many of those who were evacuated had a/so returned to their homes and rejoined their c/ass mates.

In 1942 it was decided that we should all return and so we enjoyed packing up and setting off for home.

We retain many happy memories of our stay in the beautiful country of Wales and of its kind and hospitable people.

The Carmelites

The Carmelite mission to Wales began in 1936 when the Order reopened St. Mary's College, Aberystwyth which had been founded to educate a Welsh speaking clergy for Wales but had been closed in 1934.

Towards the end of the Second World War the Order started to look for larger premises to solve its accommodation problems at Aberystwyth. The school there only had room for 16 boarders and a limited area for sports.

Tregyb Mansion near Llandeilo was chosen for the new boarding school and this was opened in September 1947. St. Mary's College, Tregyb accepted both Church and non-Church students and outside of Cardiff provided at the time the only Catholic Secondary School for boys in South Wales. Places were provided for 50 boarders.

Tregby Mansion
Aerial view of Tregyb Mansion, Ffairfach, since demolished

The Religious Community consisted of at least six priests all engaged in teaching though during their stay the Carmelites also took on responsibility for the Parish from the Passionists. The college chapel became the main Mass centre though Mass was also said regularly at Ty Teresa, Cefn Goleu, Llandeilo and at other centres as occasion demanded. These included Blaencennen Farm, Gwynfe and Edwinsford Mansion near Talley, part of which was used by Polish families for growing mushrooms. These families had come into the area after the War to take up farming but many later drifted to the urban areas.

In addition to their religious and teaching duties the Carmelites were "keen gardeners, growing vegetables and selling the surplus in Llandeilo and Ffairfach". In 1958 St. Mary's College became the home of St. Albert's Press, a private printing press. It lasted until 1961 when it became a "casualty to failing finances and a shortage of workers".

In 1957 the Carmelite Major Superior received a request to open a secondary school in Cheltenham and this was acceded to. A new school - Whitefriars School took over from St. Mary's Tregyb in September 1958. Some of the Carmelites remained at Tregyb which now became a House of Philosophy for Carmelite students until 1964 when the property was sold to the local authority. With the closure of the Philosophy House one Carmelite, Fr. Laserian Geary remained to look after the parish. He was followed by Fr. Patrick McAllister. With the loss of Tregyb, Mass was now said at various locations including the Institute, South Lodge, George Street, and the Public Library.

When the Carmelites withdrew their remaining priests in August 1970 the Redemptorists at Machynlleth were asked to say Mass at Llandeilo as part of their travelling mission. Fr. Crowe served Llandeilo for the year between the departure of the Carmelites and the return of the Passionists. Occasionally, from 1964 the travelling mission had said Mass in Brechfa.

The Passionists Return

The Passionist Order was willing to resume responsibility for Llandeilo on a trial basis for one year after which it would decide whether or not a separate parish would be formed. Mass was said by the Passioriists on Sunday, 21st March, 1971 at the Public Institute and Library. The need for a more suitable venue was clear, "the room being at the top of a steep flight of stairs and was very dirty and much in need of decoration".

Lord Dynevor had already donated a plot of land for a church and plans for a church had been prepared. However, it was felt that the proposals were too costly for the small community.

At this time responsibility for the parish was in the hands of Fr. Marcellus McCann, CP. In July 1971 he discovered that an unused chapel Elim Non-Conformist Chapel on Rhosmaen Road, Llandeilo was owned by Mrs. Corcoran a Catholic then living in London. Within a short time Fr. Marcellus had acquired the lease of the building, and his small parish, with support from outside quickly transformed the building, redecorating and furnishing it. Much help with money and furnishing came from other areas especially Carmarthen parish; St. Oswalds's, Barnes; the Holy Ghost Parish, Carshalton and Herne Bay.

St Davids Catholic Church
St David's Catholic Church from 1971 to 1987 (formally Elim), Rhosmaen Street, Llandeilo

The Platea records that "an altar was obtained from the Holy Ghost Convent at Abergavenny, benches from Swansea, "hardly a convent in Britain did not donate something". This was all achieved despite the fact that no formal agreement had been reached and the Bishop and lawyers were still sorting out the legal niceties.

Canon Mulroy has recalled how Fr. Marcellus "begged all the furniture and accessories from all parts, practically hauled them single-handed, and certainly painted and refurbished the seating single handed" to complete the Church for its first Mass on Christmas Eve 1971.

The official opening took place on St. David's Day 1972. In May the following year Bishop Fox formally appointed Fr. Marcellus as parish priest and on June 11 th Canon Mulroy inducted him to his rights, duties and privileges.

He had little time to savour the fruit of his work however; within a week "this frail looking little man" had suffered his first heart attack. His untimely death at the age of 46 occurred early in 1974.

A great debt is owed to Fr. Marcellus for all his work for the Parish and to the Passionist Order who "to their lasting credit … gave us one of their most energetic and lovable priests, a man who gave everything to God and people with scant regard for his own needs".

Fr. Marcellus was followed by a succession of Passionist priests including Fr. Francis and Fr. Gregory. In September 1974 Fr. Oliver McKenzie C.P. was inducted as parish priest but served only a short time before being transferred to Herne Bay.

In May 1976 Fr. Conleth O'Hara C.P. took on responsibility for St. David's parish. Like his Passionist predecessors he lived at St. Mary's Retreat Carmarthen travelling twice or three times a week to Llandeilo to visit the people, administer the sacraments, instruct children and celebrate Mass.

At this time Fr. James Eamer C.P. was meeting all the expenses incurred by St. David's parish. Fr. Conleth therefore set out to raise funds himself. Though the parishioners helped all they could, the parish was small and so he had to look further afield. Here, a tribute must be paid to Mrs. Eileen Ross who worked so hard for the parish and who did so much to arrange functions. Sadly she died in January 1986 of cancer. She was an excellent parishioner, with a deep faith that was an inspiration to all who knew her. Her work too for the handicapped and for the housebound was well-known.

The first opportunity to obtain outside help arose following a talk given by Fr. Conleth to a convent school in the West of Ireland, when the pupils organised a collection on behalf of the parish. Within a few years he had persuaded a few parish priests to allow him to make appeals in their areas. Parishes such as Barnes, Carshalton, Norbury and Church Cookham adopted St. David's parish. Parish priests of Passionist parishes also came to the aid of St. David's parish either by allowing appeals to be made or by letting societies and parishioners raise finance. Later, appeals were made in Irish newspapers.

The search for a new church began several years ago and Bishop Fox approached British Telecom about its former telephone exchange. He was told that it was not available at that time. Nearly seven years would go by before it could be bought and even so there were several more hurdles to be tackled before the parish could be sure of its new church. Finally, in 1986 work began on the building when the inside was rewired, the central heating installed and a new ceiling put in. Most of this work was carried out by parishioners Lawrence Lee and John and Anthony May, and Tom Broughton who Fr. Conleth had met in Fatima. Work on the outside started in September 1986.

The year 1986 was significant for the parish in another respect too, in that St. David's once again had a resident Catholic priest. This followed the purchase of St. David's presbytery at 26 New Road, Llandeilo. It is opportune to acknowledge the debt the parish owes to Bishop Hannigan. He has been a great friend of St. David's parish, purchasing both the new Church and Presbytery and has always taken a close interest in the welfare of the parish.

The opening of the Church would not have been possible without the spiritual and financial help provided by the clergy, sisters, parishes and organisations both in this country and in Ireland, especially in Northern Ireland. A tribute must be paid to all those who have assisted in any way, with a special mention for the help given by the Knights of St. Columba and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

The first Mass in the new church was said on Palm Sunday 12 April, 1987. As the opening of the new St. David's Catholic Church is celebrated one can recall the sermon of Fr. Ignatius given at the dedication of the previous church in March 1972.

The Church does not consist of the bricks and mortar of a building, for a church building is but a sign and a symbol of something much greater than any building ever can be.

It is a sign and symbol of a meeting place of the Church, the people of God who you are. You are the stones of that spiritual temple of the Lord that we call the City of God, the Church.

And so, tonight is not the culmination and ending of something, it is not merely an achievement in that sense; it is but one more step. It is but the beginning of something; the beginning of a new and increased fervour and faith amongst the Catholic people of Llandeilo and its district.

It is a time to remember all those people in different parishes in this country and overseas; all the benefactors who have come to the aid of St. David's parish through its newspaper appeals; the different societies within those parishes that have helped; and the parishes that have adopted St. David's, Llandeilo. They too are working towards the conversion of Wales".

Source: Catholic Llandeilo, A History of St David's Parish, by Alan Randall, 1987.

by Alan Randall, 1987

Llandeilo Catholic Church after 1987

With the opening of the new Church of St David, Fr Conleth O'Hara CP, the Parish Priest, had the grotto built which is dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes. The terraced garden and statues of our Lady and St Bernadette enhance the front of the Church grounds and are a prominent landmark in the town, being on the main road to Carmarthen.

Catholic Church
Exterior of St David's Catholic Church, Carmarthen Street

Not long after building the Church of St David Fr Conleth was asked to take on board the responsibility for the Catholic Community in Pontyberem. The church in that village was in a very run down state and this set the challenge for Fr Conleth to build another church, Holy Cross Church. This split responsibility was a direct result in the shortage of ordained clergy.

In the early 1990s the Passionist Community left St Mary's Retreat and the parish in Carmarthen, handing responsibility to the Diocese and secular clergy. With the exception of one elderly priest of his order left at St Non's Retreat in the extreme west of Pembrokeshire. Fr Conleth was, after many years, the last Passionist working in Wales. He gave over 25 years of his ministry to the Llandeilo people where he was popular with both the Catholic and non-Catholic Community alike. He retired in November 2000 and moved to his Passionist Community in Highgate, London. The acute shortage of priests placed the Catholic people in a situation without a resident priest.

Fr Jason Jones had not long been appointed Parish priest at the Llandovery Parish of Our Lady and he was instructed by the Bishop to look after Llandeilo as well. Fr Jason has a great devotion to our Lady and he was responsible for the installation of the Lady Altar at St David's. Fr Jason was only responsible for the parish for just over a year and, in December 2001, he moved to the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Lampeter and then on again to be the Rector of the National Shrine of Wales at Our Lady of the Taper, Cardigan. His successor was unable to look after the Llandeilo Parish so there was another change in the priestly order.

Responsibility for Llandeilo now moved to Our Lady of the Rosary Parish in Ammanford. The Church was now the responsibility of Fr W F (Frank) Maher SJ. Fr Frank was a Jesuit and an ex Provincial of the Society of Jesus. He was a young-at-heart octogenarian who had come out of retirement to help with the shortage of clergy. He had already rebuilt a parish church on the south coast of England and fund-raised for, and rebuilt, the church in Ammanford. He was resident in Ammanford but used to travel to Llandeilo every day for daily Mass and to look after the community. In 2004 Fr Frank had a long period of declining health and he had to give up his parish duties early in January 2005 to become the chaplain to the Tyburn Convent at Marble Arch where he died on the 11 November 2005.

From late 2004, while Fr Frank was unwell, until August 2005, various supply clergy looked after the two parishes. The main responsibility however rested with the Carmelite priests at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Llanelli. One of these, Fr John Fitzgerald, O. Carm., had in fact, been responsible for the Catholic folk of the Llandeilo area in the 1960s, when the Carmelites were at Tregib and before the Passionists arrived from Carmarthen.

Some stability returned in August 2005 when we welcomed Fr Neil Evans. He was newly ordained in the Catholic Church but had many years experience as a minister in the Church of England. As with Fr Frank, he looked after both Ammanford and Llandeilo. He lived in Swansea and travelled daily on alternate days to the two parishes. Llandeilo now had three weekday masses and a Sunday mass every week.

catholic Church - Interior
Interior of St David's showing the cross and shroud of the resurection and Fr Jack, circa May 2006

Fr Neil's stay was also short-lived and in January 2006 he was moved to become the Parish Priest at St Benedict's in Sketty, Swansea and also the Chaplain to Swansea University. The shortage of priests was now becoming an acute problem.

In January 2006, Fr Jacinta Rey Padua (Fr Jack) arrived to look after the two parishes. He resides in the Ammanford Presbytery. Fr Jack is a Filipino from the Diocese of Manila and has an additional responsibility for the Filipino community in the whole of the Diocese of Menevia. He has continued with the service pattern developed by Fr Neil, three weekday masses and a Sunday mass.

Information on Llandeilo Catholic Church after 1987 has been kindly supplied by parishioner David Brancaleone.