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How Father Gregory Holden Stopped a Strike and Built a Church

  • RIGHT REVEREND ABBOT SWEENEY, D.D.

Father Holden, called in religion Gregory, was the first priest who left Downside, the Benedictine House in Somersetshire to go on the Mission.


whitehavenHe was for two years in Lancashire, then he went to Whitehaven. 

The chapel that Father Holden found there was considered at that time to be sufficiently large for the congregation, but in a year after his coming it was found to be too small.  The people were poor, the coal mines in the neighbourhood were enlarging and increasing, Irish were arriving to work in the Mines, and a population of Catholics, already large was steadily on the increase. 

Father Holden was a man of extraordinary simplicity of character.  He knew nothing of money, and had so little to do with gold or silver that there had been a pleasant joke among his confreres in the College of Downside, when on occasion of some of the House going on a day's excursion to the Cheddar Cliffs, Father Holden had been put in possession of a shilling to pay expenses.  With as little practicable experience of 'ways and means' as this anecdote expresses, he went to the rapidly increasing Mission of Whitehaven, among a people who were most of them extremely poor. 

The dream of a new Chapel

The Mission was, in fact, supported by the pence of the congregation — there was no endowment.  He lived, of course, poorly enough.  But he had no debts, and in the Chapel by weekly subscriptions was enlarged at three different times, in the second, third, and the fourth year of his residence there. 

There were now galleries wherever they could put them: up to the Altar on both sides.  But still, the congregation increased and the Chapel was too small.  Father Holden used to walk about thinking of the only thing that ought to be done — of building a new Chapel and a sufficiently large one — people had not begun to talk of Churches then, for we are writing of a good many years ago. 

But to think of a new chapel was like indulging in mere day-dream.  There was no land to be got — absolutely none.  So, as it was like a dream, Father Holden felt it was just as easy to dream of possessing a piece of Lord Lonsdale's park, as a piece of any other bit of ground.  There was a site near that park, quite close enough to the poor Catholics, that seemed in his eyes of all spots the most desirable. 

"Now, if I could only get that bit of Lord Lonsdale's land", that was the wish that, in spite of impossibilities, would live in his heart.  Whitehaven Castle was a fine place, and the park came down to the town.  "Oh, for half an acre — just there — of that site!" So he used to say to his Benedictine friends, who might be staying with him.  But, the Lord Lonsdale of that day had little thought of the needs of Catholics.  All the land about Whitehaven belonged to him, and to get ANY ground for the site of a new Catholic chapel was simply impossible. 

A Cholera epidemic in Whitehaven

Time went on, and the congregation increased steadily.  For the coal works were on the increase, adding greatly to Lord Lonsdale's income, and bring more Irish to Whitehaven, and they were Catholics of course. 

When the Benedictine Father, who has communicated the facts contained in this account to the writer, was at Whitehaven at that time, there was not only no sitting in the chapel, there was no kneeling.  The people stood close together, and so heard Mass, and they were too closely packed to allow anything else. 

Then, in the midst of all this increase of the population, the cholera came.  It came with its worst features, an awful scourge.  It was awful in its ravages among the over-crowded poor.  They were dying, dying, dying — with a rapidity that produced a panic, and everybody that could leave Whitehaven fled.  How Father Holden worked we may guess.  There has been no historian of his deeds, but they exist as a tradition.  And then, when the terror was over, in memory of a charity that never failed, old people in Whitehaven would call for blessings for him as he passed along.  He could not walk through Whitehaven without people crying aloud to God to remember the blessing he had been given to them in their day of peril and need.  There had been no thought of flight in this man's mind, except that which took him in the midst of the danger to strengthen his people with the consolations of religion. 

One night a man came after 10 o'clock to tell Father Holden that his mother was seized by cholera.  He went and stayed with the woman till she died.  And before he left the house, the son who had fetched him was seized and Father Holden attended his death bed, before he left.  This will give some idea of the rapidity with which death came upon those who were attacked. 

It seems nothing to wonder at when we hear of all those fleeing who could, and to know that Father Holden was esteemed by the people as a saint.  But, at last the cholera was gone, and notwithstanding its ravages, when health and prosperity returned to Whitehaven, the old chapel was as crowded as ever.  And again rose up the longing in Father Holden's mind for a piece of ground to build upon. 

The colliers strike for increased pay

And now there came a strike among the colliers.  They got connected with the Northumberland and Durham colliers, and the strike was a long and obstinate one.  The strike was for increased wages, but it was not the opinion of Father Holden that the amount of wages offered by the employers was unjust.  He was greatly grieved about the strike and he saw people literally starving all around him in consequence of it.  Still the men held on to the strike, and the people were getting desperate, for on Lord Lonsdale's side it was felt to be impossible to yield to their demand.  Lord Lonsdale was losing seriously — he had plenty of coal which he could not work.  His machinery was rusting, and would be destroyed by lying useless much longer.  The men were injuring themselves and their masters, and the whole aspect of affairs was heartbreaking. 

Father Holden had spoken, but he was not listened to — and at last the men, maddened by the sight of starving wives and children, and ruined homes, began to threaten to burn the place down.  The leader of this strike was a very clever man, and a Catholic.  Father Holden met him and others and tried to persuade them to go to work, for the Catholics were so numerous that no strike could continue without their consent.  If they chose to go to work the strike would not continue.  But, Father Holden spoke in vain.  Then he determined to preach a sermon on the subject

An appeal to reason from the pulpit

He got up the case carefully, and wrote his sermon with the most diligent preparation.  He was not what is called an eloquent man.  But, as is so often the case with the truly simple-minded, he had a most energetic and home-trusting way of saying anything that he was certain should be said: and in such a manner he began his sermon.  While in the act of preaching, he saw the leader who was at his usual place in the gallery, looking uncomfortable — in a minute he observed him getting away, and out of notice.  Then Father Holden, caring no more for what was written before him, cried out:

"Yes, and you are the man to whom I am chiefly speaking! For you are the man who will be held answerable to the miseries that people have been brought to by following your advice." 

He said it was bad enough to think of the starvation, and the bodily misery.  But, would he be in no measure answerable for the bad passion that had grown up?  Was there no judgement for evil counsellors?  Could he be certain that in doing all he had done, and in being the cause of so much evil that they saw, he should be held by Almighty God to have done right? 

With this brilliant appeal to the man's personal responsibility, Father Holden finished his sermon.  And this man, who had been thus appealed to, immediately called a meeting together to consider the subject, by the light that Father Holden's sermon had cast upon it. 

The miners return to work

In the meantime, the good priest had gone back to the lodgings, which were very poor ones, where he lived, and he was eating his breakfast not knowing anything about the meeting that had been called in consequence of what he said.  While he was at his breakfast a deputation came to him.  They offered that the people should go to work the next day. 

"You are come to your senses.  Go immediately and tell Lord Lonsdale's agents that you are ready." 

There were three or four agents in the town, and the Catholics not only said they were coming to work, but also told him why.  They sent off to Lord Lonsdale, and came themselves to thank Father Holden.  In the evening two servants in dashing livery to the priest's lodgings from the Castle with a note from Lord Lonsdale thanking him in very handsome terms for his good offices. 

The conduct of the Catholics had finished the strike, and the fires were being relighted, and work was to begin at once.  The next day there was meeting at Whitehaven, and a piece of plate was voted to Father Holden for his charitable and successful intervention. 

The Lord answers Father Holden's prayer

When the meeting was over some of the agents came to tell Father Holden of the compliment that was to be paid to him.  We may easily suppose that Lord Lonsdale could have but little knowledge of the life of a Catholic priest living on weekly offerings of pence, having the fewest imaginable wants, being beloved in the highest degree by his people, and having had three times to enlarge his Chapel which was, notwithstanding these efforts, filled every Sunday with a standing crowd who had not space to kneel down. 

When the agents came to Father Holden with the announcement he was to be presented with a piece of plate, they were not met with compliment in return, but it is said, with these words — the cry of truth and single-heartedness:

"God bless you.  What am I to do with a piece of plate?  A piece of plate! I am greatly obliged by the thought, but don't throw away a piece of plate on me." 

A whispering wonder then rose as to what Father Holden would accept, and he seized the moment and said:

"I want a piece of land to build a chapel on.  It's all I want in the world.  If I had that I should be thankful." 

The secret wish was out, and the agents were thunderstruck.  But, they went to Lord Lonsdale and told him.  Lord Lonsdale replied:

"He shall have it.  Ask him where.  Tell him to look about." 

So Father Holden fixed upon the very piece of land that a dozen years before he had longed for.  Lord Lonsdale gave it with one hundred pounds, and only attached one condition to the gift — that the ground should never be turned into a coal yard.  Lord Lonsdale supplied all the stone for the building from his own quarries without charge. 

A narrative by Father Dunstan Scott O.S.B.

"I happened to be in Whitehaven," observes Father Dunstan Scott, who dictates this narrative, "about three months before the new chapel was finished.  We should not say in these days that it pretended to be of any style of architecture.  In the old chapel they had had an organ, and the ambition was to have a gallery for the organ in the new chapel. 

It was pressed on Father Holden on a Sunday, and he suggested that certain persons in the congregation should make themselves into collectors, and get half crown subscriptions.  In the afternoon I went out to walk and to see the town and shipping.  When I came in, there, at a round table, sat Father Holden and the collectors — the money was got, and the gallery was to begin the next day!

Before all this, the subscriptions had been in pence, with one exception.  The nieces of a former priest, Father Johnson, had that day given two pounds.  This was the largest subscription ever received.  The old chapel and the new one are still those used for Mass. 

But Father Holden had a congregation of 1200 Catholics in the hills.  Though he had never recovered the immense quantity of work that had fallen upon him during the cholera visitation, he laboured among those people, and there, too, he built a chapel.  He then left Whitehaven where two priests supplied his place.  So to the hills where he had built a chapel, and there he died and was buried — at Cleator." 

Additional information about Father Holden and the places associated with him

When Father Gregory Holden O.S.B.  arrived in Whitehaven in 1818 to take charge of the Catholic Mission, the chapel used for services was located on the corner of Catherine Street / Duke Street.  The original entrance was via Chapel Lane, off Catherine Street, and it is now the site occupied by the Freemasons' Hall.  Nearby, is the entrance to the Castle Park — via Love Lane — which leads to Whitehaven Castle.  At that time, Whitehaven Castle was the Whitehaven residence of Lord Lonsdale, Lord of the Manor of Whitehaven and the owner of Whitehaven's coal mines.  Across the road from the Duke Street entrance of the Catholic Chapel was the Colliery Office / Somerset House. 

Dating from at least 1786 but more likely from May 1761, the Catholic Chapel on the Catherine Street / Duke Street site may well have been the first permanent building in Whitehaven for Catholic worship following the Reformation.  There has long been a strong local tradition suggesting that a building on nearby Charles Street was used as a Catholic chapel before the Catherine Street site.  But, at the time of writing this article there has been no documentary or archaeological proof discovered by researchers to confirm this claim.  Wherever the site of the first Catholic Chapel of Whitehaven, it was from the one on Catherine Street / Duke Street that Father Gregory Holden O.S.B.  made his famous appeal from the pulpit to one of his congregation in 1834.  Resolving the deadlock of a bitter wages dispute, this one passionate sermon led to the realisation of Father Holden's dream of building a new Catholic Chapel at Coach Road.  Was this the most significant sermon ever given by a priest in the history of the Catholic Faith in Whitehaven?  With the opening of the new chapel, the Duke Street site was then able to be used as a school for the Catholic children of Whitehaven.  Yet again, the hard-working Father Holden took on the task of educating the children in the old church! With what is known about the formidable Father Holden, surely the child who was educated by Father Holden would have had a firm foundation for a better life? 

The first Catholic Chapel on Coach Road, built in 1834 as a direct result of Father Gregory Holden's dream, was dedicated to St Gregory the Great — regarded as the first Benedictine Pope.  Eventually, with continuing immigration and population growth during the Victorian era a much larger Gothic-style church was built at Coach Road adjacent to St Gregory's.  This new church, completed in 1868, was initially known as St Bees Church — later known as St Begh's — after the local West Cumbrian saint, St Bega.  After the completion of the ‘Mother Church’ of St Begh's, St Gregory's Chapel became a school.  Located behind St Begh's Priory, even in the 21st Century, the former St Gregory's Chapel — built in 1834 under the guidance of Father Holden — is still used by St Begh's Junior School as the School Hall.  Father Holden's legacy lives on. 

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Acknowledgement

Right Reverend Abbot Sweeney, D.D. "How Father Gregory Holden Stopped a Strike and Built a Church." a Catholic Magazine (1840-1870).

Reprinted in the Bicentenary Booklet of the Whitehaven Catholic Mission, 1907.

With appreciation to St. Begh's Priory where this article was republished recently. 

The Author

Right Reverend Abbot Sweeney, D.D. was Abbot of St. Alban's.

Copyright © 1840 Public Domain
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