A man who devoted his life
to God and his parish
If you didn't know, you would never guess at the humble beginnings of the
Catholic Church in Darwen. It was long before the building of St Joseph's and
St Edward's. It was on the steep hill at Red Earth in a building which is now ...the Black Horse pub.
Fr Ward, from Blackburn, led the way in the mid-1800s with the building of this chapel but there was little money about and when £70 was still owed for the construction it had to be sold and became the Black Horse. A few years later
the Catholics in Darwen returned to the building and met in a
large room above the pub.
Land was eventually purchased in Radford Street and St. William's Chapel was built, largely due to the shrewdness and sheer determination of Fr. Meaney from St Anne's, just off King Street, Blackburn. It opened in 1856.
Travelling from Blackburn wasn't easy for priests in those days as the roads were very poor. In 1858 Fr Desiderius Vandenweghe was sent to take charge of the Darwen Mission. It was an inspired choice. He was to remain as parish priest until his death on March 26, 1898 at the age of 70.
He is buried in Darwen Cemetery, on the corner of Section D, just by the narrow tarmacadam road. His lead coffin was covered
Fr Desiderius Vandenweghe Grave
by a polished oak casket with brass fittings and the plate bore a simple
inscription giving the deceased's name and the dates of birth and death. Clergy from the Congregationalist and Primitive Methodist Churches attended and the
local newspaper described the funeral procession as "a most imposing one of
great magnitude" and added that the route was thronged with people.
On his arrival in Darwen, Fr. Vandenweghe lodged with a local family in Bridge Street, but he soon embarked on an impressive building programme. In 1861 he went to live in the new presbytery in Radford Street where he planned further parish improvements.
He extended the school rooms at the mission and began a day school for the education of the children of the parish. Over the next few years as the parish
grew in numbers, so did the social and fund-raising efforts. Concerts and tea parties were among the favourite events. The parish was far from insular and
took part in town events and celebrations.
By 1872, the Mission of St. William's had grown in such numbers that
Fr. Vandenweghe decided that, in order to accommodate everyone at services,
he needed to establish a mission at the northern end of town. Lord Edward Petre, the Lord of the Manor of Lower Darwen, gave an acre of ground for the building of a school to be called St. Edward's after his patron saint.
St. William's Parish flourished, so much so that in 1870 a plot of land was
bought near the top of Mill Gap from cotton manufacturer Eccles Shorrock -
the man who built the nearby India Mill - for a bigger church when funds
In spite of his own ill health, Fr. Vandenweghe continued to look after both St. William's and St. Edward's as no other priest was available to take over at the northern end of town until the late 1880's.
The new parish church of St Mary and St Joseph was opened on October 15,
1885 by the Rt Rev Dr. Vaughan, Lord Bishop of Salford. The local press made
much of the fact that during those hard times, when work was not easy to
come by, all the sub-contract work without exception was given to local people and so the building of the new church became the main source of employment
for many in the town during that year.
Many local dignitaries, including the Mayor, attended the opening of the
church which was described as "an edifice which is an honour to the Catholic
community and an ornament to the town!" Fundraising continued over the
next years and a new school was also erected.
The impressive headstone at Darwen cemetery is also in memory of two
assistant priests who worked with Fr Vandenweghe. In 1876 Fr. William
Hampson, a native of Farnworth, was appointed his assistant. He worked
untiringly, caring for the needs of the parish and in particular visiting the sick. However, within ten months of his arrival in Darwen, through his visits to sick parishioners, he had contracted typhoid and died at the age of 24. He was
interred at Moston.
Fr Vandenweghe was not a well man, having suffered from heart trouble for
many years and so a second assistant priest was sent to help him. He was
Fr. Peter Kopp from Coblentz on the Rhine. He quickly endeared himself to the congregation, but he too died within a short space of time. His death notice
said that he died of a fever, caught in visitation of the sick. He was 25.
On the morning of Saturday, March 26, 1898 Fr Vandenweghe himself passed
away. He was found lying in bed, with his hands clasped in prayer, having died
in his sleep.
It is doubtful whether any local clergyman has ever worked so tirelessly for
his parish as Desiderius Vandenweghe. Darwen's Catholic community in the
second half of the 19th century was indeed very fortunate to have his guiding
hand for more than 40 years.
More information is available on the St Joseph's web site.