IT shook Preston to its Catholic foundations – now it is happening in South Ribble too.
The spectacular decline of the church across Lancashire could see more than 70 parishes closed in the next year by the Bishop of Salford.
An acute shortage of priests, coupled with dwindling congregations, has led the diocese to begin a radical downsizing programme, with the aim of cutting its 150 parishes by as much as a half.
And, following the departure of three separate orders of nuns from Central Lancashire in the past six months, Benedictine monks have now announced they too are withdrawing from Bamber Bridge after an association dating back more than 300 years.
“Withdrawing from the parish has not been an easy decision for the monastic community,” the Abbott of Ampleforth told the congregation of St Mary’s Church in the town where monks from the order have served as parish priests for generations.
St Mary’s, one of the largest Catholic congregations in the area, will be handed over to the Diocese of Salford when the Benedictines depart, probably before the end of the year.
The church is unlikely to form part of the Bishop’s proposed cutbacks, with at least 500 regulars attending Mass on a Sunday.
But the threat of closure could be hanging over a number of smaller churches in the district where congregations are regularly down in double figures.
The diocesan cuts stunned the Catholic community in the North West when they were first hinted at around Christmas.
Now the idea has gone out to consultation before a list of churches to close can be finalised.
“I would say that by the end of the summer there will be a plan put out for discussion,” said Fr Steven Parkinson, spokesman for the Salford Diocese.
“There are about 150 parishes – some have more than one church – and the Bishop is looking at reducing that number.
“There are still a weight of meetings and consultations going on.
“There has been no decision whatsoever yet. It has all got to be worked out.”
St Mary’s is one of four Catholic churches in the area served by the Benedictines from Ampleforth Abbey.
At present there is no news on whether the monks will withdraw from the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes and St Gerard Majella in Lostock Hall – also in the Salford Diocese – and two others in the Diocese of Liverpool, St Mary’s in Leyland and St Joseph’s in Brindle.
Of the 150-plus parishes coming under the microscope as part of the Salford downsizing project, around a dozen are in Central Lancashire and the Ribble Valley. The rest stretch across East Lancashire and Greater Manchester.
The local ones include Our Lady and St Patrick’s in Walton-le-Dale, where parish priest Fr John Cribben fell to his death from a ladder last year while dusting.
The tiny church of St Mary and St John Southworth in Samlesbury, where Fr Cribben was also the priest, is in the Diocese, as is St Wilfred’s in Longridge, St Mary’s in Chipping and St Peter and St Paul in Ribchester.
In a letter to all parishes, Bishop John Arnold told congregations: “Whether welcome or unwelcome, change is needed here in our diocese and, above all, I must ask for your generosity in embracing change and in finding new ways to work together.
“There is no doubt that, following a generation which provided an unusually large number of priests, we are returning to the sort of numbers of priests that existed before. That means that we must reduce the number of churches and parishes.
“I will need to ask some communities to accept the loss of their familiar places of prayer and worship.
“I must also ask those who will retain their parish churches to be generous and understanding in their welcome of those who will arrive as a consequence of closures elsewhere.
“The changes that must come will take time. There will be no sudden closures of churches or departure of priests. There will be no demands insisting on immediate change in the way we live.
“There will be a plan that will be unfolding which I hope can be understood and welcomed as a plan that will equip us to be a missionary in our increasing secular world.”
The news of cutbacks in South Ribble has struck a chord with worshippers in Preston who suffered a similar downsizing programme 18 months ago by the Diocese of Lancaster.
Two churches – St Ignatius and St Augustine’s in the city centre – were shut down as part of the streamlining process.
The row over those closures is continuing to rumble on, with regulars at St Ignatius even appealing to the Vatican for divine intervention.
“The closure of our church has destroyed what used to be a very close community, a family of up to 150 people,” said Moira Cardwell who has been at the forefront of the campaign to re-open St Ignatius to local worshippers.
“We have been scattered to the four winds. Some elderly aren’t even able to go to church anymore after a lifetime of worship.
“If what happened to us happens to the congregations of these churches in South Ribble and the Ribble Valley then I really do feel for them.
“It is tragic when a church closes because it’s not just a building, it’s a community. And the community of St Ignatius is now broken up.”
Moira, who lives in Walton-le-Dale and now attends St Mary’s Church in Bamber Bridge, added: “Some of the churches under threat in South Ribble have smaller congregations than we did.
“Yet we were closed down as uneconomical even though we were solvent and raising thousands a year for the diocese.”