With the discovery of coal and surge in industry within Blantyre in the 1870′s, the town’s Roman Catholic population grew quickly. In the 1821 census it was noted there were 149 Roman Catholics in Blantyre, and by 1881, there were over 600. It was no longer acceptable to meet for mass in converted homes or hired halls. People were forced to travel to Glasgow for mass on holy ground. By 1877, the local Catholic community rejoiced on being informed that Father John Frawley (27 years old) would be the first permanent priest of Blantyre. He had a tall first task, which was to raise funds and construct a building that could not only be used as a church, but also could accommodate pupils as a school. The building had to be multi purpose. On 16th September that year, Father Frawley was transferred from Airdrie and due to the reformation, would be the first priest to live in Blantyre for over 300 years.
He immediately set about fund raising and the people of Blantyre were generous, but no sooner than he had started, within 5 weeks Blantyre suffered a terrible tragedy that saw people focus on the Pit Explosion at Dixons and the aftermath within the community. Funds stopped coming in and were diverted to assist the rescue and help those widowed. Within the Rev Stewart Wright’s account of the explosion, it was documented that Father Frawley was instrumental in restoring faith in the community and assisting.
A year later, the fundraising started again and the construction of St Joseph’s School – Chapel began in April 1878 on Glasgow Road, on the site of the present church hall. With Father Frawley project managing, it was built on land purchased from John Clark Forrest, a local landowner. A journalist who interviewed Father Frawley commented in the Hamilton Advertiser that the school would open in Summer 1878, an ambitious construction programme, with the Church being on the upper floor open in the October of that year. The school and the chapel with over 600 seatings, was completed and officially opened on 24 October 1878. One of the earliest headmasters was a Mr McDade. Sadly, Father Frawley’s health deteriorated and after only 3 years he emigrated to Australia in 1880, dying 1 year later and the very young age of only 31. The Roman Catholic community rightly holds his memory in high esteem for his remarkable achievements in the 3 short years he served the parish.
Within the next decade, nobody could have predicted the thousands of Roman Catholics arriving in Blantyre for work opportunities in the coal pits. The Church quickly became crowded with the need of a larger, grander chapel required by 1889. After a further temporary church had been built, it took until the turn of the 20th Century for work to start on the present St Joseph’s RC Church. Of course the old school/chapel building is no longer there. Pictured in 1880 is a less common photo of the priest, some articles preferring to picture him at younger time in his life prior to him coming to Blantyre.
The priest’s full story is told on detail elsewhere on Blantyre Project for those who are interested.