By the start of the 20th Century, the mission of St Joseph’s had made remarkable progress since its inception in 1877. For a considerable time prior to that, the Catholics of Blantyre had their spiritual requirements administered in Hamilton. Mass however, was celebrated and Sunday School conducted in a block of houses in Dixon’s Rows, the inner walls having been removed to form the interior into one long, narrow hall. This was located near Stonefield Road and the location being suitable provides some indication as to just how many Catholic immigrants lived nearby in Dixon’s Rows, employed in the collieries.
Like Cadzow and Uddingston, this mission was originally an off shoot of Hamilton. Just one year later in 1878 as Blantyre grieved for miners killed in the Pit Disaster, this little hall had become wholly inadequate to meet the requirements of Blantyre’s growing Catholic population.
A new Church was an absolute necessity and through the influence of Colonel Clark Forrest of Hamilton (who owned swathes of land in Blantyre Parish), a suitable site was acquired at the junction of Stonefield Road and Glasgow Road. The Parishioners of the little hall and beyond subscribed liberally to the building fund and a handsome Presbytery and commodious chapel school was erected (pictured).
The opening ceremony took place on 24th October 1878, the opening ceremony being preached by Archbishop Eyre in the forenoon, whilst the preacher in the evening service, was Father Whyte. The improvised School / Chapel which was essentially a school for over 500 scholars, gave itself over to worshippers on Sundays numbering 600 people.
The chapel was repainted inside in 1884 and again extensively decorated in 1895.
The ground floor of this building along with the two side wings formed the school proper, affording accommodation for 514 pupils. By 1903, the school building had become inadequate with more pupils than it could accommodate. So, the building of a brand new Church adjacent to it in 1905, at once freed up the space in the School Chapel, to solely be used as a school, offering much needed additional space.
Rev Thomas Frawley was the first resident priest of the young mission. He was appointed to the charge in 1877 and almost at once, the terrible Blantyre Explosion happened. At least one half of the Pit disaster victims were Catholic and a memorial service for the deceased was held in St Mary’s Church, Hamilton where Archbishop Eyre officiated. A memorial was erected in Dalbeth Cemetery to the memory of Catholic victims. Under the terrible strain and anxiety occasioned by the explosion , Father Frawley’s health completely broke down and with a view to recuperate, he took a sea voyage to Australia, but within a year of his arrival, he died on 28th April 1881 at Inglewood, some 30 miles from Sandhurst, Victoria. He was only 30 years old, but in a very, very short time had made himself extremely popular with parishioners, who mourned the young priest’s death.
Rev Peter Donnelly then a curate at St John’s, Glasgow was appointed Father Frawley’s successor at St Joseph’s where he remained until 1886 when he was prompted to St Mary’s, Hamilton. Father Donnelly accomplished notable work in both Blantyre and Hamilton and his death in 1903 caused regret and grief in both Parishes.
The overseeing of the Blantyre Mission was next given to Dr Hackett at the end of 1886, who was still incumbent in 1905 when St Joseph’s Church was built. Dr Hackett took a census in 1887 and found 2,446 Catholics were living in Blantyre. He did another in 1902 and found this had risen to 4,219 or nearly double the number in 1887. In 1887 there were 385 school children and in 1905 it was over 700. The energetic pastor, having the welfare of his parishioners at heart founded several societies amongst which the League of the Cross Temperance organisation was most popular. In 1890 a handsome recreation hall was erected for the members. The mission continued to develop in a remarkable manner and in 1895, a curate in Father O Donnell was appointed to assist Father Hackett. By 1905 with the arrival of the new church, the two clergy were joined by a third resident priest in Father Conley.
From just a couple of hundred Roman Catholics in Blantyre in the 1860s, Catholicism has grown in line with expanded population. Today, in this modern era, the next census is expected to return for the first time a proportion of more Catholics in Blantyre than not.
The School Chapel is pictured in the first decade of the 1900’s. I’ve coloured the photo to show what it would have looked like.