The History of the Parish and its Church

In 1828 the nearest Catholic Church to Rossendale was at Towneley Hall in Burnley. Although there were already a few Catholic families in Rossendale (23 were recorded in 1820) their number had been augmented by Catholic families moving to the area from Manchester. The reason for their arrival was a prolonged dispute at the Sunnyside Works in Crawshawbooth as a result of which the mill owner imported a number of operators from Manchester in order to maintain production. Finding that the nearest church was seven miles away they approached the mill owner, Mr John Brooks, who offered them the use of a room in his works if the priest from Towneley could be brought to say Mass. From this time -1828 to 1833- visits, more or less regular, were made by priests who would travel on horseback from Burnley (among them was Father Charles Lupton chaplain to the Towneleys of Towneley Hall) or, occasionally, from Bury where St. Maries with its lantern tower would be completed  in 1842

In 1836 through the further generosity of John Brooks* Rossendale acquired its first Catholic chapel and, at the same time, its first resident priest. The priest was Fr. James Carr and the chapel was what was known as the Old Counting House, a small building near the Sunnyside Print Works in Crawshawbooth at the bottom of Pinner Lane. The exact position was immediately behind Sunnyside Irwell Terrace and although the building no longer exists, the arch (pictured) can still be seen from the car park of St. John the Evangelist. The first entry in the Baptismal Register is dated 26th September 1836, the congregation was still small, though increasing, and contemporary records show that Fr. Carr subsisted on a revenue of only 8 shillings per week (40p).

In May 1839 Fr. Carr was succeeded by Fr. Henry Sharples who, in 1840, was followed by Fr. William Fayer. By Christmas 1842 Fr. Fayer had been succeeded by Fr. James Ryland. Finding his congregation increasing Fr. Ryland, with the approval of the Bishop, set about obtaining land for the building of a church at Constablelee. This was to be the present St. James the Less and Constablelee was chosen as being in a more central position. Money and land for the project was raised with the help of prominent Catholics in the area, foremost of whom were probably Nathaniel and Mary Booth. Nathaniel Booth had arrived from Derby and married Mary Astley of Chorley and had already been a part of the committee which raised £1470 toward the cost of building St. Mary’s church in Burnley. Fr. Ryland left before the church was finished and the work was continued by a young priest, Fr. Thomas Rimmer. The new church was completed in 1845 at a cost of £1500 and following consultation between Fr. Rimmer, other priests and Nathaniel and Mary Booth it was decided to dedicate it to St James the Less.

(Nathaniel Booth's son, James, tells the following story: "My father, Nathaniel Booth, as a young man, worked very energetically for the Catholic cause and for the little Church, assisted by my mother, Margaret Booth, under whose auspices it was opened. I remember many conversations between my father and mother referring to their affection to Mr. Rimmer, the Priest, who was a constant visitor to their house, Laund Bank, where I was born. On one occasion, when the family and some priests were conferring as to selection of a Patron Saint, they all agreed on Saint James. I was a baby at the time, and Father Rimmer said it should be Saint James the Less.")

Meanwhile, after the Pinner Lane chapel was vacated it was taken over by a breakaway group from the Old Baptist Chapel in Goodshaw Chapel who used it before building the now demolished Sunnyside Baptist Chapel on the site of the memorial garden in the centre of Crawshawbooth.

The ceremony of dedication was held on Wednesday 24th September 1845 and entry was by ticket only at a cost of 2/6 (12½p) per head - a considerable sum in those days. The money raised from the occasion was used to defray part of the cost of building. Following the dedication ceremony the first public Mass in the church was held on Sunday 28th September. It was an impressive occasion with a sung High Mass, a sermon delivered by Bishop Sharples (Vicar Apostolic of the Lancashire District), and excerpts from Handel’s ‘Messiah’ sung by the choir of St. Mary’s Burnley. Being the only church in the area its congregation was well distributed and worshippers travelled from as far as Haslingden, Stacksteads and Bacup to attend Mass .

Unfortunately Fr. Rimmer’s tenure at the new church of St. James the Less was to be a short one. Whilst visiting a parishioner in Haslingden, an Irish refugee from the famine who was suffering from a ‘fever’, Fr. Rimmer himself contracted the illness (almost certainly typhoid) and died on the 8th January 1848 at the age of 33. He was buried in the sanctuary of the church at the foot of the altar and is commemorated on the granite cross outside the church.

The number of Catholics in the area continued to grow and by 1851 the parish priest, Fr. Thomas reported that the church was no longer big enough. Subsequent to this missions were opened in Bacup and Haslingden.

The church was designed by Augustus Pugin, Britain's foremost 19th century church architect. It is attractive and well proportioned with a number of fine stained glass windows. In the windows of the chancel are represented St. James the Less together with St. Peter and St. Phillip. The rose window in the west end of the church was replaced in 1993 whilst that in the east end of the church (behind the altar) is the original window and symbolises the Holy Trinity.

In 1881 the west end was extensively rebuilt and at the expense of the Rockliffe family windows were installed dedicated to the memory of Alice Rockliffe, Marie Ashworth and Sarah Rockliffe. (The Rockliffes were a family of Catholic publishers family who also contributed significantly to church costs. )

Also in 1881 the door under the tower was added and in 1890 a gallery and organ loft were constructed. A bell was obtained in 1909 and was rung for the first time on Christmas Eve of that year. The bell was still in existence in 1928 but disappeared in the years following. A replacement bell was installed in 1999 and it was rung for the first time at midnight on the 31st December to welcome the new millennium.

The roof is known as high pitched and the main support beams rest on stone corbels with carved faces said to represent the heads of leading members of the congregation at the time of the erection of the church. The gallery and organ loft were installed in 1890.

The original school was located in the upper floor of what is now 125 Burnley Road, while the priest lived at Laund House –home of the Ashworth family. Eventually, in the 1860s, a presbytery and school were built on land adjacent to the church. 

The number of Catholics in the Crawshawbooth area continued to grow and in the late nineteen thirties the upper floor of a stable at Barleyholme was used for Masses on Saturday evenings.

This continued until the early forties when part of the Liberal Club was rented for Sunday worship. In 1950 St James the Less parish jointly with the Salford Diocese purchased t he club for £1,400. Work to convert the premises into a church was done voluntarily by the parishioners using materials recovered from other buildings or donated by various people and the church was dedicated to St. Thomas More and was formally opened on 23rd November 1953. St. Thomas More was a small parish and in its thirty two years of existence 208 baptisms and 46 marriages were performed. The church eventually closed in 1978 when the resident priest (Fr. Heaton) died and the name St. Thomas More was linked with that of St James the Less in the church at Rawtenstall.

* In 1888 another member of the Brooks family – Thomas Brooks, Baron Crawshaw and High Sheriff of Lancashire was to donate land and £3000 toward the building of St John the Evangelist C. of E. church also in Crawshawbooth and a third member of the family- Marshall Brooks was later to make a significant contribution toward the cost of refurbishing St Mary & All Saints C. of E. church at Goodshaw Chapel.

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