A History of St. Robert of Newminster – Aberkenfig
Prior to the building of St. Robert’s Church in 1879, the Catholic community of Aberkenfig and surrounding areas walked to St. Mary’s Church, Bridgend, to attend Mass and school. This was a great hardship, particularly to the children in inclement weather, as there was no transport available for them. The Parish of St. Mary’s was a very extensive one, and was under the charge of the English Benedictine Monks.
Fr. Robert Isodor Green, O.S.B., was the founder of St. Robert’s Church. He first came to St. Mary’s, Bridgend, in October, 1873, and apart from a break of about 18 months due to ill health (probably due to the deprivations he imposed on himself in order to raise the money to build his school/church), served this area until 1885. He was indeed a remarkable priest, dearly loved by his poor people. He taught at St. Mary’s School in Bridgend in the mornings, and spent his afternoons among his people in Aberkenfig and Tondu. He soon realised there was a great need for a school in the area, and that Aberkenfig was clearly the place for such a building, as it was the focal point of the district. A school would also supply the other great need – a building which could be used as a Mass Centre.
Fr. Green returned to Bridgend in 1877, now restored to health, and within two years, a school/church was built. How and where he found the £1,000 needed for this building was known only to Fr. Green himself. What was known to all was that the frugality of his living was more intensive than ever. He had dispensed with the need for a Housekeeper, and cooked and cleaned for himself for the remainder of his stay at Bridgend.
The following appeared in the Western Mail of 7th December, 1889:
“Fr. Green, who was stationed at Bridgend for 10 years, had control of the Roman Catholic Churches at Bridgend and Aberkenfig. It was Fr, Green who built the Church at Aberkenfig. He saved the large sum necessary (£1,000) in five years out of his small income. For the whole period of 5 years he dispensed with the services of a Housekeeper and lived on a shilling a day. To keep down the expense to this amount, ha would often go without supper. He made his bed, cooked his food and did all the domestic work in order to defray the cost of the building. Not a penny was received from anybody’s hand, because no help was asked for.”
The site Fr. Green chose for his building was an unsightly ore tip in the main road to Maesteg, but practically central in the village, and after extensive (and expensive) levelling and preparation, the work of building commenced. During this time, it is said that Fr. Green walked to Aberkenfig daily to watch the progress of his school/church almost stone by stone. He procured the site on a 70 year lease at a ground rent of £9 from the Evanstown Estate, who owned most of the property in the area. After levelling, it was a considerable height above the road, and eventually a strong stone supporting wall had to be built. On the opposite boundary to the road, there was a steep descent to a field below.
In later years, when it was thought a Priest’s house might be built beside the church, it was the considered opinion of the Consultant Architect (Mr. Lambert) that the site was not suitable for further building by reason of the insecurity of the tip foundations, and this was later confirmed by the deep cracking which appeared in the arch above the Sanctuary and the bulging of the supporting wall on the road. Both these defects were made good by the late Mr. David Fitzgerald, a member of one of the oldest Catholic families in the area.
It makes it all the more remarkable that the builder, Mr. Preece, was able to build a structure on such a site that was both strong and durable. He did indeed build well, for the school, though small, was beautifully proportioned and neat.
The architectural design wan ecclesiastical, built from fine local stone, and had the appearance more of a church than a school. This, of course, was Fr. Green’s intention – that the building should also serve as his people’s church.
The building was opened in 1879, and according to records, Miss Royston was seconded from St. Mary’s School, Bridgend, to take charge of St. Robert’s School. She was succeeded by Miss Helen Cokely, who remained Headmistress of St. Robert’s for over 40 years, and some of the older parishioners may remember this remarkable woman.
Fr, Green’s dream had at last come true, and the people of Aberkenfig had their church and school, for in a short time, he added a Sanctuary and a permanent altar. However, St. Robert’s still remained under the charge of St. Mary’s, Bridgend, until 1924, when it became an independent Parish, and Fr. Benedict Inizan, O.S.B., was appointed the first Parish Priest. In 1926, the present St. Robert’s School was built, and since that time, the old school/church has been used solely as a Church.
Fr. Green served for another six years in the area after opening his Church, and left in 1885 to serve various missions in the area. He was a Canon of Newport from 1877 to 1889, and returned to Downside in 1904, where he died on 5th November, 1912.
In a sense, the church itself serves the purpose of a permanent memorial to its founder, since Fr. Green imposed his own baptismal name, Robert, as the name of the Aberkenfig Church. However, on the 46th anniversary of his death – 1958- a pipe organ recently installed was blessed and dedicated to the memory of Fr. Green, the sermon being given by Fr. P.J. O’Reilly Gibbons, who devotedly served the parish for 25 years.
The memorial plaques to Fr. Green and Fr. Inizan were removed from the body of the church during the modernisation carried out in 1981, and can now be seen in the side chapel.
Fr. Benedict Inisan, O.S.B., was appointed the first Parish Priest of St. Robert’s in 1924, when Aberkenfig became a completely independent Parish, He was responsible for the building of the very fine Parish Hall in Dunraven Street, Aberkenfig, in 1927, but unfortunately died one year later. In more recent years the Parish Hall was sold due to the cost of upkeep.
In 1949, after being served by Benedictines for 93 years, St, Robert’s was handed over to the Archdiocese of Cardiff, the first secular priest being Fr. Leo Wolfe.
Archbishop McGrath School was built in 1964 to serve Aberkenfig and surrounding areas of Maesteg and Bridgend schools, all of which had become too crowded, and from that time, St. Robert’s became a primary school.
Major repairs had to be carried out to the church in 1981, and at this time, the inside of the Church was modernised. A new altar was installed, and the Dedication of this altar was carried out by His Grace The Archbishop of Cardiff, Most Rev. John A. Murphy, on 9th July, 1981.
As part of celebrations at the start of the year 2000 a new stained glass window was designed by Bianca Thomas, a pupil at St. Robert’s School, which stands as a permanent reminder of the link between the original school and the current school.
Some parishioners may remember the priests who have served St. Robert’s since Fr. Inizan died in 1928:-
1928 – 30 Fr. C. Connolly, O.S.B.
1930 – 31 Fr. A. Harrington, O.S.B.
1931 – 36 Fr. Columba Merrick, O.S.B.
1936 – 44 Fr. Gerrard Spenser, O.S.B.
1944 – 49 Fr. Andrew Gibbons, O.S.B.
1949 – 51 Fr. Leo Wolfe
1951 – 76 Fr. Patrick J. O’Reilly Gibbons
1976 – 86 Fr. Richard Byron
1986 – 98 Fr. John Owen
1998 – 2001 Fr. David Smith
2001 – 2004 Fr. Dewi Davies
2004 – 2008 Fr. David Smith (Parish Administrator)
2009 – 2013 Fr. John Meredith (Maesteg & Aberkenfig)