New Pastoral Adventure for Belmont
Readers of the Benedictine Year Book will be surprised to see that the monks of Belmont Abbey have taken on the pastoral care of the Merthyr Tydfil Group of Parishes: St Aloysiius, Gurnos, St Benedict, Merthyr Vale, St Illtyd, Dowlais and St Mary, Merthyr Tydfil, with a combined Catholic population of about 8,000 people.
Merthyr Tydfil dates back to the end of the 5th Century, when St Tydfil, the daughter of King Brychan, was martyred here and a church erected in her honour. Sheep farmers populated this area of mountains and valleys on the edge of the Brecon Beacons until the beginning of the Industrial Revolution that transformed Merthyr into the largest town in Wales. The Dowlais Ironworks opened in 1759 and the Cafartha Ironworks in 1765, whilst coalmining became another major industry. By the middle of the 19th Century over 10% of the population was made up of Irish immigrants, together with newcomers from England, Italy and Spain. When Thomas Carlyle visited in 1850, he wrote that Merthyr was "like a vision of Hell" such was the squalor and poverty he saw.
There had been a Catholic mission at Brecon throughout penal days, so the first priest to say Mass at Merthyr for these immigrant Catholics would trek 20 miles over the Beacons and then walk back again. A permanent mission at Merthyr was begun in 1827 by Fr Patrick Portal, an Irishman, and another at Dowlais in 1844 by Fr Michael Carroll, another Irish priest. Merthyr and Dowlais became parishes in 1850 with the establishment of the Diocese of Newport and Menevia. The English Benedictines took over Merthyr in 1857 and Dowlais in 1873. The mission at Merthyr Vale, now famous for the Aberfan disaster, was begun in 1887, while a new parish on the Gurnos housing estate was opened in 1970. Merthyr and Dowlais became incorporated parishes of Ampleforth but were handed over to the Archdiocese of Cardiff about 1930.
Earlier this year Archbishop George Stack asked Abbot Paul to consider the possibility of Belmont taking on the pastoral responsibility for the four parishes, but treating them a single group run by two priests. The Abbot and Council decided to accept the Archbishop's request for a year "ad experimentum." Dom Thomas Regan and Dom James Norris were appointed pastor and co-pastor and commenced their duties on 15th September. Should all go well, the Community will probably consider the possibility of taking on the mission for a further three-year period with a contract similar to the one we already have with the Archdiocese for the Herefordshire parishes. But, of course, that all depends on the Archbishop's approval and our ability to run them in a satisfactory way