History of St Mary’s, Fishguard

A look at the history of the church.

This account is largely the work of the Revd J. Richards which was issued as a booklet around 1960.

On July 22nd, 1857, the Parish Church of St. Mary the Virgin was consecrated by the Bishop of St. David’s, and re-opened for public worship, after having been completely rebuilt, and this booklet will relate some the story of its development during the 150 years that have passed since then. However, no such story could be complete without some reference to the many centuries of parish history that had preceded this period. For Fishguard, like most other parishes, has a long and inspiring heritage.

There are many old traditions which link the parish with the age of the great Welsh saints, for they speak of Christian foundations in the area in those early days. The strongest of those traditions is the one preserved by Richard Fenton, and tells of how St. Dyfrig, before his elevation to the bishopric of Llandaff, was a teacher on the banks of the Gwaun, and at whose  school at Pwll Dyfrig (Glyn y Mel) many pupils were educated. It is impossible to say how much truth underlies such traditions, or from where they originally sprang.

By the Middle Ages, however, the parish seems to have attained some importance, for apart from the Parish Church itself, there were at least, four, and possibly six subordinate chapels within the parish boundaries. Those were Capel Llanfihangel, Capel y Drindod, Llanust (or Llaneast), and Llanfartin, and maybe Capel Dewi and Llangolman. The names of two of these still survive, namely Llaneast and Llanfartin, although all remains of the buildings have disappeared apart from the stone work from one of the windows of the latter, which can be seen in the church on the North wall. The site of Capel y Drindod is not so easy to define. Fenton seems to imply that it stood somewhere in Lower Fishguard, but possibly a more likely spot is at the now vanished burial ground on Tower Hill. Llanfihangel was most certainly in Lower Fishguard, for that was known as the hamlet of Capel Llanfihangel-“ffisguard cum capell Michangell.” It is recorded that when “many years ago, excavations were made at the site of the Methodist Chapel, early graves were found, and also what appeared to be foundations of ancient wall,” and it is more than likely that here stood the ancient chapel. The Methodist Chapel so mentioned was purchased by the Parochial Church Council as the Mission Church of St. Nicholas, but has since been sold off and converted to private housing

Of the Parish Church itself, there appear but few records, and it is impossible to say how many previous buildings have stood on the present site. At the beginning of the 19th century, it is fairly evident that the Church which then stood was far from desirable in many ways. Richard Fenton calls it a “mean structure,” and Sir Stephen Glynne describes it as “very mean, scarcely distinguishable from the adjacent houses, the walls are so very low.” One of the Church registers records that it was “an old and dilapidated little Church, which had but ninety sittings.”

Such was the state of affairs when, in 1854, William Rowlands became Vicar of Fishguard. He appears to have de­cided at once that a new Church was needed. In one respect he was very fortunate, for the National School was now built, and could be used for Sunday worship during the rebuilding. In March 1855, he had the school licensed for Divine Worship by the Bishop of the Diocese. Un­fortunately, all was not to go smoothly for the new Vicar in his great task. A great hue and cry was made by some of the Dissenters, with one Hugh Harries at their head, that the necessary funds for the rebuilding were to be obtained, not by voluntary contributions, but by a compulsory rate upon the parish. Many believed this “malicious falsehood,” and signed a document in the form of a memorial to the Court at Carmarthen. However, the Vicar won the trial, and obtained a Faculty for the new Church. On September 19th, 1855, the foundation stone was laid by Sir James John Hamilton of Llanstephan. Work continued apace, and although on the cross on the eastern end of the Church there stands the date 1856, it is fairly evident that the building was not completed until well on in the following year, for even on May 8th, 1857, the Easter Vestry had to be held elsewhere as “the Church was in building.” By July 22nd of that year all was finished, and on that day the new Church was consecrated and reopened for Public Worship, a fact commemorated in the brass plaque on the North inside wall It was hugely larger than its predecessor for it could seat 550 people, and had cost the grand sum of £1661 to build.

The new building could not be called beautiful by even its most ardent lover, but this in no way detracts from the tremendous courage of William Rowlands in undertaking the task. He was an extreme “Low” Churchman, and this school of thought is reflected in the building itself, in that it has two side aisles rather than a single central aisle He had, however, given to Fishguard a Parish Church that was sound in structure, and large enough to accommodate a growing congregation. The sum of £1661 may seem small to us today, but raising that sum 150 years ago must have meant a great effort and sacrifice for all who helped in the building of the new Church. The position was aggravated by the fact that the Church Building Society refused to make a grant, although Sir John Hamilton, and the architect, Thomas Clark of Trowbridge, were on the committee in London. Furthermore the troubles of the Vicar did not end with the completion of the building, for it appears that those who, two years previously had opposed the rebuilding, set about to cause further unrest. In February 1858, a special Vestry was called “for the purpose of forbidding the Vicar to remove or make any alterations in the existing Reading Desk or Pulpit.” The Vicar, however, was equal to the occasion, for he declared the Vestry illegal, and called on the Superintendent of Police “to turn out to the Street all from the Vestry room, which he did, causing good cheering from the crowd.” This appears to be the last attempt by certain people in the parish to oppose the Vicar’s plans, and for the remainder of his Ministry, there is no record of any obvious opposition. In January 1894, William Rowlands died, after serving the parish for forty years. He was buried on January 15th alongside the chancel of the Church he had built.

On May 11th, 1894, the Rev. R. Lloyd Lloyd was inducted as the new Vicar of Fishguard. He came to a church that was sound in structure, but sadly lacking in any form of decoration. On his first Sunday he records-“Hitherto, not an ornament in the Chancel, two cushions on the Altar for book rests, and the black gown in the pulpit.” He set about to remedy these deficiencies, and during a comparatively short incumbency he achieved a great deal, and strove to raise the tone of the worship and decoration of the Church. In order to meet a pressing need, an Altar frontal was made from his wife’s wedding gown, and this was in use until the 1950’s, although in the meantime it has been renovated and remounted on new material. A Cross and Candlesticks were placed on the Altar, and apparently the Font moved to its present position at the west end of the Church. Many other gifts were forthcoming from parishioners and friends, and gradually the whole edifice took on a new aspect. He tried the experiment of holding Services in Lower Town in the front room of what was then a private house, and in 1895 caused some comment by holding the first Three Hour Service on Good Friday. It would appear that, many of his parishioners brought up in the low church traditions of his predecessor, could not reconcile themselves to these changes, and so in 1900 he relinquished the living. He had, however, set the foundations of a higher Churchmanship upon which those who came later built.

On May 30th, 1900, Rev. William Evans was inducted as the new Vicar of the parish, and he was incumbent for fourteen years. During this period, further improvements were carried out. Very early in his incumbency a fine brass eagle lectern was presented to the Church, and this is still the one in use today. More particularly, it was in the first years of his ministry at Fishguard, that a pipe organ of good quality and tone was procured, and built into the south-east corner of the nave. It was the product of Messrs. Conacher Ltd., the famous organ builders, and it has, with the minimum amount of attention, given good service to the Church. He was also instrumental in having a new oak pulpit, and an oak reredos placed in the Church, and so set the lead in the matter of re-furnishing. By now, too, the small churchyard surrounding the Church had become closed by Order in Council, and so on June 3rd, 1903, a new cemetery was consecrated at Pen-y-groes. In the more spiritual sense, William Evans constantly strove to strengthen the parish. He organised a series of parochial missions, and founded branches of the Mothers Union, and Girls Friendly Society, and proved a kindly friend and advisor to all his parishioners. When, in 1914, he decided to accept another living, lie left Fishguard as a much-loved priest, who load served his people with care and devotion.

On St. Peter’s Day, 1914, Rev. David Davies became Vicar of Fishguard, and he had hardly settled in the parish when the country was plunged into the Great War. During the four years of its duration, the parish appears to have done a great deal towards the various comforts of the troops. During those early years, too, great renovations were carried, out at the Vicarage, and major improvements made there. After the cessation of hostilities, one of the first ventures was to set up a memorial for those, from the parish, who had died for their country. This took the form of an oak Rood Screen with Choir Stalls to match, and these were dedicated on June 20th, 1920. About this time, too an oak Altar Rail, to match the other furniture, was placed in the Church. It was during these years that most of the stained windows were presented, as well as a fine Processional Cross and three banners. However, probably the greatest venture of this Vicar was the building of the Church Institute. It was built with a fine main hall, and other ante-rooms for parochial use, including a library and billiard room. It met a great need in Fishguard, and gave the parish a centre for its activities. It was a great achievement, and has been used well by the whole community for over 70 years.

The year 1937 saw another change in the incumbency, for on March 8th of that year the Rev. D. H. Lloyd was instituted to the living. Within two years, the country was again at War, and parochial activities became more and more difficult. However, it was during these War years that the debt on the Church Institute was finally paid off, and progress made in many other directions. Later the nave of the Church was re-floored and two oak doors hung at the west end. The Altar rail was completed by the addition of centre gates, and an oak stand for the lectern presented. It. was during this incumbency, too, that a dream of many generations became a reality, for it saw the coming into being of a Mission Church at Lower Town. The disused Methodist chapel was purchased by the Parochial Church Council, and after some alterations to the interior, it was dedicated to St. Nicholas. Thus, what had long been a hope by many previous incumbents became a reality. In 1956, after completing nineteen years as incumbent, the Rev. D. H. Lloyd moved to Llanbadarn Fawr, and the Revd JFG Richards was appointed to the living by the Bishop of St. David’s. He was instituted on June 6th, 1956, and became only the sixth to hold the office during the hundred years that had passed since the rebuilding of the Church.

In such a short booklet, it has been impossible to go into much detail, and to mention by name many who have contributed in one way or another to the progress of the Church. Nevertheless it must be remembered that this progress has not been due to the incumbents alone, but also to the faithful and loyal service of the many Assistant Curates who have served the parish during this time, and the co-operation and help given by Churchwardens and other lay people, who have given of their best. May they be an inspiration to all who follow them.

Here ends the account of the Revd J. Richards.