There is a long history of Catholicism around the Bridgend area.
Before the building of the original St Mary’s Catholic Church in Bridgend, which was made necessary by the large influx of Irish immigrants as a result of the famines of the 1840s, the Catholic community in the Bridgend area was served from Cardiff and Swansea. Due to the scarcity of priests and difficulties with travel, this usually meant that the visits were rare and primarily only for the major feasts of the year: Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. Often groups of men and women would gather at a local meeting place, for example, the Coach and Horses public house and walk to Cardiff for Mass at St. David’s Cathedral. They commenced their journey on the Saturday afternoon, were housed by fellow Catholics in Cardiff for the night, heard Mass, received the Sacraments and then walked back to Bridgend Sunday afternoon!
In 1852 Catholic practice became less difficult when Fr. Charles Kavanagh found the Bridgend Catholic community in such dire straits that he immediately started monthly visits to celebrate Mass and Sacraments. Mass was celebrated in a house on the corner of Brackla Street or often in John Burke’s house in Chapel Street, locally referred to as Irish Lane. It is interesting to note that one of the great-grandchildren of Mr. Burke is the internationally acclaimed artist Kevin Sinott who produced two of the fine pieces of art work in the new St. Mary’s Catholic Church.
With the appointment of Fr. William Marshall to Aberavon, things once again moved on for the Catholic community in the Bridgend area.
In the early years of the 19th Century, Sir John Nicholl bought the Merthyr Mawr estates, and had the present Merthyr Mawr House built. Three young members of his family, Illtyd, and two sisters Lucy and Teresa converted to Catholicism. They were approached by Fr. Marshall to try and easy the plight of their fellow worshippers. In 1855 a piece of land was purchased in Ewenny Road by Illtyd Nicholl from a Mr Thomas Thomas for the price of £210.
While no real date for the start of the Church and school is known, we do know that by 14th April 1855 work was well under way and the first Mass on Ewenny Road was celebrated on the 14th October 1855 in the school rooms next to the Church.
By Sunday 9th December of that year the Church was used for the first time. It was soon in need of expansion due to numbers, and thanks to the continued generosity of Illtyd Nicholl and family this was achieved. By 1857 all works were completed and Bishop Brown, Bishop of Cardiff invited the English Benedictine Congregation to administrate the Parish, and Fr. Henry Ignatius Sutton O.S.B. was appointed the first resident Parish Priest.
In September 1943, the arrival of American soldiers boosted the already enlarge Catholic community. Bridgend and the surrounding area expanded greatly because of the Ordnance Factory. It is worth noting that when Archbishop McGrath made his Visitation to St. Mary’s in October 1943 four American soldiers were confirmed. In April 1944 large numbers of Italian prisoners of war were quartered at Wick and Mass said for them every Saturday. No-sooner had the Americans left for Normandy then large numbers of German p.o.ws were stationed at Island Farm. (the site of the largest escape by German prisoners on British soil). Mass was provided for these prisoners until they were allowed to come to Mass on their own.
In 1994 Canon Edwin Regan (1990-94) left Bridgend to take up the role of Bishop of Wrexham. The Church was once again too small for the needs of the Catholic community, with 5 Sunday Masses, and Mass also celebrated in Pencoed. In 1995 Fr. William J. Isaac was appointed Parish Priest with a mandate to address these problems. The answer became the new St. Mary’s Catholic Church. The last Mass in the original Church was in November 1997 and a year later, the first Mass in the new church was celebrated at Christmas 1998.
Following lengthy meetings with Diocesan officers and parishioners, the design concept of the Pelican was adopted to draw attention to the ancient links of the Church with Ewenny Priory and, with the ancient symbolism of the Pelican, even further back to the dawn of Christianity. The Pelican is an ancient symbol of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary and hence of the Eucharist (this Greek word literally means ‘well-beloved’ or ‘well-graced’ and has been used since the first century to refer to both the act of worship (the Mass) and Holy Communion). The symbolism of the mother pelican feeding her newly-hatched chicks is rooted in an ancient legend that in time of famine, the mother pelican wounded herself, striking her breast with the beak to feed her young with her blood to prevent starvation. Another version of the legend was that the mother fed her dying young with her blood to revive them from death, but in turn lost her own life. Very early in the history of Christianity, the symbol was applied to Jesus Christ because of the Christian belief that Jesus gave His life as a sign of God’s overwhelming love for us. His life, suffering, death and resurrection provide the answers to our fundamental questions about death and the after-life. In addition, Jesus continues to nourish the world with hope, peace, joy and love through His body and blood in the Eucharist.
A further key reason for the choice of the Pelican as a design concept for the Church was also its links with Ewenny Priory. Ewenny Priory, Bridgend, was founded in 1141 by Maurice de Londres when he granted the nearby Norman church of St. Michael to the Benedictine Abbey of St. Peter at Gloucester (now Gloucester cathedral), together with the church of St Brides Major, St. Michael at Colwinston and the manor at Lampha. The church had been built in the 12th century by his father, William de Londres, one of the Norman knights of Glamorgan. The village of Ewenny grew around the Priory and church. The priory was dissolved in 1536, and leased in the same year to Sir Edward Carne. In 1545 he purchased the priory, along with its possessions. The estate descended in the Carne family to Edward Carne (died 1650) who was succeeded by his two daughters and co-heirs, Blanche and Martha. A devout Catholic, during Queen Mary’s reign Sir Edward Carne served on embassies to Emperor Charles V and to Rome, where he chose to remain on the accession of Elizabeth I and was put in charge of the English hospital of St. Thomas in the city. He is buried in the narthex of the Church of St. Gregory on the Caelian Hill in Rome.
The Pelican is featured in the coat of arms of the Carne family. The Pelican is depicted plucking her breast and allowing the drops of blood to fall into the mouths of the chicks, thus symbolising Christ feeding his flock with his blood. This heraldic device can be seen in many places throughout Europe and beyond. It is featured on a bronze door in Cologne Cathedral, on the tower on top of Glastonbury Tor, and many other places, including at the ‘Pelican in her piety’ public house near Ewenny, by Ogmore Castle.
Much of the old stone and art work of the current Church was taken from the original St Mary’s to make tangible the historical links of the local church.