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Pugin's St Wilfrid's Catholic church in Cotton closes
St Wilfrid's, Cotton
St Wilfrid's was just one of a number of local Pugin projects

An historic Staffordshire church has held its last service for the foreseeable future, and maybe forever.

St Wilfrid's Catholic church at Cotton was designed by Augustus Pugin and has the recently beatified Cardinal Newman listed on a wall as one of its priests.

But dry rot has forced its closure and until the results of a survey are known, it's unclear whether it'll ever re-open.

A Friends of St Wilfrid's group is being set up to try to save the church.

Former Cotton College student, Michael Hills, looks back at the history of Cotton College and its chapel, St Wilfrid's ...

At 8.30am on Sunday, 24 October 2010, the last, probably final Mass was celebrated at St Wilfrid's Catholic Church, Cotton, near Oakamoor in the Staffordshire Moorlands. The priest and parishioners filed out through the heavy wooden doors at the back and the church - associated with the village and adjacent college for more than 150 years - has now closed, apparently for good.

Not a particularly unusual event, perhaps, in these secular times, but in this case it represents the passing into history of a chapel that has a significant history of its own.

Celebrated Pugin design

St Wilfrid's Church was designed in 1846 by Augustus Pugin, the architect who designed the Houses of Parliament. He'd been commissioned by the Earl of Shrewsbury, from nearby Alton Towers, to design the church for Father Frederick Faber, whom the Earl was encouraging to set up a religious community in the area.

Fr. Faber was offered the choice of either land next to the Church of St. Giles in Cheadle (a celebrated Pugin design in its own right), or land adjoining Cotton Hall a few miles away.
Faber chose Cotton and immediately set about building his new church and a school for the local children (... despite the minor drawback that none of the children were - as yet - Catholic.)

Many of the stones in the church were laid by Faber's own hand and those of the other Brothers in the new community.

Then, as soon as the church was built, the brethren went out in pairs inviting the locals to their services. Fr. Faber thereby became, as the learned Fr. Knight of Altrincham observed: "...the first priest since the Reformation to convert a whole village".

The church, the parish and the community were all dedicated to St. Wilfrid and both the church and the school flourished. The exertion took its toll on Faber however, and he became seriously ill (so ill that he received the sacrament of Extreme Unction or 'Last Rites').

Fr. Faber's retreat

Fortunately he recovered though, writing numerous hymns and other pieces during his convalescence, and developing a strong devotion to the Blessed Virgin (later building a shrine at the head of Cotton Dell in her honour, which became known as 'Fr. Faber's retreat').

One of the hymns written by Fr. Faber at Cotton - originally called 'St. Wilfrid's Hymn' - went on to become the unofficial anthem of the Roman Catholic Church. Now known as 'Faith Of Our Fathers', it was written at Cotton and first sung most likely in St. Wilfrid's Church.

In 1873, a major change was to affect Cotton when it was decided to move Sedgley Park School to the site. Sedgley Park had been founded by Bishop Challoner in 1763 as a Catholic school for the English middle classes.

With the move to Cotton, the site became known as St. Wilfrid's College, Cotton, (later, just Cotton College); and for well over a century it was then one of Britain's major sources of recruits to the Catholic priesthood. Indeed, Cotton was once described as the most important Catholic school in England.

The link with Sedgley Park was retained in the names of the three houses at the College: Challoner, the founder; Milner (Bishop John Milner, a former Sedgley Park pupil); and Bowden (Dr Joseph Bowden, a former President of Sedgley Park).

Integral part in college life

As the chapel in a junior seminary, St Wilfrid's Church naturally played an integral part in college life. Every weekday, students at the college would rise at 6.40am and make their way to the chapel for Mass. Later, the students would return to the chapel before lunch to say grace and then go back at 9pm for evening prayers before bed.

Sundays were special days in the College, of course (although a lie-in until 7.15 was allowed). Following a low mass at 7.45am, students would return to the chapel at 10.30am for High Mass which was always sung by a full choir and often celebrated by a visiting Bishop.

College closure

In 1987, Cotton College was closed by the Archdiocese of Birmingham for financial reasons and since then the buildings have tragically become derelict.

However, the church itself remained open and it therefore took on yet another role in its long history.

As well as being the parish church for Cotton and the surrounding villages, it became the focal point for Cotton College annual reunions.
On the May Bank Holiday each year, a hundred or more Old Boys would make their way to Cotton for a special reunion Mass, often con-celebrated by as many as nine former Cotton priests. Many of the Old Boys would spend the entire weekend in the area, going once again on the walks they were sent on as young boys and enjoying once again the spectacular countryside of this part of Staffordshire.

Dry rot

Now, though, even St Wilfrid's Church itself is going to close. In July 2009, dry rot was discovered in the main roof of the chapel; and part of the nave is already cordoned off for safety reasons. Even if repair proves practical and affordable, the chances of the church re-opening look very slim indeed.

As Bishop David McGough wrote in an email to one of the Old Boys: "Other considerations come into the future of the chapel, namely finance and the pressing need to accommodate a declining number of clergy".

Next year, then, the Cotton College Old Boys will need to find a new venue. And the one remaining link to a proud history will be gone forever.

Michael would like to credit the Seattle Catholic website for information about Fr Faber.

Historic Catholic church restored
20 Oct 10 |  Religion & Ethics



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