Our Lady, Star of the Sea and St Winefride

Records show that prior to the construction of the present Roman Catholic Church in Amlwch masses were presumed to have taken place in a ‘stable’ at the back of the Dinorben Hotel.  In 1932 a better centre was secured in Mona Street, but during that year the foundations for the new church on Bull Bay Road commenced.  

The unusually shaped church was  designed by Italian engineer Guiseppe Rinvolucri who had settled with his English wife in Conwy.  His specialist field was the design of Roman Catholic churches, and other,  more conventional , examples of his work can be found in Abergele and Porthmadog. 

Built on reinforced concrete the building is designed in the style of an upturned boat, with nautical theme elements such as porthole windows.  The church has six concrete parabolic arch ribs along the outside,  which are visible inside the building, with patterns of roof lights running between them.  The main entrance at the top of some steps faces south, surrounded by stone faced concrete, and above the door is a star shaped window surrounded by blue glass mosaic, and above that stands a cross. A possibly apocryphal story is told about children collecting  blue  Milk of Magnesia bottles to be used in the mosaic.   The vestry is at the rear of the church and a parish hall lies underneath the church. 

Work on the foundations saw a considerable outcrop of metamorphosed schist being excavated before an entrance to Bull Bay Road could be made.  The foundations were taken down to solid rock and  three foot wide walls built up.  The main reinforced concrete and brick structure above the level of the lower hall and the stone steps were supervised by Percy Iball of Rhyl.  He remembers arriving in 1935 and employing three or four local  labourers whose rate of pay was one shilling an hour.  The stone used in construction was from a local quarry and transported by horse and cart,  the water drawn from a well beside the church. The steel-work came by rail to Amlwch station in straight lengths and was cut and bent on site.  The glass lenses in the roof lights were 2” thick and were made in France, they were held in position whilst the concrete set by thousands of headless nails which had to be removed afterwards.

The church was blessed and opened by Bishop McGrath in 1937 and is dedicated to Our Lady Star of the Sea and St. Winefride.   The church was taken over by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in January 1941.  Until 1944 when St. Joseph’s Presbytery, just off Bull Bay Road, was acquired, the priests would travel from Holyhead to Amlwch by bus to hear Confessions and say Mass.  Three Oblate priests lived in the parish and served an area approximately 200 square miles – LLangefni, Cemaes and Gwalchmai.  In Cemaes a new church, St David’s, was opened in 1965,  before which mass was said in ‘Yr Old Vigour’ hotel.  Over the next few decades the parish boundaries changed a number of times and today only Our Lady of Lourdes church in Benllech and Amlwch are part of the parish.

In December 2000 the church was classified as a Grade ll* listed building, the second-highest of three grades of listing , designating ‘particularly important buildings of more than special interest’ and the building itself as ‘ a remarkable inter-war church’.  Cadw, the official guardian of the built heritage of Wales, describes it as ‘striking and individual’ and ‘a highly unusual and experimental design which exploits the plastic qualities of its constructional material to create a powerfully expressive religious building’.

Damage from the weather and deterioration in the concrete caused the church to be closed in 2004.  An original estimate for complete restoration of the church and parish-hall, underneath, was £1.4m.  The National Heritage Lottery Fund rejected a grant application but a number of benefactors, including Cadw, the Pilgrim’s Trust, the National Churches Trust, the All Churches Trust, the Oblate Trustees and many more became generous donors.

Restoration work using local trades-people wherever possible was completed in April 2011, the emphasis of the project being simplicity of style.  The altar, tabernacle-plinth and lectern are made of Welsh slate and granite, and a 4ft high wood-carving of Our Lady Star of the Sea, cradling a sailing boat , is mounted on the Southern wall to the right of the entrance. At a special Mass on Sunday 1st May 2011, Bishop Edwin Regan dedicated the new altar to celebrate the reopening of the church. Using local  contractors and from funds raised through various parish functions the church hall beneath the church was also  renovated to a fine standard.

For over 80 years this iconic structure has stood over Amlwch and its Catholic community, and although priests no longer  live in Amlwch  the dedicated Oblates of Mary Immaculate still travel to Amlwch to say Mass and serve the community in what ever way they can – a debt of gratitude for which can never be repaid.

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