The Story of St. Benet’s Church and Parish
St. Benet’s church is built on land once belonging to the monastery of St. Peter, founded by St. Benet (Benedict) Biscop in 675 AD.
In the middle of the 19th Century St. Mary’s church in Bridge Street served all the Catholics of Sunderland. To meet the spiritual needs of those on the north side of the river (stretching from North Hylton to Whitburn, including Boldon) a school chapel was built in Monkwearmouth in 1851, and Fr. Matthew Gibson was appointed first parish priest in 1865.
St. Benet’s ChurchOfficially opened with Pontifical High Mass celebrated by Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Wilkinson on Sunday, July 14th, 1889 , St. Benet’s is a fine Gothic building of red brick faced with stone. The “West “ door and main facade is actually facing South and towards what was the poorest and most heavily populated area of the parish, between the church and the river, known as “the Barbary Coast”.
Fr. Du Floer was idolised by both the people he served in the parish and the local community.. When ill health forced him to retire in 1897, his grateful parishioners gave him £250 which he promptly donated to their fund for a new organ.
In 1900 four Redemptorist Fathers and three Brothers came to serve the parish and establish a base for giving parish missions and retreats, a task they have maintained for over 100 years.
The “Barbary Coast” had 2,000 dwellings housing sailors, miners, shipyard and factory workers, glass makers, iron and rope workers, labourers and gangs of the ballast hills. For many it was a no-go area, but for the Redemptorists it was an ideal situation in which to fulfil their mission of ministering to the poor and underprivileged.
At first they lived in the small presbytery beside the church, but in the following year began building the present monastery which was occupied in 1902. Due to the planning regulations of the time it is officially an extension to the tiny cottage at the Church Road end of the building.
There was an appreciable debt on the church and school. In 1903 parishioners organised a “Floradora Bazaar” which lasted for three days and raised more than £1,000, a fantastic amount at that time.
Over the years the original area of the parish shrank as five new ones were established, but the church site grew as buildings were added. With the purchase of more land by the Redemptorists, the church was extended by 35 feet in 1909, creating a new sanctuary, two side chapels and a spacious sacristy linked to the monastery by a corridor.
At the same time the first part of the parish school was built in which the Sisters of Mercy would serve for nearly ninety years.
Setback and Development
On April 1st 1916 a Zeppelin raid caused a number of casualties in the area, blew out most of the windows in the church, school and monastery, and damaged the doors. In 1919 St. Gerard’s chapel was dedicated to those who had died in the Great War.
In 1924 Cardinal Francis Bourne, Archbishop of Westminster visited Sunderland and presided at High Mass in St. Benet’s. A vast crowd gathered around the church and was controlled by mounted police.
The years that followed were ones of development, with the building of a parish hall facing Roker Avenue in 1925 which was to become the hub of a thriving social life and home of a locally renowned operatic society. An Infants’ Department was added to the school in 1928.
Many of our older parishioners, and those of other parishes, remember the 1950’s and 60’s as golden years at St. Benet’s, with the church packed every Saturday evening for the Novena Devotions to Our Lady of Perpetual Succour which had been started in 1946. Read more...
In 1947 the parishioners donated a brass votive candle stand in thanksgiving for their preservation and in memory of those who had died in World War II. In 1950 the original statue of St. Benet over the main door, which had been damaged in an air raid, was replaced by the present one.
Land in front of the church that had stabled donkeys for the beach was obtained in 1953 and transformed into a garden. Parishioners and senior boys from the school built the Lourdes Grotto there which was blessed in 1961.
St. Thomas Aquinas, a new secondary school for North Sunderland , began to admit boys in 1962 and girls in 1964.
Following the liturgical changes introduced by Vatican II, a temporary altar was erected in 1967 for Mass “facing the people”. In 1983 the sanctuary was extended forward and the temporary altar replaced by a new marble one.
There was great consternation in the 1980’s with the uncertainty and eventually the reality, in 1987, of the closure of St. Thomas Aquinas School in a reorganisation of secondary education in Sunderland .
On a much happier note the centenary of the church was marked in July 1989. A mini-mission prepared the way for three days of celebratory events.
In 1993 a new primary school was built for the parish on Fulwell Road . The old buildings on St. Benet’s site were demolished. The parish hall was replaced by a smaller one. Some land was sold and the monastery modernised.
With the new millennium came the celebration of the hundred years during which the Redemptorists had served St. Benet’s.
In the Spring of 2003 the interior of the church was repainted and the woodwork varnished, recapturing its great beauty and majesty.