HISTORY OF ST GABRIEL'S PARISH, PRESTONPANS
Father Brendan O'Boyle
The Parish of St Gabriel embraces Prestonpans, Wallyford. Cockeiv.ie.
Port Seton and Longniddry. We know these districts of our Parish
but do we know the identity of our Patron Saint'? Contrary to
what some people may think, the Gabriel of our Parish is not the
Archangel but a young Passionist student Saint.
A thumbnail sketch of his life is easily recorded. He was born
Francis Possenti at Assisi. Italy on Marsh 1st. 1838. He was baptised
in the same font as the celebrated Francis of Assisi. after whom
he was named. Francis Possenti grew up like any normal boy, indeed
many of our youth today could easily identify with him. in that
he was more interested in dancing and the theatre than in religion.
His elegance earned for him the twin nicknames of "The Dandy"
and "The Dancer".
The turning point of his life came on an August day. 1856. On
the 22nd day of that month, the annual Religious Procession of
the Madonna took place in Assisi. Francis was just another face
in the crowd who turned out to reverence Our Lady. As her statue
was carried past him. the eyes of the Madonna seemed to come to
life and penetrated his innermost being. Instinctively, he knew
the message she conveyed. He must enter Religion.
The following year Francis Possenti entered the Passionist Congregation,
taking the name of Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin, his lifelong
devotion. Gabriel spent the next five years of his life in prayer
and study in preparation for the Priesthood. Yet he was never
to be ordained a Priest. He died a year before ordination on Februarys
27th. 1862. Many miracles were attributed to him and he was canonized
on May 21st, 1920 by Pope Benedict XII who declared him "a
new Patron of Youth for the Universal Church". His annual
Feastday is celebrated on the day we commemorate his death -February
Our Parish was formally established on Monday March 7th. 1932
under the Patronage of St Gabriel. On that day the Most Rev Andrew
Joseph McDonald OSE celebrated the first Mass in the Parish in
the church of the old Passionist Monastery ofDrum-Mohr at Levenhall.
From that date the Parish revolved around the Monastery and its
Church. The older members of our Parish have fond memories of
these days. However, as Prestonpans continued to grow. it was
realised that the Monastery church was not suitable as a parish
church. A more central site was desirable. On 22nd August, 1965
the foundation stone of the Church of St Gabriel was laid by His
Eminence. Cardinal Gordon Gray, and six months later the Church
was formally opened. This was a dream come true. It was the culmination
of many years of hard work, for our Parish has a long history.
We begin that history with an interesting observation. After the
Reformation in the 16th Century. Mass was forbidden to be offered
in the realm. It was not until the end of the 18th Century that
Mass was once again celebrated in East Lothian, not openly, but
In 1770 Robert Bagnall. an Englishman and a Catholic from Staffordshire,
arrived in Glasgow. his trade was pottery. Nine years after his
arrival in Glasgow the Gordon Riots erupted and Robert Bagnall's
house, shop and equipment were burned out. His house had been
a cIandestine centre for Catholic worship. From Glasgow, Robert
Bagnall came to East Lothian in 1780. He set up the Westpans Pottery
near Levenhall. According to the Statistical History of Scotland
Volume 16 of 1795. this Westpans Pottery was situated "in
a garden where three score vears ago. stood the Mansion House
of Westpans, then possessed by a family of the name of Joice.
now extinct, whose estate was what is now called Drummore in the
Parish of Prestonpans"
In 1792 Robert Bagnall was declared bankrupt. It is interesting
to note that the same Robert Bagnall had a son Thomas Peter Bagnall
who was ordained a Catholic Priest in 1795. He never lived at
Westpans as the family left the area in 1792 after his father's
bankruptcy. It is known that the Bagnall's house in Glasgow was
a Mass Centre. We can only surmise that his house at Westpans
also served the same purpose. Father Bagnall is buried in the
cemetery at Sweetheart Abbey. New Abbey. Kirkcudbright which is
The next event of interest was when the Diocesan Authorities bought
an Episcopal Church in Brighton Place in Portobello in 1835. For
nine years it was attended from Edinburgh on an irregular basis.
On Low Sunday 27th April, 1844, this Church was formally opened
under the Patronage of St John the Evangelist. Father James Clapperton
was the first resident Priest, although he was not the first Priest
to celebrate Mass in Portobello.
The Parish of St John encompassed the whole of East Lothian and
the Shires of Berwick and Midlothian. Father Clapperton was one
of the Railway Priests who travelled around his far-flung parish
attending to the spiritual needs of a mobile labour force - the
Railway Navvies of the time. He also established Mission Stations
at Dalkeith. Prestonpans, Pathhead, Tranent and Haddington. Father
Clapperton retired from Portobello Parish in 1845 and spent his
retirement at St Joseph's, Peebles acting as Chaplain at Traquair
House. In 1885 he resigned from Peebles as he was going deaf and
retired to his native town of Fochabers in the Moray Firth district.
He is buried in St Ninian's Churchyard near Fochabers.
In the following years. St John's Parish has many notable Priests
but we can single out only one -Canon John Smith - as he played
an important part in the establishment of our own Parish.
In 1880 Canon Smith purchased the Lady Mary Oswald Mission Chapel
in Newbigging. Musselburgh. This Chapel was placed under the protection
of Our Lady of Loretto. It must be presumed that many of the fervent
Catholics of Prestonpans must have walked the long distance to
weekly Mass in this converted Church in Newbigging.
The Parish of Tranent was an offshoot of St John's. Portobello.
A Father Joyce was its first resident Priest. At the request of
the Catholics of Prestonpans. Father Joyce celebrated Holy Mass
in Prestonpans for the first time since the Reformation. The year
was 1907. The site of this first Mass was Matheson's Hall. later
known as Fleming's Hall. Fleming's Hall was situated on the shore
of Inchview north, a row of houses now occupy the site.
It is recorded that the altar used in Matheson's Hall was six
feet long and two feet wide with folding legs for easy storage.
This altar was used when Mass was celebrated in the Town Hall
and also in Antonelli's Hall. Antonelli's Hall was situated beside
their present shop in the High Street. This Hall was demolished
after a severe storm.
The Passionists came to Levenhall in 1932 and took over the Manor
House ofDrum-Mohr. They turned this house into a Monastery and
asked Bishop Andrew Joseph McDonald for a Church. This request
was granted and so the Monastery at Drum-Mohr became the Centre
for Catholic activity in the following years.
It is known that in 1930 Father DeIany, the Parish Priest of Tranent,
began to celebrate Holy Mass in the Town Hall. Prestonpans. This
was at the request of our Catholic people who had to walk to Tranent
to fulfil their Sunday obligation. The Passionists, when they
came to Drum-Mohr in 1932. continued the custom of celebrating
Mass each Sunday at the Town Hall. For a short time between 1930-1934
Mass was celebrated in Antonelli's Hall in the High Street but
the Hall proved unsuitable and Sunday Mass moved back once again
to the Town Hall and remained there until 1934.
In that year St Gabriels Hall was built, much to the happiness
of the Catholic Community of having a place of their own to celebrate
and worship. But a Hall is not a Church and so it was decided
to build a proper church. This dream was realised on Palm Sunday,
3rd April, 1965 when Cardinal, then Archbishop. Gray. opened our
new Church of St Gabriel.
Wallyford forms an integral part of the Parish of St Gabriel.
At first the Catholic community of Wallyford worshipped in the
Monastery Chapel, although many attended Our Lady of Loretto in
Musselburgh. Then in September 1952, Father Conleth O'Reilly,
CP, celebrated the first Mass in the Miners Institute. Wallyford.
which stood opposite the present Oratory of St James. The Miners
Institute was demolished in 1988. Until 1986 it sensed as a place
of Sunday morning worship for the people of Wallyford district.
In 1986. Father Brendan O'Boyle acquired a former policeman's
house and. with the help of the Wallyford Parishioners, converted
it into the present Oratory of St James.
This Oratoiv was formally opened on Sunday, 27th April. 1986 by
Mgr Anthony McNally, VG. the Parish Priest of Musselburgh, deputising
for Archbishop Keith O'Brien who, due to prior commitments, was
unable to perform the ceremony. Later that year on October 5th.
Arch. O'Brien celebrated Mass in the Oratory. St James' Oratory
is a fitting testimony to the faith of the people of Wallyford.
There is no Church in Port Seton/Cockenzie or in Longniddry but
who knows what the future holds? The Lord works in many strange
ways, as we see from the History of our Parish. EDUCATION
The provision of Catholic Education for our children is of paramount
importance to the Church. In 1888 the Diocesan Authorities purchased
the Stiell Hospital at Meadowmill. This hospital was converted
into a school which we know today as St Joseph's School. In 1914
the Brothers of St John Baptist de la Salic accepted responsibility
for the administration of St Joseph's. Although officially belonging
to St Martin's Parish. Tranent, the Brothers kindly allowed Prestonpans
and Longniddry the use of the Chapel. St Joseph's is reckoned
to be the oldest place of worship in the Parish.
Within living memory, our Catholic primary children attended school
in Tranent. while many from Wallyford and the Cuthill area of
the Parish, travelled daily to Our Lady of Loretto School in Musselburgh.
Father Dominic, a Passionist Priest of Prestonpans, saw the need
for a Catholic Primary School in the Parish. He worked hard to
obtain it. In 1950 his efforts began to bear fruit. In that year
the Council School at Cuthill was closed.
A petition was given to the Local Authorities that the school,
known as tlic Prestonpans West School, be given for the use of
Catholic children in the pans. This request was eventually granted.
On January 4th 1955 the school re-opened with Mr George Reynolds
as Headmaster and a staff of three assistants. The Roll Call showed
there were 126 pupils. The ages of the children ranged from 5
to 9 years. The older children still had to travel to Tranent
or Musselburgh schools.
The present Primary School, also under the Patronage of St Gabriel,
opened on 6th April 1967. with Mr Reynolds still in charge and
six assistant teachers. The Roll this time had increased to 242
pupils ranging in age from beginners to 12 year olds, and so it
remains to this day.
Such is a sketch of our Parish. There are still many gaps which
need to be bridged and we at St Gabriel's would be grateful for
any further information but we can be proud of our Parish. We
can be proud of past Priests and people who. despite many difficulties,
handed on the faith intact.
St Gabriel's Church