St. Mary's and St. Columba's Parish

Bathgate, West Lothian, Scotland

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 On an occasion like this there is the opportunity for the preacher to give some account of the history of the parish and the church where he is leading the celebrations.

The first date in the history of this parish and church to which I refer is 1988 just some twenty years ago and it refers to a celebration in which I myself took part as an assistant priest here in Bathgate, the solemn dedication of this church.

But going back further it was in 1858 that Bathgate became a parish; in 1878 the hierarchy was re-established in Scotland; in 1888 there was a major restoration of the old church on this present site; in 1908 the church itself was built and consequently we are now celebrating the centenary of that event;  in 1958 the centenary of the parish was celebrated; and the solemn dedication of the church itself took place in the Marian Year of 1988 – 100 years after the major restoration of the old church.

 I give a magnificent roll call of some of the history of this parish and church – but rather than concentrating on the history of events which took place in the past I would much rather concentrate on the history of the people of this area.


 We are given something of the early beginnings of the Catholic community here in Bathgate in the “statistical account” of 1843 when the Reverend Samuel Martin returned only three families within the parish as professing the Catholic faith for whom Falkirk was the nearest church. However we are told that with the construction of the Edinburgh and Bathgate railway a large number of the Irish Catholic workmen employed made Bathgate their permanent residence and it became the duty of the Falkirk priest to visit the town once a month to minister to the spiritual needs of the community. At that time there was a great deal of religious intolerance so that officiating priests often had to be smuggled into and out of the town to escape personal violence – and it was only with the establishment of a mission in Linlithgow toward the close of 1854 that the resident priests could give Bathgate weekly Mass. Then, following on the amalgamation of the worshippers of the two united Presbyterian churches in 1855 that the Catholic community was able to acquire the former United Presbyterian Church in Livery Street with the first resident priest being Father Andrew Smith, brother of Archbishop Smith of our own Archdiocese, who succeeded in building up a large congregation which included the people of Broxburn, West Calder, Fauldhouse and West Craigs.

 Father Joseph Hannan was appointed to Bathgate in 1893 and the credit is given to him for establishing a custom built Catholic church in Bathgate.

Father Peter McDaniel was appointed to Bathgate in 1900 and the foundation stone of the new church in Bathgate was laid on 21st May 1907 by the then archbishop, Archbishop Andrew Smith with the church being opened on 29th October 1908. The church, built to accommodate 800 people, was packed to overflowing on the occasion with representatives of other churches in the town being present together with many local dignitaries.

 I indicated in my opening remarks that this anniversary is not just about dates and buildings – however important they are. Our celebration is about people – the priests and the people of Bathgate who before and after the restoration of the hierarchy in our country ensured that they themselves and their children were indeed a people of faith; that they were a people who were strong in the defence of their faith having outstanding leaders; and that they were prepared to build up their church in Bathgate not just as a building but as that same people of faith.


 From 1908 down to this present time some one hundred years later the church in Bathgate initially grew very considerably numerically.

 The building of the church itself was improved in various ways: The altar erected to the Sacred Heart, now the Baptistery, was built. The former Winter Chapel was reconstructed as a Chapel dedicated to our Blessed Lady to commemorate the Marian Year of 1954; it was later slightly adapted to become the magnificent “Day Chapel” which it is at the present time by your present parish priest Monsignor Lawson. And in 1958 the High Altar was adapted to comply with the requirements of the Church’s liturgy as expected by the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. And all this was followed by the solemn dedication of the church in the Marian Year of 1988 with the celebrations led by a son of the parish, the much loved Bishop James Monaghan, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese, assisted by Bishop Logan, the Bishop of Dunkeld and also a native of Bathgate, along with myself and the late Cardinal Gordon Gray, who presided over the celebrations.

 I enjoyed a very wonderful three years here in Bathgate between 1975 and 1978 with the parish priest being the late Father James Bernard Walsh. Considerable reordering of the church had to continue at this time to comply with the adaptations required in liturgy by the Second Vatican Council. Father Walsh bravely undertook the work in hand ensuring also that the old parish house was replaced by a new and spacious presbytery which I myself enjoyed.

 Crumbling stonework in the church towers was also repaired and unbreakable glass fitted to the windows on the presbytery side of the church. Coming to even more recent times the old parish hall badly required replacement and this work was completed in 1998 with a new hall being formally opened by myself on 23rd June 1998.

 Again in brief summary in this history of the growth of the parish here in Bathgate we have seen much work accomplished with regard to the buildings of the parish – but at the same time the greater emphasis in the parish on those three characteristics which I pointed out as being evident in the early beginnings of the parish. The three characteristics were that the people were indeed a people of faith; they continued to be strong in the defence of their faith with outstanding  leaders; and they built up the church – but this time not so much as buildings but rather as the “people of God” in this area of our Archdiocese, in this part of Scotland.

 One might say that during these growth years over the past one hundred years, the people have needed to have had an ever stronger faith. Attacks were made on their faith – not so much from the members of other Christian denominations but rather more insidious attacks by the secular society in which the people were then living. Even more than ever before the Church needed outstanding leaders – and they were produced as bishops and priests appealed to the people of the parish to take up their rightful place both within the Church and within society.

 The new people of faith, strong in their defence of that faith handed on to them were required to build up the Church following on the Second Vatican Council not just as buildings but as a people who were to live with their faith and determined not only to survive in the face of ongoing conflicts but to hand on their faith through their living Christianity.


 We might rightly say that the parish of Bathgate and the Church of the Immaculate Conception have indeed changed considerably in the past 150 years and 100 years.

 There has indeed been a growth and then a decline. A growth was experienced with the increased numbers in the community to take part in the coalmining industry and the establishment of car factories in the area – but there is now no longer any coalmining or car industry in this area. Bathgate became a statistic near the top of the list of high unemployment areas in the country.

 Consequently the parish of St Columba’s Boghall which came into being in 1977 under the leadership of Father Liam Healy was closed and recombined with the Mother Parish. Further the secondary school of St Mary’s Academy had to be combined with a new Catholic secondary school being established in nearby Livingston. And matching the decrease in the Catholic community of the parish there was also a decrease in the number of young men putting themselves forward as priests for the diocese and for the country. The religious Holy Rosary Sisters who came to Bathgate in 1973 had to withdraw from their parish work in the area in 2007.

 However as the priests and people of this parish adapted in the earlier years of the parish’s historic growth so they have adapted again as they realised there was an awareness of the call to them to greater action in the face of diminished numbers.

A very active parish pastoral council cooperates with your present parish priest, himself a son of the parish, Monsignor Alistair Lawson. Central to the ongoing apostolate of the parish there is also a flourishing parish finance committee.  And a great variety of works is undertaken to build up the faith of the people within St Mary’s Primary School nearby at whose golden jubilee in its present location I recently assisted.

Ministries have been developed over the years with readers at Mass, cantors leading choir and people in liturgical celebrations and Eucharistic ministers bringing Holy Communion to the sick and the housebound as well as assisting with the distribution of Holy Communion at Mass.

The work of the parishes within each deanery has been coordinated by deanery pastoral councils and the membership of these in turn have formed the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council presided over by myself as Archbishop.

One might say that the fruits of the Second Vatican Council are seen in a very practical way in the Parish of St Mary’s Bathgate – with all of the apostolate being centred on the liturgical life of the parish in this beautiful church dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of our Blessed Lady.

As Archbishop when I speak now of going forward together into the future I am not just speaking of myself as Leader and Chief Teacher in the Archdiocese. I am rather speaking of myself along with my brother priests and your yourselves as collaborators in the faith going forward into a future in which we are called upon to live and practice our faith in a different way, a way unknown and unthought-of of by those wonderful people who established this parish and built this church 150 and 100 years ago.

Those people set the tone for the parish at this present time. We are required to have something of the same characteristics as them. We are still called upon to be that people of faith; we are called upon to be strong in the defence of our faith with outstanding leaders; and we are called upon now to build up our Church not only having suitable care of its buildings but to built it up with and for one another in the smaller communities within this large parish and reaching our to neighbouring communities for which we must have pastoral consideration and care.

Valiant people were required of old to make Bathgate the parish and church which it is now. Similar valiant people are required of us at this present time to continue this process so that this parish and church here in Bathgate will not only continue to survive but will rather thrive and grow in the years which lie ahead.  

May God indeed bless you all on this 150th anniversary of your Parish; and may he strengthen your faith through the ways in which you continue to use your magnificent parish church dedicated to the Immaculate Conception and the other buildings built to ensure the living of your faith and the handing on of the faith at this present time and into the future.