St. Bernadette’s parish, in Lancaster’s southern suburb of Bowerham, originally part of St. Peter Cathedral parish, came to existence to provide for Lancaster’s post-war population expansion. In 1947 about four acres of land in Bowerham were acquired, including a solidly built barn, the old Scotforth Corn Mill, which was converted into a Chapel of ease in 1948, Holy Mass being celebrated by priests from the Cathedral. In 1953 the chapelry became an independent parish, served by Fr Christopher Aspinall and covering a large area of South Lancaster and its rural hinterland.
Population growth in the area, which included the new Hala council estate, soon made the increasingly cramped barn inadequate to the parish’s needs and from 1954 a hectic programme of fund raising began in order to build a proper church, at an estimated cost of between 30,000 and 38,000 pounds. There was much sewing, knitting and baking for the Annual November Fayre and the late Jack Corbishley and others became a familiar sight in an old lorry as they travelled round the City collecting waste paper for recycling. The Diocesan Chapter approved the design of the architects in 1955, work on the site began in September 1956, and in February 1957 Bishop Flynn laid the foundation stone. Fourteen months later the church was ready for its solemn blessing and opening, conducted by Bishop Flynn in May 1958.
The architects, Mellor, Waterhouse and Brook, had envisaged a church harmonised with the attractive contours of its site and built in good natural materials, especially stone, which was to appear strongly in the features such as the striking Stations of the Cross by Peter Watts. The design, modern, yet based on the earliest models of the Roman basilica, stressed visibility, from every part of the building, and the necessary centrality of the high altar. Traditional devotions were catered for in side chapels dedicated to the Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Perpetual Succour. A free-standing tower surmounted by a crucifix was to make St. Bernadette’s a major landmark of its area.
In 1959 the pioneer of the new parish, Fr Aspinall, left for a new parish and was replaced by Fr Hugh Hyland, St. Bernadette’s long-serving parish priest who made it a major part of his task to clear the immense debts that the parish had accumulated in the course of its ambitious building developments. The Solemn Consecration in June 1980 marked building the realisation of Fr Hyland’s financial aims, on the eve of his retirement in 1981, when he was succeded by Fr Michael Tully, who was followed by Fr John Hawkins in 1989. Between them, Frs Tully and Hawkins planned and carried through the further changes resulting in the present layout of the church and site of St. Bernadette’s. Sadly the great landmark, the tower and the Crucifix, became structurally dangerous and has had to be demolished, while land within the church grounds was made available for housing development. The extensive recent internal modifications have provided for the further co-ordination of the altar area with the modern Church’s liturgical requirements, as well as creating a lovely chapel and additional social space.
Vital to the story of St. Bernadette’s has been its school, opened as a daughter of St. Peter’s School in 1957 and becoming a parish school in its own right in 1970.
The golden jubilee Mass was offered on Sunday 18th October 1998 during St. Luke’s “Little Summer”. Fr Hawkins asked that the parish celebrate the Jubilee in a practical way, by sending off CAFOD cards to various governments requesting the cancellation of debts, the crippling burden borne by the poor countries of the world. The congregation included the Mayor and Mayoress of Lancaster, the mother of Fr Anthony Keefe who is a son of the parish, being ordained in 1978, and with her the contingent from Nazareth House. Happily too Mrs Winnie Speight was well enough to be present and to take part with Mr. Joe Speight in the Offertory Procession. For their indefatigable work for the parish Mrs. Speight and Mr. Gerry Stanton received some time ago the Bene merenti award and wore their medals with pride on the great occasion of the Jubilee Mass.
In October 2000, after 11 happy years, Fr Hawkins was appointed parish priest at St Ignatius, Preston. He was succeeded as parish priest by Fr Peter Foulkes. Fr Peter had had previous appointments in Preston, Carlisle and Seascale, as well as a year study at the Irish Institute of Pastoral Liturgy in Carlow.
2001 was dominated by the problem of the church roof. The original copper needed replacing, and after much discussion, it was decided to replace it with a new copper roof. The work was completed in the autumn with a life expectancy of 80 years and at a cost of £60,000.
The autumn also saw the arrival in the parish house of two nurses from the Philippines who were contracted to work at Nazareth House.
In November 2001, Fr Peter was asked to take pastoral responsibility for the parish of St Thomas & Elizabeth’s in Thurnham. This link with Thurnham was seen very positively as connection with the old and the new, with town and country. It also necessitated changes in Mass times. The Vigil at 6.30 pm remained at St Bernadette’s, the 8.30 am Mass was dropped and the 10.30 am Mass was moved to the later time of 11 am, so as to accommodate a 9 am Mass at Thurnham.