St Joseph's Catholic Church

Bishop Thornton, Harrogate

The Unsettled Years


The first missioners

With the departure of James Platt in 1857 the long period of stability enjoyed by St. Joseph’s came to an end. In the eighteen years between 1857 and 1875 the mission was served by no less than eight priests. So many changes of leadership must have given rise in the local Catholic community to a sense of insecurity and a lack of direction. Yet the Bishop faced enormous difficulties in providing for the needs of his large diocese which then covered the whole of Yorkshire. He had never enough priests to meet the demands made on him and perhaps the needs of a small rural mission such as Bishop Thornton took a lower priority. Possibly too the priests who served there during these years found they could endure only for so long the isolated life they were obliged to live and the constant anxiety about finding money to pay their bills.

We know hardly anything about the Rev. James Hostage, the first priest to succeed James Platt. However he remained only a few months and was followed in December 1857 by a much more interesting character, the Rev. Andrew Macartney. Born in Ireland in 1790, he served as an army officer in the war against Napoleon in Spain and Portugal. Then, about the age of thirty, he began his studies for the priesthood and was ordained in 1824 or 1825. Perhaps he had may stories to tell his congregation about the adventures of his earlier life, but he too remained at St. Joseph’s for little more than twelve months.

The next missioner to be appointed was the Rev. Joseph McPhillips and about him too we have little information. His stay in Bishop Thornton was also brief but he left behind him a situation of considerable embarrassment for his successor. He installed in the church two stained glass windows, one depicting St. Joseph and the other the marriage feast of Cana. Unfortunately he neglected to pay for these. The Rev. Robert Thompson who followed him was pressed for payment by the Newcastle firm who had designed and manufactured the windows. Money was also owing to the local butcher and other creditors too looked for settlement of their bills.

However Robert Thompson’s brief stay in Bishop Thornton did allow him to take part in a much more agreeable occasion. This was the opening in April, 1862, of the new Catholic church in Ripon. The first resident priest had gone there in the early 1850s and Ripon had become a separate mission. At first Mass had been celebrated in a warehouse, but now the Ripon parishioners could boast of a new and impressive church.

Fr. William Arnold – The ‘Squire’

Not long after this Robert Thompson moved to Nun Monkton and for some time Bishop Thornton was left without any resident priest at all. Eventually in the early months of 1863 a new pastor arrived to take charge of the mission. The Reverend William Arnold came to St. Joseph’s as an experienced missionary priest, and also one of proven courage and dedication. Some years earlier he had responded to a call for priests to serve the mainly Irish immigrant community in Leeds who were stricken with an outbreak of fever. In doing this he placed his own life at considerable risk.

page-16In a previous parish, St. Patrick’s, Bradford, William Arnold had been known as ‘the Squire’, a sobriquet which suggests a rather forceful personality. His parish notice book has survived. This records the announcements he made at Mass each Sunday and shows him as a neat and methodical administrator but someone willing to face confrontation if he thought it necessary. There was, for example, a dispute about bench rents, payments for ‘reserved’ places in the chapel. These were an important part of the mission’s income and some rents had not been paid. Fr. Arnold announced that a list of defaulters would be hung up at the chapel door. A few weeks later he carried out his threat to ‘name and shame’.

Of course not all was confrontation. For example the notice book for 1865 provides a detailed account of the celebration of First Holy Communion in the mission. Preparations began on Sunday, 30 April when candidates met for instruction in the school-room at 1.30pm. Further classes were held leading to the children’s First Confessions on Saturday, 27 May. Finally their First Holy Communion day was celebrated on the feast of Corpus Christi. No doubt, for the children, this was a special occasion then as now.

As one year followed another under the pastoral care of William Arnold the congregation may have hoped that they would enjoy some further years of stability. They were to be disappointed. In 1868, after five years service in St. Joseph’s, Fr. Arnold moved on to his next appointment. He died in retirement in 1899 at the age of eighty-one years.

Further missionaries

The Reverend George Brown, who succeeded William Arnold, had served for some years in missions in Leeds. Only one document has survived from his time in Bishop Thornton but this illustrates the continuing poverty of the mission. We find that St. Joseph’s was still receiving a grant from the ‘Tempest Fund’, established to assist the ten ‘poorest and most necessitous R.C. churches and chapels in the Yorkshire District’. Bishop Thornton was clearly still regarded as one such.

Perhaps it is not surprising that George Brown remained only two years in St. Joseph’s before moving on to serve in Shipley and later in Hull. Again only one document has survived from the time of his successor, the Reverend George Brunner. It is of interest in that it shows that he blessed a set of the Stations of the Cross in the Chapel in September, 1871. These were not the large paintings so familiar to the modern visitor which were installed some thirty years later. No trace of the earlier Stations of the Cross now remains.

Fr. Brunner served St. Joseph’s Mission for five years. When he left in 1875 the parishioners must have wondered how long his successor would stay with them. But the years of instability, of constant change from one pastor to another, were about to come to an end. Their new priest would remain with them to celebrate his Golden Jubilee and would die, still in office and still carrying out his duties, only two days short of his eighty-nineth birthday.


The Collegiate Church of St Peter and St Wilfrid – today’s Ripon Cathedral – was the mother church of a great medieval parish which extended roughly over the present Catholic parishes of Ripon, Pateley Bridge and Bishop Thornton. After the Reformation, and up to the mid-19th century, the Bishop Thornton mission was responsible for these broad acres