Pantasaph St. David’s Church

A Brief History Of The Capuchins At Pantasaph And The Church Of St.David.

The church was opened on 13th October 1852, and is located 3 miles from Holywell. A beautiful church from the outside, St David's is also blessed with some stunning and very aesthetic stained glass and statues within the church itself.

The Land

The Church of St. David at Pantasaph, near Holywell, is set in a trough of land between the villages of Gorsedd and Brynford in rolling green countryside high above the Dee Estuary. During the early 19th century it was a rather desolate piece of open country broken up with lead mines and a large limestone quarry.

The name Pantasaph speaks of a Catholic past and in the 7th century St. Asaph, who ministered in this region, became the local Bishop of Llanelwy, which was renamed St.Asaph after his death. In the 12th century the Norman invaders set up the Roman See of St.Asaph encompassing the old principality of Powis. The Diocese remained in Catholic hands until Bishop Thomas Goldwell was expelled by Elizabeth I in 1559.

Pantasaph is first recorded in 1536 although spelt “Pant Assay” at which time it was possessed by the Cistercian Abbey of Basingwerk (founded c.1131). In 1240 Prince Dafydd ap Llywelyn granted the church at Holywell and the well-shrine of St.Winefride to the Abbey. The monks most probably named the area after St. Asaph, the local patron. However by 1537 the Abbey was dissolved and the last Abbot, Nicholas Pennant made it his business to distribute the Abbey lands among his relations. This was easily done because his father Thomas Pennant had been abbot before him but resigned office to take a wife who bore him four children. Thus the lands of Pantasaph remained in the Pennant family for three hundred and nine years until 1846, when the sole heiress conveyed it by marriage to Rudolph later the 8th Earl of Denbigh. It was the local historian Thomas Pennant who in 1796 first gave the translation of Pantasaph as “St.Asaph’s Hollow”.

The People

Pantasaph remained in the Pennant family descending to Louisa Pennant, the only daughter of David and Lady Emma Pennant, daughter of the Earl of Cardigan. Louisa inherited not only Downing Hall, where the family had lived since the early 17th century, but also all the lands acquired after the dissolution of Basingwerk Abbey including Pantasaph.

  • 18 June 1846

    Louisa married Rudolph Viscount Fielding and heir to the Earl of Denbigh. They were both devout members of the Church of England and both resolved to build a church in thanksgiving for the blessings of their marriage, at Pantasaph.
  • November 1847

    The couple wintered abroad travelling by carriage through France and Italy, to Rome.
  • January 1848

    Pope Pius IX received them both graciously and Louisa’s Catholic sympathies became greatly enhanced, while Rudolph’s prejudices against “popery” noticeably declined.
  • Summer of 1850

    Louisa fell sick and the couple travelled to Edinburgh to visit a medical consultant. While Louisa was undergoing treatment, Rudolph, anxious about his wife and the state of religion, chose to go walking with a local clergyman; they discussed religious issues and Rudolph found himself increasingly taking the Catholic position.
  • 28 August 1850

    Louisa’s illness grew worse and Louisa suggested that it was time they joined the Catholic church. It was the feast of St. Augustine.
When the couple returned to Downing Hall, Rudolph felt he could no longer hand over the new church at Pantasaph to the Anglican Bishop of St. Asaph. He had built the church at a cost of £10,000 out of his own and his wife’s money, but since he and Louisa had become Catholics they felt inclined to withdraw their offer to the Anglican Bishop and make it a Catholic Church.
The hostile reaction to Rudolph’s conversion and the withdrawal of the church at Pantasaph for Catholic use caused the burning of his effigy in Holywell and Mostyn by an angry mob. Moreover monies poured in from every quarter to compensate for the loss, sufficient to build two churches, which were to flank Pantasaph at Gorsedd and Brynford. Undaunted, Rudolph continued with the new church, which would now not only be an offering of gratitude for his marriage but also for his and Louisa’s newfound Catholic faith.
In the two years after their conversion, Rudolph and Louisa spent much time in Italy where they made the acquaintance of the Capuchin friars. They were much taken by the Order and thus decided that they would make Pantasaph a gift to these sons of St. Francis, and so Pantasaph became the mother house of the Friars Minor Capuchin of Great Britain.

The Church

Litigation followed Rudolph’s withdrawal of the gift of the church at Pantasaph but the courts upheld his right to dispose of the property as he saw fit. Hitherto the architect had been James Wyatt who built a modest church in the neo-gothic style. Subsequently the famous entrepreneur of all things gothic, Augustus Welby Pugin, was called in to adapt the building for Catholic worship. Lord Fielding’s correspondence with Pugin is still to be found in Warwickshire County Record Office, and in this, the exacting and mercurial Pugin was broadly satisfied by Wyatt’s work, except that he considered the chancel windows too small.

The church was dedicated to St. David, with St. Asaph as a secondary patron, and was opened on the 13th of October 1852.

The Founder Earl And His Tomb

Louisa had always been afflicted with delicate health and on the 3rd of May 1853, while convalescing at the family villa in Naples, she died of consumption. Louisa’s body was embalmed and brought back for interment in the family vault at Pantasaph. Four years later Rudolph was introduced to a Mary Berkeley (the sister-in-law of Lady Catherine Berkeley), of the old Catholic family of Spetchley Park, Worcestershire, and on the 29th of September 1857 they were married at Spetchley by Cardinal Wiseman.

In 1864 the old Earl died and Rudolph succeeded as the VIII Earl of Denbigh, his wife by this time had given him five children. He lived as a model squire providing daily for the poor and sick at the gates of Downing Hall. Both Rudolph and Mary had joined the Third Order of St. Francis (now known as the Secular Franciscan Order) and their lives of faith, with their children, presented an ideal of family life. This was cut short on the 10th of March 1892 when Rudolph died at Newnham Paddox . His body was brought by rail to Holywell Station and was thence carried by the Capuchin friars to Pantasaph to be placed in the vault next to his first wife.


The Lady Chapel

To the right of the high altar is the Lady Chapel, the reredos above the altar, commemorating the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to Mary, was carved by Augustus Pugin and exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851. The tabernacle is a recent addition, following the removal of the original tabernacle from the high altar after the Second Vatican Council. To the right of the chapel is the celebrated statue of the Madonna and Child, one of the finest Pugin ever carved and also much admired at the Great Exhibition.

On the 25th of May 1849, a year before the opening of the church, a Signor de Rossi discovered the bones of a second century martyr, St.Primitivus, in the cemetery of Praetexatus within the Roman catacombs. Next to the bones was found an earthenware vessel containing the dried blood of the martyr, and at the entrance of the grave a broken slab of marble upon which was inscribed: Primitibus: d.v.k. Oct.9 ( Primitivus deposited on the fifth of the Kalends of October) (27th of September). When Pope Pius IX learned of Rudolph’s conversion, these relics were presented to him on his return to Wales from Rome in 1851. In August 1881, they were finally installed in their oaken casket by Bishop Brown of Shrewsbury, beneath the Lady altar. The original marble slab, from the catacombs, may be seen in the base of the altar.