St Joseph’s History

St Joseph’s History


We are indebted to David Caldwell who kindly supplied this history of our church.

 If you can help us with any of the missing dates or if you have any photographs or images with which we could illustrate the history, please email us at:


The earliest place of Christian worship to have left any trace in Burntisland is the old ruined parish church at the Kirkton. It was dedicated to St Serf at its consecration in 1243. Scholarly reassessment of the early sources on this saint suggest that he may have been a British or Pictish cleric with his main church at Culross about 700 AD. There are other churches dedicated to him at Dysart and on an island in Lochleven.


In 1243 there was no burgh of Burntisland or any significant settlement down by the shore. The church was presumably located at a convenient point for all those living in the parish and adjacent to the main concentration of dwellers. The parish, known in medieval times as Little or Wester Kinghorn was probably only created, along with neighbouring ones, in the early 12th century. Its revenues were assigned to Dunfermline Abbey by the 1160s. These were so little that the abbey was only obliged to supply a chaplain to serve the church.


The parish churches of Aberdour and Kinghorn were also given to religious houses in the 12th century, Inchcolm Abbey and Holyrood Abbey respectively. The parish church of Aberdour was dedicated to St Fillan, an 8th-century cleric based in South Perthshire. A crosier shrine and bell associated with him are displayed in the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Much of the Aberdour Church dates to the 12th century and it is still in use by the Church of Scotland. Only fragmentary ruins remain of the probably 13th-century parish church of Kinghorn, adjacent to the one still in use.


Most of the land of Little Kinghorn also belonged to Dunfermline Abbey and the abbots maintained a residence here, the 14th-century remains of which are incorporated in Rossend Castle. At the time of the Reformation in the 1560, the relics of St Margaret, our 11th-century queen, are thought to have been brought to the castle for safe keeping before being sent to the Continent. It is claimed that they were in the Escorial in Spain in the mid 19th century.


After the Reformation of religion in 1560 Masses ceased to be said in the old church at the Kirkton and instead services were given by a minister of the reformed Kirk. When the streets of the expanding settlement at Burntisland were being laid out in the later part of the 16th century there was probably no intention to shift the parish’s church to the town. It was possibly an afterthought, largely due to an expanding population, that occasioned the erection of the present (Church of Scotland) parish church in 1592-94. Thereafter St Serf’s was allowed to fall into ruin.


In many parts of Scotland there were elements of the population that refused to accept the reformed religion, and Catholicism maintained a tenuous hold in Scotland down the years till its revival in the 19th century. This was not the case in Fife, where the old religion was totally swept away in the mid 16th century, and there is no evidence at all for catholic worship until relatively recent times. In Fife, one of the main factors in the revival of Catholicism was immigration by Irish Catholics. An influx of people from Ireland gained momentum in Scotland from the 1840s, and although most settled in the South-west, there was a drift over to the East as well. Many of these Irish were catholics, and no doubt there were some catholics drawn to Burntisland from other parts of the country. There was employment to be had at the docks and in the railway workshops. The establishment of the Binnend Oilworks in 1878 was another key event that brought Irish catholics to Burntisland.


It is said that the first Mass in Burntisland since the Reformation was said at 32 Somerville Street in 1877. At first the needs of local catholics were serviced from Kirkcaldy, and in 1882 the priest there, the Rev Patrick Fay, got permission for Masses to be said in the Burntisland Town Hall. In 1886 Archbishop Smith consecrated a room in the old Lochies School in Kinghorn Road (on the site of the house at no122) for Masses. The use of the Town Hall for denominational religious ceremonies had caused divisions in the Town Council, no doubt reflecting wider community concerns. At first the Lochies School room was hired, but in 1923 it was purchased from the Burntisland Shipyard Company.


Meanwhile, another chapel-of-ease, Our Lady of the Assumption, was opened in Kinghorn in 1922 by the parish priest, Father Byrne, as a result of a bequest from Mr Barry of the Barry-Ostlers Linoleum Company in Kirkcaldy. The chapel had been built in 1846 for the Free Church of Scotland. When acquired for catholic worship a carving of a monstrance was incorporated in the west gable. The interior was painted in pastel shades with the lower walls brick red, the upper green, separated by a pale blue band. The open roof was pale blue with the roof beams yellow. There was also sparing use of stencilled decoration. The lower walls of the chancel were hung with reproduction Spanish leather with gilt fleur-de-lices.


The oak altar-piece incorporated  an 18th- or 19th-century copy of a Madonna and Child with Saints by Parmigianino (1503-40). The original is in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna. Two smaller paintings beneath it are said to have been the work of a Kirkcaldy joiner, Reilly or O’Reilly by name. One of them was after Perugino’s God the father with prophets and sybils, the original of which is in the Collegio del Cambio in Perugia.


With an increasing catholic population in Fife and greater resources available to the Archdiocese, the time came in 1930 for the creation of a separate parish consisting of Burntisland, Kinghorn and Aberdour. `Nellfield’, a fine house of c1800 at 24 Leven Road, was purchased to serve as the Presbytery.


Also in the 1930s, it was perceived that there was a need for a holiday home for deprived catholic children from the City of Edinburgh. Towards this end, the Archdiocese, with the aid of the Edinburgh Conferences of the St Vincent de Paul Society, purchased Hillside Estate in Aberdour from the Wotherspoon family, placing it in the care of the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. It opened in 1935.


Apart from Hillside House itself, an early 19th-century residence with Doric portico, there were three lodges and a walled garden. Huts were built as dormitories, a dining room, kitchens, etc, for the use of the children. The nuns occupied the main building and Mass was celebrated in an oratory in the house by the priest based in Burntisland.


At the outbreak of World War II the huts were requisitioned by the War Office, firstly for the army. This made it impossible for the nuns to remain, but the oratory and one hut were reserved for the continued celebration of Mass. Polish troops stationed in Aberdour had their own chaplain celebrate Mass there.


After the War, the property was restored to the Diocese and the decision made to use it as a nursery for children below four years of age. It was renamed St Teresa’s for the Sisters of the Good Shepherd who came to take on that task, one which they found difficult to carry out. So did the Poor Servants of the Mother of God who followed. The house was not really suited for this type of use.


In 1950 the Salesians arrived in the person of Fr Thomas Daly, soon followed by several others, all concerned with the care of boys in need of support. The first boys arrived in December 1950. In accordance with the rule of their order, the Salesians assisted the bishop in whatever capacity he required, and Salesians celebrated Mass throughout Fife and beyond. The allowance for the boys proved inadequate and Fr Willie Daly (brother of Thomas) thrived as a roving ambassador, encouraging not only charitable donations but spiritual exercise. It is claimed that over twenty Salesian nuns owe much to his persuasion. Soon St Teresa’s Boys’ Home became the hub of religious gatherings, meetings, processions and celebrations.


Initially the boys attended local catholic schools but by 1960 they were granted independent status with a school of their own. When the list D system was introduced, the Salesians welcomed the new, better financed organisation. Sadly, it meant that the first boys were dispersed. The building was renovated in 1969 and extensions added, including a chapel attached to the main building. This was administered by the Salesians and used by local and nearby catholics.


Back in Burntisland the church in Kinghorn Road had become too small for an ever increasing catholic population, swelled after the Second World War by demobbed Polish soldiers and, in the summer months, by many holiday makers. Father McNally was the priest who made the decision to purchase the Territorial Arm’s Drill Hall and land in Cowdenbeath Road, and the hall, our present church, had its first Mass on 10 March 1974, attended by Cardinal Gray. Father Rooney was ordained on this occasion, the first priest to have been ordained in the town since the re-establishment of the Faith. The Presbytery was now adjacent to the church and there was a separate church hall.


St Joseph’s Church itself was clearly not an architectural gem with its box-like structure and asbestos roof, but in 1974 it was a vast improvement on the previous church in providing more seating. There was also enough land adjacent to it for the erection of a new church.


The Salesian presence in Aberdour came to an end in 1984, the community moving to Edinburgh to take over parish work in Muirhouse. It was a great loss to Aberdour, thirty-four years of Salesian ministry, from the first rector Fr Thomas Daly to the last, Fr James McGarry. Cardinal Gray, however, allowed a retired Salesian, Fr James Maher to remain, attached to Burntisland Parish, then served by Fr Henry. Fr Maher had a distinguished career as a missionary in Thailand. With the outbreak of Word War II, he was interned in a Japanese concentration camp. His Irish nationality would have given him some freedom but he chose to stay there to nurse a sick Salesian priest. The new owners of Hillside gave him a cottage where he lived with free board and lodging.


When Fr McMahon succeeded Fr Henry as parish priest in ****, Aberdour was transferred to Inverkeithing, firstly with Fr John Agnew, then Fr J McAllister as parish priest. It was during this time that Fr Maher’s health declined and he moved to Falkirk to be near his cousin Kathleen and niece Clare. He died in 2001.


Once again Aberdour was transferred to Burntisland, now with Fr Smith as parish priest, but the chapel in Aberdour was closed soon afterwards in December 1995. Meanwhile, Our Lady of the Assumption in Kinghorn had to be closed down in ****  due to structural defects that were deemed to be too expensive to rectify. It has since been sold and redeveloped as flats. Masses continued to be said in Kinghorn until ****, in the `tin church’ in ****, through the generosity of its owners, the Scottish Episcopalian Church.


Three congregations of three towns were now forced back to the use of the one church in Cowdenbeath Road, Burntisland. Parish life was as vibrant as ever, numbers attending Mass and participating in church events remained high, and there was a good social mix. All this was amply demonstrated by adventures like the informal twining with a church in Gdańsk, Poland in ****. This resulted in parties of Poles, particularly young people, coming to live in parishioner’s homes in the summer of **** and ****, and groups of our parishioners going to Gdańsk in **** and ****.


St Joseph’s Church in recent years has often been bursting at the seams and it has become increasingly difficult to schedule meetings since there is so much demand for the facilities, including the hall and the presbytery. It has been clear for a number of years that there is a requirement for a bigger and better church and that the parishioners are enthusiastic about taking this challenge on. Now they have, and we look forward to a bigger brighter future in our remodelled church.