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St Thomas' Primary School

St Thomas’ Church,


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THIS church was built in 1830-31 as a successor to a very modest cottage and chapel which had been erected in 1785 at Kempcairn, about one km outside the town. Upon the death in 1825 of Father W. Reid there, a new priest, Father Walter Lovi, was appointed to Keith, and he began raising money to build a new church. To do so he travelled extensively, not only throughout the United Kingdom, but also to Ireland and France. From 1827 until the new church was completed, services were held in a little chapel in Land Street.

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Credit is due to Father Lovi, not only for his tireless energy in raising money, but also for his foresight in his choice of location, and the quality of the building. Situated on the Cuth Hill, or Cuthil, the highest part of the town, a near perfect vista was offered from the toll road (now the A96) and the wide tree-lined Square. An early print of the Square, in 1837, shows this most vividly. Another document also records that a school, and tolbooth, on the east side of the Square, had an excellent view of the building of the church. On,or near, the site of this school and tolbooth, a bus shelter and public toilets are now sited.


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Father Lovi was a native of Edinburgh, and at that time there were many French Royalist refugees in that city. They were supporters of Charles X, who had been restored to the French throne in 1824. As the Comte d’Artois, Charles had been given sanctuary in the Scottish capital following the French Revolution. Here he had been befriended by Adam Gordon, Governor of Edinburgh Castle, and son of the Duke of Gordon, whose castle was in Fochabers, nine miles from Keith.


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Also in Edinburgh at this time was Father (later Bishop) Gillis, who had very strong links with~ the French royal family. It could be imagined that introductions might have been made, since Father Lovi, while in Paris, approached Charles for a contribution to his proposed new church. Charles gave money, and commissioned François Dubois, a successful, popular painter of the time, to provide an altar-piece. The subject of the painting was to be "The Incredulity of Saint Thomas", and it was painted around 1828.

Unfortunately, this coincided almost exactly with Charles’ being deposed in 1830. The painting was then "lost". Despite the best efforts of the British Ambassador in Paris, it remained undiscovered. Charles had by this time been exiled, and he returned to Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh. Undeterred, Father Lovi travelled to Paris, where just after Christmas 1830 he traced the painting to The Louvre, and he returned with it to Keith before the opening of his new church. The back of the painting still bears what is thought to be Charles’ monogram, firmly stamped on the reverse of the canvas, while on the front there is a brass plate, bearing the inscription, "Carolus X, Rex Gallorum Christainissimus dona dedit AD 1828" ("Charles X, most Christian King of France, gave this, AD 1828").


Following the recent cleaning of the painting, several interesting features have come to light. The luminosity of the Christ figure is evidence of the artist’s intention, while the shadow of Christ, which falls on the table, indicates that the figure was human, and alive, not just a "ghostly apparition". The figures of the Apostles, Peter (with the keys), Andrew, James and John, are also included. The tentative expression on the face of Saint Thomas is also in keeping with the title of the painting.

Saint Thomas’, which at the time had only a nave and sanctuary, is recorded as being "plain inside, with a Roman Doric exterior and a belfry". It was opened on August 7, 1831 by Bishop James Kyle, and for 85 years this church served the needs of an increasing Catholic congregation. Stone statues of Saints Peter and Paul were added in 1837, as was the present chapel house.

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In 1905 Canon John Paul felt the need to enlarge the building, which seated 300, but he died before any firm plans could be made. His successor, Monsignor Charles McDonald, was an energetic and forceful character, and upon his appointment in 1907 he embarked upon an ambitious plan to alter the church to the designs of Glasgow architect Mr Charles Ménart. A transept was to be built, interior decoration enhanced, and the whole building to be surmounted by an imposing copper-clad dome topped by a cross.

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Work on this project started in 1915. Handsome oak pews were added, as were an altar, communion rails and pulpit, all in Caen stone, and a niche was custom built to hold the altar-piece painting. Following this, the interior of the dome was decorated with a sunburst and stars in gold, and the whole building was illuminated by gas lighting. Electric lighting was installed in 1939 with the generous help of a relative of James Gordon Bennet, the founder of "The New York Herald". He had been born, and had lived in Newmill, near Keith, before emigrating to America.

A local man, Charles Ogilvie of Earlsmount, Keith, gave £200 for the erection of two side altars, one in memory of his late wife, the other in memory of his kinsman, the Scottish martyr Father John Ogilvie, born near Keith in 1580, and at the time styled "Venerable" by the church. However, in keeping with the devotion of that time, one altar was dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes, and the other to The Sacred Heart. They were completed shortly after the official re-opening of the church by the then Bishop of Aberdeen, the Right Reverend Aeneas Chisholm, on September 13, 1916.

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After these alterations, the church could accommodate 500, and the cost of the additional work came to £3,000. The congregation raised £2,000 of this sum. It is interesting to note that donations were made at the time by Lord Mount Stephen, founder of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and by Lord Strathcona.

A memorial window (middle right), and Roll of Honour, were incorporated after the 1914-18 war (This was updated following the 1939-45 hostilities). A matching window depicting Christ as the Good Shepherd (middle left), surmounts a Memorial Tablet to all deceased Parish Priests of St Thomas’.

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Four further stained glass windows were installed in the l970s, through the generosity of other benefactors. These depict Our Lady of Aberdeen, Saint Margaret of Scotland, Saint Andrew and Saint John Ogilvie, whose canonisation was by then imminent. These windows were designed and made by Dom Ninian Sloane in the workshops at Pluscarden Abbey near Elgin. The Christ figure which encloses St John Ogilvie suggests a priest as an "Alter Christus" in the performance of his priestly duties. On a lighter note, the children in the St Margaret window were based on drawings of children in the parish at that time. The tartan used for the boy’s kilt was Lamont tartan This was a tribute to Canon Lamont, the then parish priest. It might also be noted that the colours of the glass used were chosen to reflect the very different light of north and south aspects.

Following Vatican 2, a certain amount of alteration was required to accommodate the new Liturgy. The altar rails and pulpit were removed, and the sanctuary was extended. A new altar of Hopeman stone was designed and carved by parishioner Liam Barr. He also constructed two lecterns from the alabaster, salvaged from the rails and the pulpit.

In 1988 dry-rot was discovered, requiring immediate remedial action, but in 1995 a substantial incentive to undertake a major restoration was given, with the award of grants by Historic Scotland, together with a loan from the Diocese of Aberdeen. Work on this historic Grade 1 Listed Building commenced in March 1996, and the bulk of it was completed by December of that year. Supervising architects were the Oliver Humphries Partnership, and the work was executed by contractors Hall and Tawse, Aberdeen.

 This is a brief history of our beautiful church. It is a story of vision, faith, and enthusiasm, which has led to success. In 1915 the cost of enlargement was £3,000, then an enormous sum. The congregation of the time raised over 60 per cent of the money required. Eighty-two years late~ we are striving to extinguish our debt to the Diocese. With the help of public funds, and the very generous support of many individual benefactors, we can say that we too have already raised more than 60 per cent of our target. We are most grateful for the help we have already received, and are confident that with continued support, God’s work will be completed.

The St John Ogilvie Chapel

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The Convent of Mercy, which had been adjacent to St Thomas’ School, was closed as a convent in 1990 and shut altogether in 1995. The altar from the nuns’ chapel was given to Our Lady of the Assumption, Dufftown, and the marble md alabaster surround was reconstructed in the ante-room to the left of the porch in St Thomas’ Church. This reconstruction work was again carried out by Liam Barr, who is now resident in New Zealand, but was visiting Scotland. The statue of St John Ogilvie is the work of the Aberdeen sculptor Ann Davidson,. and was added in 1997.

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St John Ogilvie S.J. was born at Drum na Keith in 1580, the son of a local laird. Educated in Douai, in the north of France, and ordained as a Jesuit priest, he returned in 1614 to Scotland. He worked in Glasgow in the midst of the excesses of the Reformation period. Betrayed by a false "friend", he was arrested and charged with treason, which amounted to his maintaining Papal supremacy over King James I as head of the Church and denial of his Divine Right of Kings. After 16 days of argument, false accusation, blandishments and torture, he was hanged at Glasgow on March 10, 1615, and buried in a felon’s grave to the north of Glasgow Cathedral.

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His statue is dedicated to reconciliation, not to the memory of this injustice.



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