The retreat house at Minsteracres exists thanks to the voluntary labour of countless men, most of them Catholics from Consett and its surroundings.
Labourers and artisans alike would be bussed up from mass on a Sunday morning and put in a day’s work before being bussed back in the evening.
There were some exceptions to this tried and tested route however, and Frank Bowes from Byermoor Parish in Burnopfield, County Durham was one of them.
Frank was a heating engineer working at Shotley Bridge Hospital minding his own business, when someone suggested he might be the person to carry out the work detailed on the plans of Mr Baines, the consultant engineer on the project.
“Mr Baines had done the drawings showing where the pipework was to go, and I was the one who fitted them,” says Frank.
But it wasn’t just the work that fell to him. He also sourced the materials and the tools. “I knew there were disused radiators at the hospital where I worked, so I asked if I could take them for a nominal sum and use them at the retreat centre. They were happy for me to do it, so I repaired them and fitted them – they even lent me special tools to do the job.”
Frank was one of the first of the men on the project and usually worked alone, coming up evenings and weekends after work, though occasionally his brother in law Jimmy Connelly and a friend, Gervais Smith, would come to give him a hand. “Tom Kilkenny, another local lad who came to help, became a head teacher later,” remarks Frank.
“Fr Ailred, one of the priests from Minsteracres who could drive, used to come and pick me up and take me home. One night he came to say we should leave because it was beginning to snow. By the time we got to my house it was coming thick and fast and I tried to persuade him to stay with us until the morning.
“He turned down our offer, but ran out of petrol on his way home and had to trudge through the snow to find petrol. He nearly gave the garage owner a heart attack coming in out of the blue in his cassock!”
When he finished, Frank’s work was inspected by an engineer from Haydon’s engineering company to make sure it was working properly. “I got it going before he arrived – “It’s on then!” he said as he came in”.
Frank’s work has certainly stood the test of time, and those recycled radiators are still keeping our visitors warm.