There Was A Prisoner

What follows is a true story.  It was told in a Sermon given in Florida, USA, on Christmas Eve 1998 but relates to an incident that took place many Christmases earlier at St Mary’s RC Church in Warrington…


St Mary’s RC Church, Buttermarket Street, Warrington.

“THERE was a prisoner-of-war camp near the town of Warrington, England, during World War II. Like all English towns during the war years, Warrington was blacked out at night to avert possible enemy air attacks. When Christmas approached, no coloured lights lit up trees and windows. And so, as the Catholics of Warrington trudged through the streets on Christmas Eve to Midnight Mass, no Christmas lights lit their way.

Father Martin Rochford

Fr. Martin Rochford, St Mary’s Parish Priest from 1942-1953.

“By 11:30 the church was filled up except for the front three rows on each side. Promptly at 11:50, a group of German and Italian prisoners of war filed into Church, flanked by armed guards, and filled the empty rows. At 11:55 Father Martin Rochford, the parish priest, appeared and announced to the congregation that he had bad news. The Mass would have to be celebrated without music. The Parish’s only organist had taken ill. A groan rose up from the congregation. At this point a German prisoner turned to a guard and said something. The guard went up and spoke to Fr. Rochford. The Priest nodded his head in agreement. Then the prisoner went over to the organ and sat down.

“Slowly and reverently he began to play in a way that brought tears to the eyes of everyone in the church. That night, despite the darkened streets and windows, the spirit of Christmas lit up the town of Warrington in a way that the people would never forget. That night in Warrington, people – friends and enemies – saw each other as God intended them to be: a symbol of one family.

“That night in Warrington, the light of a great star, the spirit of Jesus, lit up the dark countryside. That night in Warrington, the words of the prophet Isaiah, from the first reading of the Midnight Mass, came alive for the people of Warrington in a beautiful way.

“Isiah wrote: ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom, a light has shone’. {Isaiah 9:1}”

Bill Wilson

Bill Wilson

The above Sermon was given by Father Joseph W. Nealin at Holy Redeemer RC Church, Palm City, Florida, USA on Christmas Eve 1998. Bill Wilson, a former Staff Sergeant at Burtonwood Airbase, was present at the service. Recalled Bill: “I was a Staff Sergeant when I served at Burtonwood in 1952-53. I was at Site 4, Headquarters Squadron. I must say that when the sermon was given, I was completely surprised at its content. After Mass I went to the Priest who had just given it and he was delighted that he met someone who was stationed at the Base in Warrington. He gladly gave me a copy and it has become one of my Burtonwood Treasures”.  

Warrington History Society believes the Priest’s story is a memory we all should treasure, whatever our religious (or non-religious) inclinations. Happy Christmas to one and all.

Inside St Mary's RC Church (now known as St Mary's Shrine), Buttermarket Street, Warrington.

Inside St Mary’s RC Church (today known as St Mary’s Shrine), Buttermarket Street, Warrington (from Wikipedia).

Warrington History Society was established in 1964. Our aim is to encourage an interest in aspects of local history. Our 2018/19 lecture programme includes talks on Warrington’s gas industry, the Rylands family and William Beamont. For further information and joining details visit

With thanks/acknowledgements to Aldon Ferguson of the RAF Burtonwood Association, Bill Wilson (former S/Sgt USAF), Andrea Kelly and Father de Malleray, current Rector at St Mary’s Shrine.

Another view of the church, taken on Maundy Thursday, 2018.