It could almost be from the Da Vinci Code.
But this tale of intrigue is real and is being played out on Tyneside where the sect is spending pounds 500,000 of Lottery cash to restore a run-down church.
St Cuthbert’s in Bensham, Gateshead, has stood empty for 16 years. But now the John Dobson-designed building is set to re-open as the North East base of a fundamentalist society rejected by mainstream Catholics.
The Society of St Pius X, threatened with excommunication by the late Pope John Paul II, aims to celebrate its first Latin mass in the Bensham Road church next year.
The pounds 513,500 Heritage Lottery grant will pay for the former Anglican church, built between 1840-50, to be repaired and refurbished.
The controversial society is shunned because of its intolerance of other faiths, of women in the Church and of efforts to modernise Catholicism.
It was started in 1969 by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who defied the Church hierarchy by celebrating Mass in Latin and consecrating four bishops without Rome’s approval. But the group’s most vehement attacks are reserved for the modernisation of Catholicism and the tolerance of other religions.
Richard Oxley, North East organiser, said: “Modern Catholicism wants to turn the Church into something completely unrecognisable. We would like to see the Church return to more traditional ways.”
But Catherine Pepinster, editor of Catholic weekly newspaper, the Tablet, said she was amazed that the Heritage Lottery Fund had agreed to fund the society.
She said it had rejected the most important reform in Church’s recent history and that it would not be supported by most Catholics.
“There may be people who will attend this church because they want to go to a Latin Mass. But the Society of St Pius X does not accept the Second Vatican Council which made the Church what it is today,” she said.
And National Board of Catholic Women in the North East, Pat Kennedy, agreed. She said that while some Catholics would support the society’s view on Mass in Latin, their backward-looking views would not get them much support in Gateshead.
But Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle Kevin Dunn admitted he had worries. “It does concern me, both that they are outside the Church and that they have that view on modern Catholicism,” he said.
But local priest Father Adrian Dixon, of nearby St Joseph’s Church in Gateshead, said that rather than worried he felt sorry for them. “It’s sad that they are not longer in touch with the modern Church,” he said.
A Heritage Lottery Fund spokeswoman said that she was unaware of anything untoward about the society and that the local community had been consulted before the fund was granted. She said: “This building was going to be knocked down if it were not for this grant.”
As well as being designed by Newcastle architect John Dobson, the church’s stained glass windows were designed by the Newcastle-born craftsman William Wailes.