Fury as vicar is abused over church closure

Rev Robert Dixon in St Thomas' Church before it was shut on safety grounds

Rev Robert Dixon in St Thomas' Church before it was shut on safety grounds

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A POPULAR vicar who was in charge of a church which has been forced to shut down on safety grounds has received menacing telephone calls.

Rev Robert Dixon, from Leigh, said he was on the receiving end of several abusive and unpleasant rants in the days leading up to last weekend’s service of closure at St Thomas’ Church.

The well-known red-brick building on Chapel Street was ordered shut several years ago after asbestos and electrics problems made it too dangerous to be open to the public.

The church was formally closed in a service led by the Bishop of Bolton on Sunday as the repair bill for the building was more than £1m, but several people in the area wrongly tried to blame Rev Dixon for the closure.

Their actions have attracted widespread condemnation online and Rev Dixon, who now leads a merged congregation at All Saints Church on Kenwood Avenue, has spoken of his hurt both at the content of the calls and the fact St Thomas’ Church could not be kept open.

He said: “There were three or four calls in total. One was just personally abusive and a couple said it was a money making ploy and they supposed a block of flats would be built on the site.

“I tried to explain the situation, saying maintenance had been neglected going back 20 years or so, there were no plans for the site and the closure did not mean the building would be demolished.

“It has been a very emotionally-charged few days, not made any better by unpleasant phone calls. Any priest would tell you being involved in the closure of a church is very distressing.

“The only way I can describe it is like watching your house get destroyed, knowing you will never go in there again. When I removed the sacrament on Sunday it was very upsetting for me.”

Leigh residents took to social media to offer their support for Rev Dixon, with many posts on Facebook expressing anger and disgust towards those who made the abusive phone calls.

Stewart McGarrie, founder of the Old Leigh Photographs group, said: “If you have any queries about the situation please contact the diocesan officers.

“The incorrect route is to ring Father Dixon directly and verbally abuse him over the phone. Shocking behaviour. These people should be ashamed of themselves.”

Michael Caine wrote: “I know Robert Dixon and I know he will be very upset to say the least.

“He’s a good bloke, any who have run him up and abused him should hang their heads in shame. They really are a disgrace to our town.”

Chris Unsworth said: “Why would anyone have a pop at a vicar for the church closing? It’s not his fault.”

St Thomas’ difficulties began in 2012 when thieves stole lead from the roof which lead to water pouring in and wrecking the church’s Harrison and Harrison organ which is more than 90 years old.

The congregation launched a desperate bid to raise £200,000 to put the instrument back in working order but the church was forced to close soon afterwards as repairs totalling as much as £1.5m were needed.

A spokesman for the Diocese of Manchester said: “St Thomas’ has closed after a long and faithful service to the community. The decision was taken following a long consultation with the diocese and the church commissioners.”