The following notes have been compiled with reference to the book written to mark the 150 anniversary of the opening of the present church: St. Mary & St. Thomas Aquinas 1831-1981, including a History of Stella Hall, Church, School and Village by Rev. John Galletly and Dr. Tom Yellowley (1981).
The earliest reference to Stella appears to date from 1149 when the Nuns of St. Bartholomew, who were residence in Newcastle, probably used the lands as a summer holiday residence. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539, in the reign of Henry VIII, the Nuns were forced to leave Stella and the lands were purchased between 1550 and 1600 by the Tempest family who built up a considerable fortune in local commerce. Stella Hall was built and priests in hiding were able to offer Mass for the residents and local Catholics.
One notable occasion is recorded when Oliver Cromwell stayed at Stella Hall. Cromwell was a Republican with an almost pathalogical hatred of Catholicism; and of the Tempests, Royalists and Catholics both. It is possible that Cromwell was unaware of the true nature of his hosts; it is quite possible simultaneously a priest was hiding on the premises. The Tempests must have wondered whether Cromwell was playing a cat & mouse game with them. Nicholas Tempest’s Great Granddaughter, Lady Jane Widdrington, played a noteable part in the foundation of the parish. Her husband, Lord Widdrington, was tried for high treason after taking part with Lord Derwentwater in Jacobite plotting in 1715. He was reprieved and eventually died in 1745.
It is noted that in 1730 the number of “Papists” residing in the area of Ryton was 324, almost one fifth of the entire population and a higher proportion than would be found today. At about this time (1725-1731) Stella was served by Benedictines and then afterwards by secular priests. Father Thomas Eyre, who was chaplain at Stella from 1774 until 1792, later became the first President of Ushaw College established at Crook Hall.
After the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829 the present church and presbytery were built in 1831. The architect, John Green, who designed Stella Church, also designed Scotswood suspension bridge. John Green and his son also designed Greys Column, the Theatre Royal and the Literary and Philisophical Society in Newcastle as well as designing Penshaw Monument. The original cost of the church was £1500.
Cannon Wrennal (1865-1913) dominated the history and development of Stella. The Parish of Stella was enormous and stretched northwards across the River Tyne and westwards to its nearest neighbour, Hexham. Cannon Wrennal established churches at Bell’s Close, Prudhoe, Blaydon and Crawcrook.
Stella Church has some very fine stained glass mostly commisioned in Cannon Wrennal’s time. Some of the glass designs are attributed to Pugin. An early window is recorded in the parish accounts as costing £30 on 28th November 1867. During the period of two world wars and deep recession, very little structural work was done until restoration took place in 1972. In 1993 a fund was started to enable the staianed glass to be refurbished.
It is not known when the school at Stella first opened but it was certainly in existence in the 1840’s. The old school was demolished in the 1970’s and a new Primary School was built which includes a nursery unit.
The following account is recorded from a school inspection which took place in 1849. “There were 31 boys and 34 girls in attendance on that day.He found the desks and furniture fair, books and apparatus good, organisation mixed, the master he found diligent and studious, not highly qualified, but conducting his school in a creditable manner. He also reported that it was impossible to keep the children at school in consequence of the great demand for their labour, which commences in the coal pits at 7 years of age. In general he found it a pleasing school and creditable to the teachers and managers. The demeanour of the children was particularly gentle, and they appear to recieve with great willingness the instruction provided for them, though mental arithmetic had been hitherto neglected.”