MILLIONS of tons of coal was mined in St Helens over four centuries before the last pit was shut down. Now some of that prosperity is being ploughed back into the local community.

The Coalfields Regeneration Trust has made a grant of £192,000 to Rainhill Parish Church Heritage Fund, towards the development of the Old School -- a Grade 2 listed building -- into a Millennium Centre for the use of the whole village.

The grant will ensure the completion of work on the car park, provide equipment and furniture for the centre and help with the running costs including the salaries of a community development worker and caretaker up to March, 2002.

The new centre -- now in partial use and due to be completed around Easter -- is in the centre of the village, barely two miles from the site of the original St Helens coalfield at Sutton Heath, opened in 1540.

A member of the Heritage Committee says: "As someone from mining stock I am proud and gratified that the industry should make such a generous grant which will be put to good use for the benefit of the entire community of Rainhill."

This grant follows an award of £344,900 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and leaves the sum of £100,000 still to be raised by St Ann's Church members to complete the development of the building.

The Coalfields Regeneration Trust grant was vital because none of the Lottery money can be used for the car park, which can now be landscaped and laid out to serve the centre project and create an attractive link between the Old School and the church.

The stone wall along Warrington Road will be reduced in height to visually integrate the space into the general village scene, and the centre to the car park will be centralised.

But Mr Derek Broome, chairman of the Heritage Committee, emphasises: "Our work in raising funds is far from done. The work on the new centre is nearing completion and to cover the remaining sum of £100,000 we have secured a loan which, of course, will have to be repaid."

He asks parishioners to continue with the 'green envelope' donation scheme and work in whatever way possible to help the committee in the final effort.

"This grant from the Coalfields Regeneration Trust," Mr Broome added, "is the icing on the cake and gives us a great feeling, but please do keep helping us to solve the deficit of £100,000."

The grant from the Lottery Fund has enabled work to be done on the church, itself a listed building, including refurbishment and providing disabled access. When completed, the St Ann's Millennium Centre will provide facilities for the elderly, the handicapped, the unemployed, single parents, children and young people among others. It will also be available for private party bookings.