A History of Catholic Life in Weymouth and Portland
"Priests and People are One - that is our precious tradition" (Bishop Cyril Restieaux)
Part I In the Beginning – Before the Reformation
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Introduction and Acknowledgements
This story of Christian witness in Dorset is based on various accounts, using documents and photographs from the Parish archives.
In 1985, Fr Peter Webb, then Parish Priest of St Augustine’s initiated a historical research project to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the foundation of the Church. Mrs Jean Lee undertook the coordination of this effort with Frank Tucker, Joyce Smith and others sharing the work. In Jean Lee's words:
“Two of us spent a week at Bristol Records Office copying letters written by priests in Weymouth between the years 1820 and 1830. To begin with, there was the thrill of handling letters written all that time ago. This was soon replaced by a much deeper emotion. We had to do justice to these priests”
The 1985 research also involved reminiscences of parishioners. Fascinating glimpses of parish life before the second world war were obtained. The were accounts of 6 year olds walking miles to mass on a Sunday; of schoolboys taking turns to pump the organ; about surplices with long lace being borrowed for altar boys. The minutes of Catholic Men's Society and Catholic Women’s League revealed details of many and varied activities; of processions and pilgrimages; of annual treats for schoolchildren; of summer fetes and of special collections for all those orphanges of the nineteen thirties.
In 1991, Fr Pat Mulvaney asked Mrs Joyce Fannon to produce a synopsis for a Parish Handbook. Copies of this Handbook are still available
Until recently it was believed that most of this research of 1985 was lost, but in October 2012 a file came to light with the transcription of these early letters. Steps are being taken to convert these to electronic form, but this is a large undertaking. As new information emerges, it will be entered into this historical account. Also, from time to time parishioners find booklets that were produced by various Parish Priests. As mentioned, we have recently been able to draw upon accounts by Fr Robert Lyons (1956) and Fr Peter Webb (1985).
There is a scrap book in St Joseph's presbytery that contains handwritten accounts by various priests and newspaper cuttings, tracing the story from earliest times. All this data has been converted into electronic form and grateful thanks to Marian Huckle for valiantly deciphering and typing up the handwritten diaries. The newspaper cuttings are especially valuable as they give a vivid account of Catholic life at the time, and often provide lists of priests attending celebrations and dedications - a useful cross check.
More recent history has been drawn from careful reading of the weekly parish newsletters, which since the turn of this century have been produced weekly covering all the churches. These are now in electronic form
Finally, thanks to Sister Benignus O'Brien the Diocesan Archivist who provided the list of all Priests and Religious who served in the Weymouth and Portland Parishes since 1819.
This account therefore draws from various sources, including a contribution from the late Gwen Greenslade OPL who researched the history of the Dominican Order in Weymouth.
Roman and Saxon Times
Christianity in South Dorset goes back to Roman times. Constantine the Great allowed toleration to Christians in 313 AD and Christianity became the State Religion of the Empire in 324 AD.
The mosaic floor at Hinton St Mary depicts Christ and the chi-rho sign. Many of the burials at Poundbury indicate Christians. Perhaps the Roman settlement at Radipole had Christians in its population during the 4th Century.
St Augustine, a Benedictine monk, is the recognised Apostle of England, sent from Rome by Pope Gregory the Great in 597, circumstances then being considered favourable for the establishing of the Church in this country. Landing with some companions in Kent, Augustine was kindly received by King Ethelbert and his Queen Bertha, who being a Frankish princess was already a Christian. Finding the Royal Family so well disposed, Augustine returned to France, where after a time he was consecrated Bishop, and later returned to England and established his Episcopal See at Canterbury. His pioneer missionary band of Benedictine monks laid solid foundations of the Faith throughout the country. The exact date when it penetrated to the West of England is not known, but it seems probable that the Christian Faith found its way there before being planted in other parts of the country.
Indeed, there is some evidence, that the West Country had the Faith as far back as Apostolic times. Glastonbury is supposed to have been visited by Joseph of Arimathea, and there is a legend that St. Ursula and her companions were Cornish. But these are conjectures.
When the Saxons broke through to Dorset in the 7th century they were mainly Christians, as St Augustine and friends had done their work well in the South East.
It was customary to refer to the period between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the Rennaissance as the ‘Dark Ages’ but modern scholarship refutes that. In the chaos that ensued after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Church preserved learning. This was particularly so in Ireland, which was known as the Isle of Saints and Scholars. Monks from Ireland brought learning back to England and thence to continental Europe. St Boniface was born sometime in the late seventh century at Winfrith, just 18 miles from Weymouth. He is known as the Apostle of the Germans and was martyred there in 754. Alcuin of York notably was invited to the court of Charlemagne in the 780‘s to become Charlemagne’s leading advisor on ecclesiastical and educational matters.
Churches in Weymouth and South Dorset
The Abbey of St Peter at Abbotsbury, to the North West of Weymouth was built in the 11th century in the time of King Cnut. At the dissolution, the Abbey was pulled apart for its stone. St Catherine's Chapel, a pilgrims chapel, was built in the 14th century at the top of the hill overlooking the Abbey.
By the 13th century, Weymouth on the west bank of the harbour, and Melcombe Regis on the east side were fully fledged towns.
The church at Radipole, is said to be the oldest building in the Weymouth area and dates from about 1208. It was originally dedicated to St Mary, and served Melcombe Regis. It is now dedicated to St Ann (Our Lady's Mother).
It would appear there was also a chapel in Melcombe Regis whose mother church was St Mary's (Radipole) as far back as 1300. There was also a Church of All Saints at Wyke Regis in the year 1302
All Saints Church at Wyke served Weymouth. The French had a nasty habit of raiding the towns when the inhabitants were away attending Mass at the two churches.
The church of St Lawrence at Upwey, the church of St Nicholas at Upwey, a chapel also dedicated to St Nicholas at Buckland Ripers and church of the Holy Trinity at Bincombe all date before the Reformation.
The Black Death came to Melcombe in 1348. In fact Melcombe Regis bears the unhappy distinction of being the first place in England to be struck by this plague. Two priests at St Mary's (Radipole) were two of the first to die of the plague.
By 1455, in the time of Henry VI, the church at Wyke needed a larger building. A visit today to that church shows vandalism of the holy water stoops probably attributable to Henry VIII's time or more probably the Civil War.
In 1605 a new St Mary's Church was built in Weymouth. The Radipole Church was rededicated to St Ann in 1927.
The church of St Mary the Virgin, North Square, Chickerell (once a village, now a town outside Weymouth) is almost as old as the Radipole church, having been built around about 1260. The church is situated tucked away from the main road through the village and is quite secluded.
On the north wall there is a remarkable grave slab bearing the figure of a possible incumbent around the 15th Century.
The font dates from around 1150, although the stem and base are 19th century additions. The font, therefore, predates the present church.
The church’s website gives an excellent account of the history and good photographs of the various features.
Although the church has been refurbished a number of times during its long history, it still presents the ambience of a peaceful mediaeval church.
Churches on Portland Island
Portland is locally described as ‘the Island’ though actually it is joined to the mainland by a narrow causeway in the lee of Chesil Beach, carrying a road. Coastal flooding has affected Portland's residents and transport for centuries. At times of extreme floods this road link could be severed and Portland cut off for days. In the 1980’s considerable amount of work was carried out on Chesil Beach to stabilise the shifting pebbles and protect the connecting road.
In the grounds of Pennsylvania Castle, built in 1797 to the South East of the Island, there is a ruined Church and Churchyard dating back far earlier. In 1475, during the reign of Edward IV the Church was dedicated to St Andrew, the Patron Saint of fishermen.
In the late nineteenth century, Mr Merrick J Head, then owner of the property carried out excavations and discovered that there was an even earlier Church, possibly dating back to 1109.
From the result of these excavations he concluded that the first church must have been one of considerable beauty and importance, while the second church seems to have been one of the rudest description. It was also suggested that a portion of the walls remaining on the north-east side was of Saxon origin
He published these conclusions in a paper read before the Dorset Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club in 1891.
There is evidence the earlier church was destroyed by fire in the time of Edward III, possibly by the French as during Edward’s reign, England was continuously at war with France. The later church was destroyed in its turn.
The difficulty of the communities, other than the ancient hamlets of Easton and Wakeham reaching the Church Ope site, must have been problematic. The Rufus Castle builders and staff, employed at various periods over the centuries, may well have availed themselves of the services of the Church.
The Dominicans come to Melcombe and Weymouth
The year 1418 saw the Dominicans, or Black Friars building a friary in Melcombe. This was on the initiative of Hugh Deverell, Knight and John Rogers of Bryanston with the support of the Master General of the Order. On 17th August, Pope Martin V gave the necessary leave for erecting a convent here with Church, Belfry, Churchyard and Cloister, and all things necessary for a religious house. The Friary was the last Dominican house established in England and was situated in Maiden Street. At the time when it was built, the sea washed its eastern walls. The site is now further inland as a large area of the sea bed was reclaimed and built upon.
Could the present Maiden Street be so named for Our Lady? Many streets in Weymouth are named after the saints, so this is not an idle question.
The Dominicans, besides catering for the spiritual welfare of the inhabitants also contributed to the defence of the town and the expansion of the port, by building a jetty and a tower. The jetty was also to serve the pilgrims embarking in Melcombe and Weymouth ships for the shrine of St James of Compostella in Spain. The Friary was closed in 1538 on the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII
The remains of the Friary were thought to have been an old doorway, which remained standing until the site was cleared to form a car park in the 1960's. It is still a car park today.
An interesting possible survival of this Friary is a chair, which is known as the Prior’s chair, and which was used to ‘chair’ newly elected members of Parliament. It was also used at the Mayor making ceremony in Weymouth and was the official seat for the Mayor in the council chamber. Today the 'Prior's Chair' is in Weymouth Museum.
The Dorset County Records office holds the Deeds of the Friary Lands with a great seal attached. It is a very fragile document, in English and the seal is black with age. It is quite a thrill to be able to read the deeds and hold the seal, thus keeping in touch with the Friars after almost 600 years.