A History of Catholic Life in Weymouth and Portland
"Priests and People are One - that is our precious tradition" (Bishop Cyril Restieaux)
Part III Consolidation
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The 1840’s and 1850’s
The next decade was eventful for the Church. Force of circumstances caused large scale immigration from Ireland. The famine of 1848-1849 obliged numerous Irish people to seek a livelihood in England.
Bishop, later Cardinal Wiseman, seized the opportunity of the growing demand for making provision for his people and appealed to the Pope to appoint more Bishops. The result was that in 1850 the Hierarchy of England was restored, giving new life and administration to the Church. Some 30 new Sees were set up and the West Country passed out of the jurisdiction of the Vicar Apostolic to come under the newly created See of Plymouth, with Bishop George Errington as its first Head.
The Chapel of St Mary
After decades of debate as to whether a breakwater should be built at Portland to create a ‘Harbour of Refuge’, Parliament finally decided in favour in late 1847. It was also considered convenient that convict labour should be used in this venture and a temporary Convict Prison should be built on the Island. To this end on Tuesday 21st November 1848 HMS DRIVER arrived at Portland with the first batch of convicts from Portsmouth, and landing them at Castletown gave them in charge of Weymouth Police and the Local Coastguard Forces. Very basic facilities were available and construction of the Prison was quickly got underway.
From that time the number of convicts, warders and soldiers along with civilians, mainly Navvies and their families, grew rapidly. When in 1866 the Government having selected Portland as the main place of confinement for the political prisoner's (Fenian's), it also appointed a paid Catholic Chaplain. In 1869 it was announced that the Prison would become a permanent fixture, much to the chagrin of the local populace.
The second Church, was a small stone built chapel on a site behind the old present Presbytery. It boasted a small choir stall and a little grotto and weathered and badly chipped statue of Our Blessed Lady
This original building survived - all be it in a very dilapidated state - until circa 1963, when under the leadership of the lively Father Phelan, it was demolished. The holy water stoup built into the outer wall of the old Mission Hall is still in place - damaged but still serviceable.
An Ordnance Map of this date gives the name as St. Mary.
The Portland Mass Centre
During Father Tilbury’s time at St. Augustine's the Australian Government refused to take any more convicts from England. Thus a prison colony was built on Portland.
From the year 1848, when Portland was selected for a penal establishment, down to the year 1868, the Catholic prisoners, warders, soldiers, and civilians were ministered to spiritually by Fr Lawrence Smythe at Weymouth, who used to visit them occasionally and hold a public service once a fortnight in a temporary chapel. In 1856 Father Smythe had received permission to duplicate Mass on Sundays.
Sometime, however, after Canon Tilbury’s death, Father Smythe went to America. Bishop Errington then appointed Father Martin Hoskins, and in 1856 this Priest presented 19 people for Confirmation, soon after which he moved temporarily to Stapehill, Father Buckle supplying for him at St. Augustine's.
Fr. Hoskins opened a Mass Centre on Portland at the home of Mr William Lyle Smith. Mass was said on Palm Sunday of that year and 50 people attended Mass. Bishop Errington transferred Father Hoskins to Plymouth Cathedral in October, 1857, and appointed Father James Dawson to Weymouth. Finding the combined missions of Weymouth and Portland more than he could cope with, Father Dawson went to Lyme Regis and was later appointed a member of the Cathedral Chapter.
His successor was Father William Walsh, who continued to say Mass in Portland until it became necessary to devote all his attention to St. Augustine's, owing to the increasing numbers of H.M. Service personnel stationed about in ship and on shore establishments. (Up until 1875 the Catholic sailors of H.M. ships used to march to the Catholic Church at Weymouth to attend Mass.)
By this time, the Government having fixed on Portland as the chief place of confinement for the political prisoners (Fenians), agreed to appoint a paid Catholic Chaplain. Accordingly the Father George Poole took up his residence at Portland in a cottage near the Catholic Temporary Chapel, ministering to the prisoners inside the convict establishment, and to the Catholic warders, soldiers and coastguards in the Chapel.
Fr Poole became the first Priest in Charge of the new parish of Our Lady and St Andrew, Portland.
The Church of Our Lady and St Andrew
The church, dedicated to Our Lady and St Andrew was built at 47 Grove Lane, Portland in 1868, but a Ordinance Survey Map shows a ‘Church of Our Lady’ adjacent to the site in 1866. There are signs that a small building, possibly a church, was in use to the rear of what is now the Presbytery. Presumably this was the temporary chapel mentioned above.
The Church was built to meet the needs of a growing Catholic Community on the Island, due to the influx of personal to staff the Prison and Breakwater construction.
Designed by Joseph Hansom (1803-1882); he is mainly remembered as a prolific architect and for his inventions, particularly his ‘Hansom Cab’. His architectural designs include the Grand Town Hall for Birmingham and our own Plymouth RC Cathedral (built between 1856 and 1858).
This lovely church occupied the highest point on the Island, and over the years came to serve over the years not just the static community but the Regiments in Garrison and the Royal Navy, as well as the three prisons - HMP The Verne - HMP Weare - YOI (Young Offender's Institution).
The drawing is from a water colour sketch by Mr Joe Latham.
In the late 1970s an altar, acquired from Buckfast Abbey was installed, described as beautiful in its stark simplicity. This was the third altar to be used.
This was set off by a fine baldachin, which originated from the Wimbledon Convent/Hospital, and is a delightful feature complemented by a wonderful crucifix, sculptured by the late Mr. Robinson, the father of the then Sacristan Mrs. Margaret Evans.
The picture below is a first communion group some time in the early 1960's. Fr Phelan is the priest assisting on the Bishop’s left (to the right of the picture).
The last Parish Priest, Fr Peter Coxe departed in 1996 and the parish was to be served by St Joseph's Weymouth. By that time with defects discovered in the church structure, and the severe lack of priests in the diocese, the Bishop decided that the church was too expensive to keep open
For some years afterwards, Sunday Masses were celebrated at the Avalanche Church, Southwell by kind permission of the Pastor
St Augustine’s Church refurbishment and a Stained Glass Window
Fr Walsh in Weymouth was given an assistant in the person of Father John Charles and who succeeded as Priest in Charge in December 1863
Father Charles while Priest-in-Charge of St. Augustine’s achieved a great deal. He had the Church decorated in 1865 and a new stained glass window put in. The window was the gift of Arthur Coombe, Esq., who had recently converted to the Faith. It represents Our Lady with the Divine Child, St. Augustine, Patron of the Church and St. Alban our first Martyr. It should be pointed out here perhaps that the Presbytery then was where the present Sanctuary is, and the stained glass was originally at the Epistle side of the High Altar.
One of the parishioners was responsible for installing the organ, and three generations of the same family provided the Church music until well after World War 2.
In 1876, Father Charles was promoted to Torquay and is commemorated in the Park District of Weymouth by a street of that name. This gesture of remembrance was made by Mr. McMahon, who had been well acquainted with the Priest.
Father Darcy succeeded Fr Charles at Weymouth - but only for a few months when Father Richard Meagher came to take charge. Through growing infirmity he relinquished it in 1893. He had been Pastor of St. Augustine's for nearly 20 years, that fact alone bearing ample testimony to his apostolic spirit. His entries in the Parish Registers are like copper plate.
The Dorchester Mission
St Augustine’s priests had been saying Mass at Dorchester since 1863. However, it was Mr. Arthur Coombe, a native of Dorchester, who, in 1865, purchased the site for a Church to be called 'Our Lady Queen of Martyrs'. This was opened for public worship in 1867 in the County Town. Father Charles served Dorchester from Weymouth on Sundays until the Bishop of Plymouth sent Father Michael O'Dwyer to establish it as a separate mission in 1871.
The site for the Dorchester Church of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs was sold in recent times and the Church of the Holy Trinity purchased from the Anglican Church. The site of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs is now the permanent Tutankamun Exhibition.
The Fight for a School
Father Hoskins had rented a room in Horsford Street near Red Barracks as a school for soldiers' children, but the soldiers left their barracks four months later, so the school closed down again. Civilian children were transferred to the dining room of the presbytery for their education. Two years later the little school was discontinued and remained closed until 1864, when once again the children were back in the presbytery for education.
Meanwhile plans had been made to build a school in the grounds at the back of the presbytery at Dorchester Road. It was built in 1870, and only one wall remains today of the little school. The wall is now incorporated into the Church Hall. The school functioned until 1891 when it closed for a few years, only to be re-opened in a building at Carlton Road with 15 pupils.
Canon O'Brien came as Parish Priest in 1893. It was during his pastorate that the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary came to the to the town. In this year, 1897, this community, under, under Reverend Mother Mary Agnes Morrissey, succeeded in acquiring a Villa in Carlton Road, which they used as a Convent and small High School. In time it became necessary for them to extend their accommodation, so they built a new Convent and school adjoining the original villa.
The first claim on the lives of the members of this Religious Congregation is that of Perpetual Adoration, but their Weymouth Convent became also the National Centre for the Social Reign and Enthronement of the Sacred Heart in the Homes, which exacted considerable demand on the energies of the Community. The Nun's Mass in their Convent Chapel necessitated a second Priest, thus Canon O'Brien had an assistant during his last years.
In 1899 the Canon died and was succeeded by Father David Barry.
The fight begins
Father Barry enlarged the Church by converting the Presbytery into the Sanctuary and buying 38 Dorchester Road as a Presbytery in its place. A new frontage was added to the Church replacing the simpler outlines by the twin columned front surmounted by a pediment. On 28th May 1901, Father Barry rented the Temperance Hall in Park Street as a school for 36 children. A year later, the school was transferred to Queen St where Nuns from Carlton St taught the children in cramped premises. Father Barry wanted a new school, and what Father Barry wanted he usually got! In this case however he had a fight on his hands.
On 2nd November 1901, Mr McMahon's workrooms and building yard were bought. The site was not available for building until September 1903. The Education Act of 1902 afforded relief to denominational schools and Father Barry sought State Aid to which he was entitled for his proposed school. The Weymouth Educational Authority, however, opposed the school as being "neither necessary nor desirable". A copy of a similar resolution passed by the Managers of St John's Day School in the Park District was forwarded to Father Barry. In his words “the resolutions were nothing less than a declaration of war”.
The Southern Times newspaper ran an article: “The proposal to build a new Roman Catholic School - with its possible addition of expense to the ratepayers-bids fair to revive the dying embers of sectarian bitterness”.
The battle was joined when the Free Churches opposed the school. The Board of Education at Whitehall set up a Public Enquiry, held on 31st May 1904. On the 10th June Mr Simpkinson submitted his report as Inspector and he supported the Roman Catholic School. Father Barry and the parents had won! To add insult to injury, the Local Education was required to foot the bill for the Enquiry. The school was opened by Bishop Charles Graham on Sunday 4th October at Walpole Street.
The Blessing of the School
The local press reported that on Sunday, 4th October 1904, the Roman Catholic congregation, fully 300 strong, assembled to join in the blessing of the new school in Walpole Street by the Bishop of Plymouth, who was assisted by the Rev David Barry and the Rev James Shore. Preliminary prayers for God's help were sung under cover in the infants playground and then the school entrance was approached, and the outer walls of the building sprinkled with holy waters. The building was then entered and the ceremony conducted in the large upper room, where on a table was a crucifix and lights. After some prayers calling down God's blessing on the house, the teachers, and those to be taught, the rooms were sprinkled and incensed, and a crucifix fixed to the school wall, the ceremony ending with an address from the Bishop and the Pontifical blessing.
His Lordship concluded his address by congratulating all present on possessing such a beautiful school.
The hymn ‘Faith of our Fathers’ was sung and the proceedings came to an end.
The Social Gathering to Celebrate the new School
On the evening of Monday 5th October a social gathering was held in the new school with the Bishop present, accompanied by several of the local clergy. A delightful programme of and instrumental music was provided. Miss Malvina Connor, Vocal Medallist R.A.M charmed her audience with the richness and mellowness of her well-trained contralto and her several well-chosen songs. Miss Gray and Mlle des Gres du Lou, were chiefly responsible for the instrumental items one as a violin soloist, the other as a pianist. The performance of the school children showed that no pains had been spared in order that their part of the programme should be a success.
During the interval Fr Barry addressed those present, thanking the Bishop for taking time to open the school and be with them, and thanking all for their efforts in raising the funds for the school. He ended by saying that for the future of the school he had no anxiety. He felt that given a fair start, its work would be successful. In it their children would receive a knowledge of God and of their duties to Him, and the secular knowledge imparted to them would not be inferior to that received in any other school in the town.
Fr Barry wrote a book ‘Brief Account of the Catholic School Weymouth 1857 - 1904’ Publisher H Wheeler, 1904. However, the Diocese does not seem to have a copy. The British Library might be able to help, as ‘Google’ recognises its existence.
In 1911, Bishop Graham retired and was succeeded by Bishop John Keily. The new Bishop recalled Father Barry to become Vicar General in the Diocese of Plymouth. The parish was sad to see Father Barry leave.