St Thomas of Woodbridge History

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After the Reformation there was no Catholic church in Woodbridge until 1872. There was only on; recorded in 1770 among the population of 2331 and this did not increase even after the Catholic Relief Acts of 1771 and 1791 allowed Catholics once again to own land provided they swore the prescribed oath of allegiance to the Crown.; The Acts also allowed them to establish catholic schools and places of worship; None sprang up in Woodbridge. However the Catholic population increased to 4 in 1801 in a population of 3020;  By 1880 there were 16 Catholics.

The new-found freedom caused about 4,000 French Catholic clergy to flee to England from the anti-clerical regime of the French Revolution, 1789-1799. Abbe Louis Pierre Simon came to Ipswich in 1793 where he remained until his death in 1839, except for a brief visit to France in 1815 at the end of the Hundred Days War to receive compensation from the French government for his privations and to have his patrimony restored to him. He sold the latter and returned to Ipswich where he used part of his funds to build the church of St. Mary's; There is a long history of service from this church to Woodbridge Catholics which began when Abbe Simon conducted services in Woodbridge in 1812 and 1815 (for which he received no emolument); He probably baptised here the children of the military In Ipswich he acted as chaplain to the troops stationed  along the Woodbridge Road down to Rushmere Heath. Woodbridge, until 1815, was an overflow garrison of these troops. Abbe Simons registers show that he baptised the children of men in the Irish regiments stationed in the area and in the Royal Artillery, the latter being the regiment in which most Woodbridge men enlisted.  No addresses were included in the register.

There is a local tradition that Abbe Simon was stoned when he came. Certainly the town was anti-Catholic.  The bells of St. Mary's, Woodbridge, were pealed in protest when the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed in 1829.  Objection was registered again when the Catholic Hierarchy was restored to England on September 29th 1850.    The first Cardinal incumbent of the Metropolitan See of Westminster was Cardinal Wiseman.   On 5th November a Guy Fawkes was removed from two children, re-named Wiseman, and suspended at half-mast from St. Mary's steeple.  The church bells were pealed throughout the day.  At night the effigy was taken to be burnt " at the stake" on a bonfire at the upper hill near the Swan public house. Some lads started to fight and fearing a riot the police took them into custody together with Guy Fawkes - the place of custody being the Swan.  The enraged crowd threw missiles - a policeman received one in the face.  A county magistrate, returning home, intervened.  He ordered the police to release the boys and the effigy.  This quietened the crowd.  The police retreated through the rear door of the pub.  The Guy Fawkes was burnt and the people then dispersed.  The publican boarded up his broken windows.

The old British sees were not used by the Pope.; Westminster took the place of Canterbury. Twelve new residential sees with cathedrals were erected. Woodbridge was placed in the Northampton diocese which covered seven counties, serving 26 Mass centres with 27 priests. The last Marian bishop had died in 1585.  From 1685 to 1850 Vicars Apostolic of Britain reported to a specially appointed Cardinal in Rome.  The first bishop of the Northampton diocese was William Wareing who had been consecrated in 1840 as Vicar Apostolic of the Eastern District.

The renaissance of Catholicism was slow to arrive in Woodbridge but a wooden plaque in the sacristy of our church commemorates the  celebration of Mass as it was thought. for the first time since the Reformation in Dr. Moores house in Church Street, on 22nd March 1865. The priest was Father Patrick Rogers, apostolic missionary of the diocese and at that time chaplain to the Benedictine nuns at East Bergholt. There were present Dr. William Hibbert Moore, his wife Jane Harriet, their sons, Clemence George, Laurrence Henry, and Charles Harrington, their daughter Ada Maria, Mary Anne Potter, Margaret Gough, Elizabeth Murrell, Mary Quigley and Catherine 0'Connor.  Communion was received before Mass.  The Mass was served by George Gough. Some months afterwards Father Kemp of St. Marys Ipswich, celebrated Mass in this house.  In 1869 Father Wallace arranged to say Mass there monthly. Shortly afterwards De Moore moved to Gate House, next door to a printer.   There was an old warehouse in the grounds which was converted into a chapel and fitted with a temporary alter and tabernacle etc. Mass was said here every Sunday. It was Father Kemp who urged the bishop to found a Catholic school in Ipswich to serve the local area.   The latter invited the French Order of the Congregation of Jesus and Mary to send nuns from France.  Within hours of their arrival on 11th August 1860 the Sisters opened a school and community in the parish of St. Mary's, despite their long walk from the station in their long black habits, the hostile stares of the people unused to the sight of nuns and the stones thrown at them by boys.  Father Kemp certainly welcomed them warmly.  Generations of Woodbridge children attended the school.

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The Church At Crown Place

Father Wallace was a great benefactor to the Catholic Church locally. He gave the money for a school to be built adjacent to St. Pancras Church in Ipswich. For Woodbridge Catholics he purchased a small piece of land in Crown Place in 1871 and upon this a Church was erected at his own expense and despite local antagonism. He probably funded it from monies received for his services as one of the Catholic priests with the British Expeditionary Force in South Africa during the Ashanti Wars. The Church was dedicated to St Thomas of Canterbury and was opened by Farther Wallace on Sunday 21st April 1872. Dr. Moore and Mr G Fitzgerald paid for a sacristy to be added. George Gough had helped in the acquisition of the land. He was a solicitor for over fifty years and held a number of important official posts in the town. Of his five children were priests and two were nuns in the Ipswich convent. There were few Catholics in this small market town. It was difficult to find sufficient funds for the upkeep of the church and to maintain a priest. The collections taken in 1878 ranged for 2s.7d to 9s.9 ½ d, an average being 6s. 11 ½ d. However, efforts were made to establish to resident priest. In 1882 Fr. George Wilmot Mayne dwelt at Hathaway Villas, St Johns Street. He celebrated Mass daily at 8.30am, on Sundays at 8.00am and 11.00am and on Holydays of Obligation at 9.00am with devotions at 7.30pm. There were also devotions on Sundays with sermon and benediction. Fr. Patrick Graham was the resident priest. In 1912 for a short period Fr. F D Grigson was priest-in-charge and resided at Gate House, Church Street. When the priest came from Ipswich the times of Mass varied through the years from 9.30am to 11.45am on Sundays and Holydays. There was generally an evening service and at one time in the summer months there was a service on Wednesday evenings. Later, Lavinia Andrews recalls that her father fetched a priest from St. Mary’s, Ipswich , in his pony and trap. Mr William Hardy (Mrs Ann Baker’s father),who was the first to receive the Bene Merenti papel medal in East Anglia, used to come with the priest as server. He passed his hat round until the expense of the journey was met – it went round several times.

In the first World War Woodbridge was one of the centers in which brigades were quartered in East Anglia . A serviceman recalled “perpetually digging trenches against an invasion which never came. The Catholic church was sandwiched between some melancholy and closed vault and week by week the RC’s were marched to it down a path which, whatever the weather, was somehow always miraculously muddy. The church music was supplied by a lady playing an anaemic-sounding harmonium. The priest came by taxi from Ipswich . The celebrant should have been Canon Rogers (the celebrant of the Mass in 1865) but he was ill for a long time prior to his death in 1918 at the age of 86. Fr McCaul of St Mary’s took on the extra work entailed and also the serving of Woodbridge . The Bishop wrote expressing his appreciation. “No priest better deserves a holiday and rest than yourself………..As you see it would have been a fatal error to have closed that struggling mission entirely. Please God it will outlive all its infant troubles and develop into a stalwart youth…………. The two Catholic parishioners who were servicemen in World War I were Private Cair, and Captain Waters, R.A.M.C.

There were many alarms during the war and one bad air-raid during which several people were killed and property damaged. Collections were taken for the Red Cross. In 1920 the parishioners contributed to the Fund for the Starving Children of Central Europe. There was neither CAFOD nor the Save the Children Fund. The diocesan bishops nominated particular charities for support by special collections at the churches

A sick priest was responsible for the founding of two convents in Woodbridge. Fr William Cooper was the “ecclesiastical coastguard” of Felixstowe for nineteen years. Under his ministry the parish developed steadily from a congregation of six which attended Mass in a room behind an ice-cream shop until the present church in Gainsborough Road was built, of necessity, in 1912.

Unfortunately Fr Cooper contracted Parkinson’s disease so gradually became unable to celebrate Mass in public or take an active part in parish affairs.   He retired to Woodbridge in November 1919 with his nurse-housekeeper, purchasing Stoke House in Church Street. (it previously been owned by Dr Hubert Airy, son of the Astronomer Royal)  Fr Cooper was anxious that Woodbridge should have a resident priest and growth in its Cathloic life.  When he found that the Carmelite nuns of Notting Hill, London, were seeking to found another convent he secured this privilege for the town by giving them his house.  He also gave them, for daily use, the silver chalice given to him by his father which he had used at his first Mass after ordination   He quietly retired to flat in Hasketon Manor.  The nuns were a great powerhouse of prayer and also financed the chaplaincy which enabled a residential priest to be appointed for the parish.

The second convent founded was a school.  Whilst at Lourdes in 1923 Fr Cooper met some Sister’s of Mercy from Bangor who were interested in extending their educational work.  It had proved impossible for them to find a suitable site at their first choice of Kettering. Fr Cooper encouraged them to come to Woodbrige and arranged for them to stay at Haskerton Manor while they searched for a suitable building.  “the Beeches” in Castle Street was chosen as a suitable convent and school. It opened on September 18th 1923.  Fr Cooper died on 23rd March 1927.  He had returned to Woodbridge in 1925 in an attempt to improve his health.  He bequeathed all his property to the bishop of Northampton diocese.  The parish priest arranged for the property to be rented as there was a mortgage outstanding on it.  Miss Lowndes. Whose brother was a priest at St Pancras for a time, ran St Joseph’s as an excellent guest house, generally used by Catholics.  It was nearly always full with long-term guests as well as overnight visitors.  When she retired the house was sold and is now St Ann’s school, Crown  Place.  Miss Lowndes was cared for very kindly as a lodger by Ethel Kersey in Castle Street.

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Father Duchemin

Father Charles Duchemin was appointed priest to the mission in 1921 and chaplain to the Carmelite nuns.  There was no presbytery.   On 3rd September Father Duchemin settled at 44A, The Thoroughfare, in a flat above a baker’s shop.  The landlady was Mrs Giles.  The next day he celebrated Mass in the church for a congregation of 57.  It was recognised that the church building was inadequate.  Thomas Lister who died in October 1921 bequeathed £100 towards the building of a new church.  There were many non-Catholics at the funeral of this devout parishioner as he had been a Councillor and the senior partner of the local corn merchants, T Lister  Sons.   The ceremony was held entirely at the cemetery and was mainly in Latin. Many of the crowd expressed themselves impressed by its beauty. The acolytes were three boys from Ipswich and Harold Secker and Thomas Dalton.

An important event at the church was the visit of the bishop on Tuesday, 16th May 1922. He administered the sacrament of Confirmation in the evening to 19 candidates. Father Duchemin gave each a signed picture of a bishop administering the Sacrament to a child. The necessary instruction had been given by Father Duchemin for one quarter of an hour after the 10.30am Mass on three consecutive Sundays, and , in view of the travelling difficulties for those living in the country, he offered to come to any private arrangement where necessary.

After the ceremony there was a crowded reception. Many non-Catholics came. Father Duchemin especially encouraged Catholic R.A.F. men from Martlesham to attend and to speak to the bishop.

The Holy Week ceremonies were held at the convent chapel except for the blessing of the font, fire and candles. 38 people attended the first Mass of Easter and 63 the second Mass. The congregation had given Lenten alms of £2. 5s. 0d having been reminded several times of its duty in this respect. Each Wednesday, Friday and Ember Sunday had been a day of abstinence and all between the age of 21 and 60 were also obliged to fast. The definition of abstinence was to eat no flesh meat or derivatives like gravy, meat soup, Bovril. Suet, lard, dripping and eggs were allowed. Fasting took place on the 40 days of Lent, but not on Sundays.

Besides the church and the convent chaplaincy Father Duchemin had chaplaincies at Melton, Hollesley and at Martlesham Heath. At the latter he was the officiating clergyman. There was no difficulty in arranging with the Adjutant that the men at the R.A.F. Aeroplane Experimental Establishment should be bought to 10.30am Mass at Woodbridge each Sunday. The adjutant was very co-operative in arranging for him to see the men at the Station. Father Duchemin considered them an integral part of the flock. There was a capitation grant for looking after the men. It was 11s.0d per week when 25 and 50 attended Mass, or 6s.0d per week when the number dropped below 25. The priest’s income wavered accordingly. A nominal roll of the Roman Catholics was kept.

The latter stayed overnight at Gate House with Major and Mrs Moore (Dr Moore had died in 1888). Next morning he celebrated Mass at the convent, confirmed one nun and left for Ipswich.

From St. Audrey’s, Melton, the medical superintendent wrote to inform Father Duchemin that the duties were light,- and so was the honorarium at £10 per annum. The priest visited alternate Mondays and had every facility for meeting the very few Catholics there. Dr Burke, a Catholic doctor there, also oiled the wheels. Any Catholic sufficiently recovered to leave the Sanatorium for short periods of time could be taken to Mass by a nurse, but this never happened. The priest also was to be informed when any Catholic patient was in danger of death so that the last Rites could be administered.

The labour Colony at Hollesley is mentioned later. The priest had also spiritual oversight of one man, an Irishman, at the coastguard station, Shingle Street.

In July 1922, Father Duchemin was transferred to Southwark Diocese. The bishop of The City of Northampton was hard-pressed for priests or he would have left Woodbridge even earlier. Fr. Ernest Shebbeare, of Southwark Diocese replaced him. He was encouraged to come
by Father Duchemin’s letter to him describing Woodbridge as a “prettily hilly country town with exceptionally good shops because of the many large houses in the district. There are about 5,000 inhabitants of whom about 75 are the Catholic congregation. Catholics and non-Catholics are extremely friendly. I have experienced nothing but kindness during the whole of my stay here and am leaving for no negative reason. The income is but £200 a year including the convent chaplaincy (from which all expenses had to be met). There is a complete little Catholic church. It is not a cathedral but nor is it a mere tin hut. It is well-equipped. The people had given items such as a paten, for example. Father Duchemin had purchased a standing pyx and paid an extra sum for exchanging a monstrance. With generosity and prudent management the church was reasonably well-furnished. “I cannot imagine a nicer little country mission”, wrote Father Duchemin, whilst the bishop of Southwark wrote to Fr. Shebbeare hoping that Woodbridge would be a great healer for jaded nerves”.

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The Carmelite Convent

Father Duchmin was appointed chaplain to the Carmelite nuns. Canon Peacock of St. Pancras, Ipswich, was their confessor.

Nine nuns and two extern sisters arrived at the convent on September 6th. On September 8th, the feast of Our Lady’s birthday, Cardinal Bourne blessed the grounds and the convent, which he named the Convent of the Magnificat. He had earlier celebrated Mass in the chapel with the nuns and laity present. In the evening after Vespers and Solemn Benediction he established and erected the canonical enclosure form which any necessary outgoing would be undertaken only by the extern sisters for necessary shopping, etc.

The nuns led a life in accordance with the motto of their Order of Discalced Carmelites of the Strict Reform of St. Teresa: ‘For the zeal of they house hath eaten me up’, psalm 69.V9. They zealously followed their vocation of prayer (especially prayer for priests), of hidden self-sacrifice and of work. These Woodbridge nuns observed the liturgical hours of Church through an eighteen hour day which began at 4.45am when they rose to sing the prayer of the Church together in choir. There day was divided into periods of time for solitary medication, communal recreation and work. At night they slept on beds of straw palliasses laid on boards. In the day had no chairs but sat on the floor. They had two meals, one at 11am and one at 6pm. They ate no meat and grew their own vegetables. They exercised in the garden and needed also space in the convent for this.

Although the nuns did not leave the convent precincts people of many different religious beliefs and from a wide area came to talk with them (via the iron grille) prayerfully, to obtain their good counsel and to ask for prayers for their special intentions. Their tiny chapel was always crowded when postulants were clothed with the habit and when novices received the black veil on their profession. The Eno family, who were converts of Farther Duchemin’s pastorate, became, with the Skinners and Andrews, almost professional bridesmaids and pageboys to the Carmelites when the latter, dressed as brides of Christ, were presented to the bishop as postulants.

Despite the hardships of religious life the numbers of nuns had grown to 20 by October 1925 and the House. One tenant, Mr Mudd, objected that he needed to remain at 11b, Church Street, as there was room there for his lathe and he enjoyed protected tenancy. He finally consented to move to larger, rented accommodation in Cumberland Street , which was purchased by a friend of the Carmelites and where he enjoyed the same protection. Although the purchase and alteration to the buildings were necessary to avoid overcrowding, the expenditure entailed swamped the funds of the community of nuns resulting in a large debt. Although some of the nuns had been ladies of means they renounced their wealth when the entered the Order. They were so impoverished that in 1934 Sister Michael wrote to the parish priest asking him to have a collection from the parish to buy 3 toons of coal for £5. 2s. 0d.

The main source of income for the convent was the work of Sister Margaret of the Mother of God (Margaret Agnes Rope 1882 – 1953). She had been a stained glass artist in the Arts and Crafts Movement and was able to continue her work after she entered religious life. A small studio was set up in the convent where she could paint glass. The firm Lowndes and Dury supplied it cut to her cartoons; after its return there it was fired and glazed at the Glass House, Fulham. This arrangement produced a number of fine windows in the twenties and thirties but was stopped though vicissitudes of World War II.

The nuns also made vestments for their own Foundation. Their chapel was open daily to the public with Mass daily at 8am. In 1921 there was a Catholic population in Woodbridge of 84 with an average attendance at Mass of 66.

About a third to half preferred to attend the Convent Mass, where they especially appreciated the singing of the nuns in the gallery. At the first convent Sunday Mass the nuns collected the offertory money and retained it as it was usual for nuns to keep collections of money taken in their chapel. They paid a stipend to the priest and all the expenses of the chapel. However, the congregation were the priests parishioners who’s contributions he needed for the upkeep of the parish and for his own maintenance. The bishop arranged by agreement with the Mother House in Notting Hill that on Sundays and Holydays of Obligation the offertory money should be handed to the priest by the Prioress. An alms box was placed in the chapel labelled ‘convent’ but was not much used despite the good attendance at Benediction on Sunday’s at 5pm and on other special feast days. Convents however, gave gifts. Father Shebbeare’s brother and sister-in-law gave a bell to the convent chapel after their reception into the Church; his brother –in-law gave a statue of St. Teresa of Lisieux.

The nun’s helped the parish with their talents. From the first Christmas the mission was allowed to erect its crib in the convent chapel. There were only four figures – Jesus, Mary, Joseph and an angel. Mother Rosario painted a scene for it. When the present church building opened in 1930 Mother Rosario painted a picture of St Jude for it whilst Mother Margaret of the Mother of God lettered the baldachino.

The many false ideas in Protestant mind of the life of a Carmelite nun were demonstrated in 1934 in Woodbridge by a Wyclifff Preacher at the Protestant Mission held at the People’s Mission , Pytches Road in January. Mr Rand showed lantern slides of high walls and iron bars supposedly making nuns prisoners of the Church in convents. He spoke of cries of newborn infants being heard though no babies saw the light of day. He stated that there was nothing on the Bible about taking vows of poverty, chastery, obedience, etc. and that the first Pope had been a married man. During the one and a half hours talk there were repeated interruptions. The main protagonist was Mr W. O. Jolly of the Grange Kesgrave, who said that his daughter and sister were both in the Woodbridge Carmel and that he would have to be remove by force if the speaker talked of nuns in a manner to persecute the Carmelites as he had done in Framilingham. Other gentleman supported him whilst many called to him to sit down and listen. Women fainted and had to be lifted over the backs of benches to get them out of the packed hall. A police constable was called to restore order but the interruptions continued. A police inspector was called in but Mr Jolly persisted in his interruptions until the speaker admitted that at the latter’s invitation he, with two colleagues, had visited the convent in Church Street and found the nuns were perfectly happy. He maintained however that they were ignorant of Christ’s teaching to shut themselves up like that. The meeting finally ended with a prayer and a hymn.

Some well-know Catholics attended Mass at the convent, the Duke of Norfolk among them (in 1925). Cardinal Bourne made an informal visit to them that year on his way to St. Mary’s Jubilee Bazaar at Ipswich. He was well pleased with all he saw and congratulated them. The convent became too small for the nuns as numbers increased and Church Street became increasingly noisy. The bishop closed it and the nuns left to establish themselves in Rushmere Village near Ipswich , on November 9th 1938. They moved from there to their present monastery at Quidenham in 1948.

The Woodbridge building was occupied by the military during the war. It was afterwards converted into Culmak’s shaving brush factory. Finally the building firm of Ingram Smith purchased the site and built a small housing complex there. The chapel had originally been built by his firm. Now it was converted into a drawing room with a gallery running round it where the nuns sat in the choir. The first 13 houses were ready for sale in 1982

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