Roman Catholic Church of St. Mary, Woburn Sands
Ferme en Foy 1926 – 1976
A History of the Roman Catholic Parish of St. Mary, Woburn Sands. Written for the Golden Jubilee by the Parish Priest Rev. Edmund J. Golston
The following text is reproduced from the original publication of 1976. New illustrations have been provided by St Marys, and I am indebted to Fr. Ken Bowen for permission to reproduce this work.
The modern St Marys stands on Aspley Hill, but the Catholic Church has had other locations as well…
THE EARLY YEARS
I am indebted to the late Mr Charles Howard, one-time Manager of the Woburn Gas Works for the following account of the beginnings of the Catholic Mission at Woburn Sands. It given exactly as he wrote it, and is of absorbing interest. At the time of writing (October 1975), Tom Casey, one of the few present at the First Mass, is still with us, a very youthful 89, and still singing in the Choir! Please God, he will still be with us to celebrate our Golden Jubilee on 18th July 1976.
An account of the beginnings of the Woburn Sands Mission, written by Mr Charles Howard, of Gas Works Cottage, Woburn, June 1953
‘Previous to 18th July 1926, the Catholics of this district went to Mass at Leighton Buzzard or Bletchley. We either walked or cycled. Then, in late June or early July 1926, a priest brought a party of school children from Bedford for a ramble in Aspley Guise Woods.
The day was hot and the children tired and, no doubt, hungry, having eaten their sandwiches. The priest in charge went on a forage for refreshments, and the first likely place he came to was the Fir Tree Hotel at Woburn Sands. Here he enquired of a young lady if they could provide a tea for his party. The lady in question called out: “Daddy, there is parson here who wants tea for a party of children.”
Was it a coincidence? It was fortunate for our Mission that the proprietor was a Catholic, one Brigadier Beresford, who soon set things in motion. By the way, I should mention here that the priest was father Dalby, now Dean Dalby at Luton. To him, and the Brigadier, owe a great debt of gratitude.
The result of this meeting was that on 18th July 1926, the First Mass at Woburn Sands was celebrated in the Club Room of the Fir Tree Hotel. The Brigadier wrote to all the Catholics he had heard of in the neighbourhood, telling us of the great event, enclosing small handbill. I have one of these by me now. The Mass was at 10.30a.m. and the Celebrant was the Very Reverend Canon Tonks of Bedford, who preached us a sermon on our good fortune in having the Mass.
The Beresfords had cleaned up the Club Room and had provided the necessary furnishings. Our first altar was a small portable one. Where it came from we did not know. Thereafter the Canon came to say Mass on the first Sundays, hearing Confessions before Mass. He came by taxi and brought a server with him. Father Dalby officiated on the other Sundays. The time of Mass was altered from 10:30a.m. to 8.30a.m. Father Dalby used come to Woburn Sands by motor cycle, a ‘Panther’ (I believe he was a dispatch rider in the 1914-18 war), he brought along his server on the carrier, and frequently both he and his passenger arrived perished with the cold through travelling at high speed.
After several weeks the portable altar was replaced by one made up by Mr Beresford, the altar table being a trestle table on which was placed the altar stone taken from the portable altar. This arrangement was all right for the Canon, but was too low for Father Dalby, so we had two higher trestles made to suit; then we had to cut five inches off this to suit the Canon’s stature.
It was surprising how our congregation grew in a few weeks. Worshippers came in from several miles distant, many of them being domestic helps. I must mention here Mr T. Casey, a resident of Aspley, who played the harmonium for us at Mass and was a great asset to me Mission. In addition to being a great organist, Tom Casey was our Jazz Band Leader, and was indispensable at our Whist Drives and Dances. Our first Whist Drive and Dance was held on 17th November 1926 at the Woburn Sands Institute; so you will see there was no time lost in starting to raise funds for a church. As a result of our first effort we were able to hand Canon Tonks the sum of £12. Our next Whist Drive and Dance was held on St Patrick’s Day, 1927, at the Aspley Guise Memorial Hall. I would like to mention the help we had from the young folks of Bedford Church. Several times they brought coach-loads of young people to our dances.
In August 1927 the Beresfords left the Fir Tree Hotel to reside near London. We missed their great help very much, but things did not stagnate. The Whist Drives and Dances still carried on. The new proprietors of the Fir Tree Hotel were not of our Faith, but kindly allowed us the continued use of the Club Room; but what a difference there was! We missed the care and preparation which the Beresfords had given to the Club Room. The times of Mass had been altered from 10.30a.m. to 8.30a.m., and on some occasions when we got to the Fir Tree Hotel at 8a.m. we found that the new proprietors were not yet out of bed. Then we had to rouse them, get the key and open up the Club Room which we would find cold, dirty and untidy, and reeking of stale beer and tobacco. We would then hurriedly set to and clean the place up, arrange the altar, wash and fill the cruets, put out the chairs and kneeling pads, and arrange the vestments over chairs to air. As they were usually cold and damp, we placed them near an oil stove we had bought. I remember one occasion when we arrived the room was in great disorder as the local band had spent a jovial Saturday evening there. Band instruments had been left strewn about the floor and on chairs. We had quite a bit of fun collecting them up and stowing them away before starting to clean up and set the room ready for Mass.
It would not be out of place here to mention the confessional. In the corner of the room was a half-glass bar with shelves and a serving hatch. Here sat the Confessor inside a small clotheshorse, on which was draped a patchwork bedspread. The Penitent knelt on the outside in full view of the congregation. There was thus little privacy and we all had to mind our step. How we missed the late proprietors in all this discomfort!
There was one occasion when the Canon arrived when we had not had time to get the confessional properly prepared, and so Priest and Penitent alike had to face partly empty glasses, beer bottles and a four-and-a-half-gallon cask under the counter. I apologised to Canon Tonks for the discomfort of his surroundings. He said: “Never mind, my son, we shall manage”, and calmly carried on as if there was nothing unusual. He was a lovable man and was never flustered. One was always at ease with him.
After carrying on for several weeks in these trying conditions we were able to get the services of a local man (non-Catholic, a part-time postman), to open up the room, clean it, light the stove and air the place. We paid him ninepence per hour. Things were now improving, and we only required to get along early enough to put out the vestments to air. Then there arrived an R.C. man, a wandering tailor, who used the Hotel Saddle Room as a dwelling and workshop. We christened him ‘The Anchorite’. He took over the duties of cleaning out the Club Room and lighting our oil stove. On one occasion, when we arrived we were greeted by a thin curl of smoke from the stove, and an appetising smell of roast cheese and bread. Apparently our stove was being used by him for warmth and culinary purposes.
For several Sundays we had a Father Dunlevy to say Mass. He was an invalid, and was living at Aspley Heath amidst the pine woods for his health.
Soon after this we left the Fir Tree Hotel, and for several Sundays had Mass in the Scouts’ Hut at the back of the council schools. From there we moved to premises at the junction of Sandy Lane and Aspley Heath Road. This was a building which was being altered for use as a tea room. Here we stayed for several weeks, Canon Tonks and Father Dalby continuing to celebrate Mass for us.
Sometime about 1929 or 1930 we had our first resident Priest, Rev. Father Banham, who had rooms in Woburn Sands. Having a priest of our own was a milestone in our progress, and from this date we began to make real progress, this being greatly aided by a Mr and Miss Lyons, a family of means who moved into Wavendon Fields, where Mass was now celebrated several times during the week. Another very good friend to us at this time was Mrs Plowden, of ‘Dawnedge’, Aspley Guise, whose help and generosity we also remember with gratitude; and indeed, there were many others who gave generously of their labour and means during our early difficult days.
In the year 1930 we achieved our own church building. This is how that came about. Another parish in the diocese – St Neots – having bought a disused nonconformist chapel for their use, had no further need of their 1914-18 army hut, and so they gave it to us. The hut was taken down, conveyed to Woburn Sands, and re-erected on a site we had acquired at the corner of Wood Street and Theydon Avenue.
Adjoining the site there was detached cottage in Wood Street which became vacant and was for sale. The cottage was bought by the diocese for use as a presbytery, and, although somewhat small, it was a great asset to the Mission. The diocese loaned the money for the presbytery. It was repaid (£625 2s. 6d.) in 1943.
So now we had our own church and a house for our resident priest, and we felt that at last we had got somewhere. Father Banham worked hard for the Mission, and, with the loyal help of his many friends, we were able to add many little necessities to our army hut for the comfort of the worshippers. We started off with a dozen chairs and some benches without backs. Soon our Congregation got so large that we wanted more seating. We did not have to wait long. Miss E. Montagu (aunt to Mr Lyons) very generously presented the Mission with the fine oak benches now in use.
Our Parish Priest was a very busy man, and the local parishioners were now able to hear Mass daily, either at Wavendon Fields or in our own church. Father Banham was then serving Bletchley as well as Woburn Sands.
About this time our church was licensed for marriages. It had already, however, become too small for our needs. I have seen the place packed so full at times with standing worshippers that they were unable to kneel at the most solemn parts of the Mass. They even overflowed to the gate. The collectors had great difficulty in carrying out their duties, as they could not move through the crowd, so the plates had to wander around on their own inside and outside the church, and eventually return loaded with coppers. So heavily laden with coppers that I have occasionally seen a collector (when he was able to regain possession of his plate), have to transfer some of the contents to his jacket pocket.
There is one thing our Mission can be proud of on the finarv side. We have always had a virile Altar Fund. This has been low at times, but it has always been sufficient to meet the needs of the church. May we always keep it so.
Looking back over the past twenty-three years, our progress has been great. Your Priest goes to your homes to instruct your little ones in their Faith, besides teaching them at Sunday School.
In the old days, children had to walk or cycle five or six miles to Instruction, and to Mass alternately at 9.30a.m., followed in all likelihood by a picnic breakfast on the roadside at about 10.30a.m. They also had to fast once a month. We can appreciate therefore the better facilities for worship, etc., which we now have.
Funds for our new Church are steadily mounting, but we want much more. Building costs are high in these days. We have a grand site for our new church at Aspley Hill. Our present hut is too small; nevertheless we will have many regrets at leaving it, never forgetting that we were part of it – not merely spectators.’
Charles Howard’s account ends with the purchase of the site on Aspley Hill; so I must go back in time to chronicle the years from 1939 to 1955, when the present church was built.
At the time of my appointment to Woburn Sands by Bishop Lawrence Youens, I was Curate to Father Gray at St Ethelbert’s, Slough. On the morning of 3rd February 1939 I found beside my plate at breakfast a letter from Bishop Youens, which read:
Bishop’s House, Northampton.2.2.39 My dear Father Golston, I write to appoint you to the Church and Mission of Woburn Sands in succession to Father Cyril Banham, who is going to Sheringham. The changes will probably take place towards the end of the month. In any case you had better write to Father Cyril Banham. With my blessing, Yours devotedly in Domino Lawrence Bishop of Northampton
My feelings on reading this letter were very mixed; I don’t like change, and I had not even heard of Woburn Sands! However, I concluded that it must be by the sea, so I would like it! How wrong I was! The nearest seaside place is over 100 miles distant!
Eventually I arrived at Woburn Sands with my sister Ada, who had bravely offered to look after me, on 21st February, and my heart sank to my boots when I saw the church; a wooden hut, with what appeared to be a sagging roof! To my relief I found that the interior was better than the exterior, being devotional and well furnished. There were things such as the altar, and the heap of coke by the door, that I did not like; but with the help of a parishioner, Mr Samuel Moorat, a great character and a good carpenter, we soon had a more worthy altar, and a Shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour in place of the heap of coke!
My first Sunday here was the First Sunday of Lent; a good day on which to start what was to be a hard and difficult apostolate, though a very happy one. I was young and welcomed the challenge of a small, poor Mission. There were only 130 Catholics, good, bad and indifferent, and the collection on that first Sunday amounted to £2 5s. 4d. How did we manage?
Well, it meant, for one thing, a life of poverty; no luxuries, not even a chicken on Christmas Day! There were other sources of income: Miss Montagu of Wavendon Fields gave £100 a year; the Poor Mission Fund sent £60; the R.A.F. at Cranfield, to which I was officiating Chaplain, paid about £25. Even so, life was difficult; so, to make ends meet I cultivated the large garden, bred rabbits for food, and kept chickens!
The first Holy Week was a memorable one, in so far as we had to improvise on a large scale, as the ceremonies had never been carried out, and so a Paschal Candlestick, etc., were non-existent. Mr Lyons of Wavendon Fields came to the rescue by adapting a handsome fern stand into a Paschal Candlestick, which did duty for several years! Samuel Moorat made an excellent Repositorium; and a table at the back of the church was the ‘Altar of Repose’. In spite of small numbers, we managed a sung Mass on Maundy Thursday and Holy Saturday, and continuous watching at the ‘Altar of Repose’. The people showed their appreciation by coming in good numbers, though they could hardly have understood the intricate ceremonial! I must make mention here of Mr Cecil Wilton. He was a convert Church of England clergyman and with his wife lived in Weathercock Lane. When I suggested that he should read the Passion of Our Lord on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, he readily agreed, and never have I heard it read more beautifully. He regularly served Mass for me, but eventually had to move to Needham Market in Suffolk, where he died. His body is buried in Aspley Guise Churchyard, together with that of his wife.
So, our first Holy Week and Easter came and went. It had its lighter moments as when George Tomlin, one of the servers, stepped too near the Triple Candle, and as a result, went up in flames! And when Cyril Ingrouille walked straight into the Sanctuary Lamp, and was liberally covered with oil! Cyril continued to do this with unfailing regularity, and in spite of warnings, every Holy Week right up to the last one in the old Church. We came to expect it, and Holy Week would not have been the same without it!
There were other ‘Firsts’ in 1939, as for instance, when we had our first Outdoor Procession of the Blessed Sacrament; going from the church to the presbytery garden, where a temporary altar had been erected. Father Rifflemann, S.C.J., of Bletchley, carried the Blessed Sacrament (he was later interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man). We continued to have our Outdoor Processions even after we had moved to the new church, until the volume of traffic made it impossible.
Then, on Sunday, 23rd July 1939, Mass was celebrated for the first time in Cranfield. The only building we could hire was ‘Anstey’s Cafe’ at Wharley End. It was dubbed by the locals ‘Dirty Dick’s’, and it most certainly lived up to its nickname. What a mopping up operation there had to be before the place was reasonably clean: empty beer bottles, litter of all kinds, and above all an aroma of stale beer, smoke and cats! However, the Papal Flag flew bravely over this makeshift church, and we sang, as lustily as we could, ‘Faith of Our Fathers’, Mrs Gordon, Headmistress of Moulsoe School, and one of the few who had heard Mass in the ‘Fir Tree’ at Woburn Sands, was present, and made all the arrangements. From that time on, Mass continued to be celebrated in Cranfield in various odd places; for one period we used the Dance Hall in Court Road, now Dagnell’s Electronics; then, when we had to leave that, the home of Frank and Kathleen Keany, Harter Avenue. The Keanys were a wonderful family, and did more than anyone to ensure that the Mass continued to be said in the Village. We even for a time used a poultry house, having first to eject the chickens who complained noisily! Eventually the R.A.F. erected a Nissen-hut church, first in Prince Philip Avenue, and then another larger one on the airfield, when the original one had to be dismantled. This was in use every Sunday until 1975, when we began to share a permanent building with other Denominations.
THE WAR YEARS
Did any group of people hear the Declaration of War as we did? I very much doubt it. On that fateful Sunday, 3rd September 1939, the 10.30a.m. Mass was being celebrated, and we had got to the Consecration when, because of the very thin walls of our wooden-hut church, we heard from the radio of our good neighbours, Mr and Mrs Arthur Cooke, the voice of Mr Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister, telling us that England was at war with Germany. There was a strained silence for the rest of the Mass, and I am sure we all expected bombs to be dropped at any moment! However, nothing like that was to happen for some time, and life went on as usual, except for the arrival of children from the Catholic School of St Joseph, Highgate, who were evacuated to Woburn Sands. We did our best to make them feel at home, but they did not stay long, returning to London as there was no immediate danger from bombing.
Bishop Youens, who had ordained me, and appointed me to Woburn Sands, died suddenly at Northampton on 14th November 1939. We were all saddened by his death, and felt it as an almost personal Ioss, for he was a very lovable man, a real Pastoral Bishop.
‘One of the few churches at which Midnight Mass was celebrated in England was the Church of Our Lady, Woburn Sands, Bucks. The little church was packed to the doors.’ So said the Universe in its edition for 29th December 1939. Those who do not remember the 1939-1945 War will doubtless wonder why our church was one of the few to have Midnight Mass that Christmas. It was because of the government order that all windows had to be effectively ‘blacked out’ after dark, so that no light would show to guide enemy aircraft if they were around. As our church windows were small, we obtained heavy curtain material which prevented any light from showing. Of course, no air could enter either, so the atmosphere in that small packed church can be imagined!
As 1939 drew to its close, the fact that there was a war on was brought home to us by the arrival in the village of a company of the Pioneer Corps, contingents of Wrens (Womens Royal Naval Service) at Woburn Abbey, Wavendon House and Crawley Grange, and a lot of civilians of all nationalities who were working for the government in Woburn Abbey (which had been requisitioned) and other large houses in the district. No one knew what work was being done; it was all very ‘hush-hush’, but after the war ended, it was revealed that Sefton Delmar, one-time Editor of the Daily Express was operating from Milton Bryan what was known as the ‘Black Radio’ – broadcasts to enemy-occupied countries, by people who were native to those countries. One of these was Father Elmar James Eisenberger, an Austrian from Gratz, who belonged to the Order of the Knights of Malta. He arrived on my doorstep one Saturday afternoon, and asked if he could say Mass the following day. When I discovered that he would be here for the duration of the war, I had to get him vetted by our new Bishop, Mgr Leo Parker. Evidently the Bishop was satisfied with his credentials, because he gave him permission to say Mass, and faculties to preach and hear Confessions. So, Father James, as he became known, acted, when he was free to do so, as my Curate, and I must put on record here my gratitude to him for all the help he so readily gave, especially at weekends.
Besides acting as Officiating Chaplain to the Royal Air Force at Cranfield, I now became a Chaplain to the Royal Navy and the Army. The Pioneer Corps being stationed in the village could easily get to Mass, but the Wrens, who were quartered in other villages, were not so fortunate. By far the largest contingent was at Woburn Abbey (known as H.M.S. Pembroke III); I tried therefore to celebrate Mass for them whenever I could; and so, because of the war, the Mass returned to Woburn Abbey after a lapse of 400 years, on 21st March 1944. I also said Mass occasionally for the Wrens at Wavendon House and Crawley Grange, a country house, built originally by Cardinal Wolsey but never occupied by him.
Looking back at the statistics for 1939, I feel sure that the following items will be of interest to present-day parishioners and others.
Number of Catholics in the Parish 182
Collected for the Building Fund £349.2.1
Total in hand for the Building Fund £591.2.1
Collected in ‘Bun’ coins £1.18.2
(‘Bun’ coins were copper coins, showing the head of Queen Victoria with her hair done in a ‘Bun’)
Christmas offering £6.12.1¾
The weekly collections seldom reached £3, and remained at that level until well after the war ended; so, what with rationing and such a small income, life was austere.
I have already mentioned our new Bishop, Mgr Leo Parker, who was appointed to succeed Bishop Youens. He came to Northampton Diocese from Salford, where he had been for many years Bishop’s Secretary. On 8th March 1941 he came to Woburn Sands and administered the Sacrament of Confirmation to nine children and four adults, and it is a matter of interest that this was the first time that he had administered Confirmation in the Diocese.
At the end of 1939, the Building Fund stood, as we have seen, at £591.2.1, but this was only a very small percentage of what would be needed to build a permanent church; and so, as all building was suspended for the duration of the war, we therefore concentrated all our efforts on raising money to swell the Fund. I had wonderful people, as indeed I have always had, and they worked so hard organising dances, jumble sales, bazaars, Christmas draws, etc. Some of our bazaars were outstanding successes, one of them making over £200, which in those days was a good sum of money. Then, just as had really got into our stride with all these money-making events, Bishop Parker dropped a bombshell! He wrote to say that he hoped I realised that I owed the Diocese £625.2.6! This shook me, as I had never at any time borrowed money from the Diocese. On making enquiries as to how I had incurred such a debt, I was told that it was owing from the purchase of the presbytery (40 Wood Street). My predecessor, Father Banham, had told me that the Diocese had given the necessary money to buy the house. When I told Bishop Parker that, his reply was typical – ‘We never give money!’ So here was an added and unexpected burden, but we repaid that debt plus interest by 1943.
The spiritual life of the parish was not neglected during these years of fund-raising, two Missions being conducted, one by a Franciscan from Buckingham, the other by a Dominican from Cambridge. Days of Prayer, ordered either by the King or the Hierarchy, were well observed; we also had the Forty Hours Adoration each Lent, and Devotions such as the Holy Hour, Stations of the Cross, and October Devotions. For many of these the church was filled, in contrast to the present time (1976) when they have had to be dropped owing to lack of support. Also, we now had the benefit of Solemn Ceremonies during Holy Week, that is, ceremonial conducted with Deacon and Subdeacon, since, besides having Father James, we also had the assistance of Father Henry Mahy, O.D.C., who came each Holy Week from Wincanton.
Meanwhile, World War II dragged on with terrible destruction and loss of life. Apart from the nation-wide austerity, we in Woburn Sands were not much affected, though one night a German plane dropped a land-mine near the village of Salford. Besides giving us a bad fright, it shattered most of the shop windows in the High Street. Bombs were also dropped at Cranfield and near Aspley Guise, without causing any damage. I did a weekly turn of night fire-watching with others (our task was to extinguish incendiary bombs) in the old Scout hut in Sandy Lane. We did not have to deal with a single bomb but we had some pleasant times together! The war in Europe ended on 8th May 1945 and we in common with other churches in the country, gave thanks to God at Benediction on the following Sunday by singing the Te Deum.
Now we could really direct all our efforts towards building a permanent church. The need for this was becoming more and more urgent as numbers increased. But first, a new site had to be found, as the one on which the wooden hut stood was too small; and, moreover, it was in a side street, which meant that a new church built there would not be easily seen or known. I found what I considered to be a site with a great potential. It was large, it stood on the brow of Aspley Hill, and at once I recalled the words of Our Lord, ‘A city set on a hill cannot be hid’. Yes, this was the spot: a church built here would be seen by all. Could I secure it? Part of it was used for allotments, but the greater part was just rough ground, a mass of brambles and undergrowth. Upon making enquiries I found that it was owned by the Duke of Bedford, so I arranged an interview with the Duke, who was then living in a small house in Woburn as the ‘Abbey’ had been requisitioned. He received me very kindly, but said that he was not prepared to sell a piece of the land; it was the lot or nothing. Now ‘the lot’ amounted to just under three acres, which was much more than we needed, so I had to refer back to Bishop Parker, who empowered me to negotiate for ‘the lot’ – ‘with such a large piece of land, you can have a cemetery as well!’ he said. (The Bishop was very keen on every parish having its own cemetery wherever possible.)
Negotiations for the land were conducted through the Duke’s steward, and it was eventually secured on 22nd February 1949, for £750. Even in those days it was practically a gift! Today it is worth thousands of pounds.
So now we had a really wonderful site for our new church, and an added incentive to work still harder for it. The year 1951 saw the Silver Jubilee of the first Mass celebrated in Woburn Sands, and we were determined to make this a memorable year. A target of £1,000 for the Building Fund was decided on! With only about 300 people this seemed impossible to achieve, but nevertheless we reached it! Jim Foley was elected Chairman of a small Fund-raising Committee, and he proved to be a wizard at getting money. It came in from all kinds of people, and all kinds of places. His Lordship the Bishop of Cloyne sent £20, a worker at Ford’s Dagenham Works sent a week’s wages, and a small boy sending five shillings wrote as follows:
25 Tyrells End 5.4.51 Dear Father,
I have saved my Picture money for God in Lent. Put some to build your Church, and save a bit to buy yourself a cake.
I bought a cake! Apart from fund-raising events, the highlight of the year was a Solemn High Mass of Thanksgiving on 18th July. The Ministers of the Mass were:
Celebrant: Father E Golston
Deacon: Very Rev Canon G. Dalby (Canon Dalby used to say Mass at the ‘Fir Tree’ when he was a Curate at Bedford)
Subdeacon: Father C. Banham (My predecessor)
The Mass concluded with the Te Deum, and a lunch for the visiting clergy followed. Don’t get the impression that the good laity were forgotten! They had a wonderful Garden Party in June. So, the year 1951 was a milestone in the progress of our little Parish. It was time now to start thinking about what kind of a church we could erect on the new site.
A NEW BEGINNING
The need for a larger church was becoming more and more a matter of very great urgency as the old ‘hut’ church could no longer accommodate the numbers who were coming to Mass. People now had to stand not only in the porch, but outside, and almost in the street. Indeed, I recall that on Easter Sundays in the old church, the only way possible to deal with the large number of communicants was for those who had received to go out of the church by the back door, walk down the street and enter again by the front door! Whilst this procedure was good publicity, it could not go on like that for long. By now, the end of 1951, as I have said, we had approximately £8,000 in the Building Fund, a good sum of money but insufficient to build the lovely spacious church we now have. How then did it come to be built? Most people know by now that we were enabled to build our lovely church by the kindness and generosity of Miss Christine Chichester. Very few people, though, know how she came to leave a legacy of some £8,000 to us. So now, for posterity here is the true story of how we came to get it. I have always regarded what happened as Providential, and an answer to prayer.
One Sunday morning (the actual date eludes me) after the 10.30 Mass, I was introduced to a lady, Miss May Ffrench who was staying with Mr and Mrs Lyons at Wavendon Fields. We talked, as people do, mostly about the weather; then she said to me, ‘Father, I wonder whether you can help me? I have an aunt, a Miss Chichester, who has asked me to suggest a small Mission somewhere in England, to which she could leave some money for the building of a church.’ I naturally replied: ‘Of course I can help. What about the Mission here at Woburn Sands?” To this Miss Ffrench replied, ‘Why yes, Father, but the only trouble is, my aunt doesn’t know you or Woburn Sands. I will certainly write and suggest it though.’
I soon received a letter from Miss Chichester, who was living then at Portfaw, County Waterford, Ireland. It was the first of many, many letters, full of questions, some of which I could not answer: ‘How much will the church cost? How many will it seat? Who is to be the architect? To Whom will it be Dedicated? etc, etc.’ She wrote similar letters to Bishop Parker, who handed them to me to be kept in the Parish Archives. These letters showed her to be quite a character and possessed of a sense of humour. In one of her letters to the Bishop she asked to be assured that she would have a Mass said each year for her soul. ‘I don’t want to be left too long in Purgatory,’ she said, ‘and I can’t rely upon my friends to help me when I am gone!’ In one of her last letters she asked for a photograph of me! I sent her one, and I flatter myself that this photo tipped the balance in our favour, for after having received it, she wrote: ‘I have decided to leave you the money, and now I suppose you will pray for me to die soon!’ I didn’t, of course, but it was only natural to hope that she would not live too long! In fact, Miss Chichester died on 18th May 1951, just two years after she had promised the money.
Now, with approximately £16,000 in hand we could really start planning. The first thing to be done was to secure the services of an architect, and my choice was Mr Francis Pollen who was then commencing his career. He produced a sketch plan of a lovely church but he and his plans were firmly rejected, much to my regret, by Bishop Parker, who insisted that I should employ the architect of his choice, Mr John Sebastian Comper FRIBA who had already built St Gregory’s at Northampton, and was eventually to build several more churches in the Diocese. He was the son of Sir Ninian Comper, the famous architect, who was responsible for such glorious churches as St Mary’s, Wellingborough, St Cyprian’s Clarence Gate, and many others. Mr Comper was a good architect, possessed of a charming old-fashioned, very courteous manner. We got on well together, and he eventually produced plans which were acceptable to Bishop Parker who gave permission to start building.
The year was now 1953, and it was eight years since World War II had ended, but new building was still very much restricted. A licence was required, and this could only be obtained in the case of new churches on the recommendation of the Bishop of the Anglican Diocese in which the proposed church was situated. Application was made therefore to the Bishop of St Albans, and in due course the licence was received, and the work of preparing the foundations was begun towards the end of 1954. I believe I am right in saying that ours was the last church for which a licence had to be obtained. Building restrictions were lifted soon after. Tenders had been received from several firms, and the one accepted was that submitted by Messrs Simcox and Usher of Northampton, who contracted to build the Church for £16,700. April 23rd, 1955, the Feast of St George, was the first red letter day of our new church; Bishop Parker laid the Foundation Stone, assisted by the Very Rev Canon J. Thomson of Bedford and Father P. Carey of Bletchley. Amongst the many priests present were Canon Dalby from Luton, Canons E. Stokes (Cambridge) and C. Davidson (Beaconsfield).
The inscription on the Stone had been composed by a noted Latin scholar, Mgr F. Davis, Professor of Theology at Oscott College, Birmingham, where I studied for the priesthood. It reads:
‘Leo, Bishop of Northampton, laid the Stone of this Church to Thee Christ God, in honour of your Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, on the 3rd of April 1955, during the Pontificate of Pope Pius XII.’
After the Ceremony Mr and Mrs Jack Needs kindly provided tea for the Bishop and Clergy in their house, St David’s, Weathercock Lane.
Now that the Foundation Stone had been well and truly laid, work on the church went ahead very quickly, and it was exciting to see the walls rising and the building taking shape. As no such edifice had been erected in Woburn Sands within living memory, it caused quite a lot of comment locally, all very favourable; indeed quite a number of non-Catholics subscribed towards the Fund. One poor woman, however, who was later found to be mentally afflicted, did tell the foreman to stop work because the Government had forbidden me to build a church! Poor Sam Vas quite upset until I explained the situation to him!
The question of a Priest’s house now arose. When I put that to the Bishop, he said that I would have to continue living in the old Presbytery in Wood Street since we had not got sufficient money to build a new one. I told him that the old house could be sold and the proceeds used to build a new one. He replied: ‘You won’t get sufficient to be able to do that.’ He did, however, allow me to try, and right away, without any sort of advertising, it was sold to Mr Herbert of Wavendon for £2,570. (It had originally been purchased by my predecessor for £450!) So now, as the new house was going to cost only just over £3,000, I was allowed to proceed with the building and church and house were built at the same time.
As the work proceeded, we were able to fix a day for the opening of the new church, Monday, 2nd July 1956. For some reason that I have never understood, the Bishop wrote to say that he would delegate me to bless and open the church myself. I cannot recall that this was done for any other new church in the Diocese, because Bishop Parker loved opening churches; so perhaps it meant that he didn’t think so badly of me after all! You see, we had clashed over several details of the new church, particularly the Foundation Stone! However, that is another story perhaps best left untold!
The day before the opening was, in some respects, a very sad one. It was the occasion of the last Mass to be celebrated in the old church. Being a Sunday, it was of course packed as usual, and our sadness was due to the fact that we had all become very attached to this little church, so homely and so devotional. At the end of this last Mass, remembering the many blessings and graces we had received, we sang the Te Deum, after which the congregation dispersed rather sadly, but nevertheless joyfully looking forward to the great event of the next day.
Monday, 2nd July, was, in those days before the revision of the Liturgical Calendar, the Feast of the Visitation of Our Lady, a most appropriate day for the opening, since our new church was to be dedicated to the Holy Mother of God, with the title of ‘Our Lady of the Assumption’. I had asked the Bishop if this could be shortened to ‘St Mary”, and he replied ‘Yes, providing the Anglican church is not called ‘St Mary’s’, because if it is, then the Vicar will be getting letters intended for you!’ Weather-wise the opening day was perfect, not a cloud in the sky. Long before the time fixed for the ceremony (7.30p.m.) priests and people began to assemble, and it was estimated that 400 people were present. As the church could hold only 210, that meant that many had to stand outside. Over the entrance to the church, carved in stone, was the Chichester family motto Ferme en Foy (Norman French) Strong in Faith, a most appropriate motto as we had all needed a lot of faith to achieve our ambition.
Solemn High Mass followed the opening, Father Golston being assisted by Father P. Carey (Bletchley) and Father R. Manley (High Wycombe). Amongst the many priests present was Father R. Atkinson who, as a boy, used sometimes to travel from Bedford with Canon Dalby to serve Mass at the ‘Fir Tree”.
In the congregation were Miss Ffrench, who, you will remember, persuaded her aunt, Miss Chichester, to contact me; the architect, Mr J.S. Comper; Mr Simcox, representing the builders; ‘Sam’, the foreman, and his men who built the church. After the Mass, Mr and Mrs Wells served a buffet supper for everyone in the grounds of their house, St Vincent’s, conveniently situated directly opposite the church.
So, after all the years of struggle and effort, we now had this lovely church, which to us who had been accustomed to a very small makeshift building, seemed almost like a cathedral.
It can now be revealed that a number of people kindly gave furnishings for the church. At the time they wished to remain anonymous, but I feel sure that posterity should know of their kindness and generosity:
High Altar Miss E. Evennett
Side Altar Mr and Mrs T. Doran
High Altar Candlesticks Mrs E. Price
Ebony and Ivory Crucifix Mrs H. Forbes
Our Lady’s Statue Mrs H. Lyons
St Joseph’s Statue Mrs Lowe
Stained Glass Window Mrs Lyons
Silver Gilt Monstrance Mr T Doran
Holy Water Stoup Children of St Vincent’s School
Church Bell Mr and Mrs V. Finbow
Sanctus Bell Miss J. Read
Cemetery Crucifix Mr D. Fearnley-Sander
Baptismal Font The late Mrs H. Phillips
One thing now remained to be done, to set the seal on all the work and effort of past years, and that was the Consecration of our church, to make it truly The House of God’.
There was a small debt, approximately £1,750, which had to be repaid before this final act could take place; as a result of many people’s generosity and money-raising events this was soon done, and then Bishop Parker decided upon 8th May 1957, for the day of the Consecration. Now it is a fact that the Bishop had no special reason for choosing this particular date, it just happened to be a convenient one; but some years later it was found, through researches made into the history of the last days of the old Abbey at Woburn, that this date was the exact day of the month on which St Mary’s Abbey, at Woburn, had been surrendered to Henry VIII exactly 419 years earlier! A truly remarkable coincidence!
The Rite of the Consecration of a Church was in those days a very long and intricate one. In our case it began at 9.30a.m. and we were not out of the church until 1.45p.m.! There is no need here to go into details of the ceremony; all I will say is that in spite of its length it was a most moving ceremony. The principal Consecrator was, of course, our Bishop, assisted by Father P. Carey (Bletchley) and Father D. Jenkinson (St Margaret’s, Luton); Father J. Reffitt, Bishop’s Secretary, was Master of Ceremonies, Mr T Doran assisting A word here about Mr T. Doran – ‘Terry’. Although not one of the few who heard Mass at the ‘Fir Tree’, Terry was here in Father Banham’s time, and for 40 years has been a most loyal and faithful Master of Ceremonies.
The co-Consecrator was Archbishop Aston Chichester, S. J., retired Archbishop of Salisbury, Rhodesia, and a cousin of Miss Chichester. He dedicated the Side Altar to St Joseph. The Archbishop was then in his eightieth year, a huge figure of a man, and a great character. I had met him the previous day at Bletchley Station and was greeted with: ‘Well, Father, I expect you are worried about tomorrow’s ceremonies. I know nothing about them, but I’m not worried! Canon Hunting was his M.C. and he literally had to lead him everywhere, and guide his hand for the anointing of the Altar! At his age he naturally found the ceremony very tiring; so when he had finished, and as there was some time to wait for the High Mass, I took him into the house and gave him a Martini, biscuits and a cigar, which he thoroughly enjoyed. When the time came for the High Mass I went to him and said: The Bishop wants you to be present on the Sanctuary for the Mass.” ‘Oh does he? Well, tell him I am not coming. I have had quite enough and I am enjoying myself!’ I thought that reply was so honest and down to earth. He died on the steps of St Peter’s, Rome, as he was going in to attend one of the Sessions of the Vatican Council. May he rest in Peace!
The High Mass which followed the Ceremonies of Consecration was celebrated by the Very Reverend Canon John Thomson of Bedford, Dean of the Bedford Deanery; after which the Bishops and Clergy were entertained to lunch at the Swan Hotel.
The Consecration of the Church was the culmination of all the sacrifices, all the striving, all the hard work and prayer over the years since that humble beginning on 18th July 1926. I am sure that none of those who were present at that First Mass could possibly have even dreamt that one day, just up the hill there would stand this fine building of which we could now say in the words of the Liturgy, ‘This is the House of God and the Gate of Heaven’.
As soon as we had acquired the site for the new church, Bishop Parker had said we must have a cemetery; so I now started negotiations with the appropriate authorities, beginning with Ampthill R.D.C., and going from them to the County Council, then to the Home Office, which sent an official to view the site. Our proposal had then to be advertised to give anyone who might object an opportunity to state their objections. In the event, three people objected, so this necessitated a public enquiry.
Mr and Mrs Wells kindly allowed us to use a large room in their house for this enquiry, and when the day came an impressive body of people arrived: representatives of the Ampthill R.D.C., an official from the Home Office, Counsels for the Diocese and the Objectors, and our present Bishop, Mgr Charles Grant, who was then Vicar General and represented Bishop Parker. He has always said that it was the funniest meeting of its kind that he ever attended. It certainly was! The Home Office official sat there, taking copious notes in longhand, and indicating from time to time who was to speak. I was called, by one of the objectors, ‘the Italian Priest in charge of the Italian Mission’, to which our Counsel replied: ‘My good friend, Father Golston is most certainly not Italian, since he was born in Ipswich, Suffolk’. ‘You know what I mean,’ said the good lady. ‘Madam, I only know what you said, was the Counsel’s reply.
There was much more in similar vein, but it was really very pleasant, good-humoured and friendly. Anyhow, in the end we won the day, and permission to have a cemetery was granted by the Home Office. The first burial was that of Henry Bonney, which took place on 23rd October 1957. Since that time, of course, many deceased parishioners have been buried in that little cemetery, including my own mother, who spent her last years with myself and my sister.
To these, O Lord, and to all who sleep in Christ, grant we beseech Thee, a place of refreshment, light and peace.”
The handsome wrought-iron cemetery gates were made by S. Pierce and Son, of Bredfield, Woodbridge, Suffolk, and presented by Mrs Price in memory of her father.
Soon after the church was consecrated a Conference of Saint Vincent de Paul was established in the parish. The first President was Mr P. Beavis. He was followed by Mr J. Parkinson, Mr J. Mulroy, Mr C. Ingrouille and Mr C. Phillips, who is still in office.
I mention our S.V.P. because under the presidency of Cyril Ingrouille it made history in a very important way. It was felt by us that the work of the S.V.P. should be open to all Christians of whatever denomination. After much discussion as to the best way to achieve this desired object we invited members of other Churches to sit in at one of our meetings in order to see what was done, and how we did it. As a result of this, two Methodists offered to help with the work we were doing. They could not, at that time, be accepted as members, but they attended the meetings and did valuable work.
When the Diocesan Council and then the National Council were approached on the matter they were at first rather shattered by our proposal, but eventually allowed our arrangements to continue, and ultimately other Christians were granted full membership of the Society. This has now actually been written into Article I of the Constitutions:
‘Membership is open to all Christians of all ages and both sexes, who have the will to commit themselves to active personal service in the works of Charity within the Society.’
At present we have two Methodist members of our Conference, David Firth and John Hesseltine, who are absolutely committed and enthusiastic members of the Society of St Vincent de Paul.
To show what progress has been made in this direction, it is of interest to note that there is now one completely Anglican Conference, at St Cecilia’s, Sheffield. So, in this way our local S.V.P. Conference made history.
At both the opening and the Consecration of our church the clergy of other Churches were not present. This was not through any fault of theirs – they were not invited! In those days, before Vatican II, this was one of those things which were simply just not done, we were far apart from each other; though, from the beginning of my ministry here I was always on friendly terms with the neighbouring clergy. I remember especially in this connection the Rev John Shelton, for many years Vicar of Woburn Sands. He and I were great friends; I was often invited to the Vicarage for tea, and I was with him the day before he died. But it would never have occurred to either of us to pray or worship together or to attend each other’s Services.
Today, thanks to the new spirit of Ecumenism we are no longer far apart, but very close; on occasions we worship together, and all the time we pray and work together for the establishment of God’s Kingdom. This is how it should be, and when our great day of Jubilee comes, all the clergy of other Churches will be with us to join in our thanks to God.
I now come to the end of this brief history of our Parish since that day, 18th July 1926, when Canon Tonks offered the first Mass in the Fir Tree Hotel. In going back over the records of the past years, I have realised more than ever how very much we have been blessed by God, and how very blessed I have been in having, over the many years that I have been here, such good, loyal and devoted people.
If I do not mention by name the living, it is only because they are too numerous; but I do feel that present-day parishioners should be reminded of those ‘who have gone before us in the sign of Faith and sleep in the sleep of Peace’, those who did so much in so many ways for the Parish:
Rt Rev Mgr T. Leo Parker, Bishop of the Diocese when the church was built.
Most Rev Archbishop Aston Chichester, S.J., co-Consecrator of the church.
Rt Rev Mgr Provost J. Tonks and Very Rev Canon G. Dalby, both of whom said Mass at the Fir Tree Hotel.
Rev Cyril .Banham, first resident Priest, who did so much to lay a good foundation.
Rev Henry Mahy, O.D.C., who helped during Holy Week.
Ella Montagu – benefactress.
Henry M. Lyons – benefactor.
Mother Lyons of the Cenacle Order.
Christine Chichester, whose benefaction made possible the building of our church.
Richard C. Wilton, Reader.
Lewis S. Moorat, who did much work in the old church.
Charles Howard, Secretary of the Altar Society, and one of the ‘pioneers’.
Brigadier and Mrs Beresford, Proprietors of the Fir Tree Hotel.
Mr H. O. Evennett, Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, who so often led the Chants in Holy Week.
Cyril Ingrouille, Altar Server, S.V.P. President, and a tower of strength in so many ways.
Mrs E. Green and Mrs H. Doran, both of whom helped with bazaars and children’s parties.
Edward Hersee, Chairman of the Church Council and S.V.P. member.
Mrs H. Phillips, who helped me to catechize the children.
And many others, who each in their own way, did much to help build up a loving, caring Community.
Finally, I express my gratitude to Miss G. Frith, who so patiently and so painstakingly typed my manuscript.
EDMUND J. GOLSTON
24th November 1975
Due to the generosity of Father Stanislaus Andrew Condon in (a) publishing his memoirs online for free, and (b) giving me permission to use the last chapter here, I am now able to bring the story up to 2004. The following is the last chapter from his online book “Communicating With God: One Person at a Time“, the whole of which is available at www.publicbookshelf.com and is the remarkable story of his life. Sadly, he passed away in January 2012.
Chapter 10 – Woburn Sands
By 1985 Fr. Edmund (Ted) Golston had been parish priest at St. Mary’s Woburn Sands for 46 years! It remains one of the mysteries of our religion how this could ever have happened. He went there as a young priest just four years after I was born and certainly it would have been cruel to have moved him after the first 25 or 30 years. He was happy, his parishioners were happy and somehow (one theory is that he ‘had something’ on a succession of Bishops) he became an institution. For ten years or so his health had not been good and the time had come for him to feel that he should retire. At the celebration of his Golden Jubilee various priests concelebrating the Mass in the beautiful church and being feasted in the extensive grounds were casting envious eyes on the parish and, if clergy had been prone to gambling, a book would have been started as to who would inherit this ‘plum’ of a parish.
Through Providence, pure good luck, warped sense of humour by the Bishop (Bishop Francis Thomas by then) or for whatever reason a complete outsider who had never been considered a runner nor himself even thought of going there was made an offer he could not refuse. The Bishop said that in exchange for keeping on the schools and Education Committee would I like to go to Woburn Sands? Reminding him that, technically, I did not owe him any obedience because of the error made at my ordination, I nevertheless followed the pious practice of not arguing with bishops. The takeover date was set, by amicable negotiation, for the middle of October and since all the other moves (one move in the Diocese having the domino effect of creating six or seven others) all took place some six weeks earlier, I became officially homeless – the Bedford presbytery and parish got its new incumbent while Fr. Golston was more than welcome to take his time, wind down, make his farewells to his many friends and gradually move into retirement to Ipswich, the place of his birth.
By yet another stroke of incredible luck the Provincial House in Clapham was closing down just at this time and the Sisters were ‘down-grading’ to a much smaller property in Northampton. The retreat centre with its 40 or so rooms and facilities was empty, furniture and effects were being auctioned and there was every reason to suspect that any self respecting burglar would have his greedy eyes on the place. What better protection than having a chunky priest and his Boxer dog (Butch had, sadly, gone to his reward and Bonzo taken his place) living in the centre – out of suitcases – as a night watchman in return for a comfortable bed and generous board. On several occasions young Bonzo went mad in the middle of the night and barked up and down the corridors but it is a moot point whether this was because of rabbits, wild deer or just sheer exuberance or whether he was actually putting the frighteners on prowlers and potential burglars.
Nothing untoward happened, I led a peripatetic existence for several weeks going over to Woburn Sands a few times to be shown the ropes and great kindness by Fr. Golston, fed by his housekeeper sister and doing my very best not to give him the impression that he was dragging his feet a bit with the move. Hopefully I succeeded. He was a gentle and kind old gentleman and the parish had been his whole life for so long that he deserved to be given time to leave.
Eventually I moved in and all the gloomy prophecies of my fellow clergy came to be fulfilled. They all said that following a dearly loved and greatly respected priest after 40 odd years would be horrendous. Some had the theory – actually aired in front of the Bishop – that the worst, most ratty and difficult priest ought to be sent there, create havoc for six months or so and then moved out to be replaced by the real, new parish priest. People would be so glad to be rid of the awkward one that the new man would be welcomed with open arms. The Bishop smiled and indicated that, perhaps, that was exactly what he was doing! Is our custom of not consulting with parishioners (and not all that much with the priest) an advantage when new appointments are made? It is certainly simpler and quicker since few parishioners know anything of their new priest and the priest himself can always claim, when he faces disaster, that he did not ask to be moved and was just acting out of holy obedience.
Bonzo and self stood there on a Thursday afternoon in a more or less empty house having just witnessed a large rat taking refuge from us by scampering under the old wooden hall. The house was large, the church traditional (no sloping floors, no space heaters), the grounds vast when a tall gentleman knocked on the door, regarded us sadly and stated the obvious: “You will have a job living up to Fr. Golston”. It was a welcome and it was well meant but it was echoed on Sunday when people came into church and you could see them thinking exactly the same. They missed their priest and friend and many were hoping that I would become a sort of junior version.
Many – especially the older parishioners – went out of their way to welcome me, even if in a rather guarded fashion. My response was not calculated; just seemed a good idea at the time. I went round for the first three months or so being more gormless than usual, trying not to change anything deliberately, making it clear that there would be times when I would have to be doing other things than just being there, being more of a loner than ever.
Hard, manual work is a great refuge and on coming to a new parish there are always things which ‘had always been so’ but really did need mending because they were broke but all had got accustomed to the parish just ticking over nicely and nobody rocking the boat. The church doors of fine timber were bone dry and got several coats of linseed oil – which also meant that I was there, doing it, being seen and meeting people as they passed or dropped in to say a prayer and tell me I was putting it on upside down. When it rained the car park became a lake since the soak-away drain could not cope and “It’s been like that for years, Father.”
Donning my monkey suit I lowered myself some four feet into the drain to find a thick bed of gravel, papers, cigarette ends and years of debris blocking the outlet. Slowly sinking deeper as I shovelled all this out I was beginning to win, my head was still just showing over the top when the heavens opened and the whole drain was filled up again while I stood in the church porch, soaked, having a smoke and determined to finish the job now that I could not get wetter or dirtier. The rain stopped, the silt was all cleaned out and lo and behold – when it rained again the drain coped. My reputation as a drain cleaner had been established, I had a professional set of rods and no future blockages in house, church or hall ever defeated me.
In spite of every effort, things were bound to be changing and there was an unhappy feeling in the parish that this new man was not a patch on old Fr. Ted. I was out on school business one or two days a week and lots of evenings were spent at long-winded, boring and utterly useless meetings of various Governors; with the additional work caused by a new upper school about to be started in Milton Keynes. Sunday Masses had to be shifted a bit and accelerated because, now that this fit and super-efficient priest was in residence, Cranfield was returned to the parish. There was an unease, a sense of resistance, a fear that the work of 40 years would, somehow, be destroyed and lost. Christmas came round and with it the chief source of income for priests who, many do not realise, get no salary – the customary Christmas Offering. An envelope appeared containing two bright new pennies and a note – anonymous – saying: ‘This might become more when you become a proper priest’. It did nothing to make it a happier Christmas but, publishing a photocopy in the next news sheet, resulted in a miraculous change of attitude and a wave of sympathy and empathy for this odd-ball who had been inflicted on the parish.
Things improved by leaps and bounds. The impossible was never achieved – pleasing everybody all the time – but the parish council was allowed to wither away to be replaced by general consultation with all, the church made more cosy with a carpet and a curtain behind the altar (the crucifix retained by popular demand even though the incumbent continued to find it ‘odd’), St. Joseph lifted up so communicants going back to their places did not smash their heads on his plinth, the leaking Lady Chapel roof eventually and permanently sealed and some efforts made to discourage a certain amount of traditional isolationism by making links with neighbouring parishes.
The grounds around the house had been a vegetable and flower garden but had recently gone a bit wild and boasted one heap of healthy manure and another one of logs for the fire. Not being a gardener nor wanting the labour of an open fire a few trips with the trailer to the local tip solved that problem and a pony followed by Buster the donkey were installed to keep the grass down. Buster was six months old and a great pet, a focus of interest for parishioners young and old and featured in several newspapers and magazines – with pictures of priest and donkey being differentiated by the number of legs . More pets came along as the years went by; not all of them there all the time at the same time; Milton the sheep – who, as all sheep, started as a cuddly lamb and grew up to be huge, free range with a bell round his neck and once gate crashed a wedding ceremony; several goats who ate everything except what they were meant to eat, some pot-bellied pigs who were so ugly they were beautiful, guinea fowls who eventually flew away, two geese who disgraced themselves by nesting on a headstone in the cemetery and had to be deported, ducks, chickens, turkeys for Christmas (but the fox got them during Advent), noisy cockerels who caused neighbours to complain, were too fast to catch in daylight and roosted up a tree at night (had to shoot them down with a double-barrelled shotgun – legally acquired and held!); barn owls and kestrels plus some chipmunks who were incredibly swift and eventually made their escape to live wild for a few months and, of course, dogs and a lovely cat called Smokey.
[Does the use of ‘who’ with animals have some deep significance? Perhaps a blurring of the difference between animals and humans – or just bad grammar.]
Clapham Convent had closed and the chapel was in the process of being dismantled. The altar and tabernacle went to a church in Bedford while the mosaic of Our Lady stood outside, forlorn, unwanted and going begging. Off I went with my trusty trailer, nobody having told me just how incredibly heavy this mosaic really was, levered it on and set off only to have the undercarriage collapse at the Clapham Road roundabout. There was no way it could be abandoned there, no AA man would accept it as a natural breakdown, so I hauled it – wheel-less – all the way to St. Thomas More school car park; leaving a double scar in the tarmac marking my passage. Next day a builder friend and strong assistant loaded it on a lorry and brought it to Woburn Sands where it can now be seen displayed in all its splendour. A parishioner designed and erected the shrine and the whole undertaking met with universal approval – almost.
One lady complained bitterly and repeatedly that she could not now see her mother’s grave as she approached the cemetery until she actually reached the gates. You can’t win ’em all!
The rat that had scuttled off on my first arrival lived comfortably with his extended family under the old wooden hall which had served the parish well through the years but was certainly now on its last legs. Discussions about a new hall got bogged down on the prohibitive cost for a even a humble one. Through a stalwart parishioner a local builder came forward and offered to build a new hall to the tune of £100,000 – free – on the one condition: that we name it after his mother-in-law who had died recently. My instant response was that we would gladly call it ‘Beelzebub’s Den’ if required, we shook hands on the deal, the news was announced, plans displayed and work started more or less immediately. Most people were overjoyed and amazed but surprisingly many found the whole thing a threat complaining that a new building would cut down the grass area, would change the nature of the parish, would shatter the peace of the place, would create a security risk and be a magnet for vandals and why not build it on the same side as the house and – one lady insisted – the entrance should face the cemetery, not the car park.
It occurred to me that the Diocese ought to be told about this deal and how it would enhance the value of the parish. The financial gurus went berserk. No contract had been signed, the builder would charge us a fortune, no matter what his offer or promise may have been, ownership would be disputed, the scheme had not been considered nor approved by Diocesan architects, surveyors and planners and no estimates had been invited on a competitive basis. By heroic and suicidal efforts I managed to keep Diocese and Builder from actually meeting face to face since threats on the telephone nearly resulted in the whole offer being withdrawn. Finally the Bishop ‘happened’ to drop in, looked at the foundations being laid, confirmed that the whole thing was a bit unorthodox but since I was the person in charge of the parish he would leave the whole matter to me and trust in my judgement. Quite touched and greatly relieved, the work progressed, the hall was built, the area of car park doubled, the exit on to the main road made less of a Russian roulette and – eventually – even the doubters had to accept that it was a great asset and a promise faithfully fulfilled to the tune of £120,000; of which the parish paid some £8,000 through the years as a sign of good will while the rest was finally written off the builder’s books and the hall is all ours with no strings attached – and myself avoiding unfrocking by a whisker.
Am not sure what happened to the rat(s).
The years went by with all the usual parish activities, spiritual and social, the local population increasing, a real chapel being acquired at Cranfield through the good offices of the natives and the generosity of the University authorities, the cemetery was quietly extended by letting the old fence fall and erecting a new one a bit further down our field (on the old principle that if you don’t ask for permission to extend then you won’t get a refusal), the church was internally decorated without recourse to the Liturgy Commission nor Architect (it was white and blue and remained the same so nobody other than the locals noticed) and after ten years or more I was not seeking to move but willing to practise some more obedience if required but otherwise keeping my head down. New laws made it illegal for anyone to be a Governor of more than two schools at the same time. Which let me off the hook a bit and gradually, encouraged by my growing lack of conviction in the whole principle of Catholic schools, I managed to palm off all my jobs. The County Education Council was re-formed and this gave me the perfect opportunity to resign with due dignity and lose the only perks the job ever had – free parking under County Hall and access at any time to make a cup of coffee and have a free biscuit.
To make life interesting and avoid any danger of getting into the proverbial rut, I broke my leg and had lengthy complications resulting in many months of living on pain killers, saying Mass sitting on a bar stool behind the altar and ruining many a wedding photograph by perching on crutches between bride and groom. For the first week I drove my own car using my right leg to depress the clutch. It was pointed out that this was an illegal and lethal practice and my insurance company would not be happy. A generous parishioner let me use a large automatic Mercedes for about eight weeks which made me feel like a bishop until it came to filling up the tank and I found that it did about 15 miles a gallon. After a bit the gear changes on my own car became possible even though quite painful. Then I got shingles and was cheerfully told by many that a trusted ‘old wive’s tale’ had it that when the rash met round the middle you would die. It did not and I did not. This was followed by operations on both eyes – within a period of some six months – to remove cataracts. For ages the world seemed to be getting dimmer and the print in the altar missal less distinct, sign posts were mere splodges and the best way to drive was just to follow the car ahead and hope that he/she was going in my direction. The operations were very simple, I managed to drive on one eye at a time and not lift heavy weights for a few days, was continually being amazed at how bright colours could be but was bitterly disappointed with one aspect of life: not all the girls were beautiful.
The church heating packed up after a great flood filled the cellar (and, incidentally, drowned eleven tiny ducklings. All this during a Saturday evening Mass. I managed to bring the little bodies into the house in front of the gas fire and through warmth, warm milk and brandy, resurrected six of the bodies. They grew and matured, were tame and friendly only to be slaughtered by a fox all in one night some six months later). A new and very efficient system was eventually installed after some hand-to-hand fighting with the Diocesan financiers (whose delight it seems to be to complicate life for the simple) but the great, six foot deep hole in the middle of the aisle which used to blow out hot air was now a useless cavity. I suggested we ought to leave it there to serve as my grave eventually so that the parishioners could continue to walk all over me. Instead the incredible happened – the hole was filled in and a mosaic designed and laid by a Cranfield parishioner topped off the filling and nobody – absolutely nobody – criticised it, disliked the design, ever tripped over it or suggested we ought to have left the hole for posterity.
Time was passing, the old man getting older, changes constantly threatening, directives from the Diocese, from Health and Safety, Liturgical Commissions, Deanery initiatives, Ecumenical amalgamations, Musical and Catechetical innovations flooding in and getting more and more difficult to ignore as the parish did start getting into a comfortable and mostly (one hopes) happy rut. It seemed a good idea to tell the bishop about wanting to retire, set a date, prepare the parish by dishing out the multitude of little jobs the priest does simply because he is there and put into practice the long-held theory that an old priest in a parish starts doing more harm than good. After just over 18 years in Woburn Sands I retired, having served for close to 45 years all told, on January 1st 2004.
I am very grateful for surviving the war and then being accepted by this country and the Diocese. I feel I have been very fortunate in the parishes to which I had been sent and seemed to have been able to survive, even fall on my feet, throughout. I do not feel and do not even try to judge if and how much good effect I may have had through the years and with hindsight there are many things I would do very differently if there was a second time round, but I certainly do not regret having become a priest. In principle never ecstatically happy, I was more contented with my lot than I ever let on. But there is a deep sadness that through those years I seem to have ‘presided’ – no doubt with others – over a decline in faith and practice; and even a greater regret that we do not seem to have learnt very much.
We still worry about and even argue about so many things which are unimportant and have even been proved to have been negative and even harmful to people in general. But I retain a firm and simple belief that Our Lord, who founded the Church – people – knew and knows what he is doing, will continue to look after it in his own way and often probably in spite of all the brilliant ideas I myself and others have about its benefit and future.
It would be fascinating to be around in the year 2225 or so to see just what a good job He will most certainly have done – and how the priesthood will have survived and changed: married priests, women priests, priests working with confidence doing the things for which ordination has marked them out, the people who make the Church playing a full part in the purpose for which the Church was founded.
Page last updated Dec. 2018.