of St Mary's Church Newsletter - Special Supplement - The Catholic
Community in Cricklade
Catholic Community in Cricklade
BEFORE THE LAST WAR, there were only a few Catholic residents in
Cricklade. However, Miss Cecilia Willant, in her notes on the history of
the Fairford Mission, states that Fr Edmond MacSweeney, the Parish Priest
of Fairford, "was instrumental in reviving the Faith in
Cricklade". This is supported by evidence from the Catholic
Directories for 1938-1943, which gives details of a weekly celebration of
Mass in the town at 8-30am. Parishioners remember Fr MacSweeney cycling
over from Fairford to celebrate this Mass and to teach the Catechism to
the children. This first Mass centre was located in the old schoolroom in
Gas Lane, a building that had been used for a time as a cinema and is now
a motorcycle workshop.
Our most senior parishioner who remembers these early days is Mrs.
Eileen Bowsher who came to settle in Cricklade on 1st September 1939.
Other resident Catholics included Mrs Margaret Ridge of Hope Cottage and
her daughter remembers her cleaning the room for Mass and putting flowers
on the altar each week. Mrs Bond, the wife of Major Bond, who lived at
what is now Cricklade Country Club, also came to Mass. She was a foreign
lady and attended Mass with her staff, Mr and Mrs Gannon. John Dunne came
to Blake Hill Farm with the contractors George Wimpy in 1943 and was later
to marry a local woman. Mrs Joan O'Leary, former Deputy head of Prior Park
Preparatory School, first came to Cricklade as a land girl in 1942. She
lived on a farm in Bentham and then returned in 1949 to settle with her
husband Joe at Sutherlea in Purton Stoke.
Father MacSweeney, the founder of the Cricklade Mission, was born in
County Cork and ordained Priest for the Diocese of Clifton in 1913 at
Downside Abbey. He was appointed to Fairford in June 1932 where he
laboured with notable zeal until his retirement, because of ill health, in
September 1963. He died on 3rd June 1972 at St Angela's Convent in
Clifton. He was a loveable character and respected by Catholics and
non-Catholics in and around Fairford. He took a great interest in sporting
events in the area and when duties permitted he would go with the local
lads to football matches. He also organised band contests and was for five
years the chairman of the Bull Hotel Skittles Club. During his time in
Fairford the parish changed from being a tiny rural one into a very busy
one. Of the thousand or so workmen employed on the construction of
Fairfield aerodrome, many were Catholic and he was appointed as chaplain to the Catholic employees of Sir Robert MacAlpine & Co
Ltd, the main contractors. Secondly, with the outbreak of the war, the new airbase was occupied by
the United States Air Force and "Father Mac" served as chaplain
for eighteen months and helped out when necessary. There were also more
than a thousand Polish Nationals at the hostel in Fairford Park.
It was probably as a result of this changed pastoral situation in Fairford that Father Mac Sweeney became
unable to supply the spiritual needs of the small congregation at
Cricklade and so the mission was transferred into the care of St Peter's
Parish in Cirencester. This is confirmed by the Catholic Directories for
the years 1943 to 1946 which refer to the clergy from Cirencester
supplying a weekly Mass at Cricklade every Sunday at 9-00am. Philip
Coppenhall remembers accompanying Father Staunton to serve this Mass in
the former cinema in Gas Lane and also, during the construction of the
Warat bases, the U.S. forces at Blake Hill and at Down Ampney. The war
brought new people to the town so that out of a normal congregation of
seventeen or eighteen over two thirds of them would have been members of
H.M. Forces and the Women's Land Army who were stationed in this area.
Until 1944 South Cerney was the only RAP base in this area; the airfields
at Fairford, Down Ampney and Blake Hill were only opened fifteen months
before the end of the war in Europe. Father Thomas Patrick Staunton was Parish
Priest of Cirencester from April 1932 until November 1952. He was assisted
by various priests including Fathers John McGrath, Peter Jones and Francis
Daly who acted as Parish Priest from the time of the death of Father
Staunton until the appointment of Father John O'Donnell.
In 1946 the need for a preparatory school for Prior Park College in
Bath had long been felt and the blitz, together with an overwhelming
demand for places emphasised this need. The Christian Brothers who ran the
college got word of the sale of "The Hermitage" (The Manor
House) in Cricklade. Within a fortnight the deposit had been paid and the
house and grounds secured. The Christian Brothers took possession of the
Cricklade property on August 26th 1946 and on September l8th the new
school was opened. The first community consisted of Brother Dositheus
O'Connell, the Superior, Brother Conrad Hayes, Brother Francis Hennessy,
Brother Conleth Browner and Brother Baylon Lyons. The following Saturday Bishop Lee blessed the house, chapel (situated in what is now
the library) and furnishings and on the next day celebrated the first
Mass. In his address he spoke of this as being a 'red-Ietter' day for
Prior Park, for the new Preparatory School and for the town of Cricklade,
adding, "You have been chosen by Providence to be the cause of
bringing back the Blessed Sacrament to Cricklade after a lapse of four
During the following year the staff of Prior Park was joined by a new
matron, Mrs Madge Kelly, who was to be for many years part of the life of
the school. The Catholic Directory for 1947 tells us that the Chaplain at
Prior Park Preparatory School was Father Francis Meegan and that he
celebrated a public Mass at 9-00am each Sunday. In the directory for 1948
there is mention of an additional celebration of Mass at the same time at
Cricklade Camp. In October of that year Father Meegan was appointed
Chaplain at St Clotilde's School at Lechlade and Father Thomas Walshe
briefly succeeded him. The Clifton directories tell us that Father John Bernard Madden was chaplain at
Prior Park from 1950 until his death on 12th August 1969.
Even though there was now a Catholic chapel at Prior Park the
townspeople continued to worship in hired accommodation. In 1949 Sunday
Mass was celebrated in a Nissen hut at Waylands, next to the old Fire Station.
This had been a billet for army personnel but it served as the Catholic
Church until it was demolished. John Dunne remembers how sometimes only
four or five people would attend Mass there and Joan O'Leary recalls her daughter Mary Clare being
baptised there. On 30th March 1949 Father Staunton wrote to the Bishop
suggesting the purchase of the former Baptist Chapel and adjoining cottage
to replace the "little hut, which could be taken away from me at any time ". The Nissen hut was
demolished and during the early 1950's Mass moved to the Town Hall. George
Walsh, who lived opposite the Town Hall at the time, would light the
overhead heaters, prepare the altar and set up the chairs early each
On All Saints' Day 1952 the Parish Priest, Father Thomas Staunton, died
whilst celebrating Mass. He had recently returned after along absence due
to a serious illness followed by convalescence in Ireland. He had been
Parish Priest at Fairford from 1925 until 1932 before succeeding Fr Groome
at Cirencester. He was known as a brilliant scholar and spoke five
languages. His obituary described him as a much loved pastor -"a quiet man, very dapper and correct, always
paying attention to details ". The new Parish Priest, Father John
O'Donnell, was not appointed until 1954. He was a relatively young man when he
came to Cirencester and had served as the first Parish Priest at
Stow-on-the-Wold and then as Parish Priest of Sacred Hearts in Charlton
Kings. Like Father Staunton he quickly gained the respect of his parishioners and during his ministry in Cirencester he increased the
number of Masses at St Peter's and oversaw the growth of the congregation
as new people came to settle in the area. It was this man who, in his first year at Cirencester, was to realise
Father Staunton's dream and provide the Catholics of Cricklade with
their first proper place of worship.
Back in 1852 the Particular Baptists opened a chapel in Calcutt
Street. Some of their baptisms took place - at Hatchetts ford -a large,
deep, reed and rush-fringed inlet of the River Thames. The
converts were baptised by total immersion and for some time two
broughams were hired (one for each sex) to return the dripping
participants to the chapel. The church flourished and maintained its own pastor until the First World War, but
afterwards numbers declined and it was eventually closed in 1937. The
building fulfilled a very different role in World War II when it became a WRVS
canteen providing relaxation and refreshment mainly for airmen from the
nearby Down Ampney and Blake Hill aerodromes. After the war the old building ceased to have a use and the chapel was not actually
purchased until 1955 when it was acquired through another party, as the
Baptists did not want the property to be acquired for Catholic worship.
The cost of purchase was £525.
The "Catholic Herald" of 11th March 1955 reported that "Catholics
in and around Cirencester have purchased a Baptist chapel in Swindon Road,
Cricklade, Wilts, at a cost of
£515 (sic), and that it will be converted into a Catholic church -the first ill the town since
the Reformation. It will be dedicated to St Augustine, who is reputed to have met the Welsh Bishops at a ford
at Cricklade on his way to Wales. Catholics in Cricklade have been
attending Mass in a hut and later in
the Town Hall. The new church will be served from Cirencester". The
new church was opened and its dedication served to keep alive the ancient
tradition that St Augustine met with the Celtic bishops at St Augustine' s Oak near Down
Ampney and that he healed the blind man at nearby Lertoll's Well.
Not only was there a new place of worship for the Catholic townspeople
but also in 1968 a new purpose-built chapel was erected at Prior Park to the
design of F.W.Beresford - Smith of Bath. As we have seen the school had
its own resident chaplain and this even continued after the Christian
Brothers withdrew from the school in 1980. Father Edward Hickey was
chaplain from 1969 until 1971. His obituary recorded that he "also
had the pastoral care of the small Catholic community in the town ".
Father Edwin Gordon was chaplain from 1976-1978, Father Eamon McGlinchey
was chaplain from 1978 until Christmas1983, when he became Parish Priest
of Fairford, and Father Louis Ward, a Fransalian, succeeded him and stayed
until 1988 when the Chaplaincy passed to Holy Rood Parish in Swindon.
Joan O'Leary remembers Mass being celebrated in St
Augustine's and many of the people who attended - Jim Mc Hale, Patrick and
Frances Lanney, Eileen Bowsher who prepared the altar, Maisie New who
played the organ until her death in 1980, George Walsh and his daughter
Doreen Cove, John Dunne and many others. Her husband, Joe, was a strong
In April 1978 the first constitution was drawn up for
the newly established Parish Council for St Peter's, Cirencester, and for
many years Joan O'Leary was the representative for St Augustine's. On 13th
October 1982 Mrs Geraldine Dudley, then a new parishioner, called an open
meeting at St Augustine's Church to discuss the future. By this time
difficult decisions needed to be taken as St Augustine's had fallen into a
bad state of repair. Was the building to be restored or closed and new
premises found. At this time the redundant Anglican Church of St Mary was
lying empty and unused. As a result of this meeting we find further
discussion at the November meeting of the Cirencester Parish Council.
Consideration was given to the acquisition of St Mary's Church. It was
thought that between £10,000 and £12,000 would need to be spent on
putting the building in good order but it was felt that "it was
unlikely that the Cricklade parishioners would be able to support the
By March 1983 the Cricklade area had passed from the
care of Father O'Donnell, the Parish Priest of Cirencester to Father
Patrick Evans, the Parish Priest of Fairford. However, it should be said
that Father Eamon McGlinchey, the chaplain at Prior Park, was helping to
look after the Mass Centre at Cricklade. When Father O'Donnell died on 31st October 1987, only months after celebrating his Golden Jubilee of
Priesthood, Canon John Lewis, the Vicar of Cirencester, said " Father
O'Donnell was a much loved figure in the town, being much liked and highly
respected. I was sorry to hear of his death, and he will be much
missed by very many people ". During the years that he served
Cricklade he was assisted by a succession of curates and these included
Fathers Patrick Lynch, Michael Meehan, William Dee, James Stirrat, Timothy
Crowley, Patrick Evans, Thomas O'Donovan and Peter Kennedy.
Bishop Mervyn wrote to the Anglican Diocese of Bristol
on 28th March 1983 stating that he was corresponding at the request of
Father Patrick Evans in Fairford, "who ministers also the people
and area of Cricklade". The letter continued:
"He is negotiating the possible transfer of St
Mary's Church in Cricklade, and he has been careful to keep me informed of
developments. I wish to assure you that he has my support and
confidence in this matter. The diocesan trustees are in principle
supportive of this move, subject to satisfactory reports from surveyors,
On 27th June 1983 an inspection was made of the
building by Messrs. S.W. Hookway and Company, Chartered Quantity Surveyors
for Father Evans. In a covering letter it was noted that "the
extent of repairs needed initially, depends upon the degree of comfort and
style that would be required by the local congregation. Or to put
it another way, how much discomfort can they tolerate". This
report, which cost £115 to carry out, was considered to be sufficiently
encouraging to proceed further. At about this time there was an article in
the Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard, which is worth reproducing in
"Hopes for new lease of life for St Mary's -
Religious Services could be resumed at a redundant Cricklade Church within
12 months. Roman Catholics in the town are hoping to take over St
Mary's church, which has been unused for over two years. The Anglican
church became redundant in 1981- 28 years after the two Cricklade
parishes amalgamated under the one roof of St Sampson 's. St Mary's was
used for occasional services after the amalgamation. Father Patrick
Evans said last week that both the Anglican and Catholic Dioceses
were keen to see a deal go ahead. "We just have to bide our time. The
wheels of the law and church grind very slowly, " he added.
Father Evans leads a congregation of about 75 Catholics
at Cricklade. Since the early 50's they have met at a small, former
Baptist chapel in Calcutt Street. The move to slightly bigger
premises in the High Street will be welcomed. "It would
be a great tragedy for a beautiful old church like St Mary's to be put to
a purely secular use - as a warehouse, art studio or whatever. We would
like to see it kept very much for the purpose for which it was built, "
said Father Evans.
The Rev. Ken Withington, vicar of St Sampson's, was
just as happy with the proposal. "We will be delighted if the
local Roman Catholics can take over St Mary's because this will mean it is
used for Christian worship again every Sunday, which is what it was
intended for, " he said.
St Mary's Church is a small but beautiful building
in Cricklade High Street. Its oldest features date back to Norman times in
the 12th century. Many alterations, additions and improvements
have been made over the centuries. Basically the church seemed in a good
state of repair, explained Father Evans. Some work was needed on the
roof and it would have to be decorated inside. The Catholics hope
to lease the building for a 'peppercorn' rent. There are no plans
for the old chapel in Calcutt Street.
In response to this article Reg Coole wrote to Father
Evans expressing his delight that the St Mary's might be used again for
worship and wishing the Catholic community success in the venture. He also
enquired whether St Augustine's might be leased by the Cricklade
Historical Society as a venue for the museum, which was then housed in a
tiny building in the High Street.
Things seemed to be progressing well but in August 1983
Father Evans ceased to be Parish Priest. Father Eamon agreed to become
Parish Priest of Fairford and Cricklade but he continued to teach at Prior
Park until Christmas and so was not inducted until 7th February
1984. Immediately he was thrown into the negotiations regarding St Mary's
and St Augustine's and for a time the latter was closed and Mass was,
celebrated in Prior Park chapel.
On 1st October 1983 Bishop Tinsley, Bishop
of Bristol, accompanied by the Catholic Archbishop of Bordeaux, Archbishop
Maziers, visited St Mary's and handed over the key of the Church to Fr
McGlinchey. Immediately work began and in December 1983 Seymour Aitken
provided a full report of the repairs and renovation of the fabric carried
out for Father McGlinchey in November and December 1983 which today makes
Roof: work on these repairs was tendered to two local
builders, but as they could not undertake it in the time available,
or at the price determined, it was awarded to C.Rogers of Lechlade at £450
plus VAT (£517.50). Mortar fillets on the South aisle, and slates
were replaced on this and the S. Nave roof These parts of the roof, and
the S. roof in the Sanctuary were found to be in good order, the
slates being hard and unlaminated. The ridge was replaced and patched in
There was evidence of some structural collapse, and
possibly decay, on the N. slope of the Sanctuary, but it was decided to
replace slates rather than probe as this whole area is
covered with relatively soft slate : this part of the roof is not
exposed to sun and wind because of the proximity of the vicarage. Gutters
were cleared and slates replaced over the N/aisle, where again slates
are relatively soft. Minimum disturbance was caused, in the hope that the
roof may continue to provide watertight cover for 2 to 5
years. The N. slope over the Nave is in good condition and
little replacement was required.
The drain from the tower had splayed onto the fillet on
the NW end of the N/aisle dislodging it. This was replaced, and the pipe
led down the roof to the concrete bunker beside the tower. The work was
completed in 4 days by two men.
NB : It is likely that the N. slope over the
chancel, and the roof over the N/aisle will need to be replaced in
the course of the next 5 years. However, if slates are not
disturbed, they may last indefinitely.
Chancel: M r. J. O ' Leary carried out work on
the removal of two choir stalls from either side of the chancel, setting
up the panelling from these behind the organ, and along the S. wall upon
the platform that he built on treated wood, with 7/8 board
covering. The priest's door was cut by approximately 7" to
provide airflow below, and to enable it to be opened over the platform.
Pargetting and Replastering : This work was
carried out by Mr. Bill Giles. The original intention was to repair the
chancel roof only. Much discussion took place on the nature of the plaster
to be used with the advisers of the North Wiltshire District Council. A
1/2 mixture of lime putty (slaked lime) and sand was determined,
with a couple of handfuls of chopped straw mixed in to provide strength in
every two shovelsful. Mr Stirling of North Wiltshire District Council
visited the Church on a number of occasions, and showed great concern and
interest. Our approach to him was based on the hope of obtaining
funds for essential repairs.
Painting: This was done by Mr. V. Wilkes, with some
assistance from Mr. W. Giles and Mr. W. New, using Crown Covermatt Soft
White on the walls and ceiling of the Nave and N. and S. aisles.
The E. wall of the tower, around the Norman arch, and in the Sanctuary
were painted in Covermatt Ivory. Wood carving over the N. and S. Aisles
and woodwork in the Sanctuary roof and three beams in the Nave, were
painted with colourless preservative (Selignum) after being washed,
brushed and allowed to dry. This work commenced on December 8th
and was scheduled to finish by December 20th, so that cleaning
at the Church could be completed before Christmas, and the
carpeting and decoration of the Sanctuary be accomplished.
Rising Damp: There is evidence of rising damp in the
front ( East) three pews of the N aisle. This may be controlled by
digging a 1' trench along the outside of the Church from the
buttress on the outside wall to a point level with the E Sanctuary wall
and filling it with pea grit. Similar action should be taken on the S.
wall where the existing trench has become overgrown.
: Roof £517.50
The Quantity Surveyor's report had indicated that
£15,000 would be needed to restore the church and it was acknowledged
that in due course more permanent and lasting repairs and renovations
would be carried out. A heating system was also spoken of!!
Fund-raising began in earnest and a slip of paper
records that at one point £812 had been raised as a result of a donation
of £150, £62 from the Church Restoration fund box and £600 from the
sale of one bell.
In 1976 the bells of St Mary's fell silent, for age and
neglect had made it unsafe for them to be rung again. They were taken out
of the tower and stood on the floor of the church. A plan was drawn up to
transfer three to St Sampson's but funds were lacking to move more than
one. Fortunately the second bell was nearly the right pitch to fit St
Sampson's ring so this was moved and re-hung bringing the set to six and
providing a new challenge for the ringers. Two of the other bells were
donated to Tattingstone church in Suffolk and Catsfield church in Sussex,
the Sanctus bell, cast in 1733 with its inscription "Come away
make no delay" still remains at St Mary's.
On 1st January 1984 the Reverend Ken
Withington, handed over St Mary's to Bishop Mervyn and the First Mass was
celebrated in the building. The formal handing-over took place in the
presence of Rev Gillian Bobbett, Minister of Cricklade United Church who
also addressed the Bishop. A year later, on the first Sunday of 1985 St
Mary's was to join St Sampson's and the United Church by becoming part of
the Cricklade local ecumenical partnership.
It is worth recording the word of thanks in the booklet
produced for the first Mass :
We are deeply indebted to the Reverend Ken Withington,
who encouraged us and then guided us in the taking over of St Mary's. Words
cannot express what we owe to Mr Aitken of Brook House, who
masterminded and then supervised the work of renovation and then the
decoration of St Mary's. Without his unstinting efforts and tireless vigilance,
this work could not have been carried out in such a short time and
to such satisfaction. We offer him our sincere and heartfelt thanks.
Likewise we are indebted to a host of workers and
helping hands: to Mr. Joe O'Leary, our carpenter and carpeter; to
Mr Bill New, who gave so much time and put in so much effort in organizing
the plastering and the painting; to Mr Apperley, our groundsman and
We thank the good ladies of St Sampson ' s and
our own good ladies for all the cleaning and polishing and
especially for the wonderful floral arrangements; all carried out under
the supervision of Mrs. Geraldine Dudley.
Our gratitude extends to Mrs. Vera Holbrook, organist
for many many years at St Mary's and our organist today. We sincerely
thank the many other hands, seen and unseen, who did so much to bring
about this happy occasion.
Not lastly, but indeed firstly, we thank our Bishop,
Mervyn Alexander, for gracing us with his presence today, in
coming to offer the first Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in St Mary's.
The Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard produced a
photograph of the handover whilst in the March edition of the Clifton
Catholic Voice we read :
"600- YEAR OLD CHURCH IS CATHOLIC AGAIN. There
was an occasion of great ecumenical and historic significance at
Cricklade, Wilts, in January when a redundant Anglican church which has
stood since before the Reformation once more became a centre of
"The entire project would not have been possible
without the generous help given by prominent local Anglicans, Mr &
Mrs Seymour Aitken, of Brook House, Cricklade. Mr Aitken
personally planned and supervised an extensive programme of renovation and
re-decoration to make the church once more suitable for public
worship. On the day of the first Mass, he and Mrs Aitken also
invited guests to a reception in their beautiful home."
27th December 1983 saw the first Catholic
baptism in St Mary's when Father Eamon baptised Justin Watkins, the
grandson of Maisie New. Roger Wilcox and his bride Amanda Woodley were the
first couple to be married in the church according to the rites of the
Roman Catholics but that did not take place until 1986. Sadly Margaret
Ridge died on 7th November 1984 and Joe O'Leary on 8th
December and both are buried in Cricklade Town Cemetery.
Negotiations continued for the sale of the former St
Augustine's Church to the Town Council and by the end of 1984 it was
agreed to sell the property for £20,000, a price substantially lower than
its value if it had been sold for residential development. This was in
consequence of the help and support offered to the Catholic Church in
Cricklade by all sections of the community in the restoration of St
The January 1986 newsletter of the Cricklade Historical
"1985 has been a memorable year for the
Society. the main event being the acquisition of a new Museum building.
This was formerly a Nonconformist Chapel and later the Roman
Catholic Church of St Augustine of Canterbury, standing close to the site
of the Saxon east gate of the borough. This project would not have been
possible but for the generous and prompt action by the Cricklade
Town Council who purchased the property and had already commenced
renovations. These will enable us to occupy the museum towards the
end of this year."
"When the Catholics moved into St Mary's, the Town
Council seized the opportunity to buy their church, an attractive early
Victorian building, which has been renovated and will be leased to
the Historical Society."
On 5th June 1984 a Parish Meeting took place
at Cricklade to discuss various issues. These included:
The Mass: Sunday Mass: Holyday of Obligation - time
Weekday Masses: Morning or Evening ?
Altar Servers: High Masses; Choir ?
Church Rotas for Readers; cleaning. Flowers; Ushers.
Work to be done (voluntary) Baptism Font; Trench
outside; wardrobe. Falling water drain; cemetery; grass.
Other Work: Church notice board; water; outside
Necessities: Votive Candle stand; glass fronted
case; bookcase; baptism booklets; marriage booklets; funeral
booklets; lectionary; Stations of the Cross; Baptism Book Register;
Marriage Book register.
Means: Social functions; coffee mornings; wine &
cheese; sales; jumble; mini-marts; continuous programme; weekly
During the first 20 weeks in St Mary's the parish had
received £1912.44 through donations and fund-raising and had spent
£2597.51 moving into their new home. Things were clearly going well and
in the newsletter for 16th December 1984 Fr Eamon was
able to announce "Last Sunday at Cricklade we had possibly the
biggest number for Holy Communion since the opening day last January 1st".
To be continued......
Fr Richard Barton, January 2001, Fairford.