A History of Catholic Life in Weymouth and Portland
"Priests and People are One - that is our precious tradition" (Bishop Cyril Restieaux)
Part II Penal Times and later Tolerance
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Persecution and Martyrdom
The Middle Ages are often known as the "Ages of the Faith." Beautiful Churches and Chapels, magnificent Minsters and Abbeys enriched the country with their architecture and literature. But dark days lay ahead; Henry VIII's matrimonial difficulties, skilfully used by the King's advisors to further their own ends, led to a formal Act of Schism, the Act of Supremacy in 1534. These would-be reformers had driven the wedge between Rome and England. Hence followed the dissolution of the Monasteries and the destruction or pillaging of much of the Country's Christian Heritage. Weymouth's Friary was dissolved in 1538, and fell into a ruinous condition until cleared for building sites in 1861. From this time on the Faith in England was lived and practised underground as it were, in stealth and secrecy and that only at peril of dungeon, fire and sword.
With the advent of Elizabeth I to the throne in 1558 the plight of the ordinary man-in-the-street, Catholic, worsened. The new religion was imposed on the land by a series of Acts of Parliament and the Old Faith made well nigh impossible by a system of heavy fines. In 1570 the very existence of a Catholic Priest on English soil was by Law declared to be high treason and punishable by death
The sculpture of The Martyrs at Dorchester by Dame Elisabeth Frink was erected in 1986 at the cross roads of Icen Way and South Walks, Dorchester. The three figures and the stainless steel plaque commemorate those who kept the Faith alive despite harsh laws and the pursuivants such as Richard Topcliffe who zealously roamed the country seeking out priests and suborning those who would be prepared to betray them.
Locally, Blessed John Cornelius was taken prisoner at Chideock with three laymen and put to death in Dorchester in 1594. Also commemorated are the names of many other men and women, priests and laity executed at this spot including that of Saint Alexander Briant, executed at Tyburn in 1581.
The Names of the Martyrs, and the years in which they were executed, died or sentenced are inscribed on the plaque at South Walks Dorchester. Alexander Briant and John Cornelius were Jesuits.
|St Alexander Briant SJ||1581||William Pike, Carpenter||1591|
|John Slade, Schoolmaster||1583||St Eustace White, Priest||1591|
|Fr Thomas Hemerford||1584||— Moorcock, Artisan||1591|
|Fr John Munden||1584||Fr William Patterson||1592|
|Fr William Warmington||1585||Blessed John Cornelius SJ||1594|
|Fr John Adams||1586||Thomas Bosgrave Esq||1594|
|Fr Thomas Pilcher||1587||John Carey, Serving man||1594|
|Fr John Hamblin||1587||Patrick Salmon||1594|
|John Jessop, Gentleman||1588||Fr Hugh Green||1642|
|Helen Tremain (wife of Samson Tremain)||1588|
Of these, Fr Pilcher, Fr Cornelius, Fr Green, William Pike, Thomas Bosgrave, John Carey, Patrick Salmon and - Morecock were hanged, drawn and quartered here; Fr Warmington was banished and John Jessop and Helen Tremain died in Dorchester gaol. The others commemorated on this plaque were executed at Tyburn or Salisbury.
Alexander Briant was executed at Tyburn on 1 December 1581 alongside fellow Jesuit Edmund Campion. Eustace White followed them to Tyburn just over 10 years later on 10 December 1591. All three were canonised by Paul VI in 1970.
At the foot of the plaque is a poem by Saint Robert Southwell executed at Tyburn in 1595.
Not where I breathe, but where I love, I live;
Not where I love, but where I am, I die;
The life I wish, must future glory give,
The deaths I feele in present daungers lye
Omnes Sancti Martyres, orate pro nobis!
The Martyrs Church at Chideock
Of the Martyrs listed above, eight are known as the Chideock Martyrs. They are Fr Thomas Pilcher, William Pike, Blessed John Cornelius, Thomas Bosgrave, John Carey, Patrick Salmon, Blessed Hugh Green were all executed for their faith. The eighth, John Jessop, died in prison.
At Chideock, a little village 19 miles west of Dorchester on the A35 there is a church dedicated to Our Lady, Queen of Martyrs and to St. Ignatius, founder of the Society of Jesus. This is the pilgrimage shrine of the Dorset Martyrs and besides the church there is a little museum. You can navigate to the website of the shrine by clicking here
As can be seen from the map, the shrine is about half mile off the main road. Masses for Sunday are celebrated on the 2nd and 4th Saturday of the month at 6pm. (But please consult the website before travelling). Pilgrimages and school visits can be arranged.
Positive antagonism to Catholics began to die down only after the defeat of the Jacobites led by “Bonny Prince Charlie” in 1745. Then some 20 years later the few Catholics that remained began to seek further relief through the friendly attitude of King George III. Towards the end of the century came the frightful French Revolution, to which England was strongly opposed. In consequence several hundred of the French emigré Priests were given not merely asylum in England, but in some cases pensions and allowed to build humble Churches. Such is Divine Providence which works in ways so strange to human thinking.
So at the beginning of the 19th Century we again take up the thread of local Catholic History.
In the early years when a Mission to Weymouth was being set up, there were a succession of priests sent by Bishop Collingridge who was then Vicar Apostolic of the Western District. This was 30 years before Dioceses were inaugurated. Reading the letters from these priests to the Bishop, we quickly get a feeling for the poverty that these priests had to suffer. Letter after letter was a plea to the Bishop to let them have just a little more money for them to exist. Out of their salary they had to find vestments, and the vessels to celebrate Holy Mass. Sometimes they were able to bring their vestments and equipment from a previous posting - the Dartmouth mission is mentioned a number of times. But then, before the railways, communication was slow, and heavy items like boxes would take their time being carried on some cart over difficult roads. The wonder was that these were delivered at all.
Support from the great Catholic families who had managed to keep the faith through penal times could give some respite from the hardship. Abbé Simon mentions a Christmas spent with Lord Arundel in 1819 where he was highly entertained and given “five capital vestments”. The great Catholic families were also useful in helping the priests to make contacts in the town.
The other problem that these early priests faced was that as the number of parishioners grew, it became impossible accommodate them all in a small room at the Sunday Mass. So the priests had to apply to the Bishop for special faculties to say two Masses on Sundays and Holy Days.
The first Priests, Abbé Simon and Abbé Dubuisson
On 13th May 1820, a French emigré priest, Abbé Alexandre J Simon took residence at 63 St Mary Street, Weymouth. (Pigot’s Directory of Dorset of 1823-4 gives 63 St Mary Street, Weymouth as a premises where Straw Hats were manufactured. The Proprietress’s name was given as Susan Lake, but she was probably renting the shop. Abbé Simon’s rooms may have been above the shop with a separate entrance).
Abbé Simon began saying Mass at his residence 9 years before the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. As he said in his letter to his Bishop "There is my lodging and my chapel". He must be counted as the first resident missionary in Weymouth since the Reformation.
Abbé Simon had spent a few months at Marnhull, near Sherborne before coming to Weymouth. He says in one of his letters to Bishop Collingridge:
“I shall be very much obliged to your lordship to send me as much money as you possibly can and as soon as you can. I am now a housekeeper but as poor as Job. Distress presses hard on me but I am as cheerful as ever. I am conscious it is therefore a good cause but I am penniless”.
A priest working on a mission, far from other priests must have one of the loneliest jobs. Any encouragement from his superior is cherished. On 9th June 1820, less than a month after arriving in Weymouth, Abbé Simon writes:
Nothing can give me more satisfaction than to hear your lordship speaking of my zeal in the manner you do. It gives me a continuing proof of your being disposed to continue to give me a fair opportunity of sanctifying my soul by contributing to the salvation of my fellow creatures. I am very much obliged to you for all that.
On another occasion he writes for the Bishop to send a priest to Weymouth with the appropriate faculties to be able to hear his confession.
When he transfered to Weymouth as a spa town, he sought from the Bishop an introduction to the Weld’s, the great Catholic Family in the area. However, Mr Weld seemed to spend much of his time in France
Abbé Simon’s parishioners were very poor. He had to rely on a meagre salary from the Bishop to support him and what he could earn by tutoring students in the French language. He was living from hand to mouth. In his letter of 19th June 1820 he tells the Bishop
“Before I came here I was literally without clothes and without linen. The rags I wore in the country (Marnhull) would certainly not do here. I have therefore bought some new accoutrements. . .”
In July, he suffered a great blow. His congregation had swollen to 50, but his landlord objected. When Abbé Simon pointed out that this part of the rental agreement, his landlord replied
“Very true sir but when the agreement was made there were only a few Catholics. Now the house is full of them! As they are now, I will never be able to let the first floor!”
He wished to stay on at the Weymouth mission, but in spite of his protestations, was eventually persuaded by the Bishop to move to Plymouth - a bigger mission. He left Weymouth on 8th August on the coach to Exeter.
By mid August, his successor the Abbé Pierre Dubuisson, another emigré Father and already 73 years old, had arrived and was to stay for nineteen months. From 1820 to 1822, he ministered to the scattered Catholics and to the visitors of this seaside resort. He also took up the teaching of French at his lodgings.
The poverty and in some cases destitution of the parishioners bit especially hard during winter. Abbé Dubuisson mentions that during the winter of 1820-21, his congregation were almost starved to death.
On Wednesday 9th May 1821, Abbé Pierre Dubuisson writes:
“My little flock as well as myself I have been much concerned on hearing that Mr Simon had been so unexpectedly and lamentably snatched away. We will meet next Saturday to pray for the repose of his soul.”
In the few letters from Abbé Simon to his Bishop, we have learned about the frustrations and suffering, and his successes, and it is sad to hear of his sudden death within a few months of his appointment at Plymouth. May his soul rest in peace.
In 1822 Abbé Dubuisson returned to France to become a Rector in the parish of Preuilly in the diocese of Bourges. In his letter to Bishop Collingridge, dated 8th February 1822 he is under no illusions of the task he has to undertake.
He had carried out a preliminary visit to France in the January and here is an extract from his letter, which gives a snapshot of the state of the Church in France 33 years after the cataclysm of the 1789 Revolution:
“In the course of my journey I visited my former parish . . .and was quite stunned to find my poor parishioners stuck in vice and ignorance for want of a priest for many years. There are 6 parishes joined together without a single priest among them. They kept neither Holy Days nor Sundays at all. More than half of them are grown up without any knowledge of their religion.
“The Archbishop of Bourges insists upon me to take of not only my former parish but also two other parishes. . .The length of the 3 parishes exceeds more than 7 miles and the population 2000 souls.
“My pity has overcome all my feelings. I will cheerfully go, although I will meet many difficulties. All the priests houses have been sold, the churches have been stripped of all their silver plates and ornaments; the parishioners must provide houses for the priest, repair the churches and furnish all that is necessary for Divine Service.
“But a great many of them are far from being disposed to contribute and it will require some time before the very many necessary things will be supplied. The salary which comes from the Government is only £30 per year”
Recalling that by this time Abbé Dubuisson was perhaps 75 years old, we can only admire the determination with which he undertook this new responsibilities. We have no information as to whether enjoyed any success in this difficult enterprise, nor when he died. Rest in peace Abbé Pierre!
Today Preuilly is a little village in the Departement du Cher with less than 500 inhabitants. The Departement du Cher is situated in ‘La France Profonde’ where French village life and rural agricultural culture pervades over the influence of Paris. The river Cher winds peacefully through the village.
By the time he left for France, the Abbé's congregation comprised 15 people from the town and 42 Catholics from the town's barracks near Radipole Terrace today. This congregation was swelled by the Catholic visitors to this fashionable spa town that George III had loved.
The 1820's – leading up to Catholic Emancipation
Abbé Simon and Abbé Dubuisson having thus established that there was a need for a Catholic presence in Weymouth, Bishop Collingridge, Vicar Apostolic of the Western District, showed interest in it by sending for Fr James McDonnell to further the work. Fr McDonnell was at that time teaching at Carlow College Dublin and didn't take up his position until July 1822.
In 1823, however, Peter Augustine Baines was consecrated as Coadjutor Bishop to Bishop Collingridge.
In the months leading up to Fr Baines’ consecration as Bishop, Bishop Poynter, who was Vicar Apostolic for the London Region questioned whether it was prudent to perform such a ceremony in Bath in a Chapel so open to the public? Bishop Poynter said that he would not dare to do this in a public chapel in London. He recommended a Church which was ‘quieter and retired’
After his consecration in May of 1823, he came to reside in Weymouth. or more correctly in Melcombe Regis, at 4 Belvidere Place, and took on the Parish work.
One of Bishop Baines’ first tasks was to seek a different appointment for Fr McDonnell who though a man of great learning was no manager. In Autumn 1823 Fr McDonnell left Weymouth and went to Rotherwas, Herefordshire. This was the Chapel of the Bodenham family, who had been Catholics since 1606.
(It is rather interesting to see the care with the Bishops were placing their priests in areas where they could do most good. The really able priests were given the most difficult tasks! Those less able were carefully put into the less taxing posts, such as Chaplain to a great family.)
It was Bishop Baines who started the keeping of parish registers of Baptisms and Marriages.
Bishop Baines did not stay long in Weymouth but soon was moved to assist Bishop Collingridge, whose health was not good. His Lordship appointed as his successor Fr Francis Edgeworth, but this priest was soon recalled to labour in the City of Bristol. Fr E B Moutardier, a Jesuit Priest from Lulworth Castle was the next to fill the vacancy. He remained until only 1829, the year of the Catholic Emancipation and a memorable one for the Church in Great Britain and Ireland. Many penalties and disabilities against Catholics were removed from the Statute Book by this Act of Parliament, providing a large measure of freedom for Catholics and a new life sprang up in the Church, assisted considerably by the Irish Party led by Daniel O'Connell.
Thomas Fowell Buxton, who was MP for Weymouth and Melcombe Regis at the time voted for emancipation in the face of opposition from his electors in the town. His letters and diaries show that he was concerned that he might lose the election because of his action, but his conscience would not allow him to act in any other way.
A site for a Church
It was in this memorable year (1829) that the priest who built St. Augustine's Church in the Dorchester Road was sent to Weymouth. He was Father Peter Hartley and came from Tavistock, near Plymouth. Soon after the Catholic Emancipation Bill, Father Peter Hartley and Bishop Baines bought a large site in Radipole, situated on the Turnpike Road out of Weymouth to Dorchester. The site had a frontage of 126ft, and a depth towards the East of 155ft. On the South it was bordered by lands belonging to Sir Frederick Johnstone. The site was sold by Mr. Thomas Charles on August 23rd, 1831, to Bishop Baines and Father Peter Hartley. It was subdivided into plots, which were then sold, leaving a narrow strip of land for the Church and presbytery in one building.
The map shown on the left dates from 1857, over 20 years later, but clearly shows the parcel of land bought by Bishop Baines and the small section which was reserved for the church and the priest's house.
The photograph on the right appeared in the Dorset Echo in 1985 when the Church celebrated its 150th anniversary. The quality of the picture is poor but serves to show that the original Church was set back from the road. The current facade dates from about 1900.
The lot adjacent to the church and to the north was bought back at a later date and until recent times was the Presbytery, 38 Dorchester Road.
The new Church was 56 feet long and 27 feet wide, and the Presbytery was at the back of the church occupying what we now know as the sanctuary. The original church sanctuary can be picked out in the ceiling of the present church. The church was opened on October 1835, and dedicated to St Augustine of Canterbury. The Grand Mass in D by Novello was sung, with Mr Foy on the violin and an orchestra comprised of Mrs Angel, Mr Collins and Mr Tullidge.
The Dorset Chronicle entitled its article about the dedication - “Increase of Popery”!
Soon after his great work of building and opening the new Church and Presbytery, with all its accompanying anxieties, Father Hartley was sent to Chepstow while his place at Weymouth was taken by Father O'Dwyer who remained only until 1837, when Bishop Baines appointed Father Thomas Butler, D.D., a Dominican, as Priest-in-Charge. During his stay he preached and published some learned discourses on Catholic Doctrine.
Father Hartley, the Church builder, returned again in 1839, but failing health brought to his assistance two other priests in succession, namely, Fathers Murphy and Waterkyn. Father Hartley died in 1840, and in the deeds of the Mission is an indenture dated May 27th 1840 which states that Father Peter Hartley,last holder of the property, died intestate. However, his three sisters and brother-in-law made over the property to the Right Rev. Bishop Ullathorne and Rev. William Vaughan, both of Clifton, Bristol.
After the death of Father Hartley in 1840, Father Thomas Tilbury was transferred from Chideock to Weymouth and remained Pastor of St. Augustine's until his death on June 9th, 1856. He was appointed Canon of the newly formed Chapter of the Plymouth Diocese in 1853, but owing to ill health was never installed. Towards the end of his life he was helped by Fathers Carey and Smythe successively.
During this time Ann Odber acted as godmother and marriage witness on many occasions. Her memorial stone is mounted on the wall at the back of St Augustine's Church on the right hand side, and records that she died aged 67 on 20th December 1845. She was buried within the church at the foot of the old sanctuary.
The memorial stone is very worn, indicating that at some time it was either exposed to the elements or set into a floor. Two other stones are likewise mounted next to her stone. One memorialises the life of Phillis Moor Maria Horsford, died 26 January 1850 aged 5 years, the other is undecipherable.