The History of English Martyrs Church
History – Part I 1930s-1990s Written by Ted Fisher RIP, late parishioner of English Martyrs
The Roman Catholics of Didcot and the surrounding villages had been many years without a church or resident priest. To celebrate Mass they had the choice of St Amand’s [Chapel], East Hendred, or St John’s, Wallingford, both a considerable distance away. However, the Commander of the Didcot Army Garrison gifted a large wooden hut to the Catholics of the area, which had previously served as a theatre for the soldiers.
Fr B V Miller submitted plans for the hut to be erected on church land in Manor Crescent for a period of five years, when funds should be available for a permanent church. However, the application was refused by Reading District Council as it was too close to the local school. A new plan was submitted by Fr Miller and this was accepted, and the Didcot Catholics were ready to start work and celebrate Mass in Didcot at last.
The Rev. Father James Campbell arrived on the 15th September 1934 and took up residence in a flat on the Lower Broadway, Didcot due to the lack of church accommodation. Father James became the first Parish Priest.
The period between 1931 to 1934 gives very little information year by year. Father B V Miller had started the conversion arrangements for the church, and the parishioners started work with buckets, scrubbing brushes and other instruments of cleaning. The floors were scrubbed white. Heating was provided in the church in the form of a coke fire, and parishioners brought their own chairs to church due to a lack of funding. A confessional was built on the outside at the rear of the hut.
The church was able to seat around 200. Funding started with whist drives and dances being held using the church, and eventually bench type seating could be bought.
The altar, believed to be made from solid beech wood, was surmounted by three steps. The tabernacle had its own position behind the altar. The date of the first Mass celebrated in the church is not known, although records show a baptism taking place in October 1934.
Father Campbell made an application to Reading District Council for a house to be built on the church land in Manor Crescent for accommodation of its priests. The application was granted and it must be assumed that it was completed by 1937. Father Campbell may have been the first occupant of the presbytery.
Father Campbell gave to Didcot and the surrounding villages, some 1200-1500 Catholics, a church and a parish that they had prayed for over many years. Father Campbell was relieved by Father Olney in September 1938.
Our priests may move on, but their footsteps can never be erased from all that they have provided during their ministry.
September - The war clouds were gathering on the horizon and people were at prayer in churches around the country. Father A V Olney arrived from Aldershot with housekeeper Miss Piper, to take over the parish from Father Campbell. Didcot was surrounded by wooden huts belonging to the Army Garrison and the RAF depot at Milton, and our church hut was among them.
The parish had gone from strength to strength during Fr Campbell’s time, and was hungry to expand efforts in providing funding for a permanent church. The land around the church at Manor Crescent had been taken over for allotments, supporting the war effort. During the war years the Parish Priest served Wallingford on Sunday mornings, and a Dominican priest, Father Daniels from Blackfriars, Oxford, said Mass at Didcot.
A parishioner remembers First Holy Communion candidates having the treat of breakfast at the presbytery, which included a boiled egg – a luxury in the war years.
Records show Confirmation taking place, with Bishop John Henry King.
Father Olney looked after the Prisoners of War with an afternoon Sunday service. He also attended the German Row camp at Nettlebed, near Wallingford. During this period Fr T Walsh, a curate, joined the parish for two years. He looked after the altar servers, some fifteen of them, who were divided between Didcot and Wallingford.
Father Jacob, curate, took over from Fr Walsh. Fr Jacob had been at Portsmouth Cathedral and was Chaplain to the Irish Guards during the war. He left in 1948 to become the first Parish Priest at Wallingford. Fr Walsh left to go to Rome.
Fr Jacob left Wallingford and moved to Ringwood. Fr Kearney came to Wallingford and left in August 1970. The new church at Wallingford was built in 1958 by Fr Kearney, and opened in September as St John’s.
All through the war years, the church building fund was ongoing, and the parish were looking forward to the planning and building of the new church, when Fr Olney was moved to St Mary’s and St Peter’s Church in Jersey. This was in September 1948. On the night before he left, at Benediction, the hymn was sung ‘Sweet Saviour, Bless us ‘Ere We Go’. Fr Olney was a much loved priest and carried the parish through the war years, when many sacrifices were made. He was to be replaced by Fr Nye.
Fr Nye arrived with his housekeeper, and made several major changes within the church. The high altar was dismantled, and the sung Mass was discontinued. Fr Nye had new seating and a gas fire heating system installed in the temporary church.
Fr Nye's failing health forced him to retire on Easter Monday 1961, having served in the parish for thirteen years, the longest period in the temporary church. Fr Henry and Bridget his housekeeper arrived in 1961.
Father Henry had spent his first year in the temporary church finding it very uncomfortable and somewhat overcrowded. He was to spend another five years of his ministry in the "halted church". Father Henry was a very austere man, but very good to people in need. He was well known to the people of Didcot and often seen walking the Broadway. Bridget, his housekeeper, was very strict - this was quickly known by the parishioners when seeking an interview with the priest!
Fund raising became number one priority and a football pools lottery was started to sell something like four hundred tickets a week. The power station and surrounding roads were being built, which was very fortunate for the lottery. Many of the workers were Catholics, and took the tickets to the workers from Ireland and Wales. Money was soon being made and the generosity of the workers had the fund in good health.
Father Henry's ambition was to see a primary school built on the available church land in Manor Crescent.
With the church in its final part of the building, Fr Henry's vision of a primary school to be built on the land was rejected by Reading District council due to the fact that a Catholic primary school in East Hendred was available to the people of Didcot.
The funding from the [parish] lottery gathered strength now that the Knights of St Columbia, Didcot and Wallingford, were helping to run the organisation. The fund over the fifteen years was estimated to be in the region of £50,000. Fr Henry introduced a covenant scheme to help with funding from the offertory collections.
The church had been built by Lanely Ltd of Wakefield, Yorkshire, and handed over to the Portsmouth Diocese. Fr Henry, the caretaker Priest, awaited the date of blessing. The headline of the Reading Mercury read 'The £50,000 church for the Catholics of Didcot to be blessed by Bishop'.
So what did the parish get for that amount of money, most of which was raised by the efforts of the parishioners, the football lottery, and donations received from the workers on the Power Station project?
The Parish got the most beautiful and largest church in Didcot, with a seating capacity for 500 people, including a choir gallery.
The altar is built of connemara stone.
On the wall behind the altar is a huge crown of thorns, central to this is the sacrificial Lamb. These were made by Mr D Potter, an artist from Dorset.
The Baptism font is made from Derby stone with a hand carved wooden lid of light oak, and the floor made from tanazastone. [This floor was removed later and the font repositioned near the Sanctuary, in order to make room for a “Comfort Space” or “Cafeteria” as mentioned later in this first article]
The flooring of the church is made from maple.
The seating is made from Japanese light oak. The roof supports which look like large boomerangs and dominate the interior of the church are made from pressurised maple.
The Stations of the Cross are hand carved of light oak by David Jobas.
Toilets are provided.
The Catholics of Didcot and surrounding villages could be proud of their church - more to follow on the Solemn Blessing.
To put £50,000 into perspective - in 1967 it would have bought eight three-bedroomed detached houses, complete with cloakroom and large garden, in a quiet location.
18th February 1967 – Solemn Blessing Day
18th February brought the day the Catholics of Didcot had waited thirty-five years for, and despite a slight fall of snow, the parishioners had turned out in full numbers.
Bishop Warlock was staying at the presbytery overnight and would be fasting on the day before, setting out the relics to be used in the consecration. The next day candles were lit and all things needed prepared in the church.
Canon Olney had come over from Jersey for the ceremony and received a very warm welcome from parishioners.
[The actual Rite of Blessing used was as follows:]
Fr Henry settled in well in our new church, with Bridget the housekeeper taking control of the presbytery.
The parishioners, having had time to appreciate their church, made two observations: the stairway to the choir gallery was very awkward to surmount, and could be a danger in an emergency, and they thought the church was very cold, but then is was winter!
The hut was in the process of refurbishment and the parishioners had been busy painting. The plumbing was updated, and man's toilet built and a small kitchen installed for future activities. The church now had a Parish Centre - the hut lived on!
The accent was now on funding. The Knights of St Columba set up a 'bring and buy' section which did well. The parish of some 120 worshipers settled into their church and had the comfort of a Parish Centre for meetings and recreational functions.
Once up and running, the parish centre became fully booked for jumble sales, auction sales and the like. Saturday night became popular for supper dances, the ladies bringing along food for sharing. The dancing music was supplied on 78" records. Car boot sales operated on Saturday mornings and brought in useful money. The planned late summer 1970 fete took place, with sideshows made by parishioners, and others brought in by experts, becoming a money spinner. The Irish dancing team from Oxford gave a great show, and the Pig Roast which was supplied by an East Hagbourne butcher and roasted by him was the jewel in the crown. The day brought parishioners and local residents together. The parish of English Martyrs had given Didcot a place on the map.
The wooden hut provided the next big function - the Silver Jubilee of Father Henry in August 1971.
Fr Henry celebrating his Silver Jubilee
There was a good attendance. Fr Henry was presented with a 'This Is Your Life' red book, and parishioners raised a substantial gift for him. Fr Henry became the longest serving priest of the Parish of English Martyrs.
The Parish Fund was increasing at a very favourable rate due to the diverse recreational activities being carried out, the car boot sales in particular were well attended by the local population.
Fr Henry was approached by the parish teenagers to hold discos during the autumn/winter season. Fr Henry agreed to their request, and the Parish Centre Team decided that this was another good move for swelling the Parish Fund. A wine and spirit licence was applied for, and granted. The hut did not need any refurbishment so a bar was built in, the lighting was adequate. Abingdon Brewery was asked to supply the Centre, and they did so by also supplying glasses and optics free of charge.
The discos were held fortnightly. Senior parishioners volunteered to act with the marshalling to keep under-age children to soft drinks only. The discos were very successful and brought the catholic and local children together. The fund benefitted extremely well. The bar was opened on Sundays after the morning Mass and was well patronised. Fr Henry continued to work with the possibilities of a primary school being granted by Reading Council in the future.
Fr Henry always returned to his family home in Northern Ireland for the summer holidays, and it was from his family home that the church was informed of his death in September 1981. He had just returned from attending a rugby match between the two nations, and on that evening had a heart attack, from which he died. The parish was devastated by the news from Ireland. He died with his family and friends at his side. Fr Henry served his ministry at English Martyrs for nearly six years, from the wooden hut to the consecration of the new church, and for another twenty years at this new church that the parishioners had longed for. Mass was said for the repose of his soul at English Martyrs, and was attended by both Catholic and local people of Didcot, for he was well known to them - he regularly walked the Broadway for his morning exercise and would stop and talk to everyone. May he rest in peace.
Fr David Freeman
The parishioners were still mourning the death of Fr Henry and awaiting the arrival of Fr Freeman from Basingstoke. In the meantime the presbytery was being decorated. Fr David Freeman arrived during the last week of September with his housekeeper and bicycle! He settled in very quickly and the parishioners were soon to see changes made to the fabric of the church.
The railings around the altar were removed, the gate was retained and fitted into the wall of the surrounding forecourt and in line with the doors of the main entrance to the church.
The central aisle of the church was fitted with red carpet in keeping with that of the altar.
The choir gallery was closed due to the stairway being unsafe, especially for the elderly parishioners. The choir was positioned nearer to the altar. The organ was past its day and an electric piano was purchased to replace it, much to the surprise of the organist.
Fr Freeman inherited a very substantial parish fund, and was to spend it on improving the church which had not seen any major changes. The parishioners had told him the church was very cold during the winter months, and suspected the gas boiler, some twenty years old, was needing replacement. The new system was pressure heating and had become the main source of heating in churches in Oxford. Fr Freeman visited several of them and was soon convinced that this was next on his list. As autumn approached a contract was made and the system incorporated by November 1989. Trunking carrying the heat had to go directly through the rear wall of the altar, and a grating had to be fitted, creating a 'black eye'. This created an imbalance so another grating was fitted to the wall. Although it spoiled the beauty of the altar, the system worked well.
[Didcot fell in the path of the hurricane that struck the UK in 1987.] Several houses in Manor Crescent lost roof tiles and our wooden hut (the Parish Centre) took a pounding and lost many roof tiles and damaged the inside wall linings. It was doubtful now whether it could be repaired. It was sad to see the demise of the hut, which had been the church 1934-1967, and the Parish Centre since then.
Fr Freeman had seen many changes that had been made during his ministry within the church, the Sunday Mass was now being said during Saturday evenings - this was well received by the elderly parishioners. Clerical balance sheets now had to be printed for the Diocese and cheques passed through the Diocesan Trust.
The parish was given a great shock when it was announced that Fr Freeman was leaving to go to Thatcham to be nearer his father who was in ill health. Fr Freeman was well loved by all and was to be sadly missed. In the four years of his ministry at English Martyrs he had removed all the negatives and made them positives, a great improvement in all areas. His footprints will never fade away. The parish wished him well at Thatcham, and awaited the next priest.
Father John Parry
The parish awaited the arrival of the new priest from Lancashire, the Pastoral Council team were present. The result of the storm was still with us and new fence panels had been fitted to the presbytery garden, the hut was so 'bruised' that is was doubtful whether it would ever again be used.
Fr John Parry arrived by car, a big fellow with rugby physique, and wearing a flat cap!! Having taken time to become interested in the parish, he decided that it was time to inspect the hut and to see whether it could be refurbished. The parish centre team said that the asbestos panelling was in a very bad state and would become a health hazard. Fr John decided to call on the Diocese property team to carry out an inspection, which they did, and considered it to be destroyed and the asbestos removed by following the Reading Council instructions using the special bags they supplied, which they would collect. Having completed the safety factor the hut was then dismantled and the remains burnt. The parishioners who turned up were so sorry to see the hut destroyed, that had served the parish since 1934 to August 1967 as a church, and until 1991 as the Parish Centre.
Fr Parry [closed off the choir gallery and so enabled its use] ...for the youth… and for parish meetings, bingo sessions etc. The old organ was sold off. The problem with the stair access was [that it was] difficult for the elderly parishioners. Fr John turned his attention to the Baptismal Room and decided that it was in the wrong place and had the font removed nearer to the altar, on the left side of the church close to the second sacristy…
The Baptismal Room [Baptistery] had also been the Flower Room, and it was about to be changed into the 'Comfort Room', or cafeteria, and an extra section was fitted, doors changed, the stone flooring removed. The kitchen equipment soon followed and the ladies of the parish were ready to serve teas. It soon became a popular area after Mass.
Autumn was approaching and time for the heating to be checked over. Fr John decided that by closing off the choir gallery the heating of the church would be improved. Two doors were built and so fitted that it was easy to operate a winter/summer programme. The doors were hand built by one of the parishioners and a first class addition to the church had been made.
Fr John decided that all the steel framed windows of the church had to be removed and PVC double glazed windows were to be fitted. The local window specialist was called in, he took the job on at a special price. The work helped to improve even more the efficiency of the church heating, and made it cheaper to run during the winter months.
Guild of St Stephen
The altar servers who had been serving at East Hendred since 1990 returned to English Martyrs Church in 1992, being welcomed back by Fr Parry. The Guild was very strong at East Hendred due to the Catholic school at St Amand's, and it was now time to have the Guild established at Didcot. Fr John gave them help and encouragement to achieve this. December 1993 saw several young altar servers enrolled in the Guild and they received their medallions with a promise to give a high standard of service to the parish.
Fr Parry had taken a dislike to the confessional [which was built into the sides of the church, and] too close to the altar area. A change had to be made, and this Fr John achieved by having a reconciliation room built by a company in Basingstoke and shipped to Didcot as a 'flat-pack'. The room was assembled at the rear of the church and on the right side close to the entrance of the church from the foyer. The room when built was easy on the eye. Fr John had produced another first class addition to the church. The parishioners were well pleased with these changes and wondered whether Fr John had finished! The answer was 'not yet'!
Fr Parry… [intended] the choir gallery for use by the youth of the parish, the odd bingo sessions were still going on but very little else and the parishioners were questioning whether a parish centre may be built and put this question to Fr John. The parish centre team that had been together for some time produced a plan for building a centre within the next year, this was passed over to Fr Parry who approved it and decided to call a parish meeting, so allowing the parishioners to pass judgement. It was accepted as a majority vote, and the team was to go ahead keeping the parish updated on progress.
The plan was to sell off church land into four plots of 40 x 30 feet, this was at the Manor Crescent side and each plot would sell at £40,000 per plot with certain conditions, only one domestic building and a perimeter wall built six feet high. The site of the centre would be an area of the church and presbytery and would include a patio area.
The plan was sent to the Diocese Finance and Property Department for approval. They agreed to the selling of the church land, with the approval an architect was engaged. A single story building with reinforced foundations so that a second floor could be built in the future. The centre would have a main hall, two classrooms, kitchen, toilets etc., the hall would have a Canadian pine floor and be the size of a badminton court.
The sale of the plots went into the Oxford papers. A private builder from Oxford was prepared to build on the architect plan for some £125,000 to £150,000. One of the richest men in Didcot offered to buy two plots so that he could build a large house, swimming pool and landscaped garden. Such a sale would provide [enough capital for] the centre to get started.
The plan was passed on to Fr John for the parishioners' approval. The feedback from the parishioners included a sector of senior parishioners who were totally opposed to the selling of church land, and requested that the parish should vote again. The result was for the plan to proceed but this time those voting against it had increased. Fr John decided that he did not want any diversity within the parish and therefore the parish centre would have to be cancelled, and the church land remain as such. The architect was cancelled and paid off. The Diocese was informed and advertising cancelled. Needless to say the majority of the parish were very disappointed.
The parishioners were still smarting over the result of the proposed Parish Centre and recalled the amount of fund raising money which originated from the hutted parish centre (a figure of £50,000 during the period of Father Henry and Father Freeman's ministries) and Father John Parry made great use of this money.
Father John was now ready for two weeks’ holiday with his Family in Lancashire. He said before he departed that when he returned he would complete the odd out-standing work and that included being the first priest to install a stained glass window in the church. He had mentioned this several times before.
Father John was well known amongst the Didcot people outside the church and they made him an honorary member of the Labour Club. Father Parry left still wearing the flat cap and the parishioners saw him off wishing him safe journey and good weather.
The senior parishioners started a club for their members calling it "The companions Club" which met mid week, a prayer period was followed with refreshments and a general exchange of conversations for other ideas within the parish to help out of the lack of a parish centre and it was held in the cafeteria due to the dangerous staircase leading up to the choir room.
The parish was brought to tears when news had come through that Father John had suffered a heart attack a few days after he had returned home. The church was full of parishioners at prayer. They could hardly believe this had happened to Father John… Father Parry was 70 years old and he died on the 20th November 1998. A Requiem Mass was celebrated and the church was full, with many Didcot people turning up.
[Father John's prayer card reads "Pray for me and I shall pray for you and all your friends that we may merrily meet in Heaven".
'Two Amusing Incidents...'
Father John Parry is on his way down from Lancashire to take over from Fr Freeman who has already left for Thatcham. I thought that while we are awaiting the arrival of Fr John I would slip back into Fr Freeman's time and mention two rather amusing incidents. The first refers to Midnight Mass 1990. Father had just started on his homily - "if an alien from outer space arrived, I wonder what he would make should he enter the church, of the altar, the Christmas tree, and church filled with people awaiting the news of the birth of Jesus Christ". At that very moment one of the entry doors, which are spring hinged, made a loud noise as it closed, and this was followed by the heavy tread of a person walking up to the altar. Being good Catholics, we ignored the footsteps, but at that moment a figure, dressed in complete fireman's gear, started shouting at Father as he was half way up to the altar..."would the person owning a red car remove it immediately for it is preventing the fire tender access to the Broadway". With that he turned and walked out! Father decided we all needed a moment to recover, with a little laughter before Mass continued.
The second incident occurred during warmer weather. summer was on its way. Father's housekeeper had gone to visit her family. Father was awakened by the entry door bell ringing. He got up and looked out of the window, and observed two of the ladies of the parish. Thinking that an accident may be occurred he put on his dressing gown, opened the door and was immediately greeted by "Father are you saying Mass here today?". He looked down at his watch and said "it is only 8 o'clock!". "Father" they replied, "it is five minutes to nine - you have failed to put your clock forward to summer time!". Things happened so quickly after that, Father still in dressing gown was into the sacristy and with his vestments complete, was saying Mass just a few minutes after 9 o'clock. the gossip after Mass was that the timing was achieved by Father placing his vestments over his pyjamas! Well all things are possible!
Ted Fisher, who recorded these details, died in 2011. May he rest in peace.]