History of St. Mary’s Parish

History of the Parish

During the first half of the last century south London was experiencing rapid change as ancient Surrey villages were drawn into the expanding London metropolis; Lambeth, Camberwell, Brixton, Battersea and Clapham.

Clapham especially felt the impact of the Industrial Revolution, the increase in public transport [horse-drawn] and the expanding railway network : Clapham Junction opened in 1853. South London also felt the impact of events abroad: the political and social revolutions throughout Europe and, nearer to home , the Irish Famine. The call for cheap labour to work on the new roads and railways, as well as the demand by the rising middle classes to enlarge their domestic staffs, contributed to an increase in the number of Catholics living around Clapham Common.

In 1847 a group of French Nuns moved into St Anne’s House in North Street, Clapham Old Town, and opened a small school. Within a year members of the Redemptorist Congregation, which had two small communities in Cornwall and the Midlands, were invited by Bishop Wiseman to open a house in Clapham with a view to establishing a parish. St George’s cathedral, Southwark, also opened in 1848, but there were no other established parishes in Southwest London. For some months the small Redemptorist team lodged with the nuns, until, with the help of a London bookseller, Mr Philips, they purchased a large house and some land at the top of Acre Lane [a road eventually renamed Clapham Park Road]. This substantial property formed part of a larger building, which had previously been occupied by Lord Teighnmouth, a former Governor of India, and the first president of the Bible Society. Their immediate neighbour was a Mr Soltau, a city gentleman active in local politics. From the beginning Mr Soltau resented their presence, and within a few years he took the Fathers to court over the disturbance caused by the ringing of the church bells. The complaint was heard at the Croydon Assizes in August 1851, and the Redemptorists lost the case. The bells were silent until 1864.

The make-up of the first community did not naturally inspire confidence in the neighbourhood, as it consisted of an Austrian, Frederick de Held: Wladimir Petcherine, a talented Russian convert, who, unlike Fr de Held, could preach in English. The third member of the team was a Belgian, Father de Buggenoms. This was a period when English people were famed for being suspicious of foreigners! A young American student also lived with them, Isaac Heeker. Back in the United States Hecker founded a new missionary society called the Paulists in 1857 with the approval of Pope Pius IX. Another member of the small team was a French lay brother, Brother Felician. To undertake parish responsibilities was against the tradition of the Congregation at this time, and so a diocesan priest, Thomas Sheehan, lived with them to look after the parish. However, in 1853 Fr Sheehan became a chaplain to the large numbers of Irish troops in the British Army at the outbreak of war over Crimea. [A plaque in the church commemorates Fr Sheehan]. The result of this was that the Redemptorist Fathers now took over responsibility for the parish.

The saintly founder of the Redemptorists, Alphonsus de Liguori, originally established the Congregation in Naples in Processio 1732 for the work of preaching missions and retreats. In London an early opportunity to reveal this charism came in December 1848 when the Redemptorists conducted a mission in the recently opened St George’s, Southwark. At this time there were few established Catholic parishes in England, so the missionary priests frequently went to Ireland. The first mission here was in 1851 in St John’s pro-cathedral, Limerick. So even though many of the early Fathers had English as their second language, this did not hold them back from undertaking mission and retreat work. The extent of the impact they made can be judged by adverse comments in the local press. So, for example, the Perthshire Courier in 1870 referred to the Redemptorist Congregation “as the most aggressive order the Church of Rome can produce…. its members are reputed as great preachers, holding and teaching the most subtle and obnoxious doctrines of the Church. Being the disciples of Liguori, you may know they are the most dangerous class of men in any country “. 

The foundation stone of a new church of St Mary’s was laid in 1849. The church was designed in a Gothic style by William Wardell and was solemnly opened and blessed by Cardinal Wiseman on May 14th 1851 during a service beginning at 5.30! This was done to avoid local unrest due to the growing influence of what was deemed the menace of Roman Popery.
Catholicism was still considered a foreign import. It was only in the previous year that the Catholic Hierarchy of England and Wales had been established and approved by the Pope. This led to a number of disturbances in parts of the country. Bonfires were lit on Clapham Common as part of an anti-popery demonstration, and local papers report Protestant missionaries denouncing the Redemptorist intruders. There were twenty Redemptorists present at the early opening of the church on May 14th and later in the morning Cardinal Wiseman, four bishops and sixty priests joined them. The organist and choir of St George’s cathedral provided the music. These celebrations surrounding the opening of St Mary’s were too much for local religious feeling, and the police were summoned to control and disperse a hostile crowd. Meanwhile lunch was served for the Church dignitaries in the new school built at the end of the garden.

Fr William Plunket was the first priest to be ordained in 1854, and twenty years later he became Rector and parish priest of St Mary’s.

In 1895 a new monastery was built, and a transept extension added to the church. This was the work of the distinguished parishioner and architect, John Bentley.

A thousand people attended the midnight Mass to celebrate the passing of the 19th century into the 20th. This was a grand total, but the area of the parish began to shrink with the opening of a series of new parishes: Larkhall Lane, Clapham Park and Altenburgh Gardens. The 1903 census concluded there were now less than two thousand parishioners and the Mass attendance was just over seventeen hundred.

Towards the end of the century many of the large houses around the Common were transformed into flats for the poor. Behind these large properties streets were springing up with smaller houses, but sufficiently large enough to accommodate the families of the poor. In the schools there were no restrictions about the number of children to a class. and this is reflected in the fact that there were over four hundred children in the parish schools. The French nuns of Clapham Old Town had started Catholic Education with a fee-paying school. When they left, after a few years, Catholic education developed rapidly, and this included educating the poor. This became possible when the Redemptorists introduced into the parish the Sisters of Notre Dame. They first moved into Bedford Road in 1848, and later moved to a site on South Side, the area of the Notre Dame estate.

Other religious congregations active in Clapham during these years were the Brothers of the Christian Schools who opened a house in 1884. The Brothers of St Gabriel founded a language school in Elms Road in 1906. The Little Sisters of the Assumption moved into Cedars Road in 1915 to nurse the poor in their own homes. A new parish school for boys was opened in St Alphonsus Road in 1904, and a new extension was built in 1913 [the son of John Bentley being the architect].

At the outbreak of the Great War the Mass attendance was seventeen hundred, though at that year’s parish visitation Bishop Amigo lamented the fact that so many Catholics fell away from the Faith after leaving school. As everywhere the Great War brought grave hardship to many families, including the deaths of many fathers and sons.

Records show that the Mass attendance picked up quickly during the years of peace. Two thousand were now regularly attending Sunday Mass, and on one Sunday during Lent two hundred and fifty people attended the afternoon service, and another five hundred came to evening devotions. These peaceful years also made it possible for a major renovation of the church: in 1919 and 1926. The last major work was completed in 1930.

By word and example St Alphonsus, the holy founder of the Congregation, had urged his spiritual sons to show a love for the poor. Even the early Fathers were conscious of this, and despite their weak financial position, they set about ministering to the many poor in Clapham. With the help of nuns, they not only provided free education for poor children, within two years they had also established the Society of St Vincent de Paul.

Members of the society collected cast-off linen and clothing, and helped mend and repair clothes and footwear. They also raised money to pay for the burial of poor people. The importance of these societies must be judged according to the ideas of the time. Social welfare, as we know it, is the product of the Second World War. Previously, poor people were thrown on the mercy of kind relatives or church organisations like the SVP and the Society of St Elizabeth. Records show long lists of families that benefited from the dedicated work of the members of these societies and their chaplains.

Throughout these years there were frequent opportunities to celebrate the lives of famous members of the Congregation. In 1871 St Alphonsus was made a Doctor of the Church. To mark the occasion three days of special Masses and sermons were celebrated in the church. Further celebrations took place in 1895 for the beatification of the lay brother and miracle worker Gerard Majella. Within ten years Gerard was formally canonised, and his shrine placed in the church.

Clement Hofbauer was canonised in 1910, and a stained-glass window depicting important events in his life can be seen in the transept.

The Second World War brought more years of darkness and uncertainty. Not only was St Mary’s an important centre for Redemptorist chaplains on the way to and from military action, but the whole district became a prime target for enemy aircraft. Located around the common were many small factories producing vital parts for the war effort, and the Common itself was taken over by anti-aircraft guns and barrage balloons. One ‘rogue’ balloon broke from its moorings and the lose wires brought down the top of St Mary’s steeple. Fr Leo Kirk urged the authorities to restore the spire immediately, pleading that the sight of a damaged church spire would do immeasurable harm to the morale of local people. So the spire was quickly repaired. Throughout the years of bombing, the church and monastery suffered only slight damage, unlike some of the streets near St Mary’s that were devastated. In the summer of 1944 the devotion of the celebrant and congregation were distracted one Sunday morning at the sound of a V2 bomb passing overhead. Fortunately the flying bomb passed over Clapham, eventually exploding in Wimbledon. The spacious cellars underneath the monastery became sleeping quarters for the community at night, and classrooms for the Boys School during daylight raids. Some of the Fathers were employed as wardens patrolling the district at night.

This is not the place to discuss the radical changes that took place in the 1940s and 1950s as society settled down to years of peace and reconstruction. It was a time when the state became actively involved in social welfare, thus weakening the Church’s role in ministering to the poor. Social problems like broken homes leading to divorce or separation became more common. The immense and universal suffering of so many people during the years of war created a new generation sceptical of traditional religious values.
On the other hand many young men and women became disillusioned with the drab life of post-war Britain, and took the path to the priesthood or religious life. Church attendance began to grow, and this pattern continued until the 1960s. The Second Vatican Council brought about major changes in the way Catholics lived and worshipped. It was a genuine attempt to restructure the Church in the light of the modem world, and unfortunately there were some priests and people – who thought the changes too sudden, too radical, and too compromising in the face of a hostile, cynical and secular world. St Mary’s also became the centre of worship for a new generation of Catholics. Traditionally people from Ireland, Scotland, Italy, Malta and Poland were very much at home here. But with the major rebuilding programme and the redistribution of people that took place in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, many worshippers now came from countries as far apart as Africa, the Caribbean and Asia.

The parish was fortunate during these years to have wise and experienced clergy who were able to cope with the rapidly changing face of St Mary’s, among them being Fr Joe Jones, Fr Bill Martlew and Fr George Lucas. Anew relationship had to be forged between priests and people, as attempts were made to carry out the wishes of the Council. Lay people now became more active in church affairs and took a more responsible role in planning pastoral events.
This new way of looking at the Church was particularly difficult for a parish like St Mary’s, where parishioners were accustomed to being served by a team of Redemptorist priests and brothers. In the early 1980s changes in the architecture of the church were introduced in order to bring the ornate sanctuary into line with modem liturgical thinking. A major change also took place in the early 1990s in St Mary’s schools, when the boys and girls schools were amalgamated. The opening of the Ace of Clubs in 1995 can be seen as a positive gesture in line with Redemptorist tradition to alleviate local suffering, poverty and loneliness.

Individual Redemptorists and parishioners can give their own personal experience of what has taken place in recent times. However, one conclusion can be drawn: that the Fathers and Brothers of today face as big a challenge as the first migrant priests did in 1848. The present day community is the direct descendent of the one which settled in Clapham and ministered to local people a hundred and fifty years. Like their predecessors the members have had to be prepared to change and restructure their lives to face modem conditions. The achievements of past generations of Fathers and Brothers show that there is no reason why today’s Redemptorists, and those of the next millennium, should not continue to minister to the people of Clapham with love and generosity, even though the eulogy in the Tablet in 1882 may no longer apply. “There is now scarcely any Order better known in these countries for the excellence of their public missions to the people, and for their spiritual influence. A Congregation which is notoriously still in its first fervour, and which confines itself closely to the special work to which it is consecrated, could not fail to win the confidence of the clergy and laity alike.”

There is no better way to conclude this review than to reflect on the title given to the monastery, the church and the parish in the popular name of St Mary’s. The official title is Our Immaculate Lady of Victories, a name associated with the Holy Rosary. We can discover the fifteen decades of the rosary in the paintings, the carvings or in the stained glass windows within the church. So, for example, the five Sorrowful Mysteries are carved on the high altar at the back of the sanctuary. In 1855 a confraternity of the Holy Family was begun, and the sodality of the Children of Mary at the end of the century. The side chapel and altar of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, personally designed by Bentley, focuses on an icon, or painting, that goes back to 1867.

The original was given to St Alphonsus church in Rome in 1866 by Pope Pius IX. St Mary’s copy is therefore one of the first ever painted. Saturday evening Marian devotions, and Sunday afternoon public recitation of the rosary, have been features of parish life from the beginning. At the end of the Second World War an American chaplain introduced the Saturday Night Perpetual Novena, and this devotion has continued until the present day. In the late 1970s, following an Irish custom, a celebration of Nine Days of Prayer finishing on June 27th, the feast of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, was begun. As we look back 150 years, the role of Mary, Mother of the Church, is as important and significant today as in 1848.