The Parish of Bishops Stortford incorporating the Roman Catholic churches of St Joseph and the English Martyrs (Bishop’s Stortford), Holy Cross (Much Hadham) and Most Holy Redeemer (Sawbridgeworth) is situated in the Lea Valley Deanery.
About St Joseph’s and the English Martyrs
St Joseph’s was founded at the initiative of the Redemptorist Fathers in 1900 in an area where there were only a few Catholics. They built the church to the designs of Doran Webb in 1906 and it was consecrated on June 19th of that year.
The Redemptorist fathers had purchased a large property near the middle of the town and the church was built on the site of the stables of the estate. In due course the Fathers greatly increased the size of their monastery and intensively cultivated its land. The Bishop’s Stortford monastery was one of the places from which fathers went all over the country preaching Missions in Parishes.
The Fathers sold the monastery and its land in 1990 and passed the Parish to the Diocese in 1994, since when the Diocese of Westminster has supplied the clergy.
About Holy Cross
Holy Cross church (Much Hadham) is shared between St Andrew’s Church of England congregation and the Holy Cross Roman Catholic congregation. Although our weekly services are separate both communities try hard to keep a strong spirit of Christian unity alive in the way we work out our Sharing Agreement.
At major Christian celebrations, like Christmas and Easter, we come together for special acts of worship and social gatherings, we have joint parish retreats, pilgrimages, discussion groups and prayer meetings in Lent and before Advent and many other informal activities throughout the year.
Most important to us is our spirit of friendship and joint Christian endeavour which we try to keep up in everything we do.
The journey begins in Much Hadham in the 1930s, with a Roman Catholic lady of devotion and farsightedness: Mrs. Elsie Warner. It would be correct to describe her as the founder of the Much Hadham Roman Catholic congregation. It was to her, in March,1938, that Colonel Hewes-Hallett offered the use of a large room over the stable block at the ‘Lordship’ as a Mass centre. Her drive, and her husband’s talent as a carpenter, saw this room furnished as a Catholic chapel in a week.
And so the Catholic Mass was celebrated in Much Hadham village in March,1938, for the first time since the Elizabethan Reformation.
Seventeen years later, Elsie heard that the large field – now ‘Ash Meadow’ – on which stood a World War II Land Army girls’ hostel, was to be auctioned. Her penchant for rapid and decisive action was to realise a long-cherished dream.
That same day she persuaded a local retired barrister to bid on her behalf at the following day’s auction, and the Diocese of Westminster to pay for the field. The money to convert the hostel buildings into a church came from the village Catholic community, from whom Elsie had been collecting money since 1938.
Holy Cross Church was opened for Mass in November,1955, and served Catholics well for 27 more years.
The New Holy Cross Church
The next major stage in the journey belongs to the late Patrick Dolan. An Irish-American of astonishing energy, drive and determination, he realised in the late 1970s that the ‘hostel church’ was at the end of its structural life. He had the vision both of a splendid new building and of the means to finance it.
Under his dynamic leadership, the Catholic community developed an attractive housing project – both private and local authority – on the field at Ash Meadow, and with the money realised, began the building of their new church in the Spring of 1982, near the ford.
St. Andrew’s and Holy Cross Temporary Sharing
The Anglican Rector of Much Hadham, Michael MacAdam, is our guide along the next stage. He has always felt a deep sorrow at the divisions within the Christian community, and it was at his instigation that the Anglican congregation extended their most generous offer to the Catholics (homeless now that the hostel church had been demolished and pending completion of their new building) to welcome the Catholics to say their Mass at St. Andrew’s Church during this period.
So it was that sharing began on June 6, 1982.
The year 1982 was a momentous one, and was to become even more so.
As the two congregations, Anglican and Roman Catholic, grew in respect and knowledge of each other, so many of the demons spawned on both sides by the 16th Century Reformation were laid to rest. Meanwhile, the building of the new Holy Cross Church proceeded apace, with foundations laid and damp course installed.
In the wider world, even more momentous events occurred.
In May, 1982, Pope John Paul II visited England, and in an act of immense significance, he and the Archbishop of Canterbury prayed together in Canterbury Cathedral. There can be little doubt that this inspired what came next in Much Hadham.
On November 5, 1982, Patrick Dolan received a letter from Canon MacAdam. Starting by saying that “for me, one of the sad days of 1983 will be that on which St. Andrew’s sees the Catholics in worship for the last time.” He went on to urge that a way be found to make the sharing a legally binding, equal and permanent relationship.
It is surely no accident that Canon MacAdam, devoted to reconciliation and Christian co-operation, chose November 5 (Guy Fawkes Day) with its origins rooted in 17th Century religious bigotry and warfare to make this plea. Patrick Dolan, although on the point of realising his cherished dream of a new church building, was equally a man of vision, inspired by the ecumenical promise of the Papal visit. He seized on Canon MacAdam’s offer with joy.
Construction of the Catholic church was suspended, pending the outcome of consultations and negotiations. Catholics and Anglicans each held their own parish meetings to air the issues involved.
In the subsequent secret ballots, both congregations voted for a permanent sharing through joint ownership, and the RC Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster and the Anglican Bishop of St. Alban’s gave their blessing. Today, the Priest’s House stands alongside what was originally intended to be the site of the Church of The Holy Cross, in an area of outstanding natural beauty which has been saved from the destruction of rush hour motoring by Much Hadham’s community spirit.
In June, 1997, Fr. Bob Styles S.J. came to Much Hadham to be the Roman Catholic Parish Priest. His ministry, always in busy places such as schools and university chaplaincy, had deepened his conviction that mankind must rediscover the strength of beauty and of reflection in silence calmed by the rhythms of nature.
So a garden of reflection was created at Ash Meadow, on the site of what would have been the Church of Holy Cross. It is available to people of all faiths and none who would seek tranquility.
St. Elizabeth’s Home and School
That a fund of goodwill between Anglicans and Catholics exists in Much Hadham is due in no small measure to the presence in Perry Green since the early years of the past century of the Daughters of the Cross of St. Elizabeth’s. They are a Catholic order of nuns whose work for women and children suffering from epilepsy is pre-eminent in this country. Over the years, the nuns have brought Catholics and Anglicans of this area to a special close relationship, so laying foundations upon which the sharing of St. Andrew’s Church could be built.
About Most Holy Redeemer
World War II saw the arrival in this area of many Irish Catholic workmen to help build a Royal Air Force airfield at Allen’s Green, just outside Sawbridgeworth. And it could be said that their arrival laid not only the foundations of the airfield, but of what is today the parish of The Most Holy Redeemer.
The nearest Catholic churches were both about four miles away – to the north, St. Joseph’s in Bishop’s Stortford, served by the Redemptorist Fathers, and to the south, a private chapel at Mark Hall, Harlow, owned by the Gilbey family.
So it was that Mass was said for the workmen in a newly-built ‘Nissen’ hut one Sunday in July, 1940 – the first such celebration in Sawbridgeworth since the Reformation. The hut was just inside the boundary line of the town, on the edge of a field belonging to Parsonage Farm, adjoining New House Farm. Appropriately, Parsonage Farm had been, pre-Reformation, a monastic establishment surrounded by a moat, and including a large tithe barn. A footpath, known as ‘Monk’s Walk’ ran from the farm to the now Anglican parish church of Great St. Mary’s. Father Richard Marsh CSsR, a Redemptorist from St. Joseph’s, said the first Mass, but not before everyone waited whilst he heard confessions.
A regular Mass was said after that, though in a variety of places. Soon, Fr. Bernard Griffin CSsR, was appointed ‘Padre’to the RAF, and a Catholic chapel was built alongside an assembly hall and gymnasium, nearly opposite New House Farm. Another Redemptorist, Fr. Lawrence Doyle, replaced Fr. Griffin. He said Mass in the new chapel, which was not very large – about 35 foot by 35 foot – and fitted with mess-type wooden chairs and kneelers. Blue curtains with ‘fleur de lys’ motif surrounded the altar on three sides, and to one side was a picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour. The concrete floor had a cover of dark red linoleum. RAF personnel soon outnumbered workmen, and it became difficult for Fr. Doyle to keep track of his flock as they were posted, on leave or just missing. He drove an Austin 10 horsepower two-seater with a canvas hood which was usually stuffed with ecclesiastical impedienta such as a prayer stool, hymn books, candles and the odd biretta, and he drove his machine at a fearful pace. If anyone needed help, the ‘Padre’ was there.
The War ended, and the Air Ministry sold the assembly hall and gymnasium, including the chapel, for the War Memorial Hall erected at the Forebury. This meant that the small remaining congregation would have to go to Bishop’s Stortford or Harlow for Mass. However, the Redemptorists arranged to say Mass on Sundays and Feast days in a room at the White Lion pub, which was owned by Rayment’s Brewery of Pelham, which had a Catholic as director, the late Captain Lake.
Mrs. Bird, who lived a few yards away, next to Harris the Bakers, prepared the room each Sunday morning. A warm fire greeted the congregation every Sunday. The first Mass at the White Lion was offered at 9am on November 5, 1950, by Fr. Vincent Young CSsR, with a congregation of 18, including children. Numbers grew and it seemed the floor of the White Lion room might not take the extra weight. From January, 1953, services were held at the newly-built War Memorial Hall, which whilst excellent accommodation, still had the atmosphere of War time. Then news came that the old town cinema in Sayesbury Road was up for sale. Father Conroy, Rector at the Redemptorist monastery, was not very enthusiastic about the idea of buying the building as numbers in Sawbridgeworth were still low, and St. Joseph’s had responsibility for a wide area including Stansted and all outlying villages to the North and Sawbridgeworth and Much Hadham to the South. Whilst discussions continued, news came that the cinema had been sold to another buyer. The idea of having a church was shelved. Some time later, however, that sale fell through. By now, St. Joseph’s had a new Rector, Fr. Austin, who proved himself a man of action. He said an early Mass next morning and was on the train for London at 9 am to see Canon Rivers of Westminster about funding.
Having bought the cinema, the enormous task of transforming it into a church was undertaken by a group of volunteer parishioners, who enlarged the stage, ripped out the old coal-fired heating and levelled the floor, which sloped 4ft 6in from entrance to screen. The group of men finished the job in about three months, working every weekend and late in the evenings. On one occasion a policeman dropped in to remind them of the time – it was 1 am. Folding chairs were purchased at a North London army surplus sale for one shilling (5p) each. And Mr. Joyce later did better by buying much superior chairs at the same price, which he brought from Bishop’s Stortford, two at a time, on his bicycle. He and his son built a new stage, large enough for a sanctuary. And the local Walter Lawrence company provided a new altar at a nominal cost. Total cost of painting, conversion and buying new items came to just £320.
Mass was celebrated for the first time in the new church on December 2, 1956. Fr. Vincent Young returned as priest-in-charge in 1965. The church remained unaltered until 1968, when a renovation programme, costing £8,000, was undertaken. A new ceiling, curtains, toilets and Sacristy were added and the interior redecorated; the old projection room, cash desk and some external ornamental stonework were demolished. Bishop Butler, Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster and former Abbot of Downside, re-opened the church in September, 1968.
Then, 1973 saw the arrival of Father Joseph Hanton, who had arrived at St. Joseph’s Monastery the year before. A former Redemptorist novice-master and Rector, Fr. Hanton was also an avid fan of Everton. As chaplain to St. Joseph’s Catholic primary school, Bishop’s Stortford, he was revered by the pupils, and not just because of his tradition of giving them Everton mints when his team had a good win. No one, least of all Fr. Hanton, could have imagined that he would continue to serve Most Holy Redeemer for 28 years, until 2001 when, aged 82, it was only through failing health that, reluctantly, he retired from the parish he loved and which dearly loved him. Sadly, he died a few months later at St. Peter’s Nursing Home in South London. Improvements continued during Fr. Hanton’s time to the building and the heating, including the arrival of new, solid benches to replace the chairs.
For the Millennium, a further major renovation was undertaken, including building a new roof, replacing timbers and redecoration. At the same time, the parish removed stage curtaining and a low ceiling which had been installed to retain heat. These had proved to be a disaster for the acoustics, so there was a sense of liberation for Choir and congregation when sounds could once again be heard bouncing from the high, wooden roof. The Redemptorists moved from Bishop’s Stortford in 1994, though Fr. Hanton remained to serve alongside the diocesan clergy who replaced them.
Following the departure of Fr. Hanton, in 2001, the future of Most Holy Redeemer was uncertain. However, Bishop James O’Brien, Bishop in Hertfordshire, asked Fr. Bob Styles S.J., who had moved to Much Hadham, in June 1997, after a working life devoted to education and university chaplaincy, to look after Most Holy Redeemer as well.