A Brief History of Catholicism in Harpenden

The history of Catholicism in Harpenden is both long and chequered with thirteenth century records of the area referring to a

church – “The Chapel of St. Nicholas” – in the centre of the village of Harpenden. One can therefore conclude that until the sixteenth century, and the arrival of the Reformation, Mass had been Celebrated on the site of St. Nicholas’ ParishChurch for over 300 years.

As in other regions of the country so in Harpenden The Old Faith was thoroughly stamped out during the sixteenth century Reformation. The Norman built Catholic church of St. Nicholas Became Protestant, and Catholicism in Harpenden disappeared from it for over 300 years.

After an absence of more than three centuries, the return of Catholicism to Harpenden can be traced to the late nineteenth century when Father Archibald MacDonell, Rector of St. Albans, started visiting the village in the 1890’s and ministering to the villages’ four Catholics.

By the early 1900’s the Catholic Community in Harpenden had grown to 25 Catholics who were then being visited regularly by Father Peter Louis Martin, a curate of St. Albans. This increased activity led to the first Catholic Mass since the Reformation, which was celebrated in a gymnasium in Vaughan Road in 1905.  Led by the missionary zeal of Father Martin, Harpenden Catholics quickly secured a plot of land in Rothamsted Avenue less than 100 yards from St. Nicholas’ Church and built a very humble corrugated iron chapel, much of the church furniture being made by Father Martin personally.

On 28 May I905 Mass was celebrated in this temporary “little iron chapel” and for 14 years every Sunday thereafter, until 1919, various priests travelled from St. Albans to celebrate Mass in Harpenden.

The outbreak of war in 1914 boosted, albeit temporarily, Harpenden’s Catholic population as Harpenden became a staging post for troop

movements to France.  Catholic troops from the North and Midlands were stationed in a tented encampment on the Common and attended Sunday Mass. During the years 1914 to 1918, Harpenden’s congregation grew further as Belgian refugees from Malines and Namur joined troops and local Catholics for Sunday Mass and Benediction. Indeed, Sunday Mass soon became a very international event with the Belgian National Anthem played at the end of the Mass and all notices on the Church’s notice board written in English, French and Flemish.

By 1919, the Catholic community in Harpenden had grown to 80 and the decision was made by Cardinal Bourne to appoint a resident priest to take over the Catholic Mission from the Fathers at St. Albans.

The missionary zeal of Father Martin was continued in 1919 by the arrival of Harpenden’s first resident Priest, Father Bernard Longstaff, a member of one of England’s oldest Catholic families and a lineal descendant of St. Thomas More, Chancellor of England in the reign of Henry Vlll.

Father Longstaff arrived in Harpenden in November 1919 to find the corrugated-iron chapel sparsely furnished, in a poor state of repair and

containing only the bare necessities for Mass once a week and Benediction. A visionary and great fundraiser, Father Longstaff, set about building the finances of the Catholic Church.  Within 4 years, through a series of garden fetes, bazaars, jumble sales, dances and quarterly subscriptions from parishioners, Father Longstaff had bought the house adjoining the “little iron chapel” and equipped it as a presbytery.   As a result, in October 1923, Cardinal Bourne raised Harpenden’s status to a parish.

The early 1920’s also saw the arrival of Catholic education in Harpenden. In 1920 a Convent of Dominican Sisters opened in Bowers Cottage (in Lower High Street). The sisters ran a fee-paying Convent School for day pupils and boarders. In 1924 the school had proved so successful that the sisters moved to the picturesque Jacobean Harpenden Hall facing the Common where dormitories and a gymnasium were installed. The Convent School continued to thrive and in 1931 the sisters had outgrown Harpenden Hall and had to move yet again to Wellcombe House (now a Hotel on Southdown Road).

Throughout the 1920’s, under Father Longstaff’s leadership, the Parish grew, not only spiritually but also socially. A Catholic Social Club and a Catholic Tennis CIub were started and became very popular within the town, and a Catholic Probationary Hostel was opened in 1924 in Leyton Road and became the first of its kind in the country.   It was known as St. Vincent’s.  By the late 1920’s Father Longstaff recognised that even with two Masses every Sunday the “little iron chapel”, now with over 130 parishioners, was soon not going to be able to serve the Catholics of Harpenden and surrounding villages.

Plans for a new church, Our Lady of Lourdes, were therefore drawn up and on 4th August 1928, the foundation stone was laid by  Cardinal Bourne. The Architect was Frederick Arthur Walters, 1849 – 1931, who was also the Architect for Buckfast Abbey. Some 14 months later Our Lady of Lourdes RC Church was completed at a cost of some £19,940 and it was opened on 29th October 1929.

Only when the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes was debt free could it be consecrated. A further 7 years of frantic fundraising within the parish

followed, and by 1936 the Catholics of Harpenden had cleared the entire £19,940 debt.  Archbishop Hinsley from Westminster, who had travelled from Lourdes specifically for the ceremony, performed the consecration, with 3 Bishops and 60 Priests and 300 Parishioners in attendance on 28th May 1936 – 31 years to the day the original “little iron chapel” had opened).

At the consecration ceremony, Canon Longstaff paid tribute to Father Martin’s missionary work in Harpenden in the early 1900’s and quoted from a prophecy made by Father Martin in 1906: ….”I will, therefore, venture to hope that as Harpenden village will grow into a town, so also this mustard seed of Faith will develop into a large tree, and then one day may come when the tourist or pious pilgrim on the St. Albans Road, looking down the gorse-covered Common, will rest his eyes on a graceful spire and hear as a reply to his query from a chance cicerone, ‘that is the Catholic Church, that is the Holy Virgin’s Shrine’.”

Between the years 1936-1939 Catholic chapels were built in Redbourn and Wheathampstead and Lourdes Hall was built for the social activities of the parish at a cost of £3,700.  It was in 1944 that Canon Longstaff celebrated his 25 years as Parish Priest of Harpenden. On Sunday 12th October 1947 the church was visited on behalf of Cardinal Griffin, Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, by one of his Auxiliary Bishops, the Rt. Rev. Monsignor George Craven who administered Confirmation to 27 children and adults in a crowded church. in February 1948 Canon Longstaff became ill and was ordered to take three months complete rest. During the next two years Fr. Peter Kelly was assistant priest in the parish. The Canon died whilst on holiday in Torquay on 24th August 1950. Canon Terence Keenan then became the new Parish Priest of the church.

It was during his period of office in the parish in the 1960’s/1 970’s and as a result of Vatican ll, a number of changes were made in the church. Mass was no longer celebrated in Latin but in English with the congregation making responses. The priest faced the congregation as the Mass was being celebrated. The Altar was moved further forwards and the altar rails completely removed. The pulpit was also moved to the sanctuary. During these years the first evening Mass was introduced and was celebrated on the feast of the Sacred Heart. It was in 1977 that Canon Keenan celebrated his Golden Jubilee having been ordained to the priesthood in 1927. He had now served 27 years at the parish.

Then in 1984, Canon Keenan retired and Canon Maurice O’Leary took over as Parish Priest and remained until his retirement in June 1995.  Canon O’Leary made some further changes by re-siting the choir and organ from beside the sanctuary  to a newly created organ loft above the narthex. The Baptismal Font was also moved from the Baptistry to the beginning of the nave. Canon O’Leary was also responsible for the introduction of the Children’s Liturgy at Sunday Mass.  After his retirement Father Eugene Fitzpatrick became Parish Priest, at the beginning of August 1995. A younger priest, with an abundance of energy, he will be remembered for the way in which he extended and enhanced many of the groups and ministries, which involved many more people actively in the life of the parish.   He helped to develop and extend the collaboration between the various Christian denominations in the town and was responsible for much refurbishment of the church and of Lourdes Hall.

Monsignor Canon Harry Turner was appointed Parish Priest in 2001 following his having been Episcopal Vicar for the 35 parishes in Central London.  He was able to build on and develop the work of his predecessor, particularly in the sphere of catechetics and liturgy.   He was responsible for the introduction of Lent discussion groups that continue still. In 2010 work began to create a meeting place beneath the church.  The numbers of children and families had increased to such an extent that there was insufficient space to hold meetings and catechism classes in the existing buildings.   Building on the surface was out of the question.

The new undercroft was completed by Easter 2011 at a cost of £1.3m.    The complex project was paid for two years later by the generosity of the congregation which now numbered nearly 800 people. The work involved a complete refurbishment of the church and the enlargement of the vestibule and the choir loft. Read more about the undercroft development here.