A Brief History of the Church
The Early Days
Our parish began in the early days of Letchworth Garden City. The first parishioners were workers who had come to build the roads and other amenities of the Garden City and also some staff from the Arden Press, which Bernard Newdigate had moved from London in 1907. The first Mass was celebrated by Fr Charles Newdigate at his brother’s house in September 1907. Services were then held in one of the “sheds” near the railway line.
Dr. Adrian Fortescue and the first church
Being a unique and unusual parish, it was first served by an unusual parish priest. Dr Adrian Fortescue was a renowned scholar, having three doctorates in divinity and philosophy. He had travelled widely in Europe and the Middle East and was reputed to be able to speak eleven languages! He had written many books on the history and development of liturgy in the Roman and Eastern Churches. His artistic ability enabled him to illustrate his books and he was skilled at calligraphy, having studied with Edward Johnston. He was also very gifted musically, composing many settings of church music and was proud of the choir of parishioners he had trained, with the help of his choirmaster and friend Thomas W Willson.
Dr Fortescue found a site in Pixmore Way for a temporary church and a presbytery. The little church was formally opened and blessed on 6th September 1908 and was dedicated to St. Hugh of Lincoln. The first church served the people well until 1963, and is now our Church Hall, later renamed ‘Fortescue Hall’. It was designed by Sir Charles Spooner RIBA, with a Romanesque facade.
Dr Fortescue’s interest in the Byzantine Church and his friendship with members of the Arts and Crafts Movement were influences on the design of its interior. Some of the sacred items and artwork have fortunately been transferred to our present Church.
Although more suited to the life of a scholar than a parish priest, Dr Fortescue was said to be diligent in serving his parish community. He loved his little church and community and opted to be buried in the Garden City cemetery. He died in 1923 aged only 49 yrs.
In 1933 St Francis College was opened by the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary from Belgium. Through their role in educating young people, the sisters became a key part of the parish community.
Our Parish Priests
1923 – 1931 Fr Walter Amery, who had been a wartime chaplain in Europe, Egypt and Palestine, continued the parish work until 1931.
1931 – 1933 Fr Arthur Durein, a chaplain to Belgian refugees, was transferred from Baldock parish on Fr. Amery’s retirement.
1933 – 1949 Fr J Lionel Dove, who had been MC at Westminster Cathedral, came to the parish. He immediately started working towards the building of a new larger church. A design was drawn up by Colonel John Dixon-Spain but building had to be postponed due to the outbreak of war.
1949 – 1969 Canon James Hathway, who had also served for many years at Westminster Cathedral, was parish priest when the present Church was built in 1962, by local builders J. Willmott. It was built to the original 1930s design with slight modifications. Canon Hathway was thrilled with the new Church, a traditional style interpreted in a modern manner, but also ensured that as many items as possible were saved and brought in from the original church. The foundation stone of the new Church was laid by Cardinal William Godfrey on 7th April 1962. This was an era of renewal and modernisation within the Catholic Church, brought about by Pope John XXIII. Until this time, most services had been said in Latin, which provided continuity and universality, but in the 1960s they changed to English, to make them more accessible to the local church communities.
1969 – 1989 Fr Patrick Howard, accompanied by his pipe and very dry sense of humour, guided the church community through the 1970`s and 80`s assisted first by Fr Desmond Baker and then by Fr Frans Azzopardi. Fr Howard had served mainly in Middlesex parishes for 15 years before coming to Letchworth. He retired in 1989.
It was during the 1980s that a pitched roof was added to the church, as the flat one had proved unsuitable for our British weather.
1989 – 2004: our church was in the care of Fr Kevin Patrick Greene, who had ministered in various parts of the world before coming to the Garden City. He joined the Columban Fathers and was ordained a Priest, in Ireland, in 1957. After studying at Marquette University in Milwaukee USA, he visited many parishes in the Eastern and Mid Western states of America, to appeal for the Columban Fathers’ work in the Far East. Fr Kevin’s next ministry was in South Korea, a totally different, mainly Buddhist culture. He found the Koreans to be wonderful people and learned to speak their language, becoming Director of Catholic charities for the Archdiocese of Kwangju and chancellor of the Archdiocese, while his bishop attended the Second Vatican Council. After his return, Fr. Kevin served in the Southwark and Westminster Dioceses and then in 1989 became our Parish Priest here in Letchworth. Sadly, during his time with us he suffered a heart-attack, which left him in poor health, and this culminated in his death, still in post, whilst he was on holiday in Florida.
2004 Following the death of Fr Kevin Greene, we welcomed our new priest, Fr Seamus Murphy, who joined us on 21 September from the parish of Homerton, London.
The parish is fortunate to have had regular visits from our Bishop for Hertfordshire, the late James O’Brien, who died in April 2007, and on 30th June 1991 we were privileged to welcome the late Cardinal Basil Hume who officiated at Confirmation.
In 2012 Fr Seamus Murphy retired to Ireland and we then welcomed Fr James Garvey to the Parish.
Changes to the Church and Celebrations
Jan 2007 – the interior of St Hugh’s Church was renovated, particularly the sanctuary, to conform with modern liturgy requirements.
Dec 2007 – On 24 November our Church was Consecrated by Bishop George Stack, thus bringing a glorious conclusion to our Centenary Year celebrations.
November 2013 – Archbishop Vincent Nichols celebrated Mass with more than 400 parishioners on the feast day of St Hugh of Lincoln and the fiftieth anniversary of the present Church.
Our parish community
During World War I many Belgian refugees came to the Garden City and joined our Church community. We were later joined by Irish and Italian families and after World War II by a large Polish community. Over the years our Church has benefited from the dedicated service of many of our parishioners, and during their tenures of office, our parish priests were willingly and ably assisted by members of our church community. We are fortunate that this very generous service continues today, enabling our parish to grow and thrive. In recent times our parish has welcomed members from many parts of the world. We have also tried to reach out to the world community by supporting village and educational projects in Uganda and Eritrea.