St John Fisher, Chorleywood

In 1903, the Assumptionist Fathers established themselves in Rickmansworth. As well as the people of Rickmansworth, the parishioners included residents of outlying mainly agricultural districts such as Chorleywood. 

Few people had cars and Chorleywood Catholics were obliged to walk to Rickmansworth, and then back again, to attend Mass. Kathleen Doig, who died in 1998, was one of those who told of how a group would set off, taking a short cut across the Common and then along the A404 to the little church at the bottom of Scots Hill. “The walk back home again was the most tiring, and then one had to get on and cook the Sunday lunch”, she said. 

By 1944, some ten Catholic families were living in the Chorleywood area, including Kathleen, and they managed to persuade the Assumptionist Fathers to allow a priest to travel to Chorleywood to say one Mass each Sunday. Initially this was held in the Memorial Hall. This arrangement continued until 1953 when Harry Hitchings and his family moved into Rosebank, a short way down Shire Lane from our present church of St John Fisher. 

The Hitchings family generously offered the use of their ground-floor living room for Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. These were the occasions of the first House Masses in Chorleywood. Newcomers found it strange to be kneeling behind a sofa or an armchair! 

In 1948, the parishioners realised the need to provide finance for future development and started a fund known as the Chorleywood and District Catholic Church Building Fund. Due to the energetic organisation by Kathleen Doig, Mrs Mumford, Mrs Clarke and others of such activities as whist drives, coffee mornings, sales of work, socials and dances, and to generous contributions from the Morrell family, this fund had risen to over £600 by 1953. At that stage, it was decided to invest the proceeds in a plot of land at the bottom of South Road as a site for a future church. Unfortunately, it was not possible at that time to obtain planning permission and the plot was then sold. 

Between 1953 and 1955, considerable development took place in Chorleywood, resulting in an influx of new residents and an increase in the number of Catholics. Rosebank was bursting at the seams so that, unless you got there early, you would have had to stand in the entrance hall or maybe perch on the stairs. 

Fr Brendan Fox A.A., then Parish Priest of Rickmansworth, realised that something must be done to find a larger site and, after much deliberation, decided to purchase Hill Cottage, our present Church. The £750 from the sale of the plot in South Road was put towards the cost, approximately £4,000. The first Mass was celebrated at Hill Cottage in September 1955, and the Church was dedicated to St John Fisher.

The first parish priest of St John Fisher was Canon Clement Parsons, who came to Chorleywood shortly after his retirement as headmaster of Finchley Catholic Grammar School. He led the community with great authority, and was responsible for establishing the first parish boundaries which in his words, “seemed to consist largely of fields, cows and sheep”. He also spent much of his 4 years in the parish seeking raising money and seeking to find a site for a Church for the parish. Sadly, he was unsuccessful in this pursuit. 

Fr Alexander Wells came to us in 1966. As a musician, one of his priorities was to improve the standard of the church choir. Sadly after only 4 years in the parish, Fr Wells died suddenly at the age of just 57. The organ at St John Fisher was purchased as a memorial to him, paid by generous donations from parishioners and non-Catholic friends. 

Fr Wells was replaced by Canon Denis Britt-Compton, who was the parish priest of St John Fisher for the next 19 years. Under his guidance the parish grew in stability with increased activities for families and in starting the annual sale of bedding plants during Christian Aid Week in May, opening the doors to the whole of Chorleywood. 

In 1989 Fr Ronald Cox arrived in Chorleywood. His style was less formal than his predecessor. He was a very gentle man who always had the flicker of a smile on his face, and was ready to share any fun or joke that may be around. This was despite for much of his time in the parish suffering from illness. He continued in his duties as Parish Priest until his death aged 65 on 9th April 1994. 

Fr Peter Stevens arrived in 1994 as Parish Priest and made several changes in his years in the parish. He arranged for a small wooden cross to be placed on the outside wall of the Church, to make it more visible to the community as a place of worship. He also oversaw work to build a new kitchen and toilet suitable for the disabled. Fr Peter continued to serve for many years in the parish, despite suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. He eventually left the parish to move into St Anne’s Home in Stoke Newington, where he died on 8th November 2019. 

Fr Peter’s successor was Fr Jim Brand. Although not in the best of health, Fr Jim was very popular with the parish. He was a fantastic preacher who always brought our faith to life with humour and stories. He was also not afraid to share his talents on the piano, often sitting down at the end of Mass and playing something to make everyone leave with a spring in their step. Indeed one of the features of his life was that he used his many and varied talents to draw people to the Lord. In one tribute to him after his death in 2013, the Rev Arderne Gillies of the Chorleywood Free Church wrote: 

‘We have all benefited and profited very much from his presence amongst us and count it a privilege to have known him for these few years. Long may the memory of his preaching, his teaching and pastoral care, his cooking and hospitality, his horticultural skills, his amazing musical talent and enthusiasm and his many other gifts and qualities remain high in our hearts as we commend him to the God and Father of us all.’ 

As his health worsened, the parish rallied round and looked after him with great love and dedication until his death on the Wednesday of Holy Week in 2013. 

Fr Shaun Church became parish priest in 2013, but was given the difficult task of combining this role with also being the parish priest of Rickmansworth and Mill End.  During his time in the parish extensive work was done in reordering the Church, creating a larger space for the congregation to sit and to enable people to participate more easily in the Mass. Fr Shaun also spent much of his ministry bringing our three parish communities together, particularly trying to focus on moving from being solely focused on maintenance to rediscovering our mission to spread the good news of the Gospel. Fr Shaun left the three parishes in 2021, and was replaced by Fr Andrew Gallagher. Fr Andrew continues to work with the parishioners to bring the three parishes together, whilst maintaining their independent character. 

In 2023 a local Chorleywood resident, Mr Andrew White, wrote about the history of the building of St John Fisher Church as part of his Masters in Building History at Cambridge University. This was in particular reference to the Architect of part of the Church being the renowned architect of the Arts and Craft Movement, C.F.A. Voysey. Mr White has kindly allowed us to reproduce this fascinating project here:

Our Patron – St John Fisher 

Feast Day – 22 June 

 St John Fisher who, together with his contemporary St Thomas More, is the greatest of the English martyrs who died for their Catholic faith during the Reformation. 

Born in 1469, John Fisher was a priest, a great theologian and a brilliant scholar. Henry VIII once declared him the most distinguished prelate of any kingdom. As Chancellor of Cambridge University, he introduced Greek and Hebrew to the university, expanded the library and created two new colleges through the bequests of Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII. Both Lady Margaret and her son died in the year 1509 and John Fisher preached classic orations at their funerals. He had become Bishop of Rochester in 1504, a position he held for thirty years. He refused promotion to larger and wealthier dioceses. He was acutely sensitive to the pastoral needs of the people he served and had a reputation for holiness. He also had a strong devotion to St John the Baptist. 

Never fearful of speaking out, Bishop John Fisher produced the first English refutation of Luther, in four volumes, and he strongly opposed Henry VIIIs divorce from Catherine of Aragon and the Act of Supremacy which proclaimed the King to be the Head of the Church. In 1534, both he and Thomas More were arrested within a fortnight of the Act of Succession becoming law. This act required the subjects of Henry VIII to take an oath recognising the legitimacy of any children from his new marriage to Anne Boleyn. Both men refused to do so and were imprisoned in the Tower of London. 

John Fisher was executed on 22nd June 1535 for refusing to recognise Henry VIII as head of the Church of England. The Pope had made him a cardinal one month before his execution, a politically explosive move designed to convey to the English people the message that Rome supported the bishop’s stance against Henry. When the King was told that a red hat was on its way to London, he responded by saying that the bishop would not have a head on which to put it! Statues of St John Fisher typically portray him as a thin gaunt man, often with the cardinal’s hat and an axe. 

It is said that St John Fisher was so exhausted, ill and emaciated on the morning of his execution that he had to be carried to Tower Hill in a chair. He nevertheless managed to summon the strength to walk the final steps to the scaffold and told the crowd that he died for the faith of Christ’s Holy Catholic Church alone. His head was struck from his shoulders and impaled on a spike on London Bridge where it remained until it was replaced two weeks later by that of St Thomas More. 

The headless body of St John Fisher is buried among the corpses of hundreds of executed prisoners in the crypt of the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London, whilst his head is believed to be buried under the porch of All Hallows-by-the-Tower, the oldest church in the City of London. 

In January 2004, there was at last recognition of this great man and his imprisonment in the Tower of London at a joint ceremony attended by Catholic and Anglican leaders in the Chapel Royal. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor joined Bishop Richard Chartres, the Anglican Bishop of London, and the Dean of the Chapels Royal in unveiling a plaque inside the crypt, acknowledging that the man who died a traitor’s death in 1535 was in fact a “bishop, cardinal, martyr and saint”. Nowhere previously had the saint’s name been commemorated in the Tower. The plaque was the initiative of Peter Bearcroft, Knight Commander of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, who for the previous thirteen years had arranged Masses in the Bell Tower cell where St John Fisher spent his last fourteen months. 

St John Fisher and St Thomas More were canonised by Pope Pius XI in 1935.