The parish church of Old Stevenage is the Transfiguration of Our Lord, Grove Road, Stevenage. The parish is part of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Westminster.
Whilst the church of Christ The King is a new church, built in 1981, the history of the Old Town church and parish dates back to 1914.
The first Christian missionaries arrived in Britain sometime during the 2nd century but it is unlikely that Christianity was established in the Saxon village of Stigenace (Stevenage) much before the end of the 8th century. The village church, dedicated to St. Nicholas, which still stands in the centre of what was the Saxon settlement, dates from the 12th century and probably replaced an earlier wooden church.
The 1500s saw a period of political and religious unrest in England resulting in the Christian community being split into Protestant and Catholic factions. The latter remained loyal to the practices and beliefs of the traditional Church and accepted the authority of the Pope in Rome. Because of their allegiance to Rome they came to be called ‘Roman Catholics’. Brutal intolerance between the factions developed and continued during the 16th and 17th centuries with the Protestants gaining ultimate control.
Little is known of the fate of Stevenage Christians who remained loyal to the traditional Church but on 6th November 1643 Parliament soldiers apprehended a man in Stevenage on suspicion of being a spy.
Having searched the man the soldiers asked a local schoolmaster to interpret several religious papers found in the man’s bags. The schoolmaster obviously decided that the papers were of a ‘suspicious nature’ and the man was held overnight. The following morning he was again searched and this time the soldiers discovered a letter addressed to the Spanish Ambassador in London in which it stated that the man was a member of the Order of St. Francis. Following further questioning the man was held under suspicion of being a Roman Catholic priest. Father Francis Bell, as he indeed was, was taken from Stevenage for examination by government officials before being committed to Newgate prison in London to await trial.
The trial took place on 7th December 1643 and Fr. Bell was sentenced to death by the prescribed means (to be hung, dismembered, disembowelled and quartered). Fr. Bell, aged 54, was executed at Tyburn on 11th December 1643.
Since Fr. Bell would have travelled in secret, staying only in ‘safe houses’, his arrest in Stevenage suggests that there were Roman Catholics (or Roman Catholic sympathisers) living in the area at that time. The houses of wealthy families often had a private chapel which, if the family were sympathisers, could be used by a travelling priest.
A new beginning
Although persecution of Roman Catholics subsided during the 1700s the registration of Roman Catholics (or Papists as they were often called), was still required by law and an entry in the register for 1767 shows that there were at that time 8 Roman Catholics living in the Watton-at-Stone area. The Roman Catholic College of St. Edmunds was establish at Old Hall Green, Ware in the early 1800s and Mass was held in the chapel there. It was not however until the mid 1800s that the last of the statutory prohibitions against Roman Catholics was finally abolished. Irish immigrants gradually increased the Roman Catholic population in England and in 1850 a new Roman Catholic hierarchy was established.
Saint Martin’s Chapel
The nearest Mass centre for the few Roman Catholics (probably Irish immigrants) living in the Stevenage area prior to 1911 was at Hitchin where the service was held in St. Michael’s school, a school established in 1903 and run by Fathers of the Society of St. Edmund of Pontigny (S.S.E). As the Stevenage Roman Catholic community grew so did the need for a Mass centre in Stevenage and on the eve of the Nativity in December 1911 a mission chapel, called St Martin’s, was opened in premises in Albert Street.
The chapel was obviously quite small as a contemporary report notes that Fr. John Athill S.S.E., the priest-in-charge of the mission, spoke at the opening of the chapel and compared the ‘humble shed’ in Stevenage with the stable in which Christ was born in Bethlehem. A local newspaper report noted that Mass would be said at the Chapel at 9am on the first Sunday in the month and 10am on all other Sundays. There was also a Sunday evening service at 6.30pm.
In July 1912 a Catholic Motor Mission, which toured the country in a motor van converted into a mobile chapel, came to Stevenage. During the week of the mission the van was parked near the High Street White Lion Hotel and in addition to visiting the chapel the townsfolk were invited to meetings in the Town Hall in Orchard Road. The purpose of the mission was to promote understanding of the Roman Catholic faith and whilst discussions at the well attended meetings were described as lively but good humoured, anti-Roman Catholic protesters outside the hall caused some disruption. Indeed for several weeks after the mission the protests against the visit continued in the letter columns of the local newspapers – one letter strongly advising readers to ‘… resist Popery as they would the Devil’.
But in general there was growing tolerance, understanding and co-operation between the various Christian factions as shown by the fact that the previous Christmas a joint carol service, including Roman Catholics, had been held on Bowling Green.
A new church
Although the ‘shed’ in Albert Street was a step forward it was far from ideal and in 1913 the community bought a narrow strip of land between Basil’s Road and Grove Road on which to build a church. Dr. Adrian Fortescue laid the foundation stone for the new church on Wednesday 1st October 1913 in the presence of representatives of all the other Stevenage churches. Sealed within the stone, which was laid ‘in the name of unity’, were a few coins, sacred writings and a copy of the Hertfordshire Express. The architect was Mr. E.H.Major of London and the building contractors were Messrs Austin & Sons and Mr. W.J.Spratt, both builders of Stevenage. The building was constructed of red brick using complex brick patterns, particularly around the windows, to disguise the simple plan of the building. Basically the building comprised a box shape room, the nave, to which was attached a narrow aisle on either side, and three smaller box shape rooms at the Grove Road end. Of the three end rooms the central room was the baptistery and the rooms on either side were porches. The Austin & Sons sales ledger for the period 1913 to 1918 clearly indicates that there was a simple earth closet (toilet) attached to the building. The ledger also contains several entries showing that Austin’s was responsible for ‘cleaning-out’ the earth closet approximately once a month. The site of the toilet is not clear but the architect’s plan suggests that it was attached to the outside wall at the north-west corner of the nave. There was also some form of heating in the building as the ledger makes reference to radiators. The total plan area of the church was approx. 47ft. X 44ft.
The new church, named The Transfiguration of Our Lord, was officially opened at a service held in the church on Sunday 25th January 1914. The Diocesan Bishop was present at the opening service and Fr. Howard preached the sermon. According to a report in the Hertfordshire Express, Fr. Howard advised the Catholics of Stevenage not to be downhearted at the smallness of their numbers (there were probably less than 50 parishioners at that time) but by their own earnest prayers and upright example to become efficient in spreading the truth of the Catholic faith. At that time the parish was still served by the Fathers of St. Edmond, Hitchin. Fr. Landrin S.S.E., was appointed Priest-in-Charge. Sunday Mass was at 10.30 am and there was also an evening service at 6.30pm. Then in August 1914 Fr. Basil Barton took over as Priest-in-Charge, serving the parish from Baldock. In the November Fr. Barton invited parishioners and townsfolk to a course of Sunday afternoon talks. Facilities at the church were primitive compared with our modern church. There was just an earth closet that was emptied once a month, and it was not until the autumn that water and gas supply was connected to the church.
The First World War
The 1914~1918 war in Europe brought an unexpected increase in attendance at the church when several Belgian refugee, who were mainly Roman Catholics, were billeted in the town. Late in the afternoon of Thursday 1st October 1914, two months after the start of the First World War, a group of Belgian refugees arrived at Stevenage Station. The refugees had been ordered to leave their homes as the Germans began their attack through Belgium and Luxembourg. On arriving in England the refugees were taken to Alexandra Palace, London, before being transferred to more permanent accommodation. The authorities expected the war to last only a few weeks, but it was to be five long years before the refugees could return home. The first group of refugees who came to Stevenage arrived at the station and were taken by car to stay in the Mission Room (C of E) cottage at Fisher’s Green. A local committee had earlier rented the accommodation for a nominal sum and had made an appeal for supplies and furniture. The committee were soon promised tables, chairs, crockery, kettles, coal, blankets, a kitchen range, bread for two days a week and free medical attendance. When all was ready the committee offered the accommodation to the national Belgian War Refugee Committee as a home suitable for ‘ … a Belgian mother and children of the peasant class’. In practice the group that came comprised of three men and two women with several children. One man was a cabinetmaker and the other a polisher. With the help and friendliness of local people the refugees quickly settled into their new home . The Union Jack and Belgian flag were soon hanging side-by-side outside the cottage.
By the end of October a house in Julians Road, which had been put at the disposal of the local committee by the owner, Mr. John Inns, had been completely furnished and was ready to receive another Belgian refugee family. Although language was a problem the refugees were generally able to understand French. Being Roman Catholics the refugees attended Mass at the Church of the Transfiguration in Grove Road.
The war finally ended on 11th November 1918 and a service of thanksgiving was held in the church on the 14th. Flowers decorated the interior of the church and the flags of Belgium and Britain hung over the entrance.
A priest for Stevenage
Although Stevenage Roman Catholics now had a new church their priest still lived in Baldock. It was not until 1917 when Fr. Oates was appointed that the town had a resident parish priest. Fr. Oates lived initially at 19 Green Street and later 119 High Street.
The young children of Roman Catholic families living in or near the town generally attended the National School on Bury Mead. The children were not allowed however to attend any religious service held at the school, and were required to wait in a separate room.
In May 1920 the then parish priest, Fr. Oates, travelled to Rome where he received an audience with the Pope and was also privileged to be present at the canonisation of Joan of Arc.
A Presbytery is added
The church had been built on the Grove Road half of the land bought by the community, and then during 1925/26 a presbytery was built on the Basil’s Road half. A contemporary Town Guide describes the new presbytery as built “in the Queen Ann style … erected so that it will eventually be connected to the church by a cloister”. The church was packed on Sunday 6th June 1926 when Cardinal Bourne came to administer the Sacrament of Confirmation and later bless the completed presbytery.
In June 1927 a parish jumble sale raised £17.3s.0d (£17.15p) for parish funds. Also about this time a parishioner made a canopy for use by the church during processions of the Blessed Sacrament. The canopy was made from red velvet with a valance of red and gold tapestry.
Extension of the church building
By 1937 the church had obviously become too small and work began to extend the building. The porch on the east side was closed to make room for the baptistery and the original baptistery area converted to contain a confessional box. The nave was extended and a new and higher box-shape building with an apex roof added to form a larger sanctuary. A sacristy and coke store were added to the north-east corner of the building and a new entrance to the north-west corner.
The Second World War
The 1939~1945 war brought numerous war-time restrictions and shortages, and also a changing population as men left to join the armed forces and evacuees and temporary war workers (many from Ireland) came to live in the town. Not least among the restrictions was a nightly blackout, a restriction that for five years prevented the holding of a Christmas midnight Mass at the church. It was not until 1944 and the easing of the blackout restrictions (into what became known as a ‘dimout’) that the midnight service could again be held.
Not all events were hampered by wartime restrictions. In June 1940 a summer fete was held at ‘Woodfield’ the Rectory Lane home of Mr. & Mrs. Trehern, where an unusual feature was the ‘Spitfire Fund’ stall, which raised five guineas for the fund. (There was a desperate shortage of Spitfires and fund raising events to buy more were common.) The fete also raised £50 for church funds. And in January 1943 the parish priest, Fr. Valentin, took eighteen older boys to see a Christmas pantomime at St. Francis College, Letchworth, whilst the younger children were entertained at a party held at St. Mary’s Convent. (From c1933 to c1945, a small group of religious sisters ran a children’s home in Stevenage. Initially at 5 London Road and later at ‘Ingleside’ on the Hitchin Road.) Also about this time members of the parish ‘Children of Mary’ organisation, held a Christmas party at the Convent. Then in October Fr. Valentin gave a talk and lantern-slide show on Lourdes to the Methodist Guild and to the Church of England Young Peoples Fellowship.
In June 1944, as part of their war effort, the congregation collected books for the Royal Navy War Libraries.
Stevenage New Town
When the war ended in 1945 the Government began implementing plans for the development of post-war Britain. The plan for dealing with the over population of London, a problem made worse by the destruction of thousands of homes during the Blitz, included the building of a new town based on Stevenage. Building work began in 1947 and the Sunday attendance at the Old Town church rapidly increased as first building workers and then new tenants moved into the town. Soon the church became just one of five Roman Catholic churches within the town – St. Joseph’s, Bedwell; St. Hilda’s, Shephall; All Saints, The Oval; Christ The King, Symonds Green, and the church of The Transfiguration of Our Lord, Stevenage Old Town. The churches of All Saints and Christ The King are each incorporated into a local community centre and are shared with two other Christian denominations.
Modernisation of the church building
Although the interior of the Old Town church was extensively modernised in 1984, many features of the original building and of the 1937 extension can still be seen. On Thursday 27th April 1989 the 75th anniversary of the opening of the church was celebrated with Mass and a photographic exhibition.
In spite of all the changes that have been made over the years, the church of The Transfiguration of Our Lord still retains its small cosy village church atmosphere and is an active worship centre for the many Roman Catholics living in the town.
In 1981 the parishes of All Saints, Christ the King, St. Joseph’s and the Old Town parish, were amalgamated to form a Team Ministry parish. (St. Hilda’s remained independent.) But in 1988 the Team Ministry parish was dissolved and the current parish comprising the Old Town church and Christ the King was formed.
1911~1912 Fr. John Athill S.S.E.
1912~1914 Fr. R. Landrin S.S.E.
1914~1917 Fr. Basil Barton
1917~1921 Fr. Austin Oates
1921~1945 Fr. Arthur W.Valentin
1945 Fr. Arthur Welland
1945~1958 Fr. W.H. Ormiston M.C.
1958~1980 Fr. Leo Straub
1980~1981 Fr. Michael Roberts
1981~1983 Fr. John Atkins
1981~1987 Fr. Adrian Walker
1981~1989 Fr. Brian Reynolds
1989~1994 Fr. Saviour Vella
1991~1995 Fr. Paul McAleenan
1995~1996 Fr. Peter Newby
1996 Fr. Donald Graham
1987~1999 Fr. Tony Convery
1997~2001 Fr. Joseph Carter
2001~2011 Fr. Francis Leonard
2011~2013 Fr. Floribert Kalinda
2013~2014 Fr. Fred de L’Orme
2014~2015 Fr Auson Kamugisha, SDS
2015~ Christopher Luoga, SDS
1982~1983 Sr. Helen Carroll O.P.
1982~1987 Sr. Lucia Fitzpatrick O.P.
1982~1988 Sr. Anthony O’Shea O.P.
1988~1993 Sr. Teresa Donavan O.P.
1991~1993 Sr. Bertranda Mullryan O.P.
1987~1995 Sr. Clare Manning O.P.
1993~1999 Sr. Geraldine McGarry O.P.
1995~1999 Sr. Eileen Airey O.P.
2000~2011 Sr. Loretta Dooley O.P.
Suggested further reading
- The History of Stevenage by Robert Trow-Smith
- Stevenage: History & Guide by Margaret Ashby
- St. Nicholas Church edited by Margaret Ashby
- Aspects of Stevenage published by Stevenage Museum
- Catholic Family History Society publications by Michael Gandy
Our grateful thanks to :
John Amess, upon whose excellent document this page is based
Stevenage Museum, for permission to use material previously published in the book Aspects of Stevenage