Fr. Tom Fitzgerald, 1934-43

Fr. Fitz, as he was soon called, was an energetic young man who lost no time in taking decisions. He had an explosive sense of humour, as is still evident from what he wrote: “On my appointment as PP, I immediately went on a spending-spree, laying out £700 on decorating and repairing the temporary church and presbytery; which only shows what happens when you get a disastrous combination of youthful energy, easy money and inexperience!”

In fact his parish, by now composed largely of immigrant Irish people, was extremely poor; far from “easy money”, a curate in the 1930s received £1.50 (30/-) a week and had not even a proper bed in which to sleep, a situation which was remedied only when a moderately well-off parishioner found out.

A Praesidium of the Legion of Mary was founded as an early priority: they did parish visiting and conducted more than one census. It closed in 1987 through lack of recruits. Shortly after that the Youth Club was formed. It has had its ups and downs but still operates successfully in the St. Andrew’s building.

c.1936: Fr. Thomas Fitzgerald with (mostly) COM.
c.1936: Fr. Thomas Fitzgerald with (mostly) COM.

Now Fr. Fitzgerald had to face up to the fact that the church was again too small.

As a result of the economic war between England and the Irish Republic after Eamon de Valera won the 1932 Irish election, there was a massive increase in immigration from Ireland, especially the west coast, to England, an immigration which has never really ceased; Willesden, now heavily industrialised, acted as a magnet.

Mass attendance had risen to 950 in 1933, but in 1938 was 2200. Six Masses on a Sunday, despite amplification into classrooms, were not enough; people were standing in the aisles and in the school playground. The baptismal register records 132 baptisms in 1937. Nearby parishes, notably Quex Road, had similar problems.

The parish debt still stood at £10,000 (some £200,000 of our money) but Fr. Fitzgerald did not hesitate. He badgered the Diocesan Finance Committee until he obtained permission to build. As Cardinal Hinsley was to say later, at the opening of the new church: “When he visited the little church, and saw that it could scarcely hold 300, whereas 3000 attended Mass each Sunday, he knew that a new church was necessary and that Fr. Fitzgerald was the man to get it. There was something about Fr. Fitzgerald by which he got round one … he must be a relative of Mr. Blarney!” (Willesden Chronicle). Fr. Fitzgerald did not like the site at Brickfield, but he could not get planning permission for the only other available plot — yet again where the Council offices now stand in Willesden Lane. But he found no difficulty in getting the necessary credit from his bank manager, as he told his congregation: “on the security of the Catholic Church”! He engaged Mr. John Sterrett as architect, Mr. Robert Everest (a parishioner) as quantity surveyor and M. J. Cleeson and Son of North Cheam as building contractors. The design was for a church 135 ft by 56 ft, with a bell-tower 69 ft high. Work started on 18th July 1938.

The parish Social Club stepped up its fund-raising activities: there were Socials and Entertainments, May Revels, dances every Sunday night at the Relver Hall in the High Road (now the Red Cross) and frequent whist drives.

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