Short History of St Mary’s Catholic Church, 1793-2016
“A Short History of St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, Monmouth, 1793-2016”, revised and extended by Robert Derricott, is now back in print and further revised. Illustrated in colour and indexed, copies (60 pages) are available from the parish for a suggested donation of £5 per copy. All proceeds to our church.
This Short History includes appendices listing all Missioners Apostolic from 1791-1894 and all Parish Priests from 1894 to the present; a bibliography of sources; and parish groups.
The following links present short summaries of the contents of the History:
The First 100 years
The Second 100 years
Robert Derricott, 2017
After the Reformation, the number of Catholic priests diminished drastically, but the Faith survived with the heroic support of influential local Catholic families such as the Vaughans, Jones, Powells, Lorymers and Herberts, who hid and maintained chaplains so that their own families and their workers could continue to celebrate Mass. With the passage of time and in spite of the danger, Rome appointed men of piety and learning to act as vicars apostolic to areas of Britain. Wales and Herefordshire became part of what was known as the Western District.
The second vicar apostolic of Western District is of interest to our parish of St. Mary’s. He was Matthew Prichard, a Franciscan. Ordained a priest in 1693 and appointed vicar apostolic with the status of Bishop in 1715, he settled in Perthir, near Rockfield, Monmouth, owned by the Powells and then the Lorymers, where in the 17th century certain Catholics of Monmouth could celebrate Mass until it fell into disrepair and was demolished in about 1830. Bishop Prichard died in 1750 and was interred in the Powell family vault, his tombstone with Latin inscription being directly under the altar of the church at Rockfield. The bed on which he died now forms the reredos of St. John Kemble’s altar preserved in our church of St. Mary’s, Monmouth.
The fourth vicar apostolic of Western District is also of interest to St. Mary’s. He was Charles Walmesley, a Benedictine. He took advantage of the Catholic Relief Act of 1778 and re-ordered the Monmouthshire clergy. Bishop William Gregory Sharrock, also a Benedictine, was advised to reside in Monmouth. He did so in the house of a Mr. Woollett.
About this time Catholics of Monmouth could also celebrate Mass in an upper chamber in the rear of the Robin Hood Inn in Monnow Street. Bishop Sharrock set about appealing for a chapel in the town and on 1st January 1792 a petition was drawn up and submitted to the local magistrates. One of the signatories was the innkeeper of the Robin Hood, Michael Watkins. A licence was issued upon three conditions: the chapel may not look like a chapel; it should not be open to the public highway; and worshippers should only enter one at a time.
Robert Derricott, 2017 The First 100 years
The committee formed in 1792 purchased three small cottages in St. Mary Street each with gardens to the rear. In keeping with the conditions set by the magistrates, the cottages were not demolished. Entrance was made through the centre cottage which hid the building of the chapel in the garden. The Architect was Mr Millward of Gloucester and the builder was Mr Michael Watkins. The chapel was completed in 1793. It comprised a spacious room with an altar to the east. The old chapel with its Georgian windows formed the area of our present sanctuary. Bishop Sharrock remained our priest in charge until 1797.
The Rev. Mr. George Gildart was our fourth missioner priest in charge and he came from Holywell in 1802, bringing with him the funds of the secular mission there. The Catholic Emancipation Act was passed in 1829.
During the incumbency of The Rev. Mr. Thomas Burgess (1836-1851), our seventh missioner priest, the chapel was registered for marriages in 1837 and in the following year was extended with the addition of the sacristy and a burial vault and staircase to an upper room with galleries around the chapel. In this burial vault Fr. Grafton, a Franciscan, was buried, who according to records held in our parish, had helped a community of nuns escape from Bruges to England at the time of the French Revolution. The extended chapel of 1838 exists today in the accommodation behind the sanctuary arch. A school was also founded at which lessons were taught by the priest’s young nephew, Thomas Abbot. The location of this school is unknown, but may have been in the chapel, or in the Monmouth home of Mr. Woollett, where Mr Burgess had his lodgings.
Our eighth and last missioner priest in charge (1851-1894) was Rev. Burgess’ nephew, Rev. Mr. Thomas Burgess Abbot. He had care of the Monmouth Mission for nearly half a century. In 1870, it was reported in the Monmouthshire Beacon that the Roman Catholic Chapel in this town is being enlarged. By this time, objections to the use of bells was overcome, the three cottages were demolished and plans were prepared to add a bell tower and to erect a “new and commodious” school room at the back of the church. The Architect of the extension was Benjamin Bucknall. Until recently, the location of this school room was believed to be in the separate building known today as the St. John Kemble Room. Although this building survives today, excavations to lay an adjacent patio carried out in 2001 revealed a George III (1760-1820) silver coin, a stone wall and threshold and a flagged floor at a lower level than the St. John Kemble Room. The school is known not to have survived the turn of the 20th century.
The Rev. Mr. Thomas Abbot’s Account Book records a payment on 6th June 1871 in the sum of £14.7s.6d to Mr. Vowles, Organ Builder, Bristol.
Mr. Abbot is credited with acquiring a number of old books for our parish and other items including an 18th century censer and holy water bucket, and a 19th century cope said to have been made from a court gown of Gladstone’s sister Helen, a Catholic convert. He was a man of character, never shy to defend the Faith. Thomas Abbot’s great project was the further extension of our church. The confessional box, brass sanctuary lamp and baptistery floor were all donated by the Royal Monmouthshire Engineers Militia, based in the town, in 1875, 1885 and 1888 respectively.
Robert Derricott, 2017 The Second 100 years
Mr Abbot, retired in 1894 and 102 years after the petition, our mission was recognised as a church and Fr. James Moore became our first parish priest. Father James Moore, became our first parish priest in the same year, the first of a line of 20 parish priests including Fr. Nicholas James, our current priest.
A second school was set up at St. Mary’s at the beginning of the 20th century, this time by a group of White Sisters, or Daughters of the Holy Ghosts, who had been dissolved and displaced in France in 1901. The location of this school was 28 St. Mary Street, Monmouth, next door to our presbytery. Records show that it was flourishing in 1912 but closed the following year when the nuns were relocated to Caernarfon. 28 St. Mary Street remained the property of the Church until the early 1960s.
Our parish had entered the 20th century in good order, but by the 1923, the entire fabric of the church required restoration at a cost of £2,000. In 1953, a painting of the Presentation which had hung behind the altar for so long was replaced by the present wooden crucifix. In 1960, the pilgrimage to St. John Kemble’s grave attracted a record attendance of 400 pilgrims. In 1961, the new floor of mambrosa wood was laid in the nave. Following Vatican II (1962-1965), the liturgy was changed from Latin to the vernacular, and in the late 1960s, changes were made in the sanctuary, and ecumenical relations were developed with other Christian groups in the town. At this time, the sanctuary was carpeted.
In 1991, shortly after his appointment as our parish priest, Fr. David Smith formed our first Parish Advisory Council, with Miss Dorothy Evans as founding chairperson, tasked to produce a Parish Plan. In 1992, poor roof drainage caused damage to the church and presbytery and further restoration required borrowing of £157,620. For six months, the church had to be vacated and Mass was held in the chapel of Haberdashers’ Monmouth School. The opportunity was taken to further redesign the sanctuary, including removal of the old pulpit (now the base for the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary) and reduction of the altar rail.
In 1993, our refurbished little church celebrated the 200th anniversary of its humble beginnings as a small Mission tucked away in St. Mary Street, Monmouth, with the original Short History published by David A Powell.
In 2001, Fr. Tony Cullen introduced the need for regular Eucharistic services and five extraordinary ministers were commissioned. In 2004, Fr. Pat Coyne expressed dissatisfaction with the condition of the presbytery and moved into temporary rented accommodation. On account of falling Mass attendance leading to reduced giving and reduced debt repayment, the Archdiocese decided to sell the presbytery. Considerable distress was caused in the parish leading to the disbandment of the Parish Advisory Council. With the presbytery still not sold, the situation led to a resurgence of social and fundraising events and in 2006, proposals were drawn up to rebuild and extend the meeting room to form a parish room with new toilets and kitchen, using the ground floor of the presbytery and extending into the garden. A survey for this planned work identified a cloister in the garden which had been used in the 1950s for reading and contemplation of the clergy.
In 2007, the work was still awaited but the presbytery was re-roofed at a cost of £11,793. In this year, our present parish priest, Fr. Nicholas James, was appointed. In order to finance the projected work, the parish was required to produce a business plan. A parish development team was formed and consent sought from the Historic Churches Committee and Monmouthshire County Council. The cost was estimated to be £275,000 and the Archdiocese agreed a draw down loan of £160,000 to facilitate the first phase. A contract was eventually entered into in the sum of £239,105) and consent was given by the Archdiocese to move forward with all the work.
Meanwhile, the history of our church was recognised by the Monmouth Heritage Blue Plaque Trail, a joint project between Monmouth Town Council and Monmouth Civic Society, with plaques being applied to eleven historic buildings in the town, including St. Mary’s Catholic Church between May and July 2008.
The improvement work began in 2009, during which the garden was discovered to be made up ground containing early 14th century pottery, an early mediaeval cottage beneath the presbytery, a well and a large brick underground reservoir containing clean water. Masses were again celebrated in the chapel of Monmouth School until the Feast of the Assumption, 2009. Fully refreshed the interior and exterior of our church form the front and back covers of my updated Short History, published to mark this restoration of our church.
20th June 2011 marked the installation of the Most Rev. George Stack as the seventh Archbishop of Cardiff in St. David’s Cathedral. He brought with him from Westminster framed relics pertaining to St. John Kemble and most generously gave them to St. Mary’s Church for safekeeping in August 2012. These relics include a letter written by a lady in London to Fr. Kemble after his return to Hereford before his execution in 1679, the text of which is recorded in my Short History.
In Advent, 2013, a re-alignment of parishes saw Llanarth which hitherto had been served from Monmouth, to be served in future from Our Lady and St. Michael’s, Abergavenny. At the same time, the Catholic Church of St. Francis of Rome, Ross, previously served from The Most Holy Trinity, Ledbury, will be served henceforth from Monmouth.
On 1st May 2013, the church debt of £240,000 plus interest was paid off thanks to an appeal and tireless fundraising; and on 2nd May 2013, Archbishop Stack concelebrated Mass in our church with Fr. Nicholas.
The winter of 2013 saw freezing conditions and heavy rainfall, leaving our bell tower leaking into the choir loft and the stone frontage flaking off. A remedial contract at a cost of some £40,000 was completed in 2014. The opportunity was taken at this time to restore the bell of St. Mary’s, inscribed 1870.
In 2014, Brian Cookson, parish master of ceremonies and much-loved stalwart of the parish received the Benemerenti medal for services to the Catholic Church from His Grace the Archbishop of Cardiff, George Stack.
In 2015, Fr. Nicholas James led a pilgrimage of 29 parishioners of St. Mary’s Monmouth and St. Frances of Rome, Ross, to Rome including an audience with Pope Francis.
A recent survey observed deterioration in the rear boundary wall which was restored in 2017 at a cost of £16,000. Nevertheless, the Faith continues strong in recusant Monmouth, our church has been preserved for future generations in spite of our small parish (141 families) and the lack of a Catholic school.
As with all listed and historic buildings, both deterioration and the need for funding continue relentlessly! Our church will soon require another redecoration, and our sacristy and the St. John Kemble Room are in need of renewal.