The photograph you see is of a church Hut. This is the Hut where I was baptized and received my First Holy Communion. It is also the Hut where I learned my catechism and where I learned how to serve the Tridentine Mass. The Hut served the parish of Haverhill in Suffolk and was dedicated to St. Felix, the first bishop of East Anglia and King Edmund of east Anglia. Now you will be forgiven for thinking that this is a really ughly building, and so I suppose it was, but I truly loved hearing Mass there.
It was only in 1936 that a regular Sunday Mass was celebrated in the home of Mr and Mrs Miller at 114 Withersfield Road, the priest travelling from Newmarket. The population of the town at this time was about 4,500. I remember Larry Miller, his wife and children very well.
In 1938 the first Catholic Church was opened in Withersfield Road opposite the gas works. Older parishioners describe it as ‘the Hut’, indicating a wooden construction dedicated to St. Felix and St. Edmund. The Hall family (not Catholics) who lived at 88 Withersfield Road provided extra seating at the church when too many people arrived! Mr Hall was the Registrar for Births, Marriages and Deaths so had some benches he was able to loan on Sundays.
During World War 2 Father Gerald Flanagan was appointed as the first resident priest, but after the war it was again served from Newmarket. I t was Fr Flannagan who married my parents. When the Augustinian Friars returned to their priory in Clare, Suffolk in the 1950’s (it had been looted and destroyed at the Reformation), Father Twomey, OSA took over responsibility for the district. It was Fr Twomey who gave me my first Holy Communion, an occasion for which I also received my very first watch. Catechism for this great event was carried out on Saturday mornings by the St Louis Sisters who came from Newmarket. Fr Twomey could see that the chapel was fast becoming too small for the growing Catholic community and started to raise funds to build a new church. By this time industries and new homes being set up to house the London overspill after the war. At this time the Northampton diocese appointed Father B Hindle as parish priest. It under Fr Hindle that I started serving Mass. We would have regular meetings in the presbytery to practice the Latin and regular meetings in the Hut to practice the other parts. For me it was like partaking in heaven, a beautiful and sublime liturgy. Mass was at 7.30 am. This meant getting up early, returning home for breakfast and then going off the school. The first time I did this I had neglected to tell my mother who was taken aback not to find me in bed after knocking on my door to get me up for school. Just at that moment I returned from Mass. 'Where on earth have you been?' asked my mother. 'To Mass, of course' was my reply.It had a deep and lasting effect on me, which years later would see me trying my vocation in Allen Hall seminary. That is why it is so important that young boys should be encouraged to serve Mass. In a future posting on this blog I may tell you my story at Allen Hall.
It was planned to first build a hall, which would serve as a church in the immediate future, and later to build a church and presbytery on the site. The hall, which has become the current church is a concrete structure with no outstanding features although inside exudes an air of traditional piety. Mass today is still said on the Sacred Heart altar from the original Hut. The new church was opened in 1965 and was classed as a temporary building but is still in use today! I was confirmed in the new church by bishop Leo Parker of Northampton diocese in 1968.
The account below tells the story of that infamous mission of 1911 and is taken from the homepage of St. Felix Roman Catholic Church, Haverhill.
St. Felix Parish Haverhill – the first Mission held in 1911
A written account by one of the priests present at the time
When I saw the motor chapel it was in the stable yard of the Prince of Wales’ Inn, at Haverhill, Suffolk, where it had proceeded so as to be in a position by Sunday, July 2nd, ready to play its part in the Mission given to non-Catholics of the town. The little town of Haverhill had been well placarded the previous week. Large posters were everywhere in evidence and booming largely these words, “ Know Popery – lectures by Father Bernard Vaughan SJ” ( A play on the words ‘no Popery’ which was a derisive call against Catholics at this time). Leaflets had also been distributed to the man in the street or delivered at each house.
A majority of the town authorities having decided that the Town Hall must not be let to the Missioners, so as to protect the inhabitants from the contagion of Popery, a smaller building was hired for the week in which the lectures were to be given. The action on the part of the authorities has been severely criticised and a lively correspondence is still running in the local paper between the advocates of free speech and their and our opponents. It is, however, consoling to find that Haverhill can still boast of possessing (though the number be small) some fair-minded Englishmen, who refuse to bend the knee to local potentates, and who are ready to stand up for free speech and fair dealing.
It should be mentioned that our advent into the town had been well advertised, as the Kensit horse van with two lecturers and a Protestant Alliance lecturer, the latter on foot, were much in evidence. Our party, unable to find accommodation in the same hotel, were split into two sections, one at each end of the town. The one residing at the “Bell Hotel” had the benefit of listening to the nightly Popery, while the others at the “Rose and Crown” were favoured with tales of escaped nuns and immorality of convents, etc., etc. The small boys in the crowd seemed to enjoy the language employed by the Alliance orator, judging by the frequent peals of laughter that broke on the ear.
Having now prepared the reader, I propose to tell you the simple story of the opening of the Mission. The building used was the Corn Exchange, which holds about three hundred persons. It was well filled by 6.30 on Sunday evening, July 2nd. Occupying the platform were Fathers B Vaughan, S.J., H Vaughan, D.D., C.F. Norgate and Mr. Hickey. Father H.Vaughan presided and explained that, “Their object in coming to Haverhill was not to run down other religions and try to prove them wrong. If they did that it would not prove theirs to be right, but simply and as clearly as possible to place before them Catholic doctrine, the truth and practices of the Catholic Church.” There was, he said, a question box at the door, and if anyone found any difficulty, if they would put their questions in writing into the box, they would be answered the next evening.
Then came the lecture of the evening. Father Bernard Vaughan, addressing his hearers as “My dear fellow countrymen and countrywomen,” expressed the great pleasure he had in coming to Haverhill. He had no doubt that the people of Haverhill wanted to see, hear and know the truth. He thought. He thought he ought very much to thank them for coming there when they had been earnestly implored not to come. Continuing, he said, “We have come here not to denounce others, but rather to justify ourselves, and because we feel and know that our wares defy competition. We have come here like commercial travellers to exhibit to you our wares, and as we think there are none so good as them, we would be poor specimens of Englishmen if we did not try to get our countrymen to use them. If you do not consider that we have good enough for you, ‘chuck it’; if it is the right thing, hold it” Father Vaughan then spoke about the letting of the Town Hall and said he did not complain because the authorities refused its use to the Catholics, saying, “The Corn Exchange will do for the present; perhaps someday we will have the Town Hall, Parish Church, and the whole thing. England belonged to us once, and we hope it will belong to us again.” He wanted no hankey pankey; he was an Englishman right down to his boots. He could not help being suspicious as to what had been said about the Roman Catholic Church; but if it was anything like it reputed to be, many of those present would have left it long ago.
Father Vaughan next proceeded to deal with the question; whence come we, and whither go we? And in his well known style kept the audience riveted for an hour. He concluded an eloquent discourse, and appealed to his audience to come nightly and listen and not to be misled by what other people said outside. The hymn, “Sweet Saviour bless us ere we go,” concluded our first night’s mission to Haverhill.
What is the effect then of our first night’s opening? “Wait and see.”
Monday evening opened quietly – the questions were; why do Catholics kiss the feet of St. Peter’s statue in Westminster Cathedral? Why are ashes placed on your forehead on Ash Wednesday? Why are Catholics forbidden to read the bible?(they are not!) Mr Hickey answered these.
Father Norgate replied to a question as to the building up of the British Empire in pre-Reformation days, and contended it had its greatness founded in the days of Alfred and during the days of the signing of the Magna Carta, when England was Roman Catholic. Convent inspection, and the worship of the Virgin Mary were also dealt with in a clear and convincing style. The answering of questions occupied a considerable time.
Father Bernard Vaughan, in the course of his lecture, said; “One reason why the Roman Catholic Church was so much hated was because she would not hear of compromise. She could not and would not give up the smallest atom of revealed truth.” Again he kept the audience attentive and absolutely in his hand while he unfolded his theme.
At the close of the lecture, the Protestant Alliance speaker asked to be allowed to put oral questions and was informed it was against the rules, it being intended to conduct the Catholic meetings in keeping with the cause they represented.
On leaving the Corn Exchange, the Fathers met a sea of scowling faces. A crowd of 800 persons of all ages and sexes, booing, hissing and yelling, followed them through the streets to their homes. Such a scene had not been seen in Haverhill since the general Election. Tolerant Haverhill!! – You have covered yourself with glory.