Christianity in Aylesbury can be traced back to around the 7th century, and by the 9th century a Saxon church had been built. At this time St Edith probably founded a convent there – she was a niece of St. Osyth who was born at Quarrendon. Many legendary stories follow this period, but in 1386 we come to the founding of the Franciscan Friary near the bottom of Rickfords Hill. At its peak there were some 60 monks there, and although not wealthy it was dissolved in 1536. Local gentry occupied the buildings, until Cromwell finally destroyed it. St. Mary’s church was built at the beginning of the 13th century probably on the site of the former Saxon church.
After the Reformation it was many yeas before Catholicism began to take root in Aylesbury. In 1843 the Earl of Shrewsbury gave some money for altar furniture to be used in a Catholic mission in Aylesbury – as far as can be established without a Catholic church since the Reformation.
In 1843 and 1844, therefore, a mission in the town dedicated to St. Martin was established, with Fr. D. Duncan as resident priest in charge. Fr. D Duncan was succeeded in 1845 by Fr. T. Brogan, followed in 1846 by Fr. H. Rymer, and in 1847 by Fr. J. Bleasdale in whose time plans were drawn up by a Mr A W Pugin for a Church of St Martin. These plans never reached the stage of bricks and mortar, however, for Fr Bleasdale who travelled over from Wolverton and looked after the Army stationed in Aylesbury, for some undiscovered reason, went off to Victoria in Australia, where he became well known for his scientific expertise! His biographer suggests that “perhaps his Superiors considered that after 5 years with the lewd and licentious soldiery of England (Aylesbury) he was well qualified to minister to the lower orders of Australia”.
Fr H H Smith succeeded Fr Bleasdale but in 1857 the mission was closed. In the next 20 years the small body of Catholics was served by priests making their way from Northampton or Wolverton from time to time, and in 1878 Mass was being said periodically in the house of a Mr Casey in Buckingham Road. In 1884 – 85 Fr Geo Wigglesworth of Wolverton served the area and was succeeded by Fr Parker who used to come to Mr Roche’s house – 2 St Mary’s Square – monthly on Sundays to say Mass. After eating at the house he would walk over to Stone Asylum (now St John’s Hospital) in the afternoon.
In 1888 Bishop Riddell sent Fr James Collins to re-establish the mission. He took a room in Temple Street, and on the 9th December, said Mass in Mr Roche’s house at which about seven people were present. A few weeks later Fr Collins moved to 33 Bicester Road, where Mass was said in an upstairs room (holding 40 people ) regularly until 1892, with the upstairs back room being used as a sacristy. At this time Fr Collins wrote: “During this year (1889) many Catholics in country parts received, and the Irish Hay-makers and harvesters have had, after many years, an opportunity of approaching the sacraments.”
PRESBYTERY AND CHURCH
In 1892 the present presbytery was occupied, and the 120 Catholics then known in the area were able to worship in the temporary iron church on the site of the present church, which was opened by the Bishop in the December of that year. (it is interesting to note that the recorded population of Aylesbury two years previously in 1890, was only 60 out of the total of some 33,000, and this makes it all the more remarkable that a presbytery as large as this one should have been built at that time).
Before passing on, it might be worthwhile to quote the following story which Mr Roche’s son, James has written down as a possible .reason for the re-opening of the Aylesbury mission. In 1887 the London & North Western-Railway were building, a new passenger station in High Street, (this station is now closed). One of the workmen employed by the Northampton building firm – a Catholic, had an accident on a Sunday afternoon, and was taken to the Royal Bucks Hospital. The Vicar of St. Mary’s was there, taking a service at the time, and when the workman asked for a Catholic priest. He contacted Mr. Roche, telling him that the man had contracted tetanus and there was little hope for him. Mr. Roche wrote to Fr. Parker at Wolverton, who when he saw the letter marked URGENT, came away before saying Mass that morning, to administer the Last Rites, shortly after which the man died.
To return, to the building of the presbytery and iron church: Fr Collins raised money by means of leaflets containing first, a prayer to St Joseph, and later one to St. Patrick, which he sent to various addresses. The opening of the Church had, in fact, to be delayed from the planned date of 8th December when Fr. Collins dismissed the carpenter who was working on the sanctuary, as the work was not to his satisfaction. It was completed by Fr Collins, Mr. Roche and his son, who spent the days before the opening working into the small hours of the morning. During his time here, .Fr. Collins gave two or three well attended clarinet concerts in the Victoria Club, Kingsbury, as money-raising efforts. After the opening of the church, a choir, consisting of Mr. E. Jay, Miss Wilkinson, Mr. Roche’s, two daughters and Fr Collins brother John, was formed to sing Mass, Winter’s Mass and Mozart’s 12th Mass being two favourite settings. The harmonium was played by Mr. Roche or his daughter
Agnes. Masses were at 8.30am and 11 00am and Benediction in the iron church heated then by a combustion stove.
In June 1897 Fr. Collins was moved elsewhere by the Bishop, and for the next few months Mass was said on Sundays only by Fr. Laurenson, chaplain to what was then the women’s prison on Bierton Road. .In September Fr Joseph Mayne was sent to Aylesbury. During his time the prison mission was amalgamated with the town mission as a result of the resignation of Fr. Laurenson. Fr. Mayne was followed in April 1899 by Fr Thomas Scott. Fr. Scott was a good carpenter and made many alterations to the interior of the church, including the construction of a rood screen, and the placing of a large painting of an .angel over the large end windows of the church. He also replaced the combustion stove by gas heating in the church. He began the practice of holding a short service to the Sacred Heart in June on Sunday evenings, and sometimes the Rosary was sung at this time as well. The church furniture was enhanced in 1904 when Miss Caroline Smith gave a stone font. Until 1907 the small iron church was not licensed for marriage, so that all marriages for the area had to take place in High Wycombe. This was put right, however, when the £3 fee required was raised among the congregation; the money left over was enough at that time to pay for laying down concrete in the front porch.
RECESSION AND EXPANSION
By 1911 the Catholic population of the town had dropped to 77, since many people had left to seek work elsewhere. During the war some troops were stationed in 1916, for six months in Aylesbury, and Fr Scott’s grant for chaplain duty was enough to pay for new gates for the church. In 1921 Sister Superior of the Convent of Notre Dame, Clapham, who had for many years given vestments to the church, died. Payment for chaplain’s work at local hospitals had caused controversy for some time, and it was only in September 1922 that Fr Scott was granted £10 per year to attend to the Catholics at St John’s Hospital, Stone having done this at his own expense for 23 years.
In the latter years of Fr Scott’s time in Aylesbury, annual processions were started up the Sunday after Corpus Christi, weather permitting in the presbytery garden; these were well supported. Fr Scot left Aylesbury on retirement in 1926, to live in Walton-on-the-Naze.
On 4th March 1926 Fr T D WaIters arrived, and remained in charge of the Aylesbury mission until 1931. Activities recorded in 1926 were: a children’s outing by charabanc to Hampden Common and Combe Hill, a jumble sale, a whist drive and a dance in the Cooperative Hall. Also in this year electric lighting replaced gas in the church and presbytery. Back on the subject of chaplain’s remuneration, after Fr. Scott’s retirement the annual payment for saying Mass at the Borstal was reduced to £25. This resulted in the Bishop refusing to permit Mass being said there on Sundays until such time as more money was forthcoming! In the following year, however he conceded that Mass might be said in the Borstal one Sunday a month. The first week’s mission at St. Joseph’s took place in September 1927, given by Rev John Slattery CSSR, from Liverpool.
In November the Bishop made a canonical visit and confirmed 43. In 1930 a lecture on “A Visit to Palestine” was given by Fr. C. Lattey SJ in the Pavilion Cinema before what Fr. Walters records as “an unprecedented audience” of some 700. Fr. Lattey also gave a. mission, which resulted in the formation of a branch of the Sodality of the Children of Mary.
FR McHUGH AND THE NEW CHURCH
On 1st July 1931 Fr. E. McHugh took charge of the parish. Regular Mass was then restarted at the Borstal, ending the restricted service provided since the remuneration dispute. Due to an increase in the size of congregations, more Sunday Masses were required; the total Catholic population of, Aylesbury was estimated at 300 out of 33,000 at this time.
Within five months of his arrival, Fr McHugh had installed the first telephone in the presbytery – some ten years prior to the first one in Bishop’s House, Northampton! Also at this: time there is evidence that money was being raised for a building fund, with a view to replacing the iron church with a more substantial building. It was not until 18th April 1934, however, that the Bishop granted permission to plan a new church building. The work went ahead and on 28th May 1935 – (Ascension Day), the last Mass was said in the iron church, for it was to be demolished the next day ‘to make way for the present building. In the months between the demolition and the completion of the new church, Mass on Sundays was said in the main hall of Queen’s Park Girls’ School, while on weekdays the front room of the presbytery was used.
The building work on the new church actually started in 1936: the architects were Pullan & Ronchetti of Harrogate, and the builders Aylesbury’s own Webster & Cannon. The cost of the 300-capacity church was £4,368. On 14th January 1937 the Bishop laid the foundation stone; the ceremony was preceded by lunch in the Bull’s Head Hotel, and a tea and reception was held there at 4.30pm. The church was officially opened on 14th April, and on 19th April, a fortnight’s mission was begun. From this time on at least two Masses were said on Sundays.
THE WAR YEARS AND THE ARRIVAL OF THE ST. LOUIS SISTERS
On the outbreak of war in 1939 city children were evacuated to rural areas and there were many Catholics among those, sent to Aylesbury. By this time Mass was being, said regularly in the area at Wendover, Aston Clinton; Brill, Waddesdon and Chilton (at a Convent which has now moved to Upminster, Essex), and this list was extended further in 1940, in addition to three Sunday Masses at St. Joseph’s, to cater for a Catholic population of some 700, including evacuees. By 1941 most of Aylesbury’s evacuees had gone, but about 800 Italian prisoners of war had been moved into a camp at Hartwell; by the summer of this year, however, they had their own Italian priest in attendance.
In 1943 the Bishop visited the Hartwell Camp and was welcomed warmly by the prisoners, 28 or whom he confirmed. By: 1942 the parish had been cleared or its debt to the diocese for the construction of the new church building, and in, 1946 the site for a new church in Wendover had been chosen, to be bought on, the 31st May 1947. Two years previously, in 1945, the nuns or St. Louis had purchased the property “Elmhurst” for use as a convent and school, which was: opened on, 24th September or that year. In 1947 recorded activities of the church included meetings or the Society or St. Vincent de Paul and a Youth Club. In 1949 the Bishop opened an extension to the St. Louis School, negotiations were under way for the purchase or a chapel at Westcott, and Mass was being said every Sunday at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. In 1949 a building which had normally been a Baptist Chapel was in the ownership of the diocese and was being used for the celebration or Mass; also, permission was obtained to reconstruct as a parish hall and Youth Club premises owned by the church in Station Street, and this was opened in the following year. Also in 1948 a petition was raised in the parish protesting against the arrest of Cardinal Mindszenty in Hungary and, to continue the saga of salaries for hospital chaplaincy work, an application for some payment for the work going on at Stoke Mandeville, was refused.
WENDOVER, WESTCOTT, SOUTHCOURT & ELMHURST
Money continued to be raised for the building of a Wendover church, and on 27th October 1949 the Bishop contributed £100 to the fund. The chapel at Westcott was at last opened on Quinquagesima Sunday in 1950, adding to the number of Catholic churches in an area which by now contained around 1,500 Catholics. The opening of new buildings continued on 1st April 1951 (Low Sunday) with the opening or the new Chapel of St. Anne in London Road, Wendover. In May arrangements were made to purchase a site in the new Southcourt Estate. On 20th April 1952 the 15th anniversary of the new St Joseph’s church was celebrated and the land buying in Southcourt was completed.
However, by 1954 the question of a .church in Southcourt had paled somewhat in comparison with the prospect of a. new Catholic primary school for Aylesbury an application was made to the Local Education Authority in that .year for an Oxford Road site for such a. school. On 21st April 1957 the Bishop agreed to place Aylesbury’s Catholic primary school on. the fol1owing year’s building programme, and on 12th July a census of Catholic children of school age in the area was made. It was not to be until June 1961 however, that architects were asked to draw up plans for a new school, and also in that year the Bishop instructed that plans were to be prepared for a new church in Elmhurst Road, next to the Buckingham Road roundabout. By now there were some 2,800 Catholics in the area.
NEW MASS CENTRES AND SCHOOL
On 17th April 1962 the parish priest by now Canon McHugh died, and his place was taken by Fr. Galvin. In September the church site on Buckingham Road was obtained at .a cost of £5,507. 10s; two new Mass centres were opened in that year – one in Quarrendon on 7th October, and one at Oak Green School, Southcourt on 25th November. On 6th June 1963 the Ministry of Education approved the new Catholic school as an aided school for 320 pupils at a cost of £72,841.
In August a new priest, Fr. Boswell was appointed to look after the needs of Catholics in the Long Crendon, Haddenham and Westcot areas. The new Church Hall of the Guardian Angels was opened at last in Southcourt, a new Mass centre at Bedgrove was started, and regular Sunday Mass for the local Italian population was celebrated by an Italian priest from Bedford.
1964 was also a year of much activity which began with the opening of a new Mass Centre in Aston Clinton. On 27th January Mr Mitchell was appointed headmaster of the new school, the foundation stone of which was laid at Hazell Avenue by the Bishop on 22nd February. The Borough Council agreed to set aside the land on Bierton Road for a proposed secondary school, while on 3rd September the new St Edward’s Primary School opened with275 pupils and seven teachers, not including the headmaster. On 19th March 1965 the school was opened officially by the Bishop, and on 10th August Fr George Grace came to Aylesbury to carry on the work at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, and to work at Elmhurst.
New buildings of one sort and another were the main source of news in the parish in 1966. Firstly the plans of a proposed new parish church in Bedgrove were approved in outline and the site was bought for £9,000. St Edwards School got two extra classrooms, and on 28th August the Bishop opened the new Church of St Clare, Elmhurst (this is the church on the roundabout site mentioned earlier). Permission was granted by the diocese finance board for the building of a proper church in Southcourt to replace the hall then in use.
Work began on this building in January 1967 and by 1st October it was in use, the construction having been done by voluntary labour; daily Holy Communion and Rosary were in progress. In April of the same year the projected St Joseph’s infant School was included on the 1968/69 building programme, and on the 6th October the Bishop approved the building of a church and hall at Bedgrove. After only six years in Aylesbury, Fr James Galvin (known to his friends as “Big Jim” for his 6’4’’ height) left for Corby, having not only accomplished much in the new way of building projects, but also having made a great impact on many in the town by his friendly and apostolic ways.
For the next eight years, Fr George Walker, formerly from Stopsley, Luton took over as parish priest. He did much work in the presbytery and built two small rooms by the front door. However with the new churches on the periphery of the town, St Joseph’s congregation diminished somewhat, although Bedgrove (where church and hall had been completed in 1969) and Stoke Mandeville Hospital were both served from the town centre, Fr Gerard Ryan, the assistant priest being responsible for both. During this time St Joseph’s Infant School was in fact built right beside the existing primary school, now a middle school.
At the end of 1975, Fr Kenneth Payne from Bedford replaced Fr Walker who moved to Chesham Bois. Many of the changes recommended by the Second Vatican Council began to be put into effect at this time, and in May 1976, in the space of six days, parishioners gave the interior of the church two coats of paint, set the altar out from the side wall, and rearranged the seating, thus giving more of a “family feeling”, and communication between priest and people. A new altar, lectern, paschal candle, Stations of the Cross, etc were all designed and made by parishioners (Fred Lupton and John Chesterton) and the two wooden statues of Our Lady and St Joseph were added later, being carved out of wood by Sue Benenson.
The presbytery developed gradually as an open house for all, with a total of nine bedrooms, and many different nationalities, both clerical and lay finding their home both temporarily and permanently there. In1977 Fr Ryan took over Guardian Angels, Southcourt together with Stoke Mandeville Hospital and he was replaced for two years at St Joseph’s by Fr Ian Timpany, who also covered Stone Hospital and village.
A further step forward was made towards the end of 1979 when Fr Bennie Noonan moved into an improvised room in the hall at Bedgrove and proved once again that a priest living on the spot is essential for the building up of a parish. By the following Easter a nearby house had been purchased at 13 Pevensey Close, thus completing the organisation of Bedgrove as a separate parish which also served Stone. The Aylesbury prison continued to be served by Fr Paddy Glynn fromWinslow. Fr Glynn had taken this on when he was curate some fifteen years previously. In 1980 Fr John Fleming arrived to live in the High Street to help with the ever increasing work at Stoke Mandeville Hospital and to be chaplain to the Catholic youngsters in all the town’s non-Catholic Upper Schools. These years saw also an increasing involvement, not only of the Sisters of St Louis, but also of the laity in the pastoral work of the parish and this tendency will certainly go on growing as the effects of the Vatican Council and our own National Pastoral Congress are felt with the emphasis on co-responsibility and consultation.
Growth is a sign of life and the life we have within us is that of Jesus, our Lord and Saviour, and we are each called to spread the Good News of His Life and Power to everyone in this town: all are potentially members of our parish. Praised be to God for ever.
Priests serving Aylesbury in later years
St Joseph’s – Town Centre
Fr Ken Payne 1975 – 1986
Fr Gerard Ryan 1971 – 1977
Fr John Fleming 1980 – 1983
Canon Frank Duane 1986 –1999
Fr Kevin McGinnell 1990 –1996
Fr Roger Edmunds 1996 – 1999
Fr John Beirne 1999 –