Our Lady of Lourdes Centenary

Bishop of Brentwood Thomas McMahon with my Son, William, behind. 9th Nov 2012, Our Lady of Lourdes & St. Joseph Catholic Church Leigh-on-Sea, Essex.

On Friday night we attended the wonderful celebration of one hundred years since the first post-Reformation Mass was said in Leigh-on-Sea.

There was a Catholic Church in Leigh from earliest times. The Domesday Book of 1086 mentions Leigh or Legra as a small fishing village. By the sixteenth century it had developed into a prosperous port probably because of its excellent position on the busy shipping route to London. At the start of the twenty-first century Leigh is a wonderful, busy town, which though much expanded, retains a unique shopping character and much of its charm, thus it attracts many visitors throughout the year.

The 1851 census reveals that there were a few Catholics among Leigh's population of 1,360. At the time Leigh would have been part of the Arch-diocese of Westminster. The priest at Sheerness in Kent, Fr. Michael Conway, would have had to of crossed the River Thames in order to visit the handful of Catholics at Leigh. However we know that he had done this and visited at least one family, the Gallaghers, from a letter written by Canon Last on 16th May 1851.

At first it had been hoped that the Holy Ghost Fathers would open a school and parish, but when this came to nothing a young priest, Father John O’Neill, was sent to Leigh. He had recently returned from South Africa, where he had gone for the sake of his health. He rented a house at 56 Torquay Drive, where the downstairs was fitted out as a chapel and where 35 people attended the first public Mass celebrated on 10 November 1912. In 1913 Father O’Neill moved to 13 Leigham Court Drive and managed to purchase an army drill hall in Marguerite Drive as a temporary church, which was dedicated to SS Joseph & Patrick and thereafter to Our Lady of Lourdes & St Patrick. This building later served as the parish hall and has only recently been demolished to make way for the building of a new Parish Centre.

Father O’Neill did great pioneering work at Leigh, where he died at the age of 38 on 17 March 1917. Five days after Father O’Neill’s death, Essex was separated from the Archdiocese of Westminster to become the Diocese of Brentwood. The priest who replaced Father O’Neill, Father Francis Gilbert, took up residence on Grand Parade. He had been sent to Leigh by Bishop Bernard Ward, the first Bishop of Brentwood.

When Father Gilbert became ill, the bishop who was rather keen on Lourdes, insisted that he should go there. Fr Gilbert, I'm told, was less keen! However, he underwent a conversion of heart and from that moment vowed to build an English Lourdes at Leigh ~ hence the grotto. The result is the fine and unique Church of Our Lady of Lourdes & St Joseph opened by Bishop Doubleday in 1925 – much of it paid for by Father Gilbert’s own family and friends as well as parishioners. Canon Gilbert, as he duly became, remained as Parish Priest of Leigh until his death in 1952. Our Lady of Lourdes Church is the monument to Canon Gilbert’s work at Leigh and he lies buried in the presbytery garden ~ literally opposite the front door.

Canon Gilbert’s successor was Canon Toft, who was responsible for building Our Lady of Lourdes School in 1960 and also extending the church. He was followed as Parish Priest by Father John O’Sullivan (1966-1972), Monsignor Dan Shanahan (1972-1988), Father Bernard O’Brien (1988-1993) and Father John McGrath (1993-2003). Father Kevin Hale has been Parish Priest for the past nine years and there have been countless assistant priests over the years.

Bishop Thomas McMahon, once a parish priest in neighbouring St. Helen's parish, came to Leigh to celebrate Mass with twenty other priests, many of whom I consider dear friends: Father Kevin Hale and Father Graham Smith for example, but also Rev Dr. Stewart Forster, Father Mark Swires, Mgr John Armitage, Mgr George Stokes and the LMS Chaplain Mgr Gordon Read, as well as the last Parish Priest of Leigh-on-Sea, the much loved Father John McGrath. We were also joined by some of our wonderful new Ordinariate priests, Father Jeff Woolnough, who is now in charge of St. Peter's Eastwood, and Father Lee Bennett from Holy Family, Benfleet. Both of these priests are brilliant and valued assets to the Deanery, preaching the faith with integrity and delivering their patrimony, so desperately needed in many cases, as the Holy Father foresaw.

The Mass was truly beautiful, as Mass should be, with the Cathedral Choir from Brentwood, who are really superb, and the Liturgy included the Kyrie and Agnus Dei from the Missa Ave Regina Caelorum by T. L. de Victoria and Iubilate Deo by Giovanni Gabrielli.

I found the whole event very emotional for a number of reasons. I think firstly, I thank God for the priests who stood on that altar. I am constantly in awe of priests.

We really do possess such talent in Brentwood and such good men have been called to God's service here. Secondly, I feel blessed and fortunate to have known so many of them. It is interesting to reflect on the ways in which many have touched my life in so profound a way without ever knowing it. Certainly I always think of Stewart Forster in this regard, who gave me the best bit of advice in Confession I have every received. Also many are friends whom I love very dearly, especially Father Kevin Hale and Father Graham Smith. Father Kevin has walked the last few difficult years next to my wife and I and has held our hands when it was most painful as well as when it was easier. Always there for us, always supportive, always kind and caring, eager to do whatever he could to help and make the pain a little less. Most importantly he has been Catholic. He has sustained us with solid spiritual nourishment, and that has been so immensely important in dealing with the loss of our daughter.

Bishop Thomas McMahon delivering his homily, Fr. Kevin seated just to his right.
I feel so lucky to live in Leigh-on-Sea and worship in this church building, so beautifully appointed and so rich in history. It is timely this month of November to ponder on all the souls who have worshipped here before and passed down this beautiful legacy of Catholic faith which we now have a duty to maintain and propagate.

The wonderful photographs I have used here are by the kind permission of the talented photographer (and my friend) Paul Tait.

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