Our History

The Foundation of the Parish

In 1850 Pope Pius IX re-established Catholic hierarchies in England and Wales, placing Dorset in the newly created Diocese of Plymouth. As a consequence, Shaftesbury was placed under the care of the priests in Marnhull.

Towards the end of the 19th century however a group of French priests had arrived in the Diocese of Plymouth seeking to form a new foundation under Benedictine inspiration. The Benedictine Buckfast Abbey was known to them and they were directed by the Benedictines in Buckfast to Marnhull. Their purpose was to found a seminary for late vocations and the missions under Benedictine Rules.

From manuscripts still in existence, it seems that they began recruiting young boys and young men who were later on to remain true to the spirit of the foundation. They followed Father Rouviere and his helpers to En-Calcat in Southern France and for a while in exile to Tarragona in Spain before returning to En-Calcat and making a permanent foundation there.

Their presence in Marnhull was, however, short. The climate did not suit their health and they were guided to Shaftesbury, arriving on May 25th 1894. They subsequently bought Belmont House (now the Royal Chase Hotel) to use both as a church and for their own accommodation. This is how the Mass returned to Shaftesbury and the first solemn Mass was celebrated in Belmont House in January 1895.

The fathers of the Benedictine order connected with En-Calcat and Shaftesbury were Fathers Féron, Rouviere, Baron, Beaud, Ward, Dodard and Grillet. Among younger recruits was a local boy, Father Cross.

The little group from Laval Diocese and Mont St Michel stayed in Shaftesbury until 1898, when, on April 5th, the Bishop of Plymouth and the En-Calcat Benedictines jointly decided to close down Belmont House. On July 11th 1898 the place was closed but a priest, who was visiting on holiday from Australia, a Monsignor Provost Barry, was left in charge for a ‘couple of months’ with no suggestion as to how the parish would be served when he left.

The Sons of Mary Immaculate

It was at this time that another religious order of French origin was seeking to establish itself in England. The Sons of Mary Immaculate (Fils de Marie Immaculée - FMI) from Chavagnes en Paillers (Vendée) were looking to establish a community in England as a refuge from the persecutions of the French Government against religious orders. They had developed their missions in some of the English speaking countries of the Caribbean and were thinking of a native clergy. Their French speaking priests needed to learn English. In 1897, two priests of the order were chaplains to an order of nuns at Bocking (near Braintree), Essex, on the recommendation of Cardinal Vaughan and of Father Tapon FMI (Superior of Saint Lucia).

How they came to hear of the plight of the Mission of Shaftesbury is a bit of a mystery, but it should be remembered that the Cardinal founder of Braintree Convent was Cardinal Herbert Vaughan and the Bishop of Plymouth was his brother, Bishop William (?) Vaughan! Cardinal Vaughan had given the chaplaincy of his convent at Bocking, Braintree, to two FMI fathers - Fathers Tapon and Boutin. Providence has great ways! Whilst making a retreat at a Salesian House in London, Father Boutin heard from a Father Flower, a Salesian, that Shaftesbury and Bishop Vaughan were looking for a priest for the mission soon to be vacated by the Australian, Father Barry. The FMI don't have their own website (as at Easter 2009) but they do share a website with other religious orders. To go there, please click here.

The FMI move to Shaftesbury

In October 1898, following his retreat, Father Boutin started a correspondence with Lady Arundel of Wardour, whose family were supporting the Shaftesbury Mission at the time with a view to purchasing Belmont House from the En-Calcat Benedictines and reviving the church there. Father Dodard was involved as Priest in charge of the District.

The Royal Hotel (formerly Belmont House and now The Royal Chase Hotel) in about 1930.

The early weeks in November 1898 were, for Father Boutin, very busy ones. He had to obtain his French Superior’s permission, to allow him to bid for Belmont House; and to secure financial arrangements from the Diocesan Bishop and the Arundels of Wardour, who were the guarantors of a loan to the Diocese and to the Mission. By November 23rd Father Boutin was ready for the sale of Belmont House by the Benedictines and its purchase by the Sons of Mary Immaculate. All went according to plan. Father Boutin moved in on December 7th, 1898 and celebrated the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in the New Foundation.

The Early History of the Shaftesbury Foundation

Parish records begin around Christmas 1898.

The first Baptism was early in February 1899.

The book of funerals begins in 1904.

The first Confirmation was on 8th June 1899.

The Marriage Registers begin in 1912, after the new church was built and registered for marriages.

The Parish of Shaftesbury under FMI’s Pastoral Care

A short study of the first Register of the Catholic Church in Shaftesbury from 1898 onwards shows Shaftesbury District becoming independent from the Mission at Marnhull at Christmas 1898. The Church of the Sacred Heart in Shaftesbury was based at Belmont House until 22nd September 1910, when the new church was finished. The Church of the Most Holy Name and St Edward, King and Martyr, was “solemniter divino cultui dedicata”. This, together with the absence of consecration crosses and of relics in the altar, confirms that at this time the church was dedicated and not consecrated. There are signatures of several FMI priests including that of Father Jeanneau contained within it:

  • Father Jerome Boutin
  • Father René Roger who died in 1946
  • Father Pierre Sivienne
  • Father Paul Chapleau
  • Monsignor Edwin Philip Harcourt
  • Father George Donzé, who returned to France on October 18th 1946
  • Father Mollé

These seven individuals together served the parish for a total of forty-eight years.

The Daughters of Jesus

From 1905-1908, a private school was run by six nuns of the Order of the Daughters of Jesus at lona House in Victoria Street in Shaftesbury. In 1908 however they gave up the idea of a foundation in Shaftesbury and created a larger convent at Rickmansworth and later at High Wycombe as well as at Stone in Staffordshire. Their connection with Shaftesbury was renewed however when, on the occasion of the church’s Jubilee in 1960, they visited Marnhull and Shaftesbury. We welcomed them and had Solemn Masses in both the churches in which they had worshipped on arriving in Dorset at the beginning of the century.

The Need for a Church

With the presence of a community in a small chapel (now one of the restaurant rooms at the Royal Chase Hotel) problems began to arise:

  • the difficulty of keeping the Silence and regular Observance in a House of Study
  • difficulties in enforcing the separation of FMI members from visiting lay members of the Congregation
  • the need for more rooms and facilities inside the House

A temporary solution was envisaged: the building of a mobile Chapel at the back of the house.... In fact, this did not take place until years later when novices and scholastics were in residence together with staff from the Mother House itself. When it became obvious (about 1904) that the exile of the Society from France was to be longer than expected and that the Language School was not a viable solution, the consideration of a Parish Church was forced upon the Fathers. Father Paul Chapleau having been appointed priest in charge of the Mission, he began to explore the possibility of buying land in the town on which he could build a church. It took him some considerable time to plan the church, survey the land and organise the finances. Even then he probably did not realise how little he would receive from his Congregation and from the Diocese and from the Sons of Mary Immaculate.

Father Chapleau

At that time the number of parishioners was oscillating between fifty and sixty, to which could be added the number of FMI members at Belmont – twenty-one – a total of ninety.

Father Chapleau’s decision to build a Catholic church in Shaftesbury must be considered with this as the background. It must have been a very difficult decision given the number of parishioners but he knew something had to be done. Numbers could only increase but were low; a number of priests and students needed to survive to resurrect the exiled Missionary Order in France once the political climate improved, as eventually it must. The Shaftesbury Congregation could count on a few wealthy parishioners already supporting existing activities and servicing loans but that was it. Providence would have to intervene!

The Building of the New Church

The Superiors discovered that land was becoming available in Salisbury Street by the sale of the Westminster/Stalbridge sale of Shaftesbury. As an investment three cottages and their gardens were bought in 1907. They were Nos. 49, 51 and 53 Salisbury Street. One was to be used by a caretaker (bearing in mind the short distance to Belmont House), one was to be pulled down to build the church and the third could be used either as a little school or a little hall or as a catechism classroom. (No.53 Salisbury Street is now the Presbytery dining room. No.49 was sold for lack of capital to renovate it and the money used to build garages. No. 51 was demolished to make way for the building of the church.)

It took two years to plan the church building. The architect was Edward Doran-Webb. Well-known locally, he had worked at the Oratory in Birmingham and also in Oxford. He had worked for the Arundels at Wardour.

The plan he suggested was cruciform, in a “Late English” style. The stone used came from Newtown, between Tisbury and Chilmark, both for the church and for the tower, which was added later. Father Chapleau was determined that only a high quality would do and the completion waited until that quality could be afforded.

The foundation stone was laid by Charles Graham, Bishop of Plymouth, assisted by a number of visiting priests from Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset, as well as by the Fathers and students FMI from Belmont House as reported in the Western Gazette of 7th May 1909.

The Laying of the Foundation Stone, May 1909

The Solemn Blessing in 1910 and the opening of the new church was reported in the Western Gazette of 23rd September 1910. There was a Blessing by Father General Gallais FMI on September 21st 1910. The actual opening took place on September 22nd with Solemn High Mass celebrated by Father Dodard of Marnhull, with a sermon preached by the Bishop of Clifton. Luncheon was taken at the Grosvenor Hotel.

Financial Troubles

The building firm had had a great deal of financial trouble in successfully achieving Mr Doran-Webb’s plans. The total cost “of the sacred building was £2,850 and towards this amount a considerable sum had been raised....” said a leaflet got up by Fr Chapleau. “…The Bishop has consented to the site being mortgaged for £400, owing to the pressing necessity for the provision of such a building”.

(To be more accurate a Mr F.P.Hooper of Bishops Stortford was owed money. The first builder had gone bankrupt and Mr. Hooper had come from afar to finish the job!)

This was only the beginning of Father Chapleau’s problems and also of his Lordship the Bishop. For two years Father Chapleau went deeper into financial difficulties. He fought and lost a Court Case over the altar and the tabernacle (a donor of £50 for the tabernacle felt, on seeing it, that it was not worth what had been donated!).

The incoming bishop of Plymouth obtained the agreement of the FMI Superiors to recall Father Chapleau to France. Luckily, the priest proposed as a replacement by the Superiors and appointed by the bishop was a very experienced young man, who had served his apprenticeship under Father Tapon, Vicar General of Castries (St Lucia).

Father Harcourt

Edwin Philip Harcourt became parish priest of Shaftesbury in 1912 and stayed here for 16 years. The name deserves to be remembered in the Plymouth Diocese. He was born in Bourton, Dorset, a member of an old Catholic family worshipping at Bonham, Wiltshire, and trained at Belmont House. He survived the 1914-18 war and Spanish flu, paid the Parish debt and secured endowments for the parish - much needed as the weekly income was very low once the Belmont fathers went back to France. Father Harcourt was also involved, with the Town Council, in the purchase of the New Borough Cemetery where most Catholics are now buried.

Having been a champion cyclist, the good Father decided to purchase a motor bike, then later a small car. He was still saving every penny to pay the debts, which he finally succeeded in doing by 1928, when he became parish priest of Castries (St Lucia), and Vicar General of Port of Spain! He is remembered there as the Englishman who created a school system in an island of great poverty, where the Central Catholic Grammar School produced two Nobel Prize winners in less than twenty years!

The pastoral work of Father Harcourt is still remembered, especially his care of the sick during the `Spanish Flu’. The reconstruction of the parish after the war went on apace, culminating in the great mission which Father Downey of the Church Missionary Society preached. Bishop Downey, when Archbishop of Liverpool, never forgot his mission in Shaftesbury, which had been so successful! The story of Father Harcourt’s life must be written one day.

The upper part of the tower was not added until the time of Fr Harcourt’s departure in 1928 in the style of local Dorset towers.

The development of the parish

On his arrival in 1912, Fr Harcourt reckoned the size of the Catholic community in Shaftesbury to be sixty-nine known Catholics, to which were added the twenty-one FMI members at Belmont House, making a total of ninety.

He set about encouraging endowments and his policy has had a long-lasting influence. Controlled by the Diocesan Trustees, these endowments still form a substantial amount of parish income in Shaftesbury.

With the end of the First World War the Belgian refugees went home and, at long last, the novices and scholastics returned to France. By 1920, Belmont House was empty. Parish numbers oscillated between 106 and 120 and the years of poverty and financial struggles continued and, coincidentally, The Sons of Mary Immaculate decided to sell Belmont House in 1921. The parish was now on its own!

Father Harcourt

Undaunted, Father Harcourt obtained, from the Superiors, permission to continue the expansion of the Church.

St Edward's before the tower was added

The building was slowly completed: a tower with a carillon of bells was built; an altar to Our Lady was erected; a reredos (designed by Mr Doran-Webb) installed behind the High Altar depicting Diocesan and National saints. The reredos cost £125 with five statues being purchased for the cost of four – a bargain even then. The statues depict St George, St Aldhelm, St Edward, St Boniface and St Michael. The reredos and the statues were carved in Tisbury stone.

Fr Harcourt also obtained permission to build a presbytery for the Order. Two and a half acres of land in Great Lane, known as Boyne Mead were purchased. Plans were drawn up by Father Harcourt helped by A.G. Gray and Thomas Thorne.

Surrounded by allotment gardens and trees planted by the Parish priest, the Presbytery had lovely views over Shaftesbury and the Blackmore Vale. It had privacy, and a modicum of modern facilities; hot and cold water, but no central heating - gas was used (electricity came later). How proud of his work he must have been! The old presbytery is still standing - a painted timber bungalow on the corner of Great Lane and Boyne Mead.

The Presbytery in 1929

Father Donzé in Shaftesbury

When Father Harcourt left, he was succeeded by Father Donzé who came to Shaftesbury from the West Indies. He was of French origin but educated at Glastonbury where, at the turn of the century, the Sacred Heart Fathers had a house of study. Born in Alsace (France), he had lost his mother (killed by Prussians in 1870) and been brought up by his uncle - a Sacred Heart Father. He had joined the Fathers and gone to Sydney, and then returned to serve in the Diocese of Clifton variously as Parish priest of Frome, Trowbridge, Warminster and Bonham after being a curate at Clifton Pro-Cathedral). Father Donzé was well-known in rural Somerset! After many years as a parish priest, he entered the Sons of Mary Immaculate as a priest novice and was posted to the Caribbean. Six or seven years there were enough – he had been parish priest of Antigua some years earlier!

Father Donzé stayed in Shaftesbury for eighteen years from 1928 to 1946. His short temper remained short! But he was old and was given no help from France when the war came; he had a stroke or two, was desperately poor but somehow managed to keep going.

The church and the Order property went from bad to worse. The church boiler exploded; rain came through the tower into the church. But for the relentless and faithful devotion of church caretakers, organist, choir, housekeeper, visiting and supply priests, the church of St Edward would have suffered even more seriously than in fact it did. Happily it survived.

The War Years

Refugees arrived in 1940, nearly doubling the Catholic population from 100 to 180 and a Catholic school from Walworth in London came to Gillingham. Few of the evacuees however, remained in the parishes of Gillingham and Shaftesbury after 1945 when teachers, pupils, parishioners, parish priests and curates all went back to Walworth. Some continued to visit us after the war.

After the war, the Bishops of Plymouth and Clifton had many worries and troubles, but somehow they had managed to found a new church at Mere and a new church school at Shaftesbury (Wiltshire division of Donhead). The Carmelite Convent at Gillingham was closed. An Italian prisoner of war camp was functioning in the parish at Motcombe House (now Port Regis School). Supply priests for Shaftesbury came from Ivybridge, Honiton and Buckfast Abbey, a state of affairs that lasted well into 1946.

The nuns of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary had been evacuated. They were temporarily resident near Westbury and looking for a permanent foundation. The Bishop of Clifton, William Lee allowed them to settle at Coombe House in 1945 when the rest and recuperation stop for US air force pilots closed after the war. He supplied first Father McDonnell and then Father Martin Flannery to be resident chaplains who also acted as parish priests of Mere. The state of health of Father Donzé meant that it was not possible to house them at the presbytery although it might have suited the plans of the Mother Superior and Founder of the Convent. During the war, a British Military Hospital had been built at Guy’s Marsh in the parish. From 1938 to 1949 it functioned with full medical and surgical facilities, tending to casualties from sea battles and elsewhere including the Normandy front. Patients also came from the Netley Hospital for Nerve Casualties. The Shaftesbury, Marnhull and Gillingham priests between them did their best to care spiritually for everyone.

Father Mollé

By 1946, Father Donzé had himself become seriously ill. Since communications with France had been restored, the Superiors the FMI were made aware of the situation. The flow of student priests coming for refresher courses in England resumed and Shaftesbury saw Fathers Chauvet and Piffard. The Superiors decided to send Father Mollé, who spoke English to hold the fort while a new priest, Fr Ernest Jeanneau, was training in Bournemouth. It was expected that Father Mollé could arrange Fr Donzé’s return to live with his niece in Eastern France with the Bishop and the Father Superior. He duly left Shaftesbury on the 19th October 1946, but sadly illness did not allow him to stay with his niece and he was nursed instead at the FMI Mother House until he died.

Father Jeanneau

Father Mollé’s interregnum did not last long. He was needed to teach his philosophy class in the autumn of 1947 and the Superiors sent Father Jeanneau to the parish on May 27th 1947. The housekeeper Miss Mary Archer decided to stay on as did all the personnel at the church who had worked so diligently for so many years and work for the restoration of the parish. Father Mollé went back to France happy that the situation seemed to have returned to stability.

Father Jeanneau at a Harvest celebration in the former Knowles Arms

Father Jeanneau was the beneficiary of much kindly advice from his fellow priests: priests of the Deanery under Father Jules Ketele, Vicar Forane, local priests (Marnhull, Father J Buckley, Father McDonnell and Father Flannery at St Mary’s Convent).

Monsignor Edwin Philip Harcourt came from the West Indies in July 1947 and undertook a survey of the parish with Fr. Jeanneau. The survey included the parish itself and the Order’s property – church, presbytery and cottages. A roll call of names and people was compiled, with the first Returns for 1949-50 showing 234 known Catholics, an increase of 50 on the pre-war numbers.

Restoration and Development

Serious defects in the church and the presbytery had to be dealt with in rotation, due to the lack of capital. Rooves leaked in the church tower and the nave. The boiler had to be replaced and was converted to burn anthracite. Thanks be to God the caretaker could still attend to everything, helped by her husband. There was an accident on Ascension Day 1948 when, during a violent thunderstorm the church tower was struck by lightning and a pinnacle destroyed. Fortunately the repairs were paid for by insurance there was enough money to install a lightning conductor. Within a few years several important decisions were made:

  • preparing for the celebration of the church golden jubilee in 1960 by replacing the floor with beech blocks
  • building an altar of St Joseph in Clipsham stone
  • carving a new set of Stations of the cross by Mr Peter Watts (in Tisbury stone) and
  • repairing the church and sacristy roofs
  • creating a church building fund to provide a side aisle
  • increasing Sunday collections
  • replacing coal central heating by gas

Donations from a Miss Rutley and later a Mr Flanagan however made it possible to solve many of the problems despite the serious financial situation in the country at the time.

It had been felt for a long time that the presbytery in Great Lane was too far from the church for efficient control and supervision. Also winter weather was beginning to impose a stress on the parish staff and both the caretakers, Mr and Mrs E Dare had died. Fr Jeanneau instigated the idea of moving the presbytery. Bishop Restieaux was persuaded to accept the offer of Miss K Tancred to sell him her house next to the church and simultaneously, the Sons of Mary Immaculate sold the presbytery in Great Lane and lent some of the proceeds, free of interest, to modernise the house in Salisbury Street. So it came to pass that the presbytery moved near to the church!

Building the Hall

In 1989, a project led by Father Barnaby Dowling took place and unlike most, involved many months of planning. Groups were formed to focus on the needs of the church administration, social, services and welfare. This led to a review of the building and its shortcomings in particular:

  • space for peak occasions
  • difficulty of access for disabled people
  • the lack of a toilet, and
  • the lack of a hall

The process also identified the benefits of improving access from the presbytery to the church and access from the church to make better (some) use of the extensive garden. After much consideration it was decided to build one of the side aisles originally planned by Fathers Chapleau and Harcourt on the South East side of the church on a tarmacadamed area which was unused. It was seen possible to complete the works in time for the Centenary of the Parish in 1994 The architect was Philip Proctor, helped by his father Douglas. We must congratulate them on a fine design which adds greatly to the church and to the life of the parish. We owe much to their generosity. The builders, A Hammond and Son, carried out the design with excellent workmanship.

The consecration and blessing of the Church when it was opened in 1910 had been a mystery for some considerable time. In particular, there were no consecration crosses in the church nor any reference to the consecration in the Parish records and archives. I had to conclude that our dear little church had never been consecrated. Bishop Christopher Budd agreed to my suggestion that we should formally and legally consecrate the church and suggested June 19th 1994, which is near to the Feast day of King Edward the Martyr (20th June).

Bishop Christopher and Fr Jeanneau in front of the consecration plaque, June 1994

Bishop Christopher arrived early in the presbytery, rehearsed the altar servers (having met Peter Jarvis, master of ceremonies). After a short introduction, the Bishop proceeded with the Consecration, anointing and preparation for Mass. There were about 150 people in church, worshippers and guests, Catholics and friends from other churches. The services was recorded on both audio and video. It was probably the most important service and event to occur in the church in the twentieth century.

A marquee was erected on the lawn at the back of the church and refreshments were served after the service with easy access having been made possible thanks to the new hall. The Parish and members of the various committees are very grateful to the Bishop, to the priests who attended from France and to all friends and parishioners who made of this day such a wonderful occasion. We thank all generous contributors to the building fund and remember in our prayers Mr. and Mrs. Flanagan whose endowment helped to provide our hall and side development.

The consecration plaque was cut in slate in 1994, by Richard Grasby. Normally a consecration plaque is small, inconsequential and tucked away but here it has been set on the front of the building. Richard Grasby also carved the consecration crosses.

An Ordination

One of the most rewarding occasions in the life of a parish community is when one of its members has a vocation to the priesthood. We were doubly blessed in 1997 when Christopher Findlay-Wilson, a member of a long-established parish family, was ordained in the church. Bishop Christopher celebrated the Mass with some 40 priests and deacons from the Diocese, from St John’s Wonersh and the Faith movement with the church packed with family friends and parishioners. The parish gift was a silver chalice while the newly refurbished organ was given its first airing.

The Stained Glass Window

The stained glass window was installed in 1999. For details of both it, and Henry Haig, its creator, please click here.

The End of an Era

During 1998, the FMI superiors and the Bishop in Plymouth had recognised that Fr Jeanneau’s failing eyesight was making it difficult for him to continue as parish priest. After some deliberation, the FMI decided that they could no longer continue to provide a priest for St. Edward’s. When he retired to the Mother House in France in early 1999; his successor was therefore appointed by the Diocese, bringing to an end a century of the FMI’s presence in Shaftesbury.

Father Jeanneau's work in the wider community was first recognised by the Town Council who made him a Freeman of Shaftesbury in 1987. His contribution was further recognised by the award of an MBE by the Queen in 1998.

The above history was written by Fr Ernest Jeanneau FMI (parish priest) in June 1994, revised January 1999, and further revised by Sebastian Holmes (parishioner) in February 2008.

An earlier version of this article was published under the title of 'Catholicism in Shaftesbury' - being the history of Belmont House, Shaftesbury. It appeared in The Dorset Yearbook, 1966. To read that article click here.

For a list of priests who have served St Edward's, please click here.