Fr Jeanneau's History of Shaftesbury

Catholicism in Shaftesbury

Being the history of Belmont House, Shaftesbury (1894-1904)

By Rev. E. Jeanneau, F.M.I.

[as published in The Dorset Yearbook, 1966]


From the time of the Reformation one could always find in the neighbourhood of Shaftesbury, priests faithful to the See of Peter, to baptise children, officiate at weddings privately, and celebrate Mass. They were either private chaplains to the Arundels of Wardour in the different houses they lived in, or priests in charge of Nash Court in Marnhull. In any case, they came under the jurisdiction of the Vicars Apostolic of the West Country. There were Mass centres in Marnhull, Stour Provost, and Wardour; we have the names of many priests who served them. More precious still, I have in my possession, photostat copies of the old Parish Records of Wardour, where several entries concern people living in Shaftesbury just before the suppression of the Jesuits (1765 or so) and just after the “refounding” of their Order. In between, the register is empty: we know that during the time of the French Revolution, French Priests served most places in Southern England Shaftesbury had a flourishing congregation under the care of a certain Father Doublet. We read in Dr. Oliver’s Collections Illustrating the History of the Catholic Religion in Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, etc., the following passage on page 287:

“DOUBLET : In 1810 I remember this French Abbé who had long been resident at Shaftesbury and had charge of the faithful there. The chapel was much larger than I had expected. He quitted at the restoration of the Bourbons.”

It is evident, then, that there was, at the beginning of the XIXth century, a Catholic Church in Shaftesbury: the question is “Where ?“ Of course, we know of a community of Carthusians residing for a few years (1797 — 1800) at the Priory in Coombe, Donhead St. Mary, near St. Mary’s Convent (one of the monks has a plaque in Donhead Church) but the Shaftesbury Church may have been in the town somewhere. Despite the existence of a Catholic congregation in the 1800 — 1815 period, it is a striking fact that, when the Féron Community arrived from Marnhull in about 1894, there were no traces of an earlier congregation. The parish was handed over to the French Fathers, Sons of Mary Immaculate, by the Féron Community in 1898. Certain Catholic families were about Shaftesbury, but they had connections either with Marnhull or Wardour.


About 1894, Fathers Dodard and Féron were at the old Convent in Marnhull, which belonged to a group of English and French priests who were trying to found a new “Religious Order for late Vocations and for the Missions” but the health of the members of the Society was affected by the damp atmosphere of the Stour Valley.

The Bishop of Plymouth recommended that it would be better to split the Community into two. On May 23rd, 1894, Father Féron wrote to the Bishop that there was in Shaftesbury a house for sale on Salisbury road surrounded by a nice park. Towards the end of May a solicitor was instructed to purchase Belmont House (now the Royal Hotel); by Christmas the Marnhull Fathers owned the Property and at the beginning of January, 1895, they moved in. The Arundels were helping financially and founded three Masses in perpetuity for their family. The first Mass since 1815 was said in an improvised chapel at Belmont House ; probably this was the first room on the left as one enters the Royal Hotel.

For over a year this foundation by Priests from Marnhull continued a chequered existence. It soon became apparent that if it were to survive they would have to amalgamate with an existing Order. The French Benedictine Fathers from En-Calcat (Dourgne) in Southern France accepted to take the young foundation under their care, and towards the middle of 1897 the Very Reverend Father Louis Beaud, O.S.B. came to. Shaftesbury with the Fathers Féron, Rohvier and Baron. It was agreed that the Shaftesbury and Marnhull Fathers would take their turn to go to France and make their noviciate; Fathers Ward and Dodard went first. At the beginning of 1898, when it came to the turn of Fathers Féron and Grillet, they went to France but wrote saying they had changed their minds.. This was the end of the new “Order for late Vocations and Missions”, This was also the end of the attempt by the French Benedictines at founding a Monastery in Shaftesbury.

On April 5th, 1898, the Bishop of Plymouth and the Benedictine Fathers decided to close down Belmont House. By 11th July, 1898, all was finished. Arrangements were made to have the Mission served for a little while longer.


(Sons of Mary Immaculate)

As the Sons of Mary Immaculate (F.M.I.) are still in charge of the Parish, as also the Catholic community in Shaftesbury grew up with the Religious Community at Belmont House, I think that the full history of the parish must include some notes on the establishment of the Sons of Mary Immaculate in England. Thus we shall have a full picture of the re-birth of the Catholic Faith in Shaftesbury.

The Sons of Mary Immaculate at Braintree, Essex

In 1897, the French Fathers, Sons of Mary Immaculate, were about to become a “Religious Institute of Pontifical Rite”. Their Missions in the British West Indies were developing fast in Saint Lucia and Dominica islands. At all costs they had to have English speaking subjects and their young French Fathers had to learn English.

In order to found a House in England, the Very Rev. Father L. Tapon, F.M.I., Vicar General of Castries (Saint Lucia) paid several visits to England.

In September, 1897, Cardinal Vaughan, Archbishop of Westminster, offered a chaplaincy at an English Nuns’ Convent that he had just established at Bocking, near Braintree, Essex. The Nuns would provide board and lodging and pay the chaplain £100 a year.

The Sons of Mary immaculate accepted the offer and the Rev. Fr. Jerome Boutin was appointed. The good man knew no English, so Fr. Tapon brought him over and stayed with him until December: they had arrived on October 4th, 1897.

The Very Rev. Fr. Tapon began to preach the Catholic Faith, giving a sermon every Sunday night to diverse interested people who came to the evening service.

In his Memoirs Fr. Boutin gives some very interesting details of that part of his life. He says he was then over thirty-five years of age and that he had great difficulties in learning English. On Sundays he said Mass and gave Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament for the Nuns. These had two English Confessors who called regularly.

When Fr. Tapon went, another F.M.I. replaced him. Fr. Boutin’s English improved slowly to the point when he could preach and hear confessions at Easter, 1898.

The Fathers were at Braintree for one year. Fr. Boutin thought they could get a place of their own: they nearly bought Harlow, near Braintree, but gave up the idea. Several Fathers came and went and Fr. Boutin was going to close Braintree in September 1898 when he heard, through a Salesian Father in London, that a house was for sale in Shaftesbury, Dorset, and that the Parish, too, was available.

The Sons of Mary Immaculate at Belmont House, Shaftesbury

By October Fr. Boutin was corresponding with Lady Arundel of Wardour and Fr. Dodard, then Parish Priest of Marnhull, Dorset. He left Braintree on November 2nd, 1898. On November 4th, during a retreat that he was making at Woodford with the Capucins, he was called urgently for consultations with Fr. Dodard and Lady Arundel of Wardour, at Shaftesbury. In his hurry he forgot his three suitcases; two months later he was to find them where he left them on the platform at Waterloo. He had, however, kept a vigilant eye on his bicycle. Fr. Dodard met him at Gillingham and they started on their way to Marnhull. Tradition has it that Fr. Boutin had an accident before he got there; having lost control of the pedals and of the brakes, he shouted to the bystanders in his best French “Get out of my way. I have lost the pedals’, before crashing headlong at the bottom of a hill. Fortunately, he was uninjured. He had a very busy week thereafter, when he had to make an important decision “to buy, or not to buy Belmont House”.

November 5th, 1898 (Guy Fawkes Day) saw Frs. Boutin and Dodard driving up to Shaftesbury from Marnhull. It would seem that a pony and trap were the means of conveyance. Fr. Dodard had not yet purchased the car that was to make him so well known in North Dorset (he was to own the first car that was seen in Marnhull).

Father Boutin admired very much the lovely views all the way to Shaftesbury, and there and then made up his mind to do his very best to establish a new foundation here — but a nasty shock awaited him: Belmont House he found deserted, windows and doors locked or boarded up, hedges overgrown, lawns looking like a wilderness, gates broken ! Animals could enter the place one had the feeling of a damp and sinister abode. However, November is hardly the month to visit Shaftesbury, and Fr. Boutin on reflection thought that Belmont House could easily be done up, and with its spacious and lovely rooms become the refuge of a Community of men already people were talking of the expulsion from France of all religious Orders that the French Parliament was plotting to achieve. There were at Belmont three people: the Rev. Fr. James Barry from Sydney, Australia, who had charge of the Mission for a few weeks, and a married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Foote, who were looking after the place.

Fathers Dodard and Boutin called on Lady Arundel at Wardour Castle; she was delighted to see that Belmont House could again become a Religious House.

She mentioned an endowment of £1,000 for the service of the Parish. The only condition she made was that an English-speaking priest should usually reside at Belmont. Mr. Jeffry and Mr. Theodore Sibeth, on whom they called, gave their advice, and Mr. Sibeth recommended his brother-in-law, Mr. Petre from London, as a solicitor for the Sons of Mary Immaculate.

The French Fathers Purchase Belmont House

The date was now November 8th, 1898, and the sale of Belmont House was to take place by auction on November 23rd, 1898. Fr. Jerome Boutin had to decide whether to buy the house or not. He had more or less made up his mind: Lady Arundel was promising to help, but he still had to convince the Bishop of Plymouth and the Superior General of the F.M.I. in France. He wrote to the Bishop first, then to the Superior General. On Sunday November 15th he had an answer from the Superior General, who was not making any decision, telling him that he would be going away on Tuesday without stating his destination. Fr. Jerome Boutin left immediately for France, arriving at the Mother House on Monday night (at midnight to be exact). A General Council was called on Tuesday morning although not a member, Fr. Boutin was admitted in consultation. It was decided that, in view of the threatening persecution of the Religious Orders in France, Belmont House should be purchased as a Refuge for the Order. Fr. Boutin came back to England and saw his solicitor, Mr. Petre, in London ; they met Mr. Theodore Sibeth in Salisbury. The three of them called on the owners of Belmont and Mr. Petre bought the property there and then privately: the public sale had to take place at the Grosvenor Hotel on November 23rd at 3 p.m.

When one considers that the upset price of the property was 62,500 francs and that Fr. Féron and his co-trustees had paid 75,000 francs for it and carried out 40,000 francs’ worth of repairs and conversions, one will see that Fr. Boutin and the Order had obtained a bargain.

The good man retired to Marnhull Presbytery awaiting, with Fr. Dodard, the conclusion of the business. It was an awful November day, raining and dismal. During the morning Mr. Freame of Gillingham, who was acting .for the Benedictines.

and Fr. Féron, turned up at the Presbytery requesting the presence of Fr. Boutin at the Grosvenor Hotel for the sale. He also stated that he ought to have part, at least, of the purchase money with him. Very worried, the good Father followed Mr. Freame and his Secretary to Shaftesbury, where he called on Mr. Sibeth. He was told that Mr. Sibeth would be at the Sale Rooms, There he was indeed, and he insisted that Father Boutin should keep out of sight in case there should be some other bidder. Promptly the sale started at 3 p.m., and there being no other bidder, Belmont House was knocked down (!) for the agreed price to Mr. Petre, the solicitor acting for the F.M.I., Father Boutin notified the Superior in France and went back to Marnhull.

The Bishop of Plymouth, on his part, answered Fr. Boutin’s letter, inviting him to visit him in Plymouth and giving him the necessary faculties to administer the Parish of Shaftesbury.

On December 7th, 1898, Fr. Jerome Boutin returned from London where he had gone to fetch his suitcases (where they had been for two months on the platform at Waterloo Station !). The next morning December 8th, 1898, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the Patronal Feast of the Order, the good Father celebrated Mass in the little chapel at Belmont House. The Reverend Father Barry, who had supplied since June or July, in Shaftesbury, left that day. The Parish Records can be said to date from Christmas, 1898, the first entry being early in the New Year in 1899. Baptisms, Confirmations and Funerals, took place in the little Chapel at Belmont, but weddings took place at Marnhull, as the chapel was not registered for marriages. The first wedding recorded in Shaftesbury was in. St Edward’s new Church in 1912. The Parish was dedicated to the Sacred Heart until the new church was opened in 1910 under the title of the Most Holy Name and St. Edward King and Martyr.

Belmont House, 1899. The Sons of Mary Immaculate in charge

The first thing Fr. J. Boutin did was to organise the House and to carry out the most urgent repairs. The Foote couple stayed with him for a while, then he engaged young Frank Thorne. In January, 1899, he accepted the .services of a young Irishman who said he “could do anything”, though it transpired that he could not boil an egg or even potatoes in their skin Mr. and Mrs. Foote left in the New Year, followed by the Irish gentleman. About January 15th Mr. Foote came back on his own.

The brother of Frank Thorne, Thomas Thorne, came to work at Belmont and did the most urgent jobs of repair about the house. I am glad to say that Mr. Thomas Thorne’s descendants are still active among us and devoted to their priests.

The domestic difficulties of Fr. Boutin were not at an end by a long chalk. Towards the end of January, Mr. Foote left again; the reason was that a certain Continental gentleman, Maurice Malineau by name, who had come to Shaftesbury to teach French to the “natives” and to learn English himself, had caught a rabbit in a snare and cooked it himself in Mr. Foote’s kitchen. The “culinary” talents of a certain Ernest Curtis were then tried ; but he was not what Scottish people would call “careful” but rather extravagant and appreciating refreshment of the stronger kind.

During the spring and summer of 1899, several visitors came from the Mother House. It was decided to put in proper sanitation, to install running hot and cold water, as well as central heating. The garden was cleared, the bushes cut down, and a kitchen garden begun. An English master was engaged, as Father Roger and certain young Fathers were to come to learn English. En June, 1899, Fathers Trottin and Papin visited Belmont and London, and Father Papin went to Swansea in Wales. The new English master was a Mr. Southenden ; he was due to arrive in August.

August, 1899

Father Roger arrived with Fathers Claustre and Prigent. There were now four fathers in residence, including Fr. Boutin.

But Fr. Boutin was having more trouble with his staff. Mr. Ernest Curtis, who called himself a chef and a candidate-lay-brother, had come to hate Fr. Roger and Mr. Malineau. He had to be told that he had none of the qualifications to be a brother or a chef. He left.... and Mr. Foote came back ; Fr. Roger returned to France.

At the end of August, 1899, a young Englishman of an old Catholic family in the neighbourhood of Shaftesbury (Bourton) arrived at Belmont House. He was Edwin Philip Harcourt later to be Parish Priest of Shaftesbury (1912-1928) and Vicar General of Castries till his death in 1953. A young engineer, he was also an active sportsman, having won several bicycle race contests in North Dorset. He began learning Latin.

Not only were central heating and running water installed that summer, but also acetylene lighting. One of the French inventors of the process came from Paris to supervise the work.

Father Boutin went on struggling with his staff. He finally engaged a Monsieur Daniel, who stayed three years in the kitchen. He was French, an ex-seminarian, ex-school-teacher, ex-bookkeeper he even had tried Socialism which, says, Fr, Boutin, did not bring him luck!

Not only were there staff problems, but the negotiations relating to the purchase of the House by the Fathers of the Society of the Sons of Mary Immaculate were still going on between them, the Bishop, Lord Arundel and the Fathers of the Benedictine Abbey of En-Calcat and Fr. Féron & Co. It was finally decided that the Sons of Mary Immaculate would put up £500 of their own money, that they would borrow £1,000 to be repaid in five years, that Lord Arundel would lend another £200 and the Diocese £800. An interest rate of 4% was charged by the Diocese and Lord Arundel on their £800 and £200 it was given back as payment to the Parish Priest F.M.I. for the service of the Parish. It is to be noted that the first £1,000 mortgage was repaid within five years, and when Belmont House was sold in 1921, the second mortgage was integrally repaid by the Sons of Mary Immaculate: The Arundels of Wardour and the Bishop then formed an Endowment which is still in force (1966). The Parish of Shaftesbury benefits by it. There is, however, the obligation of four Masses annually to be said by the Parish Priest for the deceased members of the Arundel family. The negotiations begun in March, 1899, ended on September 19th, when the Deeds were signed.

On June 8th, His Lordship Bishop C. Graham, visited the Parish and gave Confirmation to nine persons in the name of the aged and sick Bishop of the Diocese, Bishop Vaughan. Of the nine persons confirmed, only Mrs. E. O’Connor (née Elizabeth Marsh) is still alive.

Belmont House, 1900

1900 began well. Father J. Boutin made all sorts of plans: The Community had to live and the house had to be got ready in case of the expulsion from France of all religious communities. The garden was extensively cultivated, the house furnished and Fr. Boutin suggested that French students, lay and cleric be welcome to learn English. About May, 1900, four French servants were employed, and Thomas Thorne was responsible for maintenance. Two French priests from Arras who were preparing their B.A., received board and lodging. In August and September there were between fifteen and twenty-five students in residence, among whom several priests: certain weeks there were thirteen priests in the house. To teach them, after trying lay teachers, the Fathers Canons Regular of the Lateran (C.R.L.) from Spetisbury, near Blandford, were engaged. Kindly they kept up their effort, for a whole year. During that summer there were several visitors from the Mother House in France, and on September 16th Bishop Graham again visited Belmont. In November Fr. J. Boutin went to Rome, sent by the Parishioners with the Diocesan representatives, to gain the Jubilee Indulgence.

He needed plenty of courage and all the spiritual help he could muster, as he had received an order to sell Belmont House. The Superiors in France were so uncertain about the future of the Order, so short of money (I suspect) that they had given him the fatal order. He delayed as long as he could and finally the Superiors changed their, mind: the intervention of Fr. Tapon in St. Lucia (British West Indies) who desperately needed English-speaking priests must have tipped the scales. The clouds of persecution were getting darker over France; the sale of Belmont, it was finally realised, would have been fatal to the Society of the Sons of Mary Immaculate.

Belmont House, 1901-1902

The next two years (1901-1902) were to be crucial years for the Sons of Mary Immaculate at Belmont House, for the members .of the Society in France and for the Parish of Shaftesbury. Little by little the wind that was to disperse to the four quarters of the earth all Religious Societies in France, was rising and preparations were slowly being made at Shaftesbury, as well as in many other places, to welcome the exiles.

In May Fr. Boutin went over to France with the Rev. Father Tapon to attend a Council of Superiors and Bursars of the Society: he made a pilgrimage to Lourdes. The Rev. Fathers Eudes and Alfred Berger came to Belmont together with Brother Charles. On July 25th Bishop Graham visited the Parish and ordained one Deacon. A general Chapter of the Order was held at the Mother House; Fr. Boutin attended it. That summer Fr. Edwin Harcourt left Belmont to go to France for his studies. Three students of English came over to Shaftesbury. The Rev.’ Fathers Sarrazin, Cadoux and Remaud; Fr. Boutin was already beginning to teach English, when the unexpected blow fell ; after spending four years in: England, establishing a House of the Order at Belmont, taking charge of the Parish, he received the order to proceed to the West Indies ; the date was October 30th, 1901.

The new Parish Priest of Shaftesbury was to be the Rev. Father Pierre Sivienne.

1902 was a quiet year but everyone knew that the storm was soon to break.

Belmont House, 1903

There was another visit by Bishop Graham on May 5th, 1903. Five persons were confirmed on May 8th, including William Harry Marsh (still flourishing in Bournemouth) and Miss Helen Sibeth (now in Donhead). The Bishop and Father Sivienne paid a visit to Lord and Lady Arundel at Wardour. About the 15th October, 1903, suddenly the blow fell the Superiors of the Sons of Mary Immaculate had to leave their fatherland, expelled by their own countrymen, their only offence was that they were members of a Religious Community, the taking of the three vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience was now an offence punishable by the new French laws of Association.

The arrival of twenty-one persons, priests and lay-brothers, was quite an occasion for Shaftesbury. From then onward they were to be looked at, gazed at, until more friendly relations were established. People realized, by the comings and the goings that they had among them the headquarters and the training school of a busy Order of Missionary Priests. The general staff consisted of The Very Rev. Father Fort, Superior General, Rev. Fathers Paul Dagondeau, Louis Ga1lais, Paul Chapleau. Already at Belmont were Rev. Fathers G. Eudes, A. Cornevjn, P. Sivienne (Parish Priest).

On November 25th, 1903, Father Sivienne left Shaftesbury for the Missions and the third Parish Priest of Shaftesbury was appointed. He was Father Paul Chapleau who, years later, was to build the new Catholic Church of St. Edward the Martyr in Salisbury Street. For the time being the people of the congregation were sharing the chapel with the Community at Belmont House.

We leave the Catholic history of Shaftesbury and Belmont at the beginning of 1904. Some day, perhaps, with the help of some of the surviving members of the congregation and the Notes in the Archives at the Mother House in France, it will be possible to continue the telling of it. Let it suffice at the moment to add that I knew personally some of the men concerned in the establishment of this French foundation in Shaftesbury ; they were brave people who suffered, on account of their Catholic Faith, expulsion and exile. May they now rest in peace: they did well with very little. Laudemus viros gloriosos.

Rev. Ernest Jeanneau, F.M.I.