Coggeshall: 75 years

When the Cistercian Abbey of Coggeshall, which had been founded in the 1140s by King Stephen and Queen Matilda, was suppressed by King Henry VIII four hundred years later who would have thought that in 1928 a new Catholic church would be opened in the village, a church bearing the dedication of St. Bernard, the great propagator of the Cistercian monks. And yet this evening we gather in this church to thank God for seventy-five years of restored Catholic worship in Coggeshall.

Seventy-five years in this church; but the story of post-Reformation Catholic life in the village can be traced further back. In the Penal Days the nearest Catholic mission to Coggeshall was at Witham. In 1865, fifteen years after the Restoration of the Hierarchy, Father Baines, the priest at Witham, attempted to establish new missions at Coggeshall and Maldon. At Coggeshall he opened a chapel dedicated to St. Cecilia - exactly where is not certain - and for four years Mass was celebrated there occasionally. There was then an interlude. Richard Rann of Messing Park, who had converted to Catholicism in 1866, became the benefactor of a new mission at Kelvedon, where from 1875 to 1881 priests of the Institute of St. Andrew from Bamet, Hertfordshire, conducted a school and ministered to the local Catholic population. From the Baptismal registers at Kelvedon we know that they tended the needs of Catholics at Coggeshall. Their successors did likewise, and in 1897, when a community of Missionary Franciscan Sisters took charge of the convent orphanage at Kelvedon, some of the nuns would visit Coggeshall to care for the poor. In 1898 the priest at Kelvedon, Father Egglemeers, a Dutchman who had worked in America and then in Manchester, began to celebrate Mass at 9.00 a.m. on the third Sunday of each month at the home of Mrs Sheldrake situated on the outskirts of Coggeshall.

The Sheldrakes were the second great benefactors of this parish. Mrs Sheldrake had become a Catholic and in 1901 her three sons Henry, James and William, who were lawyers, were also received into the Church. Mass continued to be said in their home - including by Father Byles, the priest of the 'Titanic' - who was at Kelvedon in 1905 - until 1907, the year in which the Sheldrakes built their new house. White Barn, on the Coggeshall Road leading into Kelvedon.

In 1914 there were eleven Catholics recorded as living at Coggeshall. Although further from Coggeshall than their previous home, the Sheldrakes' house at White Barn was still nearer to the village than the church at Kelvedon. In 1919 the priest at Kelvedon, Fr. Michael Calvin, requested Bishop Ward, not long appointed to the new Diocese of Brentwood, to secure from Rome permission for a permanent private oratory to be established at White Barn. And it is from this time that Mass was celebrated there at 8.30 a.m. on the second and fourth Sundays of the month. Of just under forty Catholics in Kelvedon parish, eight lived at White Barn, and four in Coggeshall itself.

The third benefactors were Captain and Mrs Dixon, and they had a special concern for Coggeshall. When Father Richard Gay became parish priest of Kelvedon in 1922 he celebrated a monthly Mass at Starling Leeze, the Dixons' home in Coggeshall. But the needs of the Catholic community in the village required larger premises. In 1923 the Mass was moved to Hitcham School in West Street, and when this closed the Assembly Room over the Co-operative Stores in Church Street were used, at first on every third Sunday of the month, for an annual rent of £5-4-0d. A folding altar was used. On 17th August 1924 Bishop Doubleday preached at the 9.15 a.m. Mass in the Assembly Rooms. By 1927 the congregation at Coggeshall had grown to thirty. Mass was still celebrated on the third Sunday of the month only, at 8.45 a.m., with an 8.30 a.m. Mass at White Barn on the second and fourth Sundays, and an 11.00 a.m. Mass at Kelvedon each week (plus an 8.00 a.m. Mass on the first and fifth Sundays of the month). Religious instruction classes for the Catholic children were also held at Coggeshall every Saturday, conducted by the Dominican Sisters who had come to Kelvedon in 1919 at the invitation of Bishop Ward.

Nevertheless, Father Gay, Captain and Mrs Dixon, and the Catholic families of Coggeshall realised that the village required a permanent chapel-of-ease. Captain Dixon died in April 1927, but in August of that same year a plot of land was bought by his widow in Stoneham Street at a cost of £200: £50 was collected by parishioners, and £50 each was given by the late Captain Dixon and by Captain Jackson.

The church itself was built at a cost of £390, given by Mrs. Dixon. It was a temporary brick and wooden structure measuring 34 by 20 feet and capable of holding about eighty people. The inscription on the tablet erected by Father Gay in July 1928 states that the church was built in memory of the Holy Souls and Captain Dixon. Mrs Dixon subsequently bought two houses adjacent to the church in the hope that they would one day serve as a presbytery for a resident priest at Coggeshall. She also presented to the church (in September 1929) a silver chalice dating from before 1830 which had originally been used in the private chapel of Le Comte Lecourbe from Loisy le Saulnier near Dijon.

The new church was opened on 19th February 1928. Bishop Doubleday blessed the building, celebrated the first Mass/ and reserved the Blessed Sacrament. By the end of the same month the church was out of debt, £50 having been paid for the furnishings. On 15th September 1928 Father Gay blessed the church under the title of St.Bernard, in commemoration of the great Cistercian saint, and memory of Bishop Bernard Ward, the first Bishop of Brentwood, who had taken such an interest in Coggeshall. Stations of the Cross were also erected. Mass was celebrated at 8.45 a.m. on the third Sunday of each month, Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament took place on the same Sunday between May and October, and Benediction was given on Sundays, Holy Days of Obligation, the feast of the dedication of the church and on one weekday per week. By the late 1930s the Mass attendance at Coggeshall had risen to seventy. Moreover, during the Second World War Father Gay also celebrated Mass for the Irish construction workers engaged on building the airfield at Marks Hall.

Mrs Dixon had remarried. Now Mrs Barraud, and residing at Royal Oak Cottage, in January 1949 she approached Bishop Beck, Coadjutor to Bishop Doubleday, to suggest that her former house, Starling Leeze, which she had sold after the death of her first husband but which was again on the market, could be offered to the Chigwell Nuns, who were looking to relocate their school from Bigod's Hall, Dunmow. Although the house at Coggeshall was considered too small for the needs of the nuns, it did not stop Mrs Barraud from petitioning the Bishop in favour of a resident priest and a Catholic school. Father Gay moved to Romford in 1949 and was replaced by Canon Sloane. However, by the early 1950s the congregation was beginning to decline. It picked up again in the 1960s, and in 1962-1963 the then parish priest. Father Thomas, rebuilt and extended the original church, doubling its size, at a cost of £1900. Most of the work was carried out by four parishioners. A new sanctuary, altar, benches and vestment press were installed. Since then the parish has seen a number of changes of priest: Father Thomas was followed by Father Beecroft, and thereafter Canon Dobson, Monsignor Barrow, and now Monsignor Read. The Catholic Church is a living and vibrant organism. The life of prayer, worship and pastoral care continues. Coggeshall, as part of the parish of Kelvedon, shares in that mission of building up the Body of Christ. The work started by the monks of Coggeshall and continued by Father Baines, Richard Rann, the Sheldrakes, Mrs Dixon and all the priests and parishioners of the past, must be sustained and extended, under the patronage of St. Bernard, today and in the days to come.

Father Stewart Foster, BA