A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CATHOLIC PARISH OF ST EDMUND’S, BUNGAY
Between the Reformation and the early 19th century, the pastoral care of the few and scattered adherents to the old Catholic faith in rural areas of England and Wales was a dangerous and often disorganized business, typically involving itinerant priests celebrating clandestine Masses in hired rooms or safe houses.
The Waveney Valley of East Anglia was thus served intermittently in the early years, but like a number of other areas it was fortunate to have within it one of the Catholic gentry families who were able, in times of reduced persecution, to ’employ’ and accommodate a priest as chaplain to the household, leaving him time to minister quietly to his flock in the region.
Such was the Tasburgh family of Flixton Hall, just three miles from Bungay, who first welcomed Dom William Walgrave, a monk of St Gregory’s at Douai (later to become Downside Abbey). He arrived at Flixton in 1657, the last year of Oliver Cromwell’s dictatorship, and ministered secretly to the few Catholics in the locality. In all likelihood he had been invited over by Richard Tasburgh, an old pupil of St Gregory’s who inherited Flixton in that year. Thus began an association with the Benedictine monks of St Gregory’s (Downside) which continues to the present day, having survived the vagaries of 350 years, a record which must be almost unique among English Catholic parishes. The family continued to house and support a succession of monk-priests, most of them Gregorians, until the Catholic Relief Act of 1791 made it possible to build a small chapel and presbytery in the town.
Bungay town was no stranger to Benedictines, having in medieval times encompassed a monastery of Benedictine nuns. The connection, though broken for some 250 years, is important because it was the dissolution by Henry VIII of this priory, Holy Cross (now St. Mary’s) which had been founded in c1160 by Gundreda, widow of Roger, Earl of Norfolk, that caused the Dukes of Norfolk to retrieve ownership of its site and thus, several generations later, to be in a position to return a portion of it to the monks of Downside when appealed to by the Catholics of Bungay for land on which to build a chapel.
After the Relief Act had once again made Catholic worship legal, many churches were hastily erected to meet the needs of a growing community. At first these were restrained and unobtrusive structures of which the building erected in Bungay was typical. This chapel was solemnly opened on Waterloo Day, 18 June 1823, when the bells of St Mary’s were rung all day; but, in a gesture of ecumenical good will, the churchwarden of St Mary’s stopped the peals for the duration of the Catholic service. Nonetheless, Catholics still had no wish to draw attention to themselves, so the building was an unpretentious gothic construction on a plot of land which had been part of the old convent grounds. A priest’s house was added in 1829 (the year of full Catholic emancipation) on the site of the present baptistery, funded rather unusually by the proceeds of a French-English dictionary compiled by the parish priest, Dom Peter Wilson, later Prior of Downside (1840-1854). This basic provision was completed in 1873 by the establishment of a small school which, much enlarged, thrives to this day as St Edmund’s Primary School.
The story of this development opens with the arrival of Dom Ephrem Guy in 1885. He was typical of a new generation of Catholic clergy who wished to realize the full scope of the liturgy, and he found the existing chapel too cramped. His proposal for a new church appears to have been received coolly by Samuel Smith, Frederic’s father, who still wished to keep the Catholic community inconspicuous – indeed, he may have been influenced by the anti-Catholic demonstrations which marked the construction of the new church in Cambridge. However, on Samuel’s death in April 1888, his son Frederic, who had been a schoolboy contemporary of Dom Ephrem at Downside, undertook to provide the funding. A London-based architect, Bernard Smith, was engaged to prepare a design and the foundation stone of a new chancel and sacristy was laid in August 1888, the building achieving completion in the following January. The formal opening was performed by the Bishop of Northampton, Arthur Riddell, another old boy of Downside, and by Holy Week in 1890, the liturgy could be performed with full solemnity, using vestments and furnishings provided by Frederic Smith. Among the officiating clergy on that occasion were Dom Edmund Ford, later first Abbot of Downside, and Dom Aidan Gasquet, later Vatican Librarian and a cardinal.
In 1894 the old priest’s house on the north side of the church was demolished and the existing presbytery on the south side was erected to replace it. This freed space for the construction of an almost free-standing baptistery, one of the largest and finest of any non-cathedral church of any denomination in England. Quite apart from his gifts of vestments and church furnishings, Frederic Smith had spent £17,000 on the buildings of St. Edmund’s, a sum that in modern terms amounts to well over a million pounds. It is fitting that the memorial plaque to him and his wife Catherine on the north wall of the nave should include the verse from Psalm 25 (26): “O Lord, I love the beauty of thy house, the place where thy glory dwells”.
The present church (1889) before the building of the baptistry.
Life went on quietly, disturbed only by the Second World War when a large influx of American airmen necessitated the assistance of a second priest for a time. After the war, three Downside monks gave particularly long service as parish priests: Dom Stanislaus Chatterton, Dom Ceolfrid O’Hara, Dom Richard Yeo (later to become Abbot, and then Abbot President of the English Benedictine Congregation), and Dom Edward Crouzet. During the 1950s, Dom Stanislaus established a Mass centre in a former Baptist chapel at Wortwell, but this has recently been replaced by a chapel dedicated to St. Thomas More in the more populous town of Harleston (Norfolk).
One exceptional event in the mission’s long history was the establishment, just over a hundred years ago, of the new parish of St Benet’s, Beccles at the eastern end of the territory, a move which reflected the growth of the Catholic population in general and of that town in particular. The original mission, centred first at Flixton and then at Bungay, had been vast, stretching between Lowestoft to the east and Thetford to the west – for despite various attempts, there was no parish at Diss until 1949.
On 8 July 2007 the parish held a large outdoor Mass and celebration at Bungay to mark the 350th anniversary of the start of the Benedictine Mission in the Waveney Valley.
Bungay’s Catholic Parish Church of St Edmund, King and Martyr, has recently been raised to the status of a Grade 2* Listed Building and is also situated within the old town Conservation Area.