The Sacred Heart of Jesus Church was blessed and opened on the Feast of Corpus Christi, on the 22 June 1916. This was the first Church Southwold had seen in nearly 300 years: though many local pre-Reformation churches were witness to Suffolk’s once thriving Catholic presence, the faithful became few and far between following Henry VIII’s split with Rome.
In 1559, Queen Elizabeth I outlawed Catholic Mass rendering Catholics recusants (‘refusers’ who would not attend Protestant worship) served by priests ordained under Queen Mary. Catholicism was still practiced and in 1625 the Pope appointed a Bishop for England. The Jesuit College of the Holy Apostles took charge of the Mission in Essex and East Anglia. Important recusant families include the Bedingfields at Oxburgh, the Jernighams at Costessey, the Gages at Hengrave, and the Huddlestones at Sawston.
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During the English Civil War (1642-1649), a heavily Puritan East Anglia exiled many Catholics. Two prominent martyrs from this turbulent time are St Henry Morse, the ‘priest of the plague’ (d. 1645), and St Alban Roe (d. 1642). By the 18th Century, East Anglian Catholics were in danger of dying out despite a small influx of Irish immigration. However, British attitudes began to change with the French Revolution: the public was sympathetic to the priests, monks, and nuns persecuted by the revolutionaries.
In 1829, Catholics were finally granted civil rights and in 1840, East Anglia became part of the Eastern District, with a Bishop in Northampton. With the restoration of the hierarchy in 1850, this became the Diocese of Northampton. Sometime in the late 1870s, Fr Arthur Job Wallace, then Parish Priest of St Mary’s Ipswich, celebrated the first post-Reformation Mass in Southwold.
The Catholic community in Southwold continued to grow and, in 1897, licensed victualler James Crimmen extended his home––the Manor House on the High Street––to provide a Chapel. Mr Crimmen named the Chapel St Peter’s Oratory and provided all the furniture, fittings, vestments, and sacred vessels. Fr Alexander Scott, from Lowestoft, celebrated the first Mass in the Oratory in June 1897. Mr Crimmen was anxious to establish a regular Mass, to which end he and his brother William promised £25 a year in support of a Priest. Bishop Arthur Riddell (Northampton) agreed, and Fr Henry St Leger Mason, then Curate at Lowestoft, was sent to serve Southwold on Sundays and Holidays. Two years later the Bishop appointed him 1st Priest in Charge of the Southwold Mission.
By 1901, the Oratory of St Peter had become too small to accommodate all the Catholics in town and it became increasingly obvious that the many parishioners needed a larger Church. They raised £100 and an anonymous donor gave £400, providing sufficient funds to purchase land and, in 1901, the current site fronting onto the common was selected. Fr Mason began the appeal for funds to build but the response was poor––there were 60 souls in the Parish plus summer visitors, though the summer season was short and there was very little local industry.
“I don’t think this Mission will ever be anything more than a visiting Summer Holiday place.” – Father Mason
A generous benefactress emerged: Miss Amy Auld––Hunt’s Farm, Blythburgh––was a Catholic convert who pledged £100 per year to the Mission in the hope that the donations would amount to a total of £2000 by the time of her death. However, she passed away on the 11th of August 1912 having enjoyed a short yet happy life as a Religious at East Bergholt. Though her annual donations did not reach her target, she left a bequest of £3000 for the erection of a Church and £1000 for the endowment of the Mission, totalling an amount equivalent to £1.4 million today. Fr Benedict Williamson––prolific architect, priest, and writer––commissioned the design of the Church in 1912. Work commenced during the War but was inevitably delayed by the calling-up of men and the commandeering of supplies by the Government. The Church was eventually completed on the 10th November 1915 with Fr Mason placing the last stone in the tower. On 22nd June 1916, the feast of Corpus Christi, the first Mass was given in the new Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, Southwold.
In the years following WWI, there was considerable poverty in the Suffolk coastal parishes, described as extreme by Fr Davidson, the priest from Aldeburgh. Fr Davidson received encouragement from Fr Mason with the building of the Catholic Church in Aldeburgh. Together they instituted the Dunwich Pilgrimage: on 8th March 1929, the Feast of St Felix, the two Priests gave a Mass in Dunwich to a congregation of five. From that small beginning, the Dunwich Pilgrimage grew to a most successful annual event. A report in the Tablet records that the sixth annual pilgrimage to Dunwich (August 1936) attracted its largest attendance of around two thousand people. With such large crowds, the Sunday in August when the pilgrimage took place became locally known as Catholic Sunday.
It was widely held that the Dunwich Pilgrimage brought Catholics together and reminded them of their great continuity with the Catholic history of East Anglia. The Pilgrimage ceased during WWII but was revived for a few years after the war and held in the ruins of the Old Franciscan Monastery.
Fr Mason served the Southwold Mission for over 40 years and his legacy remains visible in the Church he fought so hard to provide for Catholics in Southwold. In 1938 Fr Mason was made Canon of the diocese of Northampton and his elevation to this dignity was no doubt a recognition of the great part he had played in the establishing of the Parish. He died on 11th November 1940 and was buried in the Catholic part of St Edmund’s cemetery, Southwold. He had spent nearly the entirety of his priestly life in town and it is fitting that he should rest there. Of Fr Mason, Fr Davidson wrote:
“Canon Mason made a study of the local churches and gave several talks to the local Antiquarian Society. He loved his dogs, he loved the country round and would go for long walks. He would say that his dogs were the most faithful, loyal and affectionate of all his parishioners. It was perhaps Dunwich he was especially fond of (sic). The history of St Felix and St Edmund fascinated him”.
During the War Years, and following Fr Mason’s death, Frs R. Howarth and K. Ellison, assisted by Army Chaplains, kept the Mission alive. Immediately following the War, the tenure of a priest was short: for example, Fr Henry Macklin served just one year from 1945-46 and Fr John Mossey from 1947-51. Fr (later Canon) McBride arrived in 1951 and held tenure in Southwold for 7 years. During his time, the Church of St Edmund King & Martyr was built in Halesworth. The Halesworth church was, as it remains today, an integral part of the Parish.
The Sacred Heart Church sits in limited grounds on the edge of Southwold Common on prominent rising ground. Its tower of over 100ft is visible for miles, particularly from the South, and forms an important landmark in the Southwold townscape. The tower is accessible and offers a unique and beautiful panorama of the town, Sole Bay, and the estuary of the River Blythe towards Halesworth. The Church is orientated North/South and is built in the late Gothic style, reflecting the final flowering of English Medieval architecture of the Tudor period. Fr Benedict Williamson––Diocesan Architect to the Diocese of Northampton; and Parish Priest at the Church of the Sacred Cobham––designed the Church in 1912. Local builders H A King (Beccles) built the Church between 1914–1916.
The Church represents not only a fine example of post-reformation Catholic architecture, but also illustrates the turning point for the re-acceptance of Catholicism in England. By the beginning of the 21st Century, the Catholic community of the Sacred Heart was closely linked to their sisters and brothers of all denominations in Southwold.
The design of the Church echoes the late Gothic style of Solesmes Abbey, which the architect visited in 1912. Whilst Williamson’s usual style was based upon Romanesque, it is likely that in this case he sought to reflect both the architecture of the Parish Church of St Edmund and perhaps also illustrate a continuity through the style’s association with the Tudor period. The design is simple and, in some ways, austere: Gothic shorn of its decoration, with an interior that creates a simple devotional space without intrusive distraction. Overall its presence is striking.
Little has changed since the Church was built. The wrought iron sanctuary and baptistery gates have been removed and, in 1923, the Sacred Heart side altar became the War Memorial Altar. The Church and its connected Presbytery are constructed of brick with a stone facing; internally the walls are plastered and painted. The construction techniques include the use of concrete reinforced with steel mesh and steel beams; given the date of its construction at the height of WWI, the quality of these materials may be questionable––which may have contributed to the current structural issues.
The Church and attached presbytery are regarded as one of the finest examples of post-reformation Catholic architecture in East Anglia. Externally, they are ‘unimproved’ since completion in 1916; internally, the Church is relatively plain with its most notable features being the picture of the Holy Family with the Child Baptist, Tobias and the Angel after Bonifacio Veronese––which hangs above the High Altar––and the large (Liturgical) North window of Cathedral glass which fills the sanctuary with natural light. Included in the wall at the Liturgical West end of the Church is a Medieval stoop which is reputed to have been recovered from the sea off Dunwich.
Father Benedict Williamson was born William Edward Williamson in Hackney on June 6th 1868 to a stern Scottish Presbyterian father and a non-conformist mother. He studied law for a time and then trained as an architect in the office of Newman & Jacques in Stratford. In his teens he developed a strong social conscience and a deep interest in politics, but in his early 20s he resolved that “his politics should be those of the Gospel.” He was received into the Catholic Church in 1896 at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Farm Street, Mayfair where he took the name Benedict Williamson.
For the first ten years of his working life he practiced as an architect, in partnership with John Henry Foss at Williamson & Foss, during which time it is believed that he designed the figures for Reredos for St Edmund’s Parish Church, Southwold. He designed more than 22 churches over a period of 35 or so years, many in and around London and mostly in the Romanesque style. The Late Gothic concept of the Sacred Heart Church Southwold is unusual, though not unique. In 1903, he designed a development of St Michael’s Abbey in Farnborough in the style of Solesmes Abbey in France, whose exiled monks had founded Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight.
1906: he designed the Church of St Boniface in Tooting for the Archdiocese of Southwark. The original inspiration for the Church came from Tre Fontane Abbey in Rome. The foundation stone was laid on 17the November 1906 and the Church, still unfinished, opened for worship on 18th April 1907. St Boniface was the last Church he designed before entering the Beda College in Rome to study for the priesthood. He was ordained in 1909 in the Archdiocese of Southwark, but continued his architectural work whilst serving as a Parish Priest at Earlsfield and then Cobham.
1911: he designed St Ignatius Church, Stamford Hill, London, for the Jesuits and, in 1912, St Casimir’s Lithuanian Church in Bethnal Green. In the same year he was appointed for the Diocese of Northampton, as well as Parish Priest at the Sacred Heart Cobham, and it was in this role that he designed our Southwold Church. Whether there is any connection between the dedication of our Church and that of Fr Williamson’s Parish at the time is a matter of conjecture.
1917: Fr Benedict became an Army Chaplain and served on the Western Front with the 47th and 49th Divisions. Known by the nickname ‘Happy Days’ on account of his unquenchable optimism, his comrades regarded him as “the most zealous of priests, the most human of men” and he was always in the most forward positions “inspiring the living and comforting with his faith the parting moments of many a dying soldier”. He was gassed a number of times and his health suffered.
Following WWI, he returned to both Parish and architectural duties. In 1922, he designed Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Fulham, London and, inspired by the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb that year, incorporated Egyptian patterns into the interior design of the Church. Subsequently, in 1927, in collaboration with his original partner John Foss, he added Egyptian designs to the completion of St Boniface’s Church in Tooting. Fr Williamson designed a number of churches outside London, including St Thomas of Canterbury and, in 1912, Our Lady Star of the Sea in Portslade, which had some similarity to our own church in Southwold but was sadly demolished in 1992. In addition to his prolific architectural output and his work as a Parish Priest, Fr Williamson published at least twenty-six books covering an array of topics, such as: Architecture, Theology––including a considerable number of devotional works on St Therese of Lisieux––History and Biography, as well as works on Supernatural Mysticism and the Virtues of Love. He was a friend and supporter of St Elizabeth Hesselblad and he worked to revive the Bridgettine order of monks. It has been suggested that he was one of the inspirations for G K Chesterton’s famous fictional Priest detective, Fr Brown; and he was also Editor of the now defunct Catholic Review. Fr Williamson died in Rome in 1948 at the age of 80.