Reprinted from Newsletter 108, dated 2003 August

The hidden history of Roman Catholicism in Glastonbury over the past 400 years

Michael Protheroe

“From out of the shadows” was the title of Michael Protheroe’s talk on April 11, on the poorly recorded story of the Roman Catholic church here during the four centuries between the dissolution of the Abbey (1539) and the laying of the foundation stone of the restored pilgrimage-church, the present St Mary’s (1939).

This notable feature of Glastonbury’s townscape came to occupy this very significant site, and to be built when it was, through largely providential factors. One was the generosity of the once-exiled French nuns, the Sisters of Charity of St Louis, who (living up to their name!) donated the plot to the Clifton diocese in the 1920s. The nuns had earlier failed to sell the adjoining “Priory” property (which they were to occupy for some 80 years — initially running a laundry and orphanage, and then a school which educated so many local children — until their departure in 1984). Despite wartime restrictions the church was built of Bath and Corsham stone. The vision and foresight of Bishop William Lee were finally realized in its consecration in 1942. The parish priest at the time was Father Michael Fitzpatrick.

Otherwise, Glastonbury’s Catholic church might well have been a postwar development (a 1960s concrete structure on Windmill Hill?) rather than such a fine piece of architecture, so centrally located on Magdalene Street and visibly in continuity with the town’s Catholic past reflected in the Abbey ruins across the road.

A drawing of a stone building, seen from one corner. It is one storey tall. The two windows on the left wall are rectangular and quite short, made of three glass panels each. On the right wall, the part nearest the corner has a pointed roof with a single arched window near the top, and the wall continues to the right with no windows until the end of the building. In front of the building is a sign whose text is not readable, and in front of that a fence separates a small strip of land from us, running along the right wall of the building. Some trees are visible behind the building. Some text is written below the illustration (transcribed in the caption).
The first St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Magdalene Street was a converted stable. The sketch is by George (Tony) Wheeler, of Street, a parishioner who helped pull it down in 1938 to make way for the new church. At right, with the nuns’ “laundry” sign by its door, is the “Priory” (recently used as the Millfield pre-prep school). The footpath toward Safeway \[Morrisons\] now runs between it and the new church. The gable-end niche contains a statue by Eric Gill—Chalice Well has a replica of it.

The artist’s writing below the drawing says: “The old Catholic Church of St Mary’s, pulled down in 1938 to make room for the new church commenced in 1930. Parish priest Fr. M. Fitzpatric.”

As an outlawed minority during Penal times, “Papist recusants” had barely survived here. Michael Protheroe had assembled what scattered evidence there exists, and quoted the antiquarian Revd Richard Warner in 1826 that there was “not one Roman Catholic resident” — “a somewhat remarkable fact” in a place once “so identified with the Romish religion”.

Catholicism’s return and eventual revival dates only from 1886, when Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, an international order of priests and brothers, bought the Tor House property and the Chalice Well grounds and established a junior seminary and a chapel (they were there till 1913). It was some 40 years before the number of local Mass-goers had grown sufficiently for an extensive parish to be set up (even including Somerton in those days). A grey-stone stable alongside “The Priory” was converted into its first church.

The meeting (in the fine parish hall behind St Mary’s) concluded with an animated exchange regarding the ongoing saga of the Eric Gill Madonna and Child that originally graced the front of the old stable church — with hopes expressed that it might in due course also return to Glastonbury.