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Penal Times

Since East Anglia was one of the regions of England which most readily accepted the new teachings of the reformers it is hardly surprising that the Old Faith apparently died out swiftly and completely in Swaffham at the time of the Reformation. After all Cambridge the main centre in England for the Reformers is only about 40 miles away. While it has been said that there was a house of Jesuit Priests in the town even during Penal times and until about 1795, it is more likely that they were Chaplains to one of the big houses in the neighbourhood.

In the town itself there is no sure evidence of a Catholic presence until the beginning of the 20th century.

But the Faith definitely did survive in two houses in the neighbourhood. The first was Bury’s Hall, now no longer standing; but for some time during the 17th and 18th centuries a Catholic Chaplain was maintained by the family there.

Oxburgh Hall

The faith did survive during the 17th and 18th centuries at two houses in the neighbourhood -at Bury's Hall and at one other, Oxburgh Hall, just 7 miles to the south west of Swaffham, the latter being happily still in existence; and the Bedingfeld family who built the wonderful fortified manor house in 1482 are not only still living in it, but have also maintained the Catholic faith through the centuries even in the times of persecution and Penal Laws. Nowadays the National Trust owns the house and grounds, but the family still remain loyal to the Catholic Church and continue to own the Chapel dedicated to the Immaculate Conception and St Margaret which was built as soon as possible after Catholic Emancipation in 1829.

During Penal Times recusancy was severely punished by fines - or by death if one was known to harbour a Priest but the Bedingfelds nonetheless had a Chaplain for much of the time - in the early days Benedictine missioners and later Jesuits. So it is not surprising that there is a Priest’s hiding hole in Oxburgh Hall, and a priest was still resident in the house long after Catholicism was once again legal: in fact until as late as the 1970s.

Recusants were fined for not attending the local Church - which at Oxburgh lies just outside the gates, and contains some fine Bedingfeld memorial tombs; and the family was forbidden to travel further than 5 miles, and so could not visit Swaffham. If a Priest was able to say Mass at the Hall some laundry would be hung over a particular hedge ‘to dry’. The number of items signified how many days ahead Mass would be celebrated: two items meaning two days and so on.

In order to preserve security, the family naturally preferred to employ Catholics, and so quite a community grew up around the House; and by the 19th century there was not only a Presbytery in the small village but also a Catholic School.

A Slow Awakening

In the town itself, however, there was no sign of Catholicism until the 20th century, though there must have been one or two Catholics around in the late 19th Century at least, one of whom was probably Mr J.A.Devany. In due course, he became the main stimulus for the presence of Priests to say Mass, and subsequently for the establishment of a Mission which became the Parish of our Lady of Pity. Fr Goldie SJ came over from Oxburgh Hall probably at his invitation in February 1907 to celebrate the first Mass in Swaffham since the Reformation; and then continued to come each month for two years until he was posted to Preston. In those days there was of course no Church or Chapel: Mass was celebrated ‘in an upper room’ in Mr Devany’s house.

The “Missionary Gazette” of the Motor Mission Society (later the Catholic Missionary Society or CMS, though in 2003 it became CASE) whose prime mover was Fr Herbert Vaughan, nephew of the Cardinal, records these facts. And it continues:

"These pioneer efforts were not in vain, for they cleared away much prejudice and prepared the people for the coming of the Motor Chapel in 1911."

It was in the summer of that year that the Motor Mission came to Swaffham for a week at the invitation of Fr Field a member of the Society who seems to have been living in Swaffham at the time.

"They had the Assembly Rooms for a whole week and it was observed that the week night lectures they gave excited a good deal of eager and tolerant interest"

reported the Eastern Daily Press, the Norwich newspaper.

First Church

So the decision was taken to establish a permanent mission, with Mr Devany leading the way to leasing a suitable building, which had hitherto been a Salvation Army barracks. The building, which would seat 150, was in Theatre Street, the road that runs behind the large Georgian houses which face on to the Market Place. During the 18th century Swaffham had been a notable centre for the local gentry, having a ‘Season’ of its own, so the presence of a Theatre in those days is not surprising. But by the early 20th century those days had long gone, and the Theatre had gone very much downhill. There were only 8 resident Catholics at the time; but they had been joined by Protestant neighbours in order to make the building presentable, including putting in new windows on the street front.

The lease of the building had been signed on 29th September, with MrDevany himself undertaking to subsidise the running expenses as well as guaranteeing the rent of £8 per annum. He is, therefore, the first known benefactor of our Community, while the Bedingfeld family and others provided many of the items for the furnishing of the Church. Other benefactors followed, notably Miss Willis, who wrote first from Cowmangate (now Mangate Street) and later from Kensington in west London often sending quite handsome cheques for the upkeep of the Mission Priest. Later Miss Willis was joined as a benefactress by Miss Katherine Winter, who was still active in the Parish in the 1950s.

The Chapel itself, dedicated to our Lady of Pity, was opened by the Bishop of Northampton on Sunday 29th October to a Church packed with the Bedingfeld family and others from Oxburgh, some priests of the Motor Mission, the 3 Catholics of Swaffham (Mr and Mrs Devany and an Irish girl called Kate Dunne) and very many curious townspeople.

The patron of the Mission, whose Feast Day is on September 21st, seems not to have been chosen fortuitously, for Fr Goldie had found that amongst the shrines destroyed at the Reformation in the medieval Parish Church was one to our Lady of Pity, and no doubt the Bishop wished to revive the devotion to her who had stood at the foot of the Cross when her Son gave her to St John and to us.

The Site 


Fr Field remained in Swaffham until some time in 1912, and in December of that year Fr Joseph Vendé, a Canon Regular of the Lateran, took over the Mission. He was a significant figure in the establishment of the Parish, for not only was it he who invited the Daughters of Divine Charity to Swaffham but he was also instrumental in buying the land on which the Church of our Lady of Pity now stands. This land with frontages on both Station Street and Northwell Pool Road was sold as a number of lots, consisting of a large warehouse described as being ‘suitable for a cinema’; ‘Ivy House’; and some stables, and other shacks and sheds. The warehouse did indeed become a cinema, but the Diocese bought all the other plots. And the stables were converted into living space for the Priest: it could not be dignified with the name ‘Presbytery’!

The purchase was made on 11 October 1917 for the sum of £670; the building in Theatre Street which had previously housed the Church had already been sold by its owners on 30 April for £150 to the neighbouring garage-owner who planned to use it as a workshop. Where Mass was said in the interim period is not known.

The Sisters


After much negotiation and delay, the first nuns had arrived from Austria just before the outbreak of war in 1914, and established themselves in a house in Providence Row. During the First World War, because of their nationality, they suffered much, but they weathered the storm; and with the purchase of the new land they moved into Ivy House, remaining there until 1920 when they were able to buy their present property in Mangate Street. The Priest was then able to move into Ivy House; and Mass was then said in the old Stables which he had vacated.

The Sisters in their Convent, and in particular in the Sacred Heart School, positioned in the centre of the town, have been and are vital witnesses to the presence of the Church in Swaffham. The teaching of the Catholic faith to generations of girls in particular, but also to boys, has had a great influence on the spiritual life of many. Sacred Heart School, at the beginning of the 21st century must be one of the few remaining Convent Schools in England that is still actively led by Sisters, and continuing to profess the old virtues of good manners, service, well-grounded education all based on the principles of the Catholic Faith. And at the same time it is well up on modern trends and ideas, successful in public exams, but still small in numbers so that each child is truly known by the Sisters and the Staff. And for the last 80 years the Sisters have also been very visible in the secular activities of the town, with a number of them have been well known as strong personalities who have contributed much to the life of the wider community. The School premises - with its large gym and sports hall, and more recently converted barn - have often been welcome venues for functions other than those put on by the school. All this has helped to show that the Catholic Church is truly a presence for good in Swaffham, not cut off from the community but right in the midstream of its life and activity.

Second Church

By 1919 the Catholic population had grown to 26, Fr Vendé had celebrated his first wedding and burial in the town and had started the Mission in Downham Market (1915), but his health was beginning to fail, so he moved to become Chaplain at Oxburgh Hall. However, he didn’t stay long there and he moved on to Cornwall, where the Canons had an Abbey, and he died there on 17 January 1924.

He was replaced by Fr John Malone . Life for the early missioners must have been difficult, with shortage of money, few parishioners and incomprehension from the local people. Fr Malone wrote to the Bishop saying he had just finished

"my first Sunday’s work. I feel very lonely and desolate, but I shall try to shake off that feeling and shall do my best for the spread of the Church in this ‘no-man’s land’ ".

He soon started a series of lectures on the Faith but “attendance was very poor.

" What can be done to wake up the sleepy Swaffhamites?"

he wrote. However the new ‘temporary’ Church to seat 120 was built in 1920, and it was opened and blessed by the Bishop on 22nd August, Fr Vendé returning from Oxburgh for that occasion.

After three years, by which time the Catholic population was 51, Fr Malone too was replaced, this time by Fr Jerome Esser, O Praem, of Tongerloo Abbey in Belgium. He was in residence at “The Presbytery, Woodside” in September 1922; and indeed Fr Malone must have found his work an uphill task, for Fr Esser reported that on his first Sunday in Swaffham

"there were 7 people for Holy Communion and 18 in all at Mass including the Priest. At the Evening Service there were 20 - 25, and the offertory for the day was 8/2½d [41p]".

The discrepancy in numbers between those at Mass and at the Evening Service could be accounted for by the congregation being mainly working people (domestic servants, labourers and so on) who could only get time off in the evening.

When Fr Esser left in 1923, he was replaced by the first Priest to remain for any length of time in Swaffham. He was Fr Constantine Ketterer, of whom, though he remained until 1933, nothing further is known, for he failed to keep up the “Mission Book” begun by Fr Vendé and from which much of the information of the early days is derived. Fr Burrows replaced Fr Ketterer and stayed until 1938 to be followed by Fr Barker. In 1941 he was succeeded by Mgr Squirrell, who went on to greater things at St John’s in Norwich in 1945. Then came Fr Flanagan only to die suddenly within a year while in Ireland, and then Fr Hillier who had just been released from being an Army Chaplain. It was only in his time, in 1948, that electricity was installed in the Church.

During that time, of course, was the Second World War, which brought the arrival of the RAF and its camps, as well as the USAF and the Poles in camps such as at Feltwell and Bodney. Watton, too, was for some time served from Swaffham. These arrivals made a difference to the life of the Parish: for example between 1939 and 1942 there was an average of 4 weddings a year. But in 1947 there were 14, of which 11 were between Poles. The number of Baptisms, however, did not alter appreciably! Some families who arrived in the area through service in the RAF locally are still active in Parish life.

New Church

But in 1949 Fr Gerry Langley became Parish Priest and remained in Swaffham for 21 years. It is to him that the Parish owes more than to anybody else. He was a man of great presence, huge energy and strong opinions. What parishioners nowadays would like to be told in the Bulletin:

"The turnout for (the Diocesan Pilgrimage to Walsingham), for which plenty of notice was given and a special plea made, was lamentable. No reason other than indifference seems to explain the facts .... May God make us ashamed of our apathy towards his Mother"

But it was through forcefulness of personality as well as energy in fund-raising that Fr Langley was able to design, plan and build both the Church and the Presbytery. This caused such interest that he was interviewed by the BBC Radio for 'East Anglian Highlights' in 1957, and recommended by the producer to the Midland Region Television organiser in a letter which stated:

"...I think it will be of interest to you. Much of the work involved in the building is being done by members of the congregation. Already they have cleared the site. They are to pull down the Priest’s House, and individual members are to be responsible for the heating system and the main doors. Help is being given as well by some non-Catholics .... The other unusual feature is that no architect is being employed. Father Langley has designed the church himself. He has already drawn up detailed plans, and at present he is constructing a scale model. There has been a lot of criticism about this. A Norfolk architect wrote to the 'Eastern Daily Press' stating that the church would probably fall down!

Nonetheless a quotation from Mickleburgh’s of Norwich of £3050 to build the shell of the Church was accepted: many parishioners helped with the groundwork, one of whom Jack Neely was still alive in 2003.

"The Heating was installed by myself with much help from American servicemen. The electrical wiring was the work of an RAF technician"

wrote Fr Langley; the oak doors and other woodwork were made by Arthur Ramm; Fr Langley laid the first brick; and the foundation stone was laid by the Bishop on 14 May 1958.

And by spring of 1960 it had been completed with much of the interior work also being done by parishioners, and was opened on Thursday 12th May 1960, though the Bishop himself, Mgr Leo Parker of Northampton, was at the last minute unable to come due to illness.

After Fr Gerry

The Presbytery was designed by Mr Tony Rossi of Norwich, and was only half-built when Fr Langley moved to Langley (Berks): he had spent his last years back in the stables where the Priests first lived, for Ivy House had been found too damp to be worth repairing and was demolished. Fr Nightingale was the first priest to live in the new Presbytery.

 And 40+ years later the Church is still in fine shape: not perhaps an architectural gem from the exterior. But inside it is full of light, space and prayerfulness, especially after the re-ordering of the Sanctuary (completed in 1976 by Fr Tony Sketch), and the placing of a stained glass window of the Annunciation, designed by Alan Barlow a Parishioner, in the Roundel window. At the same time as this was done, by Fr Trevor Richardson, the spacious Narthex was created out of a group of small dark spaces. A further improvement, this time to the porch, is planned for later in 2003.

For 65 years of its existence, the Mission and subsequently the Parish of our Lady of Pity, was within the Diocese of Northampton. But in 1976 the Diocese of East Anglia was created, to include the Counties of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk with the Unitary Authority of Peterborough. Since then it has had three Bishops. The first was Bishop Alan Clark who had previously been responsible for Norfolk as Bishop of Elmham, when he was auxiliary to the Bishop of Northampton. He resigned in 1996 having reached 75 years of age. Bishop Peter Smith replaced him, having been rdained in the Cathedral Church of St John the Baptist in Norwich as our second Bishop, until in 2001 he was moved to become Archbishop of Cardiff. After a long wait for a new appointment, on March 19th 2003 Bishop Michael Evans was ordained as our third Bishop. He died peacefully on 11 July 2011 after a long illness. He was succeeded by Bishop Alan Hopes who was appointed Bishop of East Anglia in June 2013.

Parish Priests


Dates largely extrapolated from the Parish Baptism Registers

  • Fr Field 1911 - 1912

  • Fr Joseph Vendé, CRL 1912 Dec - April 1919

  • Fr John Malone 1919 - April 1922

  • Fr Jerome Esser, O Praem 1922 - Nov 1923

  • Fr Constantine Ketterer 1923 - May 1933

  • Fr William Burrows 1933 - Nov + 1938

  • Fr William Barker 1938 - Dec 1941

  • Mgr Harold Squirrell 1941 - Aug + 1944

  • Fr Mortimer Flanagan 1945 Jan - Dec 1945+

  • Fr Donald Hillier 1946 - July 1949

  • Fr Gerald Langley 1949 - Oct 1969

  • Fr Brian Nightingale 1969 - Sept 1973

  • Fr Anthony Sketch 1973 - April 1977

  • Fr Anthony Seely 1977 - June 1981

  • Fr John Reffitt 1981 - May 1986+

  • Fr John Cureton 1986 - Sept 1996

  • Fr Trevor Richardson 1996 - March 2002+

  • Fr Michael Johnstone June 2003 - Sept 2012

  • Fr Gordon Williams Sept 2012 - Sept 2019

  • Canon Mark Hackeson Sept 2019 - Present

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