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The History of St. Mary's Church

Looking at the modern church of St. Mary's, built in 1960, you might well think that this is a new parish which grew out of an expanding town population: but in fact you are standing near the oldest Catholic church in Ipswich since the Reformation.

It was founded by an emigre French Priest, Abbe Louis Pierre Simon, who escaped from the persecutions of the French Revolution and arrived in Ipswich in 1793 to teach. During that time he was befriended by a Catholic woman, Miss Margaret Wood who lived with her widowed sister-in-law and niece in Silent Street, Delighted to meet a Catholic Priest she offered him lodgings in her house and room to say Mass. It was probably in Silent Street or in her subsequent house in Carr Street, opposite the end of Cox Lane, that Mass was celebrated regularly in the town for the first time since the Reformation. Glyde, an Ipswich historian living at the time records that "Much ill-feeling existed in the minds of a large proportion of the people towards their Catholic brethren and worship had to be performed in as secret a manner as possible to prevent annoyance". Nevertheless, Pere Simon succeeded in gathering all the local Catholics into one "fold" by his faithful pastoral work, and after the French wars were over he decided to devote the rest of his life to working for the Catholic community in Ipswich.

After settling his affairs in France he returned to Ipswich and purchased a house in what was then called Albion Hill, now the Woodbridge Road, with five acres of land attached. Appropriate, it was near the site of the Convent of the Black Friars at Cauldwell, destroyed after the Reformation, but more important, it was near the temporary barracks still existing after the Napoleonic Wars, and from the soldiers, many of them Irish or German, Pere Simon found a number of his flock.

The house, which still stands, is now used by the Sisters as a Convent. Pere Simon made one room into a temporary chapel while he overcame the local objections to having a Catholic Chapel built in Ipswich. Eventually his perseverance was rewarded and a small chapel dedicated to St. Anthony was built next to the house. As you enter the parish hall, which was converted from the old church, this original chapel ran from what is now the Pere Simon Lounge, across the end of the hall and into the alcove opposite - the transepts of the later church.

If you stand in the Woodbridge Road you can see the marks of the former entrance in the wall of the Convent, now bricked up. It was discreetly hidden from the road by trees so that people could slip into the church unobserved.

The Chapel was consecrated on 1st August, 1827 by Dr. T. Walsh, Vicar Apostolic, and the Suffolk Chronicle records that "the novelty of the appearance of a Roman Catholic Bishop at Mass brought a number of respectable individuals to attend on this occasion". At the same time free lessons for the poor were started on a Sunday morning in reading, writing and catechism.

Pere Simon had a strong and attractive personality which helped him to establish the first Catholic parish in the town, and he became a popular and respected figure by everyone. He mastered written English but was never fluent in speaking it. At Mass the Gospel was read in English, during the break after the Latin Gospel and the notices by Mr. Salter Fox, a parishioner: the first lay reader at St. Mary's over a hundred and fifty years before they were officially commissioned!

Within ten years the Chapel of St. Anthony proved too small, and after some opposition Pere Simon was granted permission to enlarge the church north and south so that the old chapel formed the transept to the new church which had a new nave of 76 feet long, opening directly off the Woodbridge Road. This church is now the parish hall of St. Mary's. A contemporary description tells of a "fine model of gothic architecture" with a fine ceiling, organ and a beautiful painting of the Crucifixion over the altar.

On 10th October, 1838 Dr. Walsh returned to bless the enlarged church, now dedicated to Our Lady and called St. Mary's and during High Mass seventeen people were confirmed, of whom five were converts. The Bishop took as his text "love one another" and part of his homily was directed to "our dearly beloved Protestant brethren", an early sign of the ecumenical spirit reflected in St. Mary's today. The Suffolk Chronicle reported that "Mozart's Grand Mass in C was performed by the choir in a very creditable style, its strength being increased by a portion of the band of the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards. The writer suggests that the church was only half full partly because of the entrance fee of half a crown(!) but also because of the stern denunciations against Popery from some of the pulpits of the parish churches in the town.

Less than a year later Pere Simon died, and the church of St. Mary's was then served by Priests from Stoke by Nayland and Bury St. Edmunds. In 1854 Father Kemp settled in Ipswich from Stoke by Nayland and at this point the church was still owned by Miss Mary Wood, niece of the Miss Wood who had befriended Abbe Simon: but was now conveyed to the Bishop and Trustees. Pere Simon and Margaret Wood are remembered by plaques in the parish hall of St. Mary's, which was once the church they founded.

In 1861 St. Pancras Church was built in the centre of the town and until 1919 both parishes were administered jointly. Father Kemp, when he retired, handed over to his friend, Father Wallace, in 1869. A slightly eccentric character he once finished a sermon and asked for three cheers for the Pope, and often walked from Ipswich to Woodbridge to say Mass. In the 1870's he went off to the Ashanti Wars as chaplain, and then on to India, but he returned to live at St. Mary's as chaplain to the convent.

1860 was an important year for St. Mary's for it witnessed the arrival of the first Sisters of Jesus and Mary from France, as a result of a request from Dr. Amherst, the Bishop of Northampton. The church was very poor at that time and the nuns took over the cleaning and sewed some much needed altar linen. In 1861 they started an orphanage, and later despite financial and educational obstacles they launched an elementary school and a boarding school which grew rapidly and were the strong foundations for Catholic education in this area. Emily Bray House for the elderly now stands on the site of the Elementary School which was founded by Mother St. Clare, who was born as Emily Bray. In 1862 religious bigotry in the town erupted in a riot, led by a man named Baron de Gaume. A fanatical mob rampaged through the town one November night until it arrived at the Convent. Unable to storm the doors the mob then threw stones all night, breaking every widow and at one point narrowly missing Mother Superior's head. The Blessed Sacrament was brought into the Convent for safety and throughout this terrifying night the Sisters prayed and kept a vigil.

The following morning the Civil Authorities were shocked, a Magistrate and his wife visited the Convent to express their sympathy and the newspapers roundly condemned the riots as a disgrace to a civilised society. By March, 1867 Father Kemp was cheered by crowds as he and the school boarders watched the town's loyal procession to celebrate the marriage of the Prince of Wales.

In 1919 Bishop Keating decided to separate the two parishes of St. Pancras and St. Mary's and he appointed Father McCaul, then curate of St. Pancras, to be the first Parish Priest of St. Mary's.

During the First World War when fears of invasion were strong the Convent School was prepared for the wounded, and a large room offered to the RAMC soldiers quartered nearby for recreation and relaxation. Between the two World Wars the Sisters acquired Holmewood to extend the facilities of the school, and the long wooded drive used by St. Mary's gives it the special peace and attractive rural atmosphere so rare in a town church. The grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes near the school was built at this time, a present from former pupils of the school.

Also remembered in St Mary's Church are two altar servers who died in action in the First World War in 1917. Cyril Oliver who was a corporal in the 10th King’s Royal Rifle Corps, 10th Battalion and Michael Price who was a rifleman in the 9th KIng's Royal Riffle Corps. 9th Battalion. For more information please follow the following links Cyril Oliver and Michael Price

By the 1970's the Catholic Church in East Anglia had expanded so that in 1976 the new Diocese of East Anglia was created. St. Mary's parish reflected that growth: in the same year the parish acquired the beautiful Convent church built in 1960. It was designed by Suffolk Architects Purcell and Johnson and reflects its dual purpose: as a conventual chapel with the nun's stalls ranging along the sides, and as a school chapel with a wide central space for a congregation. It has adapted easily to use as a parish church.

As you look around the church you will notice the striking effect of the different woods used: the stalls and panelling are of an African timber called Afromosia, with panels faced in English sycamore. The floor is of African mahogany, slightly toned to bring it into harmony with the Afromosia.

In the Sanctuary four different stones have been used. The altar is of Ashburton marble from Devon and the pilasters behind the altar and the frieze are in rose and white alabaster from Derbyshire. Portland stone has been used for the Sanctuary floor with the skirting in grey Italian marble.

The Stations of the Cross, the statues of Our Lady and St. Joseph and the beautiful Crib figures which appear at Christmas time, are all hand carved. The link with the old church has been kept with the large Crucifix behind the altar and some of the pews. The old church has been converted into the parish hall, busy with activities most days of the week.

In 1988 the porch area was extended, with a large repository, toilet facilities and with a glazed wall into the church so that while the microphones are used during Mass it provides a useful area for small children and adults who need to withdraw from the church for any reason.

The beautiful stained glass window over the new door was designed by Jim Budd of Hertford.

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