The Second Catholic Relief Act of 1791 marked the start of a century-plus of the building of a series of interesting Catholic churches on the Isle of Wight.
Elizabeth Browne was born on the island in 1734. She was brought up at Sleat Manor, Chillerton and was educated at a Catholic school for girls in Hammersmith. She married into the ancient Catholic family of Heneage from Hainton in Lincolnshire.
The first church she paid for was that of St Thomas of Canterbury, Newport in 1791. It has the external appearance of a Methodist chapel, being a single rectangle with a pedimented gable on the street and handsome white Tuscan porch with columns. The charming interior has galleries, supported by green composite columns, with box pews. The sanctuary is a shallow recess with a baldacchino. A marble wall tablet records the death in 1800 of the benefactress and includes the words “Poor in Spirit amidst her Opulence From her infancy Mercy grew up with her… and she opened her hands to the indigent. Munificent in erecting and adorning Sacred Edifices And bountifully assisting others in the like works In the last Day She shall not fear the evil hearing… For alms will not suffer the Soul to go into darkness… REQUIESCAT IN PACE. Amen.” The church was spared Victorian improvements.
Her second church was St Thomas of Canterbury, Cowes, completed in 1797. This church is built in bluff brick. The main facade is to the south with rather unattractive Lombard tracery windows inserted in 1876. The interior is a single undivided white space. The full-height reredos on the east wall is made up of huge fluted Doric pillars and a keyed arch framing a large painted altarpiece of the Deposition, a copy of one from Douai. The church was reordered in 1975 when the altar tabernacle seems to have been destroyed. The parish priest now is Fr Jonathan Redvers Harris of the Ordinariate, sometime vicar of All Saints Anglican church, Ryde. (Sir George Gilbert Scott 1870-2)
St Mary’s, Ryde (in fact the Church of the Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary) was entirely paid for by the Catholic convert Elizabeth, Countess of Clare. She was the daughter of Peter Burrell, the 1st Baron Gwydyr, and Baroness Willoughby de Eresby, daughter of the 3rd Duke of Ancaster. She married John Fitzgibbon, 2nd Earl of Clare, the subject of a schoolboy crush by Byron at Harrow, in 1826 when she was 23. She was received into the Catholic Church in Rome in 1841. She separated from her husband, who died in 1851.
She appointed the young JA Hansom as architect for the church which was built in the years 1846-48. He designed a “rogue” church of great strength and originality. It is built of local ragstone with Caen stone dressings. The west front is a vigorous composition of shortened lancets with a statue of the Virgin beneath a gabled canopy and a short spire. The interior is richly decorated. The sanctuary retains its stone reredos but the high altar was removed in the 1970s. There is much glass and decorative wall painting by Nathaniel Westlake. Like many churches, St Mary’s, Ryde is in considerable need of funds. Historic England’s Covid-19 Emergency Response Fund has recently provided a grant to the church of £25,000 and this has been spent on a report on the 19th-century interior decorative scheme. Ryde has also become a Heritage Action Zone.
The Countess of Clare also founded St Dominic’s Priory at Carisbrooke Castle in 1865-6 for Dominican nuns originally from the convent founded by Cardinal Howard in Vilvoorde in Brabant, employing Gilbert Blount as her architect. This venture eventually failed and the priory closed in 1989.
She died on the feast of St Catherine of Siena (30 April) in 1879 at the age of 86 and was buried at St Mary’s, Ryde.
William George Ward was born in 1812 and educated at Winchester and Christ Church. In 1834 he obtained an open fellowship in mathematics at Balliol. He became a Tractarian, and a follower of Newman. He was ordained an Anglican priest in 1840. In 1844 he published The Ideal of a Christian Church in which he (very reasonably) contended that the only hope for the Church of England lay in submission to the Roman Catholic Church. This concept did not, however, receive universal approbation from his Anglican colleagues and in February 1845 he was deprived of his fellowship at Balliol. He was received into the Catholic Church later in the year, marrying at roughly the same time. He initially struggled with poverty but his circumstances improved. He went on to become a professor at St Edmund’s, Ware and subsequently editor of the Dublin Review.
In 1849 he inherited Northwood House in Cowes and 5,000 acres of the Isle of Wight from his uncle. He built in 1869-70 Weston Manor at Totland Bay. The architect was George Goldie. The Catholic chapel is a tour de force. After Ward’s death in 1882, the interior was furnished and decorated in the 1890s. The ornate screen is by Peter Paul Pugin and the altar (with a carved representation of the Entombment) and reredos by Edward Goldie. The walls are painted in deep reds.
The French anti-clerical laws of 1901 caused a couple of monastic communities to depart from France to England. The first of these was Benedictine monks from Solesmes Abbey. They purchased the site of what is now the Abbey of Our Lady of Quarr and in 1911-12 a certain Père Paul Bellot, an architect monk, started work on the construction of a new abbey church. The church is built of Belgian brick and is a remarkable construction. The exterior lacks decoration or stone dressing and is dominated by a conical southern tower, reminiscent of Périgueux Cathedral. The laity in a broad short nave are at a lower level than the monks. The diagonal unadorned brick parabolas which support the tower are a structural triumph and show Moorish influence.
After certain post-Vatican II vicissitudes, the abbey seems to have settled down. In 2013, Dom Xavier Perrin, originally a monk from Sainte Anne de Kergonan in Brittany, was appointed prior administrator; three years later he was elected abbot. There are currently some eight monks in the monastery.
Because of the same French anti-clerical laws of 1901, the Benedictine nuns of Ste-Cécile de Solesmes also came to the Isle of Wight. They initially stayed at Northwood House at Ryde courtesy of the Ward family. They then bought Appley House on the edge of Ryde and the Early English church of St Cecilia of 1906-7 was built for them by Edward Goldie with the nuns’ stalls in the south transept. The nuns have stuck to the traditional monastic life of prayer, work and study. They follow a contemplative existence, beautifully sing the daily offices in Gregorian chant and wear the habit. Because of this adherence to their original charism, they are flourishing in ways more liberal communities seem not to be, and the community currently numbers 34 nuns, of whom seven are in the noviciate; the latter number is probably not rivalled by any other order in this country.
St Saviour, Totland Bay (recently listed Grade II) was paid for by the Ward family and designed by that underestimated Lancastrian architect WC Mangan in 1923. The attractive church is essentially a red-brick Early Christian basilica with deep eaves and north-west tower. The interior is spacious and has a certain Art Deco feel. There are colourful stained glass figures of saints. Mangan also built St Patrick, Sandown.
This article is from the December 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
Image caption: The nave of Our Lady of Quarr (Credit: Alex Ramsay Photography, CBCEW)
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