The story of St Mary of the Angels in Brownshill, Gloucestershire, is one of the triumph of faith and community.
The church, looked after by the charity Friends of Friendless Churches, of which I’m the director, was built in 1937. But to understand its significance, we have to go back more than a decade, when two young women, Bertha Kessler and Katherine Hudson, set up a Catholic community in the tumbling Gloucestershire countryside.
Kessler and Hudson had been memb-ers of the First Aid Nursing Auxiliary in the Great War. The shock and stress of war took their toll and by 1920 both women were under psychiatric care. During their recovery, the two attended chapel at a Congregational Church. These services, a liturgical mixture, affected them deeply. Under the minist-ry of Dr Orchard, the women recalled that “after a 40-minute evangelical add-ress by a Baptist minister, a curtain was drawn back, and in three minutes all traces of a Congregational church van-ished, and we were gazing at a Catholic altar ablaze with forty candles … A procession of choristers entered from the sanctuary; the rear being brought up by Dr Orchard in a splendid garment for the service of ‘Benediction’.”
Dr Orchard’s ecumenically-minded services became highly popular during the First World War. Orchard also be-lieved that psychiatry without faith was not adequate for the treatment of mental illness. He persuaded Kessler and Hud-son to go on a retreat to Switzerland for five months, where they had a transformative experience of Ignatian spirituality. On their return, the two women dev-oted their lives to the ministry of healing – psychological care which would nurt-ure the faith of those who came to them.
In 1923, in a small cottage in Gloucestershire, they took in their first patient: a 23-year-old woman in the grip of mental breakdown. Five years later, with more patients in their care, the two women purchased a rambling Victorian mansion in the secluded tranquillity of Stroud’s Golden Valley, Brownshill. They renamed it Templewood Home of Rest.
The ladies’ spiritual quests brought them in contact with local priests: Fr Vincent McNabb of Woodchester Priory, and Fr Philip Darley, chaplain to the Dominican community of St Rose of Lima in Stroud. In 1934, Darley received both women into the Catholic church. (Dr Orchard converted to Catholicism in 1932, and was ordained in 1935.)
Two years after they were welcomed into the Catholic Church, Hudson and Kessler received their first male patient at Templewood, a Benedictine priest, and two Dominicans the next year. It was becoming a popular destination; in 1938, it gained a resident chaplain, Fr Darley. Such was the growth of the Templewood Home of Rest that the Bishop of Clifton felt they should have their own chapel.
Kessler and Hudson used their own meagre savings to build St Mary of the Angels on Brownshill overlooking the Golden Valley. Despite their small means, they went to the best: WD Caröe, who was architect to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners and to a number of cathedrals. By the time Hudson and Kessler approached Caröe, he was 73. He died a year after St Mary’s consecration in 1937.
The church mixes styles with aband-on. In the Buildings of England volume for Gloucestershire, Alan Brookes describes St Mary’s as “Romanesque with a hint of Baroque”. The view to the east is dominated by an exquisite Neo-Norman chancel arch and to the west there is a gallery with echoes of Swedish design. The east and west windows are filled with bold Modernist stained glass by Scottish artist Douglas Strachan.
In 1937, 18 male patients were received, and 12 women, all of whom worshipped at St Mary’s church. Soon, the women established a convent and gathered a Catholic community around them. They were devoted to caring for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder – or shell-shock, as it would have been known at the time. They strove “to make each house a home where the members find support, help and consolation in their distress”, with the Church at the centre of their community.
But this peaceful and devout community was soon to be rocked to its core. On March 14, 1946 an RAF Lancaster bomber, KB-705, took off from Aston Down aerodrome, near Stroud, Gloucestershire, on a training flight. As the plane climbed away from the runway, all four engines failed, totally and simultaneously. It plunged towards the ground, and crashed into the Templewood Home of Rest, which burst into flames and exploded.
Both members of the crew were killed instantly. The roof and upper storey of Templewood were utterly destroyed. Templewood stood just a few yards from the church of St Mary of the Angels – which was totally unscathed. Amazingly – miraculously? – no one in the house was injured, let alone killed.
Kessler and Hudson died within three weeks of each other in 1963. They are buried side-by-side under simple crosses in the Brownshill churchyard.
Over the next 50 years, the commun-ity at Brownshill declined. By 1981 it was in a parlous financial state, and the owners were forced to sell off properties. In 2011, the decision was made that St Mary of the Angels church was no longer needed for regular worship. The church was closed. Its future hung in the balance.
Showing remarkable determination, the villagers of Brownshill purchased the church from the diocese. They did not want to lose it. They approached Friends of Friendless Churches to ask that the church be taken into its care for perpetual protection. The community’s passion and devotion, and their grit in the face of adversity, helped persuade the charity to adopt St Mary’s. Today, the church is open for those who wish to use it for quiet prayer and reflection, or to admire its astonishing architecture. Village fêtes, pop-up festivals, safari suppers, concerts and art exhibitions have all been held within its walls.
A recent visitor said of St Mary’s: “God is so good, as He leads us all on pilgrimage to those special places where His work has been done before and His voice continues to call us on today.”