Comment and Features

A diocese forged in war

Bishop Williams at the centenary Mass (Mazur/

Last week Cardinal Vincent Nichols preached at a Mass in Brentwood Cathedral celebrating the centenary of the diocese. It was on March 22, 1917, that the Diocese of Essex was established when Pope Benedict XV, at the request of Cardinal Francis Bourne, separated the county from the Archdiocese of Westminster.

Four months later, on July 20, the Diocese of Brentwood – comprising not only Essex, but also parts of east London – was officially erected. It forms part of the Province of Westminster and is the only diocese to have been created from an area formerly belonging to the archdiocese itself.

In 1917 many people (including most of the English bishops) considered the establishment of a new diocese inopportune, not least because the nation was plunged into “the war to end all wars”. Indeed, World War I still had a year to run.

Nevertheless, Mgr Bernard Ward, the first Bishop of Brentwood, who was also a distinguished seminary rector and ecclesiastical historian, informed Cardinal Bourne that he thought his new territory could indeed be “worked up into a good diocese”.

Ward was a railway enthusiast and he pressed for Brentwood to be named as the permanent episcopal see because of its good transport links. Both Chelmsford and Ilford had been suggested, but the new bishop knew that from Brentwood, which is one station London-ward from Shenfield junction, he could reach most of his diocese.

When on parish visitations, he frequently arrived at the local station on the footplate of the locomotive, having been allowed to drive it; and when writing circulars to his clergy, he gave them the times of the most convenient trains by which they might reach a particular event. On Maundy Thursday he even arranged for the Holy Oils to be delivered by train to outlying parishes where the priest had been unable to travel to the cathedral.

Bishop Ward died unexpectedly in 1920, after less than three years in office. His successor was Bishop Arthur Doubleday (1920-1951), another seminary rector and the first South African-born priest to become a bishop in the history of the Church.

However, despite the significant growth over which he presided in the inter-war period, Bishop Doubleday grew increasingly frail at a time when the ravages of World War II – especially the bombing of east London – and the pressing needs of the post-war period, with its construction of new towns and London overspill estates, meant that a more dynamic hand was needed at the helm. It had even been suggested, in the late 1940s, that the diocese would have to be suppressed and Brentwood reabsorbed into Westminster.

Providentially, Pope Pius XII sent the dynamic Fr George Andrew Beck to assist the ailing Bishop Doubleday. He would serve as a coadjutor from 1948 to 1951 and as Bishop of Brentwood from 1951 to 1955. Bishop Beck, an Assumptionist Father and the leading Catholic educationalist of his day, went on to become Bishop of Salford and Archbishop of Liverpool.

His achievements, especially in fostering vocations to the priesthood and opening many new parishes and schools, were consolidated under his successors, Bishops Bernard Patrick Wall (1955-1969) and Patrick Casey (1969-1979).

In more recent times further important changes and developments took place under the diocese’s longest-serving ordinary, Bishop Thomas McMahon (1980-2014), to date the only Brentwood priest to have been appointed to lead the diocese. His successor, Bishop Alan Williams, is a Marist Father and formerly rector of the National Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham.

Like his predecessors, he has responsibility for a diocese of great diversity: the London boroughs of Barking and Dagenham, Havering, Newham, Redbridge and Waltham Forest, with a Catholic population comprising people from every continent on earth; towns ancient and modern; seaside resorts; widespread rural parishes comprising dozens of villages; and schools, religious houses, and chaplaincies in hospitals, prisons and universities.

In 1917 there were 40,000 Catholics in the diocese in 37 parishes, served by 84 priests, diocesan and Religious. A century later those figures stand at 253,000 Catholics, 87 parishes and 118 priests. In 1917 there were 30 convents; today there are 42. A century ago, the diocese had 46 schools of all types; in 2017, there are 92.

Four priests of Brentwood have gone on to serve as bishops in other English and Welsh dioceses in England and Wales: Cardinal John Carmel Heenan (Leeds, Liverpool and Westminster); and Bishops John Petit (Menevia), Brian Foley (Lancaster) and Christopher Budd (Plymouth).

Like all dioceses, Brentwood faces many challenges, not least the need to attract many more candidates for the priesthood. A new initiative, Stewards of the Gospel, has been launched by Bishop Williams as a response to the necessary task of planning for the future of the diocese, spiritually, pastorally and economically. Each parish has appointed a steward who, together with his or her fellow stewards from other parishes, the bishop and the clergy, is working to ensure that decisions will be made with as wide a consultation as possible.

In that sense the work continues in order to ensure that Bishop Ward’s prediction that Brentwood could be “worked up into a good diocese” holds true today just as it did a century ago.

Fr Stewart Foster is Brentwood’s diocesan archivist. The diocese has published a 110-page souvenir booklet, The Diocese of Brentwood: 100 Years in Pictures. To purchase a copy, write a cheque for £9 to “BRCDT” and send it to Centenary Booklet, Brentwood Diocesan Archives, Cathedral House, Ingrave Road, Brentwood, Essex CM15 8AT