St Birinus, probably a monk of St Andrew’s Benedictine Monastery on the Caelian Hill in Rome, was ordered by Pope Honorius I to England in 634 AD to convert the West Saxons. A year later he landed at Southampton. He succeeded in converting Cynegils, the West Saxon king. The latter gave St Birinus Dorchester-upon-Thames, as his episcopal see. St Birinus died in 650 AD. Some 30 years later, his remains were moved to Winchester Cathedral. His gold and silver shrine was destroyed at the Reformation in the 16th century.
In 1072 AD the see of Dorchester-upon-Thames was transferred to Lincoln. Thirty-five years later, the Abbey of St Peter and St Paul was founded on the site of the cathedral for the benefit of the Arrouaisian Order of Austin Canons Regular. It was richly endowed out of the lands of the former bishopric. A substantial Gothic church was built. It has a richly decorated sanctuary with a famous carved Jesse Tree window; it also boasts a medieval lead font. The abbey was dissolved peacefully in 1534. The building was fortunately made over to the town without demolition. It is now under the care of the Church of England.
The Catholic faith was kept alive in Dorchester from the 1570s onwards and was a centre of recusancy. A revived Catholic mission in Dorchester probably started in the 1790s when the Davey family of yeomen farmers sheltered several emigré French clergy. The mission was served from Oxford from 1798. From c1832 the Rev Robert Newsham was in charge of the Oxford mission. In 1846 John Davey commissioned William Wardell to build a new chapel/church.
William Wardell (1823-1899) studied under AWN Pugin. In 1843 he converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism adopting as his motto “Inveni quod quaesivi” (“I have found what I sought”). He remained extremely devout. He built a number of other notable Catholic churches in England besides St Birinus. Among these were Our Lady Star of the Sea, Greenwich (1846-51), Our Immaculate Lady of Victories, Clapham (1848-51) and St Mary and St Michael, Tower Hamlets (1852-56). In 1858 he emigrated with his family to Australia, whose climate he felt would benefit his poor health. He was responsible, inter alia, for the design and building of St Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral, Melbourne and St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral, Sydney.
The chapel in Gothic Revival 14th-century style was opened and blessed on 21 August 1849 by William Bernard Ullathorne OSB, Vicar Apostolic of the Central District (1849-50) and subsequently Bishop of Birmingham from 1850 to 1888, after the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in the former year. Ullathorne reputedly described the building as “a perfect gem”.
St Birinus is situated behind a grey stone wall which also encloses the handsome late-18th- and early-19th-century presbytery, Bridge House, formerly the dower house of the Davey family; a large manicured lawn runs down to the adjacent River Thame with a view of the old road bridge across the river.
The church is built of Littlemore limestone with Caen stone dressings and stone slated of white Stonesfield stone. The church consists of three-bay nave, one-bay chancel, north vestry and south porch. The west wall overlooking the street has a canopied standing figure of St Birinus supported by an angel corble. The porch has a richly moulded doorway below a canopied statue of the Virgin and Child. There is a tall bellcote over the chancel arch with a traceried opening.
The furnishings and stained glass in the church were the joint gift of George Davey and Father Robert Newsham, who died in 1859. The latter gave the fine but plain rood screen. The church was never large and seats about 70 people in individual chairs. The mid-19th-century glass in the east window is by Ward and Nixon and depicts the Nativity, Christ in Majesty and the Crucifixion. There is one later stained glass window in the nave. The chancel has a painted and gilded ceiling (now gloriously restored) with an elaborate cornice. The background of the panels is blue with gilded stars. The red roundels, with gilt surrounds, depict symbols of the papacy, Our Lady, the Eucharist, St Thomas of Canterbury and St Birinus. There are elaborately canopied recesses for a piscina and sedilia in the south wall.
In October 1994, Father John Osman was made parish priest of St Birinus by the late Maurice Couve de Murville, then Archbishop of Birmingham. Father John, formerly an Anglican clergyman who was educated at Kelham in Nottinghamshire, was received into the Church by Dom Columba Cary-Elwes OSB, titular Prior of Durham, at Ampleforth Abbey in October 1971. After studying in Rome, Father John was ordained priest in 1975. He was Catholic Chaplain at Fisher House in Cambridge from 1988 to 1994.
After extensive exterior and interior restoration, Father John has since created one of the most beautiful recent interiors of a Catholic church in England, at great expense of his time and of his money (a fortunate legacy enabled him to devote much of it towards the church). His inspiration has been very much Sir Ninian Comper (1864-1960), the great Anglo-Catholic church restorer and architect much admired by Sir John Betjeman.
Father John’s first act in the church was to erect a beautiful “English” high altar with four gilded candle-carrying angels on black and white striped riddel posts holding curtains. The tabernacle stands as it should in the middle of the altar with six candles, three either side. Above the tabernacle stands a blue and gilt throne with a silver crucifix, surmounted by a gilt pelican feeding its young.
The great glory of the present church is the exquisitely polychromed rood screen. The panels at the bottom of the screen show four shields displaying the arms of the two dioceses of Winchester and Lincoln, of St Edward the Confessor and of St Thomas of Canterbury. The rest of the Gothic screen is painted blue and gold with the posts in striped black and white. At the top the words in gold on a red background are “CHRISTUS FACTUS EST OBEDIENS USQUE AD MORTEM”. Above a gilt angel corbel are to be found a rood of Christ crucified with Our Lady and St John either side.
Betjeman, in quoting Comper, says a church by its beauty and atmosphere should bring you to your knees. This does.
The initial stage of restoration of church interior and exterior over 20 years cost some £300,000. The church boasts a wonderful choral tradition under the distinguished composer and conductor Ryan Wigglesworth and the soprano Sophie Bevan but has hitherto lacked a pipe organ. A 13.5-rank instrument has been commissioned from Bernard Aubertin, one of the world’s leading organ builders. It will shortly be installed. It will cost £330,000 of which £270,000 has so far been raised. Donations will be gratefully received.
The main 11am Mass on Sunday is a Missa Cantata celebrated according to 1962 Missal. This Mass continues with the generous permission of the Archbishop of Birmingham.
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