Patrick Tansey of St Joseph and Mary, St Peter Port, follows the fortunes of Catholics in Guernsey
THE HISTORY of the Catholic Church in Guernsey is as interesting as the Channel Islands themselves; islands unique as a unit, but also as separate entities. Throughout the Middle Ages they were part of the French diocese of Coutances, and it was only the Reformation which severed that link, when Elizabeth transferred them to the Anglican diocese of Winchester.
However, the Reformation in Guernsey look its own course. Catholicism was rejected, but, to Elizabeth's dismay, so was her idea of Church Government. The island adopted the Presbyterian form of worship and discipline, and Guernsey became a truly Protestant island.
It was not until 1802 that resident Catholic priests returned, and only then with considerable difficulty. The French Revolution caused large numbers of French refugees to seek shelter in the Channel Islands, and two priests, Frs Navet and Messier, came to Guernsey from Jersey. They began to minister quietly to Catholics on the island, their first recorded act being the burial of Thomas Ash, an Irish sailor, on November 6, 1802.
When the island officials realised who they were, it is said that they were ordered to leave. With them would have gone the beginnings of the Catholic renaissance in Guernsey, and the parish of Si Joseph and St Mary would not be celebrating this August the centenary of the consecration of its church. It was only the prompt action of Fr Navel which prevented so great a calamity.
Ile approached the Lieutenant-Governor, Sir John Doyle, who had Catholic troops under his command, and who realised the need for a Catholic chaplain. Sir John granted the priests permission to stay, and the work of restoring the Faith hegan.
The remarkable struggle of these early years is documented in an invaluable account of the formation of the parish kept by the Sisters of Mercy at Cordier Hill Convent. Couched in beautifully neat hand-writing by an unknown author, it is a gem of local Church history. It details the care of a succession of priests for the many Irish and French Catholics living and working on the island, and the constant concern of English bishops for the growth of the Faith in the area administered by Guernsey.
Fr Navel died in 1836, but ten years later the foundation-stone of the parish church was laid after land had been secured on Cordier Hill, overlooking the main town of St Peter Port.
In 1847, the arrival of French and Irish workers on the nearby island of Alderney caused the parish priest to travel there to administer the Sacraments. This growth was crowned in July, 1851, when Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman visited Guernsey to open the parish church.
Theevent was ignored by the local press, but is attested to by a plaque in the porch of the church_ Designed by Pugin, in the Gothic style, the church was constructed of stone. Although somewhat altered in recent years, a large part of it still retains the grace of Pugin's remarkable artistic ability.
There are particularly fine examples of stained-glass from the studio of Leveque in Beauvais, and the Sacred Heart Altar is of particular interest. The debt was paid by 1885, so enabling Bishop John Vertue, the first Bishop of Portsmouth, to consecrate it on 27th August of that year, the first church to be consecrated in the new diocese.
The history of the years leading up to that consecration Is replete with interesting anecdotes. The anti-Catholic prejudice experienced by Cardinal Wiseman continued, so that when, in 1869, the Sisters of Mercy came to Guernsey they were obliged to wear ordinary clothes.
A year earlier, Fr William Foran, a Guernseyman, came to the island immediately after ordination to serve as curate. When, in 1873, Bishop Dannell of Southwark made him parish priest, the bishop remarked that on his return to Southwark the older priests would no doubt complain about a new priest receiving a parish so quickly! It was, however, a wise appointment.
Four years later, Fr Foran stopped to chat with a bricklayer, who informed him of land for sale at Delancey, an area to the north desperately in need of a church. It is related that Fr Foran received immediate legal advice, bought the property, and in 1879 opened the chapel of Our Lady, Star of the Sea.
Today, this is the church of a separate parish, with its own primary school. Alderney also is now a separate parish. Both are served hy the Sacred Heart Fathers of Betharram.
The period after the consecration of the church was also one of rapid growth, resulting from the rise of virulent anil-Catholicism in France. Al the beginning of the 20th Century, exiled French Salesians came to Guernsey, and established a chapel in honour of St Francis de Sales in the Vale.
Salesians also took charge of St Magloire chapel, which served Bretons living in the north-west of the island, and of the church of St Yves, which is beside Guernsey Airport. Sadly, the Salesians have departed, and the three chapels are now served by St Joseph and St Mary.
Fr Foran died in 1916, to be followed as parish priest by another remarkable Guernseyman, Thomas Grant Hickey. It was this priest who steered the Catholic Church in the islands through the period of the German Occupation from July, 1940, to May, 1945.
Respected by Catholic and non-Catholic, aware of the rich 'cultural traditions of his home, he was referred to by the press as 'a very great gentleman' when he
died in 1952. The time had passed when the Cathoic Church was ignored RS part of the life of the island.
Under its present parish priest, Mgr Canon Raymond Lawrence, Episcopal Vicar for the Channel Islands, the parish plays its full part in the rich life of Guernsey. Clergy and parishioners are called upon to present the living reality of Christ through local radio and television and other gatherings.
The plans to close the chapels of St Francis de Sales and St Magloire, and to open a new church for the growing area at Grandes Rocques, suggests a new phase in the continuing growth of Catholicism in Guernsey.
As the centenary of the consecration is celebrated, a building of stone and of timber will echo to the sound of the living stones of the Church, as they gather round Bishop Anthony Emery to worship the Trinity.