Canon Fitzgerald tells the story of heroism in dangerous days
'r HE stirring story of Catholicism in the East End of London the early glories, the decline amidst violent persecution, and the modern revival-is told in the second bulletin of the Schools' Committee of the Council of Citizens of East London.
with a statement that will Canon Thomas Fitzgerald begins astonish many people. "Before the Reformation," he writes, "Stepney had a greater concentration of monasteries and convents than any other lima round London.
," In Portsoken there was the convent of the Poor Clams or Minoresses (hence the ' Minories') and the Priory of the Holy Trinity at Aid gate. To the East there was the Cistercian Abbey at Stratford on the further bank of the river Lea and the Convent of „St. Leonard at Bromley.
"Thc Hospital of St. Mary Spittal at Spitalfields and the Almshouses known as St. Katherine's Hospital near the Tower, cared for the sick and aged.
"At the Reformation all these except the last were suppressed, and their lands made over to the Crown or to the Lords of the local Manors.
"St. Katherine's Hospital, however, avoided suppression because it was in the dower of the Queens of England, and belonged, at the time, to Anne Boleyn.
"The 'grounds in' which the monasteries had stood retained until the 19th century some of the privileges which had possessed in medieval times, and one of the additional reasons why the Huguenots and the early Jewish settlers chose Spitalfields was because, as it formed the grounds of the old Holy Trinity and Si. Mary's, they were free from the restrictions on trading and the practising of skilled crafts imposed by the city guilds on aliens.'
"The Portsoken area itself maintained some of its privileges till 1894, when it was forbidden to celebrate marriages without banns which had made it almost as popular with eloping couples as Gretna Green.
'It is worth noting that Dean Colet, for seventeen years vicar of St Dunstan's and the founder of St. Paul's School, although his criticism of some of the failings of the monasteries and his eagerness for the 'new learning' undoubtedly influenced the Reform movement, himself died in perfect union with the Mother Church, and actually contemplated joining the Cistercian order shortly before his death.
" At the succession of Elizabeth in 1558 so indifferent had the turmoil and bloodshed of the previous twenty years made the rank and file of the clergy that only 200 of them in the whole country had to he ' deprived' for refusal to acknowledge the Act of Supremacy by which the Queen constituted herself head of the Church of England-although in Mary's reign they had at least passively acquiesced in the reenforcement of the Catholic Faith.
"One of these deprived clergy was Tristram Swadell, vicar of St. Dunstan's, ejected in 1562, and thus the last Catholic priest to administer the old parish of Stepney. .
"The first 150 years of the Reformation were dark indeed for Catholicism. But on the edge of East London some sort of Catholic life continued underground there was Brinkley's Popish press, closed in 1581, in East Ham; there was Lord Vaux of Harrowden's country residence in Hackney described in the latter half of the 16th century as a centre of 'Jesuit intrigue '-a cliché applied indiscriminately throughout this period to any meeting in which Catholics or their sympathisers took part.
" At the end of the 17th century in the returns made to the House of Lords at the time of the Titus Oates agitation the names of 100 ' Popish Recusants' are included as inhabitants of Hackney, Stepney and Whitechapel.
" But there were no Embassy chapels in East London such as were tolerated (or half tolerated) in the City for' the use of the staffs of foreign embassies, and it is doubtful whether regular services were said here until the Irish dock labourers. builders and coal
heavers, who had been settling in Limehouse, Wapping and Spitalfields as the demand for heavy labour increased with the growth of the docks, had reached sufficient numbers to pay for a priest of their own.
" 1736 is probably the date of the
first secret ' Mass-House' . . . founded at a little ale-house in Shoreditch by a group of Irish building labourers.
"It was provided with a trap-door through which members of the congregation could escape when the premises were raided.
"Sometime later a chapel was erected at Virginia Street which disguised itself as a chapel and hospital for Portuguese sailors so that it could thus shelter under the protection of the King of Portugal (there is a legend that its founder was a Portuguese Jew, Emanuel but little evidence has been adduced for this).
" The notorious informer Payne, a local carpenter, tried to claim £100 for informing on the priest in charge of the chapel, Fr. James Webb.
"Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice of England, who had been very distressed previously at having to sentence a priest to imprisonment for life, said he would require evidence that the ordination of Fr. Webb had been seen by witnesses and refused to convict.
"This precedent virtually killed the 'Act as well as the trade of informer. Because of his ' Papist' sympathies (or more truly his sense of humanity and justice) Lord Mansfield was destined to have his house burned in the Gordon Riots some years later.
" Another • Mass House' was opened in Nightingale Lane.near the Tower some time before 1764. This was established in a public house called-the Royal Exchange.
" Schools were opened in Red Lion Street, Wapping, in 1779. in rooms which were the property of the well-known Dundee Lodge of Freemasons. Only one Catholic school in London can claim earlier descent.
"It was because of all this activity that East London was one of the main targets of the Gordon Rioters in 1780-at least as long as they restricted their activities to a ' NoPopery ' campaign.
"Set on by Lord George Gordon and the Protestant League to protest against the removal of the ban on Catholic worship-a bill for which was then before Parliament they burnt all the chapels in East London as well as the Red Lion Street schools.
"The priest in charge of the Virginia Street Chapel. Fr. Michael Coen, notified the Home Secretary that he could at an hour's notice assemble three or four thousand stalwart riverside la bo u rocs who would oppose the rioters. The Home Secretary persuaded him, however, to keep his flock pacified with an offer that if the chapel was damaged
Government would make restit
" He kept his word; completely destroyed, the chapel was rebuilt with compensation granted by the Government.
"This was the last violent persecution which the Catholics had to sailer, although there were angry meetings under the joint auspices of the Anglican and Free Churches in 1850 on the occasion of Cardinal Wiseman's appointment to the Archbishopric of Westminster when parish meetings sent resolutions to the Queen condemning the alarming measures estopted by the Pope with a view to establishing throughout England a Roman Catholic hierarchy.'
" After the penal laws were lifted in 1780 the number of Catholics in
East London estimated by 1Fluike at the time to be about 5000rapidly increased. In less than 50 years the number had risen to about 30,000 and churches had to he built to replace the small chapels and ' Mass Houses.'
" A church was built in Johnson Street (now the Johnson Street Infants' Department) called St. Patrick and Si. Austin, and this was opened on Christmas Eve, 1849.
'' It could not accommodate the congregation even when a large marquee was erected alongside, and in 1856 the great church of SS. Mary and Michael's (sometimes given the flattering name of the Cathedral of East London) was opened by Cardinal Wiseman assisted by the Bishops of Nottingham and Northampton.
"Eor some time the parish of SS. Mary and Michael's stretched as far iis Southend and was the largest Catholic parish in and around London.
" English Martyrs,' Tower Hill, replaced the ' Mass House.' Nightingale Lane. A convert lady has left an account of how she was conducted secretly to the spot and received into the Church by Bishop C.halloner. . .
"St. Patrick-in-the-East, Wapping_ was built in 1880 adjoining the site of the workhouse altaeked by Dickens in The Uncommercial Traveller.
"Many other churches were built. before the end of the century, S.S. Mary and Joseph, Poplar, taking the place of the small mission started in 1818 which had served as presbytery, chapel and school; two churches in Bow.
"The Holy Name and Our Lady and St. Catherine of Siena: Guardian Angels, Mile End. founded by Lady Mary Howard. the only Catholic church in inner London built in the late Gothic style.
"St. Anne's, Spitalfields, was built in 1855 from designs by one of Pugin's pupils and has always been served by the Marist Fathers. Before the church was built the Catholic silk weavers in the district were ministered to by a French priest, who used a railway arch in Shoreditch as a chapel."