Jack Robbins marvels at what one English priest achieved with just 12
0 ur current church closures and parish clusterings contrast starkly with the positive and spirited expansion and evangelisation that characterised the ministry of many founding fathers of our parishes. One such man was Fr John Warmoll, a 19th-century Anglican clergyman convert who, though faced with endless worries and difficulties, never admitted defeat or considered a retreat.
Late on Christmas Eve 1863 the newly ordained Fr Warmoll arrived in Bedford, alone and unnoticed. with £2 in his pocket, a borrowed silver watch and a leather portmanteau containing all his possessions. Bishop Amherst of Northampton had sent him "to ascertaM the possibility of establishing a mission in the county town of Bedford". Though both Fr Warmoll and his friends thought the venture a forlorn hope, he nevertheless obeyed his bishop unhesitatingly. There were then fewer than 100 Catholics in the whole county, and only one priest and one chapel, in Shefford.
The young priest celebrated his three Christmas Masses, the first known Masses in Bedford since the Reformation, in a humble cottage on the eastern outskirts of the town, the home of the Tandy family. The congregations totalled 14 out of a population of 14,000; yet it was perhaps astonishing that after nearly three centuries of persecution there were even 14 brave souls still remaining true to their Faith.
Fr Warmoll was born Sayer Priestley Warrnoll in Norwich in 1830, the eldest of 10 children of a Church of England clergyman. His many notable forebears in East Anglia included, significantly, several clerics, Catholic. Anglican and Presbyterian, besides civic dignitaries, yeoman farmers, doctors and the Presbyterian minister and scientist Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen. Sayer became in turn a master at Hurstpierpoint School, a graduate of Lincoln College, Oxford, an Anglican curate in Wootton Wawen, Warwickshire, and in Pimlico, London, and finally a Catholic priest after studying at the English College, Rome. He adopted the name John instead of Sayer at his (conditional) baptism, administered by Canon (later Cardinal) Manning.
Setting up the Bedford Mission was a daunting task. Since neither Fr Warmoll nor his little flock had any funds or chapel, he placed the first of hundreds of begging letters in the three main Catholic journals. The resultant small initial donations he applied to the needs of the mission and to a fund for a permanent chapel. Meanwhile, he rented rooms above a wash house near the prison, converting two bedrooms into a small chapel; he himself lived in great poverty in a tiny, barely furnished attic room.
At long last, in 1865, he purchased a piece of ground adjoining Brereton Road, and after two more years begging for donations was able to build a substantial presbytery and chapel schoolroom. His huge mission then encompassed the entire county, for Shefford was temporarily closed down that year. His Sunday congregations, swelled by converts and interested non-Catholics. packed the new chapel, and during the week the schoolchildren filled also the presbytery rooms. Fr Warmoll (now a canon) continued begging for his next project, an imposing church, already designed by the architect Gilbert Blount. Resolved that the new sanctuary and its furnishings should be provided by children, he distributed signed donations booklets, to which about 2,000 children, rich and poor, from many countries responded. Their names were all recorded by Canon Warmoll in a book discovered under a slab beneath the high altar in 1986.
The main portion of the splendid new church was opened in 1874, with High Mass celebrated by Bishop Amherst, attended by diocesan clergy and parishioners.
Still Canon Warmoll did not rest. Since classes in the infant and junior schools were overflowing into the sacristy, his begging letters appealed for new accommodation. Within only two years a large, elegant school in Priory Street was opened. This was a great achievement, but it incurred a large and worrying debt. The canon's exhausting labours and constant financial worries took their toll, culminating in a fatal heart attack one Saturday in 1885, in the confessional. He was only 55. The Requiem Mass was attended by parishioners in great distress, by almost all the diocesan clergy, and by many non-Catholic clergy and townsfolk. Astonishingly, a third of the population of Bedford lined the streets and packed the cemetery, an extraordinary manifestation of the fruit of Canon Warmoll's untiring ecumenical endeavours.
Within the short space of 22 years he had built up a thriving parish community and painstakingly raised huge funds for the splendid parish buildings, laying the foundations for the network of parishes and schools that exist in Bedford today.
This holy and remarkable founder of the Bedford Mission left us a wonderful example: he preached a Gospel of love love of God and of neighbour and he followed this himself with all his heart, his soul and his strength.
John Priestley Warmoll Apostle of Bedford: His Life, Times and Family by Jack Robbins is available from Amazon .co .uk