THE REVIVAL OF Catholicism in Colchester is linked to war. The large number of Irish soldiers stationed in the town before and after the Napoleonic campaigns of the early 19th century established the need for a Catholic Mission. Ironically it would he French priests, the refugees of Revolution, who would meet that need.
On the 1 June 1795, Abbe Baudre, exvicaire of Hambye, Diocese of Coutances in Normandy, sought the permission of Bishop Douglass to hear Confession in the town; "I promised to give you an account of the Catholique people of this town," he wrote. "They are gentle folks of Dublin. They are very good Christians and very pious people. One of the ladies had the honour to address a letter to your Lordship last Easter in order that I might hear their Confession. Now I beseech your Lordship to tell me if you understand only for paschal time or for one year, because these gentle folks are desirous to receive the Holy of holies oftener than once yearly." The longest serving French priest in Colchester was Abbe Amand Benard, Vicar of Grainville. He kept the first surviving baptismal register at Colchester mainly the children of the serving Irish soldiers. The first entry was recorded on 14 April 1812, the last on 2 February 1817.
With the advent of peace in 1816, the barracks at Colchester were demolished and the army withdrew. Colchester was a staunchly Protestant town; in 1825 the Borough's MP, Sir George Henry, resigned his seat in protest at the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act. The end of conflict and the departure of Catholic soldiers had brought old prejudices and bigotry home to roost. For 20 years there was no permanent Catholic priest; baptism and marriage records are lost.
On 3 November 1837, the Catholic church of St James the Greater (as it was then known) opened for worship. The Chelmsford Chronicle referred gently to the "novelty of the event", the Essex Standard in contrast observed that the church had been dedicated "to the idolatries of the Roman Church... with all the mummeries with
which the Mother of Harlots leads many captive".
The demotion from James the Greater to James the Less seems to have occurred in error over the last 100 years. St Helen, the mother of Constantine, the first Christian Emperor, is claimed as a local saint. Legend says she was born in Essex, though Asia Minor seems more likely.
"It was quite an act of faith to build this church," says parish priest Fr James Hawes. In the 19th century, conscious of antiCatholic sentiment in the town, the church was simply decorated, the walls left bare. Later years saw the apse extended and side aisles added but in essence that same simplicity prevails. The space is square and open with wide arches and solid smooth columns, pale grey walls and plain, simple pews. Two beautiful Pugin windows of St James and St John grace the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. They came to the church via the Museum of Stained Glass in Ely. The colour is wonderful. Visitors to the Sacred Heart church in Henley will recognise the same vibrant blues and red, the richness and beauty of Pugin's design. "They are lovely especially in the morning when the sun comes up through the east," says Fr Hawes. "The westering sun in the evening picks out the colour of the windows in the choir loft."
The church was reordered in 1987. When the High Altar was removed, the stone and alabaster were reused for the priest's chair and side altars. A grand pulpit, of marble and sombre saints, was left in situ. To the side,
parishioners kneel in prayer before the statue of Our Lady flickering candles illuminating the dark recesses of the chapel.
Fr Hawes has been parish priest here for five years: "Second time round," he laughs "In 1956 this was my first appointment as a callow curate". Bishop McMahon was also a curate here in the 1960s. Good ground breaking territory. "I have two assistants, Fr Bernard Soley and Fr Jean Laurent Marie. Fr Alex Ebo, from Ghana, is also in residence he has been studying at the local university". Kay the housekeeper, "the jewel in our crown", produces culinary delights fur the household; they are rightly appreciative and over lunch we discuss the woes of a parish without a cook. Fast food and home delivery seem to be the order of the day.
What plans does Fr Hawes have for this parish? "Moving towards the millennium, I want to establish a Ministry of Welcome. Although we flatter ourselves that we are a friendly church, we need to be conscious of the visitors, newcomers and the large number of overseas students who worship here during term time. We will establish teams at all Masses to keep an eye out for people who are new helping them to find their way".
From the presbytery window you can see the old Roman wall of Colchester the remains of a keep face the door. When they built the extension to the presbytery they found bones in the back yard. "Just outside the city walls this site must have been a Roman burial ground". The bare ruins of St Botolph's the Augustinian Priory stand a short walk from the church: "The priory was badly damaged in the siege of 1648 a group of maverick Royalists took the town during the Civil War and held it for three months before they had to capitulate. Two of the leaders were shot in the castle park".
I leave Colchester in warm October sunshine. The flint and red brick arches of the priory echo now to bird song; grass carpets the nave and aisles. It is fitting that this Catholic church should have been built on Priory Street a remembrance of the past, a proclamation of the future.