A tribute to the life and work of Brian Torode
The Church and Priory was designed by Charles Hansom. The Church of Our Lady of the Annunciation was built for the Passionists between 1846 and 1849. The Priory, which was built for the Dominican Friars between 1850 and 1853, was demolished in 1971.
Richard Barton for the Clifton Catholic Voice, August 1984
At the end of 1813, at the age of twenty-one, an Italian, born of peasant stock, received a private revelation that he was to be a missionary in England. It wasn’t until Guy Fawkes’ Day 1840 that Blessed Dominic Barberi arrived in England and on March 25th, 1846, he celebrated his first Mass in the Woodchester valley, south of Stroud, in Gloucestershire.
Blessed Dominic came to Woodchester at the invitation of William Leigh who was a recent convert to the Catholic Faith. The Tablet of March 28, reported: “Fr Dominic, Superior of the Passionists, had left Aston, in Staffordshire, to establish a temporary monastery at Northfields, in Avening parish. This house Mr Leigh hired off a dissenting minister for two years, who little suspected that his place was to be a receptacle for the professors of Popery.”
Three years later Bishop Ullathorne of the Midland District, Bishop Hendren of the Western District, Bishop, (later Cardinal) Wiseman, and Father Ignatius Spencer (ancester of the (late) Princess of Wales) converged on Woodchester for the consecration and opening of a Noble church, dedicated to Our Lady of the Annunciation.
Dr Oliver wrote of the ceremony: “The dazzling beauty of the pontifical and clerical robes – the gravity of the assistants – the melody of the vocal and instrumental music – the dignified eloquence of Bishop Wiseman and the silent attention of the immense multitude, inspired awe and devotional feeling.”
The only sadness on the day was the death of Blessed Dominic at the Railway Hotel, Reading, whilst making his way to Woodchester. Blessed Dominic had watched the church rise and only a few months beforehand he had seen his face in the fresco of the Last Judgement, above the chancel arch, and he wrote to Mr Leigh saying, “O what an ugly figure.”
This beautiful church designed by Charles Hansom of Clifton, possibly using earlier plans made by Augustus Welby Pugin, became the church of the later Dominican Priory, demolished in 1971. The church was the scene for the reception of Robert Hugh Benson, son of an Archbishop of Canterbury, numerous ordinations and even the consecration of a bishop.
The church has been the spiritual home of Matthew Bridges, the hymnologist, Capes, sometime editor of The Rambler and members of the Wilberforce family. For over a hundred years this church was the cradle of the English Dominican Province.
Now this fine church, described by John Betjeman as, “certainly too stately a church to be allowed to decay”, has corrugated iron cemented on its Cotswold tile roof and is under real threat of imminent demolition.
The success of the members of the Dominican Order in establishing parishes at Stroud, Nympsfield and Dursley as well as a chapel-of-ease at nearby Minchinhampton (Box) has meant that the Priory parish is now small. Father Bernard Jarvis O.P., serves the parish alone and the small school struggles for survival.
In 1979 the parishioners raised £4,000 to renovate the church but now they are faced with an estimate of £70,000 just for immediate repairs. What a dilemma for a parish to face! Many would wish to see the church bulldozed into the ground but others will cherish these stones as a witness to the Catholic Faith, a local landmark or as just a masterpiece of early Gothic revival architecture.
The church is built of local stone and is a long building terminating in a noble east window. At the junction of the nave, on the north side, rises a graceful belfry, crowned with a short well-proportioned spire-like top. There are beautiful furnishings which include two recumbent effigies and a fine stone rood screen.
Woodchester Priory is undoubtedly the finest Roman Catholic church in Gloucestershire and it is one of the best examples of its type in the south west. It seems sad that flaking stone and dry rot are being allowed to bring about its ruination.
Twenty miles away, another priory church, again designed by Charles Hansom, faces financial problems. Here a majestic spire rises two hundred feet above the Regency terraces of Cheltenham Spa. St Gregory’s is a Benedictine church served by the monks of Douai Abbey in Berkshire. The spire, which dates from 1864, has been declared unsafe and it is now in need of urgent repairs. St Gregory’s has over 3,000 parishioners and its appeal has been well-supported by the Department of the Environment. However, it is a financial burden for the parish.
Perhaps there is an ever-increasing need for a national fund to support medieval Catholic churches, recusant chapels and Victorian masterpieces. Until such time that this becomes a reality the Dominican Prior of Woodchester, Father Bernard Jarvis, and the Benedictine Prior of Cheltenham, Father James Donovan, need every support.
At Woodchester the writing is on the wall and only prayer, active campaigning and generous financial help can preserve this national monument for its two hundred parishioners – and for posterity.
An Appeal was launched in May 1986 which resulted in a thorough restoration of the exterior of the church: