Here is a short history of Our Lady Help of Christians in Folkestone:
1840's - 1900
As the Catholic population of Folkestone
grew, mainly as a result of the influx of Catholic workers who arrive from
Ireland to build the London to Dover railway line, it became clear that there
was need for a Catholic place of worship. During the earlier years, the Mass
was celebrated in the private houses.
Around 1860 a building, which had earlier
served as an office for Mr. Hart, a lawyer, was purchased and converted into a
chapel. The building stood on the south side of Martello Street and the tiny
chapel was dedicated to St. John the Evangelist.
The St John chapel was indeed small,
accommodating about sixty persons, half of them had to stand. The little
building also served as the first Catholic school in Folkestone, the sanctuary
being screened off from the body of the chapel for the purpose.
As the size of the Catholic community was
rapidly outgrowing the capacity of the tiny chapel, some time in 1869 a
construction of a new chapel commenced. The opening service at the new building
took place on Sunday 31 January 1870. Once again, an extension to the chapel
was screened off and used as a schoolroom.
Plans for a New Church
In 1874, Bishop Danell purchased a plot of
land in Folkestone and in 1883 his successor, Bishop Coffin, visited Fr Cahill
to discuss the possibility of building a new church on the site. Between 1880
and 1884 different sites were considered, including one, which was to become
Kingsnorth Gardens in 1927. Furthermore, proposals were put to Lord Radnor by
the Diocesan authorities to exchange the plot for another in West Folkestone
but Lord Radnor did not appear to have been very enthusiastic and the matter
In 1885 the firm plans were made to
construct a church in the site at Townsend.
The new Church
In the 1880s, Townsend was a rapidly
developing area, and the local authorities were anxious to improve the width of
what had by then become Guildhall Street. At a meeting of the General Purposes
Committee on 9 August 1886, it was enquired of Mr. Pledge what his clients, the
Trustees of the Roman Catholic Church, intended to do about the three old
cottages which stood there. He replied that they were ready to pull them down
when the necessity arose, and would be willing to give up a portion of the land
for widening the street.
However, things were not destined to run
smoothly for a number of reasons. Fr Dennan had wanted to employ Mr. Walters as
Architect but the Diocesan authorities ruled otherwise and Mr. Leonard Aloysius
Scott Stokes was finally engaged. In August 1888 the work of constructing the
new church had begun. By the summer of 1889 all was ready.
The outside of the building presented an
imposing appearance. It was said of it in the 'Kentish Gazette' on 23 July
"The church is a substantial building
in the early Gothic style. It is built of local red bricks with Bath-stone
dressings and has two towers. In the space between the towers is a very
handsome Gothic window, one of the main features of the building. The wall
above - like the towers - has a parapet battlement in stone and is surmounted
by a gable with a stone cross at the apex. On the left, and recessed from the
Church, is the Presbytery in the same style of architecture, and glazed in
leaded lights. The doors - external and internal - are of oak." There were
some assertions that the new church opened on 21 June 1889 but no evidence
supports this. All recorded reports agree on one date- 17 July 1889.
Opening of the Church
of Our Lady, Help of Christians and St Aloysius, 17 July 1889
The morning of Wednesday 17 July dawned with
clear blue skies and bright sunshine. There had been fears of rain and indeed
the weather was to break later in the day. At one o'clock, the hour appointed
for the playing of a game of cricket between the Corporation and Folkestone
Cricket Club, a thunderstorm broke. 'The rain fell in torrents', said The
'Folkestone Express'. However, the prayers of the Catholic community were
answered and as they gathered outside the new church there was an atmosphere of
'gladness and delight'.
Admission was to be by ticket only - such
tickets being obtained from the Presbytery or from the offices of 'Holbein's
Visitors List' in George Lane. This was a local newspaper run by and owned by
Mr. Ambrose Hans Holbein. Despite being a Protestant, he would appear to have
been sympathetic to the Catholics, and his newspaper was at the very forefront
of the publicity for the opening. Large notices appeared throughout July,
giving full details of the impending event.
At 10.45 the doors were opened to admit the
congregation and all were in their places before the stated deadline of 11.15.
What a sight the interior must have presented to them on the first day.
"In the interior of the Church a
gallery is placed between the two towers, this is approached by a stone
staircase in the turret on the right side of the building. The building, which
is 138 ft. long and 36 ft. wide between the piers, is spanned by a steel roof,
with Principals of Gothic design, and is boarded and paneled on the underside.
The Pulpit is of oak. The Font, which is underneath the gallery at the east end
of the Church, is of Hopton wood stone.
This description, from the 'Kentish Gazette'
July 23 1889 continued; "The main altar is a magnificent piece of
workmanship, carved in oak by Meyer of Munich. Above is a large crucifix and
statue of the Virgin and St John and below in an arcading are paintings
representing St Augustine, St Andrew, St Patrick, St Lawrence and St Francis of
Assisi. On the front of the Altar table is a beautiful reproduction of Da
Vinci's great painting, 'The Last Supper', and on the table is a very massive
and elegant tabernacle."
However, there was one thing that was not
ready for the opening - the organ, which should have graced the chamber - so,
for the occasion, music was to be provided by a large harmonium. The sacristy
was approached under the organ gallery. As an addition to the main altar, the
church had two side altars.
At 11.30 the service started. The seating
accommodation proved hardly adequate and all 750 places had been taken. The
Opening Ceremony included a procession, blessing from the Bishop of Southwark,
High Mass and the performance by a number of choirs. This was followed by an
afternoon reception in the old schoolrooms.
Bibliography The history of the parish is based on the
extracts from: Catholic Folkestone, A Post-Reformation History by
Eammon D. Rooney and Dennis Creighton-Davies
Copyright: Roman Catholic Parish of Our
Lady and St Joseph, Folkestone