HISTORY OF THE THREE CHURCHES
ST MARYS ST ELIZABETHS ST VINCENTS
Brief History of the Locality
St. Mary’s Dunstable,
Fr Kieran Magovern CM
Prehistoric burial mounds and earthworks on the chalk hills around Dunstable bear witness to its importance since earliest times. The town sits in a gap through the Chiltern Hills on the site of a small Roman settlement called Durocobrivis, which was established at crossroads formed by the Roman Watling Street and the prehistoric Icknield Way.
The site was abandoned in Saxon times but it was here that Henry I founded an Augustinian priory in 1131, built a palace and established a new market town. Dunstable became a place of considerable importance, hosting regular royal visits and jousting tournaments. It was at the priory in the 16th century, that the annulment of Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine of Aragon was pronounced, followed by the dissolution of the priory itself soon afterwards. Part of the original priory church, with its fine Norman nave and magnificent west front, survives as the town's C of E parish church.
Dunstable picked itself up from the ruins of the Reformation and again became a busy town with the advent of stagecoach travel. Several coaching inns remain from this prosperous period, which itself declined with the coming of the railway age and the consequent shift of the straw-plait and hat making industries from Dunstable to Luton with its main line railway station.
Once again Dunstable rode out its misfortunes and, at the turn of the century, began to welcome new industries including printing and engineering and, most notably, the motor trade. Today, many companies with household names have premises on the town's modern industrial estates.
St. Mary’s Parish
Brief history of the three Churches
In 1927 there were about 60 practising Catholics in Dunstable and a committee was formed to petition the Bishop of Northampton to have Mass said there. At that time Dunstable was in the care of Father O’Connor of Luton and the majority of the Dunstable Catholics had to take a train at 8:06 am on Sunday mornings to attend Mass.
The Bishop gave the green light for a Mass centre to be opened and he invited Spanish Vincentians who had a house in Potters Bar to take charge of the venture. The first Mass centre was a house in Regent Street which lasted for a few months until the present property in West Street was purchased (it had been a rectory) in November 1927. Two of the rooms of the old rectory were converted into an oratory, which served the Dunstable Catholics until 1936 when the “Old Church”, which is now part of the Parish Social Centre, was opened.
In 1957 the Spanish Vincentians handed over the parish to their confreres of the Irish Province and Maurice Regis O’Neill C.M. was appointed Parish Priest. Dunstable was developing as a centre for employment, particularly in the motor industry and, the 1936 building was not big enough to accommodate the growing number of Catholics. In 1961 work was begun on the site of the present Church. The foundation stone was laid on 29th April 1962 and St. Mary’s Church formally blessed and opened by Bishop Leo T. Parker, Bishop of Northampton on 15th March 1964. The local newspaper of the following week described the event,which was attended by representatives of the civic and ecclesiastical life of the area as “a great day despite the snow”.
The Church cost £100,000. On the day it was blessed £60,000 had already been raised by the parishioners. In another newspaper report the cost of the Church was put at £85,000. Perhaps the additional £15,000 was the cost of the presbytery.The building is 100 feet in diameter and 40 feet high; there is a slender spire on the roof 35 feet high.The capacity of the building is 850 seated although the report of the opening said the 1,200 people were packed into it for the occasion.
St. Vincent’s Church
The second church of the parish St. Vincent’s is situated in Houghton Regis . The village was expanded greatly in the 1960’s as part of the London over-spill and has since continued to grow as a centre of population. Amongst Catholics there is a strong sense of community. This is due to the natural camaraderie of the first inhabitants who came from close-knit London communities such as the East End and Paddington. The first resident priests and their associates, the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, further developed this spirit. Another factor was the rudimentary Mass centres that preceded the purpose built church, school and social centre of the late 1970’s.
St. Elizabeth’s Church
The third church in the parish is St. Elizabeth’s Toddington. This is a community of about 60 regular Mass goers. The little chapel is a converted stable, part of a property bequeathed to the parish by a wealthy convert, by the name of Miss Elizabeth Hopwood. There is a tangible sense of ownership in this village community and a great loyalty to their little church.There are two Social Centres in the Parish; one at St. Mary’s the other at St. Vincent’s.
MORE CHURCH HISTORY
History of St Marys Church
When the first church was built in Dunstable it was dedicated to the Immaculate Conception in the name of, ‘Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal’, although it became know by the name of ‘St.Mary’s’. When the new church was built the parish was re-dedicated in the name of ‘Our Lady Immaculate’, continuing the patronage of the Immaculate Conception. The church community however, retained the usage of the name, ‘St. Mary’s. As a point of interest, for some reason, the diocesan directory never listed the first church in its pages, then when the new church was built the directory listed the church, not by it’s Patronage title, but by the name of ‘St. Mary’. In this Parish of St. Mary’s, which has grown from one church community to now three, one parish, one Parish Priest, the one patron for all, This new church of ours, the mother church of the whole parish, had a specially carved statue made in honour of the patron, made in the image of the Immaculate Conception as portrayed on the Miraculous Medal, thereby continuing it’s long association with The Immaculate Conception, the statue, confirming the patronage name of this parish of St. Mary. This unique statue, our very own, gives us an opportunity to portray Our Blessed Lady our patron, to all the people of parish, in a way that has never been done before.
By reproducing this photographic image, we are able to provide a reminder to everyone of how we are associated with Her. To that end, a small prayer card has been produced showing the image of the statue, and it is intended that each parishioner should be provided with this prayer card, free. Also it is intended to produce an A4 size picture to be made available, but this would need to be sold as a means towards covering costs. So the endorsement by the Parish Council, its members, on behalf of the whole parish is hoped for. ‘Go tell everyone’. And as Our blessed Mother herself said. “And so you see me intimately associated with my Son Jesus. I co-operate with Him in his work of salvation…”. There is much to be gained by enhancing the image of the Parish Patron and no doubt, Jesus Christ will be impressed by this additional honour paid to His Mother. Raphael de Lusignan. 12th May 2008. The quotation of Our Lady, is taken from the book of the Marian Movement of Priest’s, ‘To the Priest’s Our Lady’s Beloved Sons’.
First hand account from a previous parishioner on St Marys church history (Mary Pope)
My parents (Fred and Marie Couldwell) married in the old St Mary's. My grandparents (maternal) had lived in Dunstable in the days before there was a Catholic church and had been obliged to make their way to Luton for Sunday Mass. Even though they subsequently moved to Luton and were living in the town centre at the time, they retained an affection for Dunstable and often visited and my parents' wedding took place in the old church – Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal in (I think) 1940.
Our parents began married life in Luton but moved to Dunstable in 1958 and lived on West Street on the opposite side to the Church and up a bit (! number 131). With them lived my mother's sister, Auntie Gertie (Plover) – a daily communicant at Our Lady's. There used to be a 6 a.m. workers' mass and Auntie attended every day before catching the bus to Luton for work. The priests in those days were not very organised. Almost every day she slipped home prior to catching her bus to fetch them tea, milk, sugar, bread, eggs or a combination thereof. They were always running out of things!
I was born in 1959 and baptised in the old church. My earliest memories of this church show why the new one was necessary. My overwhelming impression is of the over-crowding. Of course, I didn't understand the" whys and wherefores" at the time – the coming of the M1 making Dunstable more commutable or the advent of the "London Over-spill" – people moving out of the Capital as post-war slum-clearance took place and coming to places like
Dunstable to address a labour shortage, with packages offered of a job at Vauxhall or similar and a council house on a new estate. However, the mass numbers (perhaps "mass" in both senses of the word?) were incredible. We had five masses every Sunday – four in the morning and one in the evening and all were over-subscribed. The 09:30 mass, designated the "Children's Mass" was the one to which I was most frequently taken. The pews were entirely taken up with elderly people and women, including mothers with very young children. All but the most elderly men stood in the side-aisles and at the back and even hung out of the confessionals. Children sat on the floor at the front, directly below the altar. It was a rite of passage to be considered old enough to be trusted to sit at the front unsupervised. Mrs Kirby's twin teenage daughters used to like to visit our house and play with the little girl (me!) and I can remember the Sunday when they begged my mother to be allowed to take me to the front with them, promising her that they would look after me. I was in seventh heaven at the prospect. My mother agreed and I can remember sitting there quietly, hardly daring to breathe in case I wasn't allowed to join them again but my behaviour must have passed muster as accompanying them to the front became a regular occurrence. Going to communion was a real performance because of the over-crowding. It was a real "domino effect"; when one moved, all had to move!
Every week, my family used to come out of Mass by the old church's side door to the left of the altar to see how the new church was coming on. In my mind's eye, I can still see it in its unfinished state – it seemed enormous! The model of the new church which, I think, still lives in the church porch, was on display throughout the building with a collection box for offerings towards its costs beside it. Lucky number cards (with a perforated edge on three sides to open them) were on sale outside mass each Sunday. In good weather, they were sold from a table with a green baize top under a tree in the grounds (not sure if any trees remain there now?). In bad weather, the vendors would hover on the church steps as we left mass. I can remember my Auntie Pat and Uncle Bernard who lived in Luton but regularly used to attend mass in Dunstable, asking me to pick out their card "so that it will be lucky" and struggling to lift one off the baize table with little gloved hands! All manner of fund-raising went on from the traditional Christmas Bazaar to cake stalls on the old Dunstable street market in front of the Town Hall. My mother's speciality was home-made lemon-curd. She must have made pounds of the stuff! In fact, I'm convinced that St Mary's was built on number-cards and lemon-curd!
There was an old church hall to the right as you face the church. I think that you can still see its outline on the ground – you certainly could in my time in Dunstable. I can remember, on one occasion, being lifted up in the doorway to see the first communion children in their finery, having their celebration breakfast. I can also remember my elder sister, Helen, taking me to a nativity play performed by older children. I think that we must have arrived late as we had to stand up at the back of the hall and I couldn't see. I begged to be allowed to see baby Jesus and Helen assured me that we could go to the front to see him at the play's end. She was true to her word but there was no baby – not even a swaddled doll. All that the manger contained was a light bulb someone had rigged up to give the impression of a halo. I was so disappointed.
There is one real point of interest to these anniversary celebrations which I cannot claim as a memory but have been told of since. The Parish Priest, Fr O'Neill, came to our house and asked my mother to write the parchment scroll which goes behind the foundation stone of every Catholic Church and tells its story. I know that the parchment cost the earth and she made a mistake on the first attempt which meant that Fr O'Neill had to provide a further piece but she successfully completed it at the second attempt and I like to know that this little piece of her remains in the Church – particularly since she died less than four years after its opening.
I have been blessed with fairly exceptional memory and one event I can definitely remember is being taken to an open-air mass when the foundation stone was laid. We all had to access the site via the lane leading up to the windmill where the sea scouts meet – the only time I was ever there. I can remember being lifted up to see the Bishop. Some years ago, Auntie Pat died and when we were clearing her flat, I found a book about the building of the new church and discovered, to my surprise, that this special mass took place two months short of my third birthday. I have this book still but it is buried in the loft. I hope that someone else has provided a copy for the anniversary.
In the event, the Grand Opening was a huge anti-climax for me! Having witnessed the new church rise from nothing from my earliest times, I was ill on the day and couldn't go! Sadly, this meant that my mother missed out as well which I know must have been a great disappointment to her. I was not very poorly but coming to the end of whatever it was and under ordinary circumstances may have been allowed out but of course, the day was bitter. Auntie Gertie went and picked herself out a seat which she occupied ever afterwards! She noted that the Mayor and other civic dignitaries had been shown to seats close to the front and just to the left of the main aisle and decided that those must be the best in the house and would suit her very well! My father also went in his St John's Ambulance Service first-aider role as he often did on church occasions. All I can really remember of the day was the photos hung up for ages in the church porch. These were not very enlightening, comprising of a sea of umbrellas and very little else!
I can remember loving to gaze on the crib at Christmas and learning the Stations of the Cross in Lent – a devotion I have loved ever since. I made my first confession, first communion and confirmation in St Mary's; attended religious instruction prior to school on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays (those good ladies Mrs Kirby and Mrs Walklate working through the penny Catechism between the ages of five and seven; thereafter Fr Regan who I think invented blu-tack. Certainly he was the first person I ever saw use it when he showed us lovely posters of Bible stories); went to youth groups, discos and prayer groups; sang in the choir; read at Mass and have a wealth of lovely memories of bazaars and Corpus Christi processions. I notice that they have now been replaced but the steps in front of the church originally comprised of red, green and yellow slabs in an irregular pattern. When we were waiting for instruction or Sunday school to begin, the game was to pick a colour and see if you could jump across to the other side without stepping on a different colour – no mean feat given the size of the slabs and the relative size of the children. I don't think I ever managed it!
I can remember a fancy dress competition held on the presbytery lawn when I was about seven. I went as "Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary" – no comments, please! I can't remember who won but I was terrified by one costume – a much bigger and older child who went as Anne Boleyn "with her head tucked underneath her arm". She set quite a few little ones crying!
There were some characters in St Mary's too. I remember always being a little afraid of the black-robed brothers from Kensworth House who used to bring their charges from St Columba's across on occasions. Of course, as a teenager, they took us for Sunday school and I learned that they were quite benign really! Who can forget Mr (Alf) Duncan who worked so tirelessly for the Church, Joe Scanlon taking up the collection, my Dad waving his SVP collection bag, or a certain choir mistress who for weddings wore a wonderful 1960s orange hat which on one occasion fell off just as we sang, "As we cast our crowns before thee...."? I also remember the "trendy" masses of the early 1970s with the McKay brothers – Billy and Mick – on drums and guitar respectively.
St Mary's was quite a melting pot in those days as now. Predominantly Irish with quite a few Scots, there was also a goodly number of Poles and Ukranians – particularly prior to the opening of the Polish church which incorporates the stained glass windows from the old St Mary's. Growing up, most of my friends were Italian and I am still in touch with several of them.
Another good link for history