Welcome to the west of England. The railway line from Exeter St. David’s in Devon runs along the Exe Estuary — dozens of little sailing boats scurrying about on the water, with a green sweep of hills on the opposite bank — and then, somewhere around Dawlish Warren, it’s suddenly alongside the open sea, the waves occasionally splashing against the side of the train.
Father David Lashbrooke is a priest in the nearby town of Torquay, and he is making history. He is a priest of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham (overseeing the flock of Anglicans who have come into full communion with the Catholic Church, thanks to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI). He and his flock — with the goodwill of the local Methodists — have taken over a local Methodist church and are turning it into the home of their flourishing Catholic community and a center for mission outreach.
“Keep the flame of the Christian faith burning in this place,” said the Methodist minister, as he handed a lighted candle to Father Lashbrooke at the Methodists’ last service in the church.
And the flame is indeed burning brightly. The former Chelston Methodist Church is about to be renamed as the Church of Our Lady of Walsingham and St. Cuthbert Mayne (a local man and one of the 40 English martyrs who died for their Catholic faith between 1535 and 1679), and it is already home to a good-sized congregation at a sung Mass each Sunday.
The building is a fine one and includes not only the church itself — with a choir loft, solid, attractive pews (complete with old-fashioned umbrella stands on alternate ends) and some good wooden paneling — but also ancillary rooms. There is a vestry, various offices and a large former schoolroom that can be converted into accommodations for a priest. Alongside, a modern parish hall fronts a wide, sloping green lawn.
“We can do it, and we see this as a beacon, an encouragement for others, too,” said Father Lashbrooke. He left a large, flourishing Anglican parish church — its great tower dominates the town — when he said “Yes” to the offer made by Pope Benedict XVI to come into full communion with the Catholic Church. Some 40 parishioners came too, and, initially, all worshipped in the local Catholic church.
But the vision for the ordinariate was always that the full patrimony of the Anglican heritage would be brought to the Catholic Church — music, liturgy, customs and traditions — and that can only happen when there are flourishing ordinariate parishes in their own buildings.
“We’re building for the future. It’s not about me; it’s about the next priest and the one after that,” said Father Lashbrooke. “And the key thing is mission: [reaching] the vast numbers of people who do not know Christ, who do not enter a church from one year’s end to the next.”
The building is in good condition, although a scarred wall by the choir loft is evidence of bomb damage in World War II. Torquay was badly bombed as the Luftwaffe was heading for the major naval port of Plymouth: “Local people say that there were all sorts of other secret installations that they were trying to hit, too,” Father Lashbrooke explained. “And, of course, all of this area was a mustering place for D-Day — all part of the local history.”
A large number of American servicemen were based here during World War II, and some have come back to visit and share memories over the years.
Here, there is an Anglican “feel” to the ordinariate community. Father Lashbrooke is married (per the allowances for Anglican priests coming into the Church), and his wife, Lizzie, plays the music at the church. There is good singing, and the liturgy is dignified and traditional in style.
And there is plenty of activity: The group runs a thriving charity shop in the town, which has become a center where the lonely can find neighborly friendship and young people find an outlet for volunteer service.
Devon has long been assumed to have very few Catholics, following the crushing of the Catholic “Western Rising” in the 17th century. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, its tradition was strongly evangelical, with many different chapels competing with one another, all drawing good numbers. Today, like the rest of Britain, it is in large measure irreligious, but Father Lashbrooke sees this as a call to mission.
“We don’t need to be told how few Catholics there are; that’s not the point,” he said emphatically. “The task ahead is about mission: about bringing the message of Christ. That’s what matters.”
And the Methodists won’t be forgotten: There is a strong desire to honor the years of worship that they gave to God in the church, and mementos from those days are being carefully kept and displayed: a “cradle roll” listing the children baptized each year and brass plates commemorating various gifts and anniversaries.
Torquay is holiday territory for many, as Devon is famous for its glorious countryside and beautiful beaches. The famous Great Western Railway line goes up through Exter and Newton Abbot to London’s Paddington Station and has ferried thousands, probably millions, of holidaymakers over the years. There is more than 1,000 years of recorded history here: Torquay is mentioned in the Domesday Book, and there was a great Praemonstratensian Abbey at Torre until it was destroyed under Henry VIII.
But the new Catholic community needs help, badly.
Acquiring the church is costing £150,000 ($228,441); under British law, a registered charity such as the Methodists must sell all property at a standard commercial rate. This is a substantial sum for a small community to find. Anyone wanting to help can learn more at Ordinariate.org.uk.
And for anyone with a sense of history, this is an opportunity to share in a beautiful new adventure.
Joanna Bogle, an author and
EWTN host, writes from London.
Photo courtesy of Flickr.com/photos/ukordinariate/.