The Story of
From 1539, the Dissolution of Reading Abbey, to 1791
Following the Dissolution of Reading Abbey in 1539 and the anti-Catholic legislation that followed, it became illegal to go to Mass. Priests and others helping them could be executed for treason. The laws against Catholicism were called the Penal Laws and those who refused to accept the Church of England and the English monarch as the Head of the Church were known as recusants.
By the end of the 18th century there were very few Catholics in Reading, maybe only 50 or so. However, many of the large country estates around the town were owned by Catholics. There were the Perkins at Ufton Court, the Blounts at Mapledurham and the Englefields at Whiteknights. We know that various priests visited these places and said Mass secretly, though as the 18th century progressed the Penal Laws were less harshly implemented. Franciscan priests served the Catholics in the area for much of this time: the last, Father Baynham, was first a chaplain at Whiteknights and subsequently moved to Ufton Court.
In 1791 the Catholic Relief Act was passed. This removed most of the penalties for practising the Catholic faith and it became legal for Catholics to have their own chapels. Father Baynham was one of the first to obtain permission to have a chapel in the area, closely followed by the Blounts at Mapledurham House
1791 – 1817 The Reading Mission
Although Mass had been said intermittently by Fr Baynham in Reading before 1791, the first chapel was in Finch’s Buildings, also sometimes known as Lady Vachel’s House, in Hosier Street. Part of this was acquired by a local Catholic family, the Smarts. This family owned the leading local newspaper, The Reading Mercury, and its members were well known and respected in the town.With the outbreak of revolution in France and the expulsion of the Catholic clergy under pain of death by the new French republican government, many thousands of French clergy fled to England.
1802 – 1817 The Founder of our Parish: François Longuet
Among the hundreds of French priests who came to Reading as exiles during the French Revolution was a young student from the seminary of Caen, in Normandy. His name was François Longuet and he was the youngest of ten children of a prosperous farmer.
His elder brother, Louis, was ordained when François was only ten and was murdered by a revolutionary mob in Paris in 1792.François arrived in Portsmouth late in that year or early in 1793. Records show that he stayed in Portsmouth for a short time but then we know nothing of his movements for ten years, except that he was ordained somewhere in England.
François had definitely arrived in Reading by 1802. He came to join the small community of French priests who lived in Finch’s Buildings. Most of the other French priests in Reading, who had been living in the house on Castle Hill, had by this time returned to France, where Napoleon was allowing limited rights to the Church. Unlike the other priests François spoke very good English. The entries in the Register of Baptisms, Deaths and Marriages show that he spelt his name Francis.
From letters between him and the Vicar Apostolic for the London District, Bishop Poynter, we know that he earned his living by teaching French and Latin in Reading and nearby towns. In 1809 he asked the Bishop for permission to build a chapel for the Catholic community in Reading. He found a plot of land near to where Reading Museum now stands and, with his own savings, the help of the Bishop and of some wealthy Catholics, was able to borrow enough money to buy a house and build his chapel, which he named The Chapel of the Resurrection. This was opened in 1811 and by 1813 Longuet reported that he had 174 parishioners. The first wedding was celebrated in the chapel in June 1813. Tradition has it that it was where the pub called The Rising Sun was built later in 19th century.
Francis seems to have loved teaching the children of his parish. In one letter Bishop Poynter wrote that he was delighted by how well they knew their catechism. Father Longuet was helped in his work by at least two nuns. We know that he regularly visited the prison where he met men who were about to be transported to Australia. He also visited sick members of the parish and occasionally said Mass in their houses. By 1813 he was able to report that 37 people had‘received the Pascal communion’ at the Easter services and that eleven children, two men and three women had been baptised. Although his main work was to build up the Catholic community he worked closely with ministers of other Christian churches, for example in raising funds to build the Reading Dispensary, the forerunner of the Royal Berkshire Hospital.
Gradually Francis was able to report that he had paid off more of the debt. Despite his work in the parish he continued to teach French and Latin in the neighbourhood. It was while he was riding back from teaching in Wallingford, where he had been paid for half a year’s work, that he was mugged and murdered on what is now the Oxford Road, near where the barracks now stand. This was on the night of February the 12th, 1817. His horribly mutilated body was found by a postman the next morning. The money had all been taken but not his watch or his ring, engraved with the motto For God and the King.
Despite a long police investigation and generous offers of a reward for information, the culprit was never found. Francis’ congregation, and the whole town of Reading, were devastated and many people attended his funeral. He was buried in the chapel he had founded. When St. James’ Church was opened in 1840 his coffin was placedin front of the high altar and a brass plaque commemorating Father Longuet was placed over it. You can still see it when you come to communion.
In a letter he wrote to a Protestant clergyman in Wallingford, shortly before he was murdered, Francis wrote, I daily pray for the prosperity of the good and generous England; may She and her children be blessed to the end of the world. We should all thank God for this remarkable man and all he did for the people of Reading, especially this weekend which marks the 195th anniversary of his death.
The Chapel of the Resurrection from 1817 to 1840
After Father Longuet’s death the ‘Mission’, as parishes were then called, was run by Father Bowland. Another important chapel for Reading’s Catholics was at Bulmershe Lodge. Records show that as many as 150 people were attending each of the chapels every week. Woodley Lodge was owned by a wealthy Catholic, James Wheble, who was related by marriage to the Earls of Shrewsbury. In 1837 Wheble became High Sheriff of Berkshire. This followed the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, which all but completed the process of repealing the anti-Catholic Penal Laws dating back to the Reformation.
James Wheble had already bought much of the ancient Abbey land with a view to excavating it for historical research. He announced that he would donate a section of this land for the purpose of building a new Catholic church to replace the Chapel of the Resurrection; moreover he would undertake the expense of building it. A small amount had already been raised by Fr Bowland.
1840 St James’ Church
So it came about that St James Catholic Church, situated within the ruins of the pre-Reformation Reading Abbey, was built between 1837 and 1840. The building was the first church design of Augustus Welby Pugin, a convert to Catholicism, whose works include many churches and public buildings, including the Houses of Parliament. The original Church and some of the prominent features inside it were constructed partly out of stones from the Abbey ruins.
The foundation stone was laid on 14th December, 1837, and the Church was opened on 5th August 1840 by Bishop Thomas Griffiths. The building, as you see it today, was developed in three phases.
Pugin’s original Norman-Romanesque style building comprised the Nave as far as where today you will see the glass-panelled double doors. There was possibly a narthex, or porch running the width of the church, in front of this, with the font placed within the body of the church.
There are records that indicate that, at the west end, there was an organ /choir loft. At the east end of the church there was a semi-circular Sanctuary and the altar. There was no ambulatory in the apse. The original Sacristy was through an arched doorway, just in front of the Sanctuary, where today you will find the shrine in the Lady Chapel. There were solid walls in the nave and Sanctuary reaching up to the windows which you can still see at the clerestory (upper) level.
Extensions to St James’ Church
In 1926 the congregation had increased to such an extent that it was decided to extend the church. An aisle to the south of the nave, an ambulatory to the rear of the altar and a new enlarged sacristy were added and the west entrance was extended by the creation of a porch or narthex. The architect was Wilfrid Mangan who also designed English Martyrs church, Tilehurst.
In 1962, the north aisle, dedicated to the Sacred Heart, was added. Instead of archways, such as those created during the 1920s, load-bearing beams on octagonal pillars now support the upper north wall of the Church. The essential structure of the building, as you see it today, was complete.
There were alterations to the church in the 1970s in order to conform with the liturgical recommendations of the Second Vatican Council. The Altar was brought forward, the Pulpit was remodelled to become the new Lectern, and the Baptismal Font was relocated at the front of the north aisle, which is dedicated to the Sacred Heart.
St. James Church, founded as the centre of an Apostolic mission in the London District, is now one parish with St William of York in Upper Redlands Road and part of the new Pastoral Area of Reading.
To find out more about the fascinating history of the Catholic community in Reading see:
– Reformation, Revolution and Rebirth
– The Story of the Return of Catholicism to Reading and the Founding of St James’ Parish.
Published by Scallop Shell Press and written by John and Lindsay Mullaney, this book gives a more detailed account of the history of Catholicism in Reading and the founding of St. James’ Church and may be obtained from the church repository
To find out more about the inside of St James Church see our 360 Church View and Virtual Tour Page (Coming soon).
ST WILLIAM OF YORK
The church was built in 1906 by Father William le Grave, a retired Army chaplain who had volunteered to do missionary work. It was the third Catholic church to be built in the Reading area since the Reformation, after the Chapel of the Resurrection and St James. Father le Grave was a proud Yorkshireman, which may explain the dedication to St William of York.
Father le Grave built the church with his own money, plus generous help from the wealthy Lonergan family.
For many years from 1880 onwards the Lonergans had provided access to their private chapel to local Catholics, but at that time it was well outside the built up area of Reading. In contrast St William of York was well sited to serve a densely built area.
The annex on the east side of St William of York was built in 1958 thanks to another generous benefactor, Miss Muriel Bowman-Smith.
“Our love should not be just words and talk.
It must be true love, which shows itself in action”
1 John 3:18