Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Hundred Years of Faith at St Mary's Preston Park

Recently past and present priests and parishioners of St Mary’s, Preston Park, led by Bishop Kieran Conry, celebrated the centenary of the opening of their church.

It’s well known that the Prince of Wales’ patronage transformed the obscure fishing village of Brighthelmstone into the fashionable Georgian resort of Brighton. During that same period, when the Prince secretly married Maria Fitzherbert, the church of St John the Baptist was built in Kemp Town, thanks to the support of Mrs Fitzherbert. From this church were founded all the Catholic parishes in this part of Sussex, including St Mary’s, Preston Park.

St Mary’s parish had its origins in the Lourdes Convent School in Withdean. The school was opened in 1904 by five Sisters of Charity of Nevers who fled to England from France where religious schools were being closed as a result of a new wave of anti-clericalism. The then Bishop of Southwark allowed the nuns to establish their convent, provided they admitted the public to their chapel. Initially about 20 people attended Mass there.

In 1906, as the school grew and Mass attendances increased, the first resident chaplain was appointed: Fr Frederick Hopper. Soon, overcrowding in the convent chapel led Fr Hopper to look for a site on which to build a church. Land from the Stanford estate was bought and plans were drawn up.

Fr Hopper was a man of vision. He foresaw that, one day, his church would be in the centre of Brighton. Raising the money to build it was a huge problem but, in an answer to prayer, Fr Hopper was promised the funding by Mrs Catherine Broderick. She and her husband were wealthy, but they had known great poverty as children in Ireland. Having no children themselves, they donated much of their money to the Church.

Fr Hopper wanted his church to be a landmark for travellers coming into Brighton by road or rail. That meant building a tower. Mrs Broderick did not agree with him: she thought the church needed a proper sanctuary first, so she refused to continue funding it. Despite the huge financial problems caused by this rift, the church was opened in 1912 with a tower but no permanent altar. However, it wasn’t until 1979 that the building was completed, both inside and out, and a priests’ house built next door.

The generosity of another benefactor, Cyril Cassidy, a greatly loved parishioner who died suddenly in 2004, enabled the current parish priest, Canon Oliver Heaney, to propose the building of a pastoral centre for the use of the parish and the wider community. The Cassidy Centre was opened by Bishop Conry in2007.

From its small beginnings in the convent chapel, St Mary’s now has about 400 parishioners who worship regularly and serve the needs of local and wider community in various ways. The Lourdes Convent closed in 2011, but the nuns’ example of dedicated service lives on in the work of the parish today.

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