Life of Elizabeth, Countess of Clare, – Foundress of St. Mary’s Church, Ryde
written by Peter Clarke
Elizabeth Julia Georgina Burrell was born on the feast of the Annunciation, 25th March, 1793, the third daughter of Peter Burrell, later to be the first Baron Gwydr; her mother, Priscilla was the sister of the last Duke of Ancaster. It was from both parents that she inherited her wealth that was to enable her to give so generously to the Catholic Church in her lifetime. Elizabeth was a determined and dominant lady with firm and decided opinions; a rare attribute for an early nineteenth century English woman.
In 1826 she married John Fitzgibbon, second Earl of Clare (1792-1851) whose father had been Lord Chancellor of Ireland. He was a close friend of the poet, Lord Byron, and was to have a successful diplomatic and military career in the Far East where he became Governor of Bombay. The marriage to Elizabeth Burrelll however was not successful and in 1829 they came to a mutual agreement to separate without any animosity and she moved to the Isle of Wight and set up home at No. 4, Brigstock Terrace, Ryde, in order to be near her brother, Lindsay, a keen sailor who founded the “Royal Victoria Yacht Club” and who was to become a generous benefactor of Holy Trinity Church in Dover Street, Ryde.
In 1840 she set out on a “grand tour of Europe” as was the custom at the time among the gentry and aristocracy. The coming of the railways made travel much easier and she visited several European capitals before ending up in the Eternal city, where the beautiful churches and basilicas that she visited including St. Peter’s helped to develop a deep and profound interest in Catholicism. Among the many priests that she met whilst in Rome was a certain young Irish priest, Fr. Thomas Grant from the English College and it was through him that she was received into the Catholic Church on 7th Sept. 1841. The friendship that she established with Fr. Grant was to last for the next 30 years until his death. A few years later he was appointed Rector of the English College, Rome and when the Hierarchy was restored in England in Sept 1850 by Pope Pius IX, Mgr. Grant was appointed as the first Bishop of Southwark. The Island and the rest of Hampshire at the time was in the Southwark Diocese and the Countess was most generous to the new Bishop with funds for the building of churches in various parts of the new Diocese.
When she returned to Ryde she discovered that there were already two Catholic churches on the Island, at Newport and Cowes, that were built in the 1790s and the Countess had to travel each Sunday to St. Thomas of Canterbury in Newport for Mass. She would often see an old man walking from Ryde to Newport for the Mass in all weather and she was so struck by his faith and determination that she decided in 1844 to ask the Bishop of the London District, Rev. Dr. Thomas Griffiths to send a priest to reside in Ryde. When the Bishop replied that it was necessary for 12 Catholics to reside in a town for a priest to be sent and there were only 8 in Ryde, the Countess promptly dismissed all her household servants replacing them with Catholics, thus achieving the required number. A young priest, Fr. Thomas Richardson, was duly sent and he took up residence in a small villa in Goldsworth Grove where he said Mass for the handful of Catholics that existed. He was the first resident priest to minister in Ryde since the Reformation.
Meanwhile, the Countess was determined to provide Ryde with a Church and purchased a piece of land between the High Street and Warwick St. and engaged a young architect, Joseph Aloysius Hanson of Preston (1803-82) of Hanson cab fame, to design a Church in the English Gothic style. The builder was Mr. Thomas Dashwood of Ryde who used local ragstone and was also engaged by the Countess’ brother, Lindsay, to build Holy Trinity Church in Dover Street. The foundation stone of St. Mary’s which can be seen on the north wall of the sanctuary was laid on 17th Dec. 1844. The west doorway is impressive and profusely ornamented with clustered shafts and rich mouldings. The carved Latin inscription over the archway asks those who enter “to pray for the good estate of the Lady Elizabeth, Countess of Clare, who built this Church under the patronage of St. Mary, in 1845. Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on her.” The church, presbytery and school room cost £18000; a very large sum at the time. The building caused some consternation among the people of Ryde when a “Roman” church of some grandeur quickly appeared in a prominent position in the centre of their town and which was regarded as architecturally superior to any other non Catholic church in Ryde at the time. Gone were the days when Catholic churches such as Newport and Cowes had to be designed like public meeting halls with no bells or steeples. Beneath the Church the crypt contained a small Chapel dedicated to St. Peter (now a mini museum / tea room) in memory of the Apostle’s tomb beneath St. Peter’s in Rome which left such a lasting impression on her when she visited it in 1841. Above the sacristy her own private Chapel dedicated to her Patron, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, was where she heard Mass and made her private devotions. St. Mary’s was one of the first Catholic churches that was permitted to be designed like a real church; yet this was still four years prior to the Restoration of the Hierarchy when it was opened for public worship on Trinity Sunday, 7th June, 1846. The new Rector was Fr. John Telford who was to develop a close working relationship with the Countess over the next 20 years. The church was dedicated to the “Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary for the conversion of sinners” and was often referred to in its early days as St. Marie’s Basilica because of its design and prominence especially when other larger towns and cities in the South did not yet have any sort of church or even a Mass Centre.
The Countess was reconciled with her husband John shortly before his death in 1851 and from then turned her attentions to supporting as many projects that as possible that were instigated by her friend Mgr Thomas Grant, now Bp. of Southwark, who had received her into the Church ten years earlier. He would often spend part of the Summer in Ryde which he used as his “southern base” while he visited churches and chapels along the south coast and he received the Countess’ hospitality whilst he stayed here on the Island. Often she would offer him pieces of her jewelry, which would be sold to raise money for his latest Diocesan project. Bearing this in mind it was not surprising that in her lifetime the Bishop of Southwark consulted her over all priestly appointments to Ryde.
In November 1861 the Countess lost her dear friend and companion, Miss Charlotte Elliot. Whilst making the Stations of the Cross, she collapsed following a heart attack; a fact recorded by the wall plaque adjacent to the third station in St. Mary’s Church. Miss Elliot, an upright and distinguished looking Prussian lady, moved in to No. 5, Brigstock Terrace, next door to the Countess, in 1839. Their friendship grew and she soon moved in with the Countess as her lady Companion. She was a most generous lady especially to the poor and was frequently seen giving bread to those in need. The Countess was distraught at her death and as there was no Catholic cemetery in Ryde at the time, she arranged for Miss Elliot to be buried in the Catholic section of Carisbrooke cemetery within sight of the castle. She determined to remedy this situation and within two years a Catholic section of Ryde cemetery was dedicated. The Countess became somewhat of a recluse after Miss Elliot’s death (similar to Queen Victoria at Osborne after the death of Prince Albert in the same year.) In fact she was said to resemble Queen Victoria in appearance and manner. She was rarely seen in the church after the mid 1860s and would hear Mass from her private chapel above the sacristy which overlooked the sanctuary. She would arrive for Mass with her nephews, nieces and household servants and alight from her carriage in the courtyard at the rear of the church and climb the spiral staircase from the north side of the crypt up to to her chapel above the sacristy. As she advanced in years she would spend longer hours here in prayer and meditation. The chapel had its own altar and tabernacle and was in many ways a “church within a church”.
It was the death of Charlotte Eliot that persuaded the Countess to persuade the local town council to set aside a section of Ryde cemetery for Catholics. By May 1863 the Church was ready to be solemnly consecrated to the glory of God and in honour of the Blessed Virgin by Bp. Grant of Southwark. There were few Catholic churches in the south that had been consecrated by 1863. The following day, 22nd May, the Bishop blessed and dedicated the new Catholic section of Ryde cemetery. The Countess had a 12 foot Celtic Cross erected as a focal point and several graves were set aside for Ryde priests. Two years later, Fr. Telford himself was buried in the cemetery. It was during his last illness that Fr (later Cardinal) John Henry Newman visited St. Mary’s in Sept. 1865 saying Mass in the Church and singing Vespers in the chapel whilst receiving hospitality from the Countess.
The Countess’ generosity knew no bounds. The presbytery and sacristy contain several crucifixes, candlesticks and paintings given to the priests by the Countess. In October 1861 her niece Elizabeth Lloyd Anstruther, whom she looked upon as her daughter, became a Catholic (aged 21) and was baptised by Fr. Telford at St. Mary’s. The Countess heard from Bishop Grant that there was a French priest working in Croydon, Fr. Alphonse David, having great financial difficulties as he strove to provide a suitable Church for the growing Catholic population. She therefore encouraged her niece to come to the aid of this poor parish and she donated £2000 to assist with the building of a church in West Croydon designed by Edward Welby Pugin. The Countess also made a financial contribution and at her request the church was dedicated to “Our Lady of Reparation”. A few years later Elizabeth Lloyd Anstruther entered the Benedictine Convent at Colwich.
The Countess also gave funds for the building of the Catholic Church at Ventnor and it was at her suggestion that Our Lady should be included in the patronal title; hence the dedication of “Our Lady and St. Wilfrid”. During her life all Island Catholic churches benefitted in some way from her generosity. She also paid the salaries of the teachers at St. Mary’s School where the children would sing songs / hymns for the Countess whenever she visited. Two years later she built and endowed the Dominican Convent at Carisbrooke, contributing £12000 towards the cost. The site on the hill opposite the famous Castle was chosen as it was as near as possible to the Catholic section of the cemetery where Miss Charlotte Elliot was buried and it was here beside her beloved friend that she decided was to be her final resting place where the nuns could pray daily for the repose of her soul. She always had a desire to join the Dominicans, but instead she brought the Order to the Island from Hurst Green, Stoneyhurst in Staffordshire. Bishop Grant laid the foundation stone on the feast of St. Dominic 1865 and the Convent (known later as Carisbrooke Priory) was dedicated, like the Church at West Croydon, to “Our Lady of Reparation” and opened in November 1866 with the first Mass celebrated on 13th December. This Dominican Priory was the first religious Order to be established on the Island in the Post-Reformation era.
The Countess of Clare died on the feast of St. Catherine of Sienna, 30th April, 1879 (aged 86.) Her Requiem Mass was sung by the Bishop James Danell of Southwark with Fr. Fryer of Newport as Deacon and Fr. F.S. Bowles of Ventnor as Sub-Deacon. Fr. Cahill told the congregation: “In all the years that I have known her, not only was she most generous, but she lived the life of a saint. Yet despite this she was always anxious to do contrition for her sins.” This observation was clearly evident in the fact that the churches the Countess built at Ryde, Croydon and Carisbrooke included the reparation or conversion of sinners in their dedication. Today, Catholics have, to a large extent, lost their sense of sin and the confessionals have almost become redundant; yet for the Countess, like others at the time, weekly Confession was paramount in order to receive Our Lord worthily in Holy Communion. Her attitude towards Catholicism can be summarized quite simply. She was eternally grateful that at the age of 48 she had at last found the True Faith which was effectively modelled on that of St. Alphonsus; the importance of the Passion of Our Lord and a deep devotion both to the Sacraments and to Our Blessed Lady as the intercessor for our sins.
In St. Mary’s the rose window in the sanctuary is the parish’s memorial to their foundress. It shows Mary with her Immaculate Heart holding the child Jesus and the Countess kneeling wearing the habit of a Dominican nun offering a model which depicts St. Mary’s Church and an angel behind bearing her coat of arms. On the right is her patron, St. Elizabeth of Hungary. The inscription around the window reads: “Pray for the Elizabeth, Countess of Clare, Foundress of this Church, who died 30th April 1879. RIP”
A full account of her life and times can be read in “Ryde to Rome” published by the IoW Catholic History Society.