Bishop John Baptist Cahill

(Rector of St. Mary’s 1868-1900; 2nd Bishop of Portsmouth 1900-1910)

John Baptist Cahill was born in London on 2nd September,1841; the son of Irish parents, Thomas and Joanne Cahill. He had two older brothers, Thomas and Edward, who also became priests. He went to Old Hall Seminary and was ordained on the Feast of St. Francis, 4th October 1864 at Bermondsey by Bishop Grant of Southwark. His first appointment was to Portsea, before going to Ryde as curate in 1866. Two years later he succeeded Fr. Stephen Philips as Rector. He is remembered as a man of great stature, rendering powerful sermons to his congregations. He liked the ritual and full ceremonial of Catholic worship. The calendar at the time records that there were frequent litanies, processions, exposition, novenas and missions; everything connected with Catholic devotion. At St Mary’s he soon introduced the “Children of Mary” and the “Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament”. Catholics are familiar with these, and many similar societies and groups, today, but in Victorian Catholic life, there were few organisations in the parishes to promote prayer and devotional life. Fr. Cahill frequently recalled the sacrifices made by the English martyrs and recusant families and stressed that we were their spiritual descendants, who must strive to keep the Faith with its rites and ceremonies that go back in an unbroken succession to the time of the Apostles and universal in England for a thousand years until the Reformation. It was the unquenchable and all-prevailing love of the Truth for which the English martyrs so readily gave their lives. “Catholic truths”, he reminded the faithful, “are not only enshrined in the traditional liturgy and the Sacrifice of the Holy Mass, but also in the design of the traditional Catholic sanctuary and the furnishings that adorn it. In this respect we owe a great deal of gratitude to our noble foundress, who has provided us with this House of God to uphold the ancient Catholic traditions, which is the key to maintaining and promoting the Catholic Faith. We pray that England shall one day return to the One True Faith that was once hers.”

He impressed parishioners at Ryde with his manners, correctness and his love of the gothic style in architecture and worship. He was an eloquent preacher delivering clear, succinct and powerful sermons. His priestly presence commanded immediate respect. He had a confident manner for a young priest; always acting and speaking with authority. Fr. Cahill planned every event at the church in great detail, often including diagrams showing the order of processions and the number and position of the candles for Benediction and Exposition. “” witnessed the Blessed Sacrament exposed in the magnificent, ornate Pugin monstrance and illuminated by seventy two candles, placed in perfect geometrical position on either side of the altar, adorned with flowers of every colour. Quarant’ Ore is still an annual event in the parish. Some parishioners still remember the beautiful illuminated altar cards painted with gold and crimson and the Mass vestments in vivid colours embroidered with illustrations of the Mass or crucifixion on the back of the chasuable; all gifts of wealthy Victorian benefactors.

Fr. Cahill had to have great tact and diplomacy in dealing with the resident foundress of the church, Elizabeth, Countess of Clare. Sensibly, he consulted her on all important matters relating to the church. As a result, a positive partnership developed and this extended into a great friendship. They both had a love for the Dominican Order; and it was the Dominicans who gave one of the first of several missions in St. Mary’s. In 1875 the mission concluded with a packed church and the congregation renewing their baptismal vows and singing the responses to the Litany of the Saints. The service also included the Act of Consecration to the Sacred Heart, announcement of a papal blessing and Solemn Benediction. Both the Countess and Fr. Cahill liked full ceremony and solemnity whenever appropriate. He shared the Countess’s views concerning ritual especially in church music. At St. Mary’s Gregorian chant was the norm as it emphasised the Church’s connection with the past and illustrated our monastic heritage in the worship of Almighty God. Litanies, Exposition, Processions, Indulgences for prayers and devotions, and the recitation of the rosary are frequently mentioned in the old notice books. Most anniversaries (however insignificant) and feast days were celebrated with due solemnity.

In 1869 he arranged one of the first outdoor Marion processions in England since pre-Reformation days. The Town Commissioners in Ryde decided that it should be a silent procession around the streets adjacent to St. Mary’s. So the congregation recited the rosary privately giving full voice to the Salve Regina as they re-entered the church. In 1882 Fr. Cahill was appointed Vicar General of the new Portsmouth Diocese (which split from the Diocese of Southwark) and in 1883 he persuaded the Sisters of the Convent of Mercy at Abingdon to open a boarding school in the new Convent on the north side of St. Mary’s; now occupied by the Presentation Sisters. As a result, the Catholic Church now owned one of the largest sites in Ryde High Street, with a church, presbytery, school, convent and the freehold of three shops and seven cottages behind. Few other English towns could boast this achievement at the time.

Fr. Cahill was responsible for many additions to St. Mary’s including the Sacred Heart and Lady Chapels and most of the stained glass. He also extended the north aisle and added a new porch and made alterations to the exterior, adding Portland stone dressing and stone plaques on the west wall. He is reputed to have climbed the scaffolding to the steeple in 1880 to bless and set the new weather vane in position.

The two side chapels were designed by Fr. Cahill’s great friend and architect, Canon A. J. Scholes. The Lady Chapel, in particular, is one of the finest in the Diocese, with its Pugin altar and murals and ceiling panels, painted by Nathaniel Westlake R.A. depicting biblical and devotional scenes of the life of Jesus and His Mother, Mary.

Once again the stained glass around the church are among the finest in a Catholic church in the south. Near the church door, there is a rare example of lancet windows which depict the seven Sacraments of the church, which Fr. Cahill had commissioned in memory of his two brother priests, Thomas and Edward, who both died in Ryde.

In 1887 Fr. Cahill was created a Domestic Prelate and in 1892 a Protonotary Apostolic. In 1900 Fr. Cahill was ordained Titular Bishop of Thagara by Bishop Francis Bourne and translated to Portsmouth a few months later to succeed Bishop Vertue. To mark this occasion two of the eldest members of the parish, Lt. Col. Hamilton and Mrs Randolph, presented him with an Episcopal ring, gold cross and chain, a mitre and a Roman missal on behalf of the congregation of St. Mary’s. Such was his love of Ryde that he frequently returned to his “old parish”. The Island undoubtedly had a special place in his heart.

Canon Nicholas France, speaking at the 125th anniversary of the Diocese describes Bishop Cahill as “a man of intense energy and vision, achieving much as Bishop of Portsmouth in strengthening the foundations of the diocese”. In his ten years at Portsmouth he built 13 churches in the Diocese and saw the inauguration of Benedictine communities at Quarr, Farnborough and Douai. In fact he was particularly generous to the abbot and community from Douai in France who were expelled in 1903 under the anti clerical laws and offered them some old school buildings at Woolhampton, near Reading. The Holy See decreed that the historic name “Douai Abbey” should be retained. Within ten years a new monastery, school block and church had been built. He welcomed many religious communities expelled from France and Ryde, particularly, was enriched by the community of monks from Solesmes at Quarr Abbey, not forgetting the exiled Benedictine nuns at St Cecilia’s Abbey. The Solesmes monks went to their (temporary) abbey at Appledurcombe in the south of the Island and it was here that he blessed the Holy Oils each year instead of the cathedral at the invitation of his great friend, the Abbot, Dom Paul Delatte. He was delighted when the community purchased the Abbey ruins at Quarr in 1907 as yet another religious community would reside in his beloved Ryde.

It is worth mentioning that such was his love and admiration of the religious life and his hope for monastic life to return to Quarr, that in the 1880s he started the Quarr Summer walks, when he would lead parishioners on a walk through the woods to the Cistercian monastic ruins. Here is a wonderful example of answered prayer. En route they would pray the rosary and ask for Our Lady’s intercession for the return of monasticism to Quarr. They could surely not have realised that their prayer would be answered within thirty years with the Benedictine settling on the adjacent site. (The Island Catholic History Society continue to organise an annual walk to Quarr).

The monks of Quarr, expert in Gregorian chant, influenced Bishop Cahill in his love of liturgy and led him to carry out with such liturgical and correct detail the completion of St John’s Cathedral. He was considered to be ahead of the times in this regard to liturgical development, especially when in 1906 he had the high altar in the cathedral moved forward (westwards) so that the faithful had a better view of the Mass from all parts of the building.

Although Bishop of Portsmouth, it was in Ryde where he spent 37 years of his priesthood that he was buried in the local cemetery between his two brother-priests when he died on 2nd Aug. 1910; his coffin having been brought back to the Island by special paddle steamer after his funeral at Portsmouth, accompanied by the clergy and cathedral choir who sang psalms and litanies on the journey to Ryde. The people of Ryde lined the streets in their hundreds as the coffin was carried up Union Street and the High Street. The mournful toll of the bell rang from the church as the funeral courtege passed his beloved St. Mary’s. This was the largest Catholic procession to be witnessed on the Island. Many people followed the courtege on foot into Hill St and to the cemetery in West St. Most of the shops en route closed while the courtege passed by; a remarkable sign of respect for a Roman priest in Edwardian England. The clergy chanted the “De Profundis” and the “Miserere” at the committal proceedings, as the coffin was lowered into the grave.

There is a large brass plaque in his memory on the west wall of Portsmouth Cathedral. His coat of arms can be seen painted on to the north wall of the sanctuary in St. Mary’s. He was succeeded, as he wished, by his auxillary Mgr. William Timothy Cotter who had previously succeeded him as both curate and Rector at Ryde.

To mark the centenary of Bishop Cahill’s death on 2nd August, 2010, a Sung Requiem Mass (Extraordinary Form) was offered at St. Mary’s by Fr. Simon Leworthy FSSP. In the sermon, Fr. Anthony Glaysher reminded the congregation that “as we look around our beautiful church, we can see that we are the recipients of the work and the dedication of Bishop Cahill. We owe him much gratitude.”

On 11th September Bishop Crispian Hollis came to St. Mary’s to offer Mass for one of his predecessors. Whilst paying tribute to the achievements of Bishop Cahill, he reminded the congregation that:- “the Church has changed since Bishop Cahill’s day. Bishops are now far more approachable and can be seen more readily among their people”. The bishop led the procession to the grave of Bishop Cahill in Ryde cemetery to lay a wreathe and to lead prayers, in the presence of the Town Crier and the Lord Lieutenant of the Island.