Fr. John Telford (1814-1865)

Rector of St. Mary’s Church, Ryde (1846-65)

Every parish has its own unique story, which frequently involves a generous benefactor or a pioneering priest totally devoted to God and His holy church. In Ryde on the Isle of Wight there was both. Elizabeth Countess of Clare was the generous benefactor but her contribution was matched by the parish priest, Fr. John Telford. He was born on 26th Jan. 1814 and was ordained in 1838 by Bishop Thomas Griffiths and appointed as chaplain at St. George’s-in-the-Fields in August 1840. In December 1845 he was sent to become Rector of the new St. Mary’s Church in Ryde and he supervised the completion of the church in preparation for its opening and first Mass on Trinity Sunday, 7th June, 1846. Pope Gregory XVI had died a few days earlier so celebrations were deliberately kept low key. At the end of the Summer the first High Mass was sung. Due to Protestant hostility at the time there was no prior public notice of either event. The dedication of St. Mary’s appears to have been influenced by the inauguration of the “Congregation of the Holy and Immaculate Heart of Mary”, founded in the same year by Fr. Desgenettes in Paris, for the intercession of Our Lady for the aid of abandoned souls. In 1844 the “Confraternity of the Immaculate Heart of Mary for the Conversion of Sinners” was introduced into England and consequently Ryde was the first church in England to adopt this dedication.

The first Episcopal Visitation at St. Mary’s took place in 1847, when Bishop Griffiths confirmed 92 candidates, (a few months before his sudden death in Rome). He was deeply impressed with St. Mary’s, recording that the church was indeed “very beautiful. Everything is of the highest quality and the finest workmanship is evident”.

Reading Fr. Telford’s correspondence preserved in the archives; it is evident that he had tact and diplomacy; necessary attributes in dealing with a difficult, resident foundress and a mixed congregation. He had to relate to the poor and needy just as easily as the gentry and upper classes that comprised his congregation. He firmly believed that the English Catholic Church should identify with the poor, oppressed and the disadvantaged such as the Irish who flocked to England and elsewhere as a result of the “Potato Famine”. This was, perversely, much to the chagrin of the landed gentry and the old recusant families who saw themselves as traditional defenders and upholders of the Faith. He realised that there was, subconsciously, a battle for the heart and soul of English Catholicism.

Preaching the gospel message and warning the Faithful of the errors of Darwinism and other liberal attitudes prevalent at the time, was not easy with a mixed congregation of intellectuals and gentry on the one side and the poor and uneducated on the other. Fr. Telford had the skill of being a good listener, making a person feel important and building their self-esteem.

His brother, Henry, was also a priest and due to his ill health he often came to stay with him in Ryde. Both were guardians of their sister’s children in London who had been orphaned. As a result family life and children were never far from his thoughts and he was a frequent visitor to the little school next to the church. His parish at the time encompassed the whole of the eastern side of the Island from Ventnor to Ryde. In Victorian times the Island was an important military base and he looked after the spiritual needs of the “Tipperary Artillery” (The “Tipps”). In 1860 he wrote to Bishop Grant: “120 of them march from their base at Sandown on Sundays to Mass at Ryde. I go to their barracks on Wednesdays to hear Confessions and again on Thursday to say Mass. Last week I gave them a sermon on the sin of “swearing!”

He won the respect and admiration of other Christian ministers in Ryde by persuading the Ryde Hospital authorities to allow them to visit their faithful. The 1849 cholera epidemic on the Island emphasised the necessity of allowing pastors into the isolation units. The rampant infectious diseases of those days were always treated in strict isolation and until then it was only the Anglican chaplains who were admitted. Unconcerned for his own health, Fr. Telford was prominent in encouraging the other Ryde ministers to visit those suffering from often incurable diseases.

It is difficult to imagine promiscuity being evident in Catholic Ryde in the 1850s. However in another letter, Fr. Telford informs the Bishop that he is continually reminding the faithful of the sins of the flesh! He spent many hours in the confessional on a Saturday and at other times visiting the sick and elderly. His humility, humour, selflessness and cheerful disposition, even in adversity, won the respect of many of those who initially hurled insults and abuse at Ryde’s “Romish” priest. If he ever had any spare time it was spent in the church in prayer and private devotion. His parishioners followed his example. He records that the church was rarely empty. Thankfully this is a feature of St. Mary’s which is still evident today. Conveniently situated in the High Street, it is a permanent open house, where people can adore the Blessed Sacrament or meditate quietly.

His dearest wish was aptly expressed in a letter to Bishop Grant: “I pray that the day will soon come when we can get rid of that vile public house (the White Swan) next door. Oh for a religious house instead!” Drunken louts would often shout abuse, bang on the presbytery door and throw stones when leaving the pub. It was to be another fifteen years before his prayer was answered and his successor, Fr. Cahill purchased the lease and ultimately close the pub and built a Convent, which, thankfully, remains to this day.

1863 saw the anniversary of Fr. Telford’s Silver Jubilee to the priesthood and a double celebration took place as the church was ready to be solemnly consecrated to the glory of Almighty God and in honour of the Blessed Virgin by Bishop Grant of Southwark. The sun shone through the newly-installed stain glass windows on the south side of the sanctuary and vividly reflected the colours of the glass on the opposite wall beside the Episcopal throne. After blessing the walls and sprinkling the floor with holy water, the Bishop proclaimed, “May this Church be hallowed and consecrated in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost; in honour of Almighty God and in memory of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the Mother of Jesus.” Solemn High Mass was followed and the choir’s voices resonated around the church. They were clearly audible in Ryde High Street as curious and bewildered passers by heard the “Te Deum” in full flow which marked the end of the impressive ceremony. Fr. Telford told the bishop that he gave thanks to God that he was one of the few priests in England at the time to have a church consecrated, a flourishing school and a fine presbytery. The following morning the Bishop blessed and dedicated the new Catholic section of Ryde cemetery. Fr. Telford had persuaded the local Town Commissioners to allocate part of the cemetery for Catholics. Little did he realise as he approached his 50th birthday that he himself would be laid to rest there within eighteen months. It was during his last illness that Fr (later Cardinal) John Henry Newman visited St. Mary’s in September 1865 saying Mass and singing Vespers in the church. At the time he had just completed what was probably his most famous work; The Dream of Gerontius, a poem based on what happens to the soul immediately after death.

Fr. Telford died on 7th Nov. 1865. He had always been full of energy and enthusiam. He became a common sight around Ryde, walking all around his large parish to visit his flock. Towards the end he became tired and exhausted. Bishop Grant presided at the solemn and impressive Requiem Mass on 14th Nov. The church was packed for the ticket-only ceremony, at which twenty one priests were present. In his eulogy the Bishop took the theme: “Thou art a priest for ever”. (Psalm 109. Verse 4). He paid a glowing tribute to Fr. Telford: “We have lost a dear and devoted priest and a tireless worker. The sick and afflicted have lost a friend and the clergy have lost a true companion who shared all their worries and concerns.” He had heroic patience and personal courage. He loved his priesthood and his absorbing zeal for souls and the care of his flock, took him to all parts of the north east of the Island that comprised his parish, travelling mostly on foot, and frequently arriving home with his black clerical shoes covered in mud. He believed in the warmth and personal effect of a home visit to underline the importance of family life. These visits enabled him to manifest a sympathizing, self sacrificing humanity of a kindly Christian heart. There is a liberal attitude towards clerical attire in the church today. Contrast this with Victorian Catholic priests like Fr. Telford. He always wore a charcoal black cassock and a traditional Roman collar, usually with a soutane or biretta and a black frock coat in Winter. The children of Ryde came to recognise this “Romish” priest in his uniform as a friend who often tossed them sweets or apples as he passed by. Protestants came to respect his selflessness, generosity and his willingness to support every charitable cause in the town. His congregation saw him as a man of profound humility with an eager desire to do and to suffer whatever God should appoint. He maintained a prodigious pace until fatigue and exhaustion finally took their toll.

It was a surprising mark of respect for a Catholic priest in an English Protestant town of the 1860s that the local Isle of Wight Times gave a very favourable report which was unusual in this period; stating that although they disagreed with his religion, they nevertheless admired his Christian principles, his warm and friendly attitude and his support for any local project that enhanced Christian values, decency and civic responsibility in the town. People of all denominations lined the street as the coffin was borne from the church to the mournful toll of the church bell and the accompaniment of Beethoven’s Funeral March. Many followed the cortege on foot to the cemetery and most of the shops en route closed for part of the morning; another remarkable sign of respect for a Roman priest in Victorian England.