Ryde to Rome by Peter Clarke

Review by Madeleine Beard – August 2004

A remarkable painting in the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples by Masolino shows Pope Liberius planning the outline of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore during a miraculous snowfall in August. Against a gold sky, snowflakes fall to earth. It was in this Basilica, founded following the Council of Ephesus in 431, that in 1841 an English aristocratic convert to the One True Faith attended Solemn High Mass as a Catholic for the first time.

In a sermon preached in May 2003 by Father Armand de Malleray, he urged members of the congregation to attend the Pontifical High Mass celebrated in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore later that month. Father de Malleray was preaching in St. Mary’s, Ryde, founded by the remarkable Countess of Clare and dedicated to the “Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary for the conversion of sinners”. St. Marie’s Basilica is a hidden gem, a remarkable jewel of Catholicism that stands in the High Street in Ryde on the Isle of Wight next to a garden. The convent, the presbytery, the parish hall exist thanks to a foundress who generously combined her new-found Faith with her inherited fortune. This succinct paperback, written by the dedicated Latin Mass Society Representative on the Isle of Wight, Mr. Peter Clarke, tells this fascinating story. The pace is rapid, the detail intriguing, there is an urgency in this book which expresses the business-like approach of those who are on the winning side.

The foundation of the Catholic church in Ryde was instigated by the holy example of one individual. The Countess of Clare would often see an old man, a gardener who worked for Colonel and Lady Francis Harcourt, walking to Mass every Sunday, whatever the weather, to the Catholic church in Newport, some seven miles away. Moved by the Faith of Edward Meehan (1798-1882), the Countess wrote to the Bishop of the London District requesting a priest be sent to Ryde “…to procure the blessings and comforts of Holy Mother Church”. On being told by the Bishop that it was necessary for twelve Catholics to be resident in a town for a priest to be sent, the Countess dismissed four of her servants and replaced them with Catholics to make up the required number. On the Feast of the Patron Saint of the Countess of Clare, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, in 1843, the first priest since the Protestant Revolt took up residence in Ryde.

There are interesting parallels between the Countess of Clare’s reception into the One True Church in Rome in 1841 and the historic Masses celebrated in Rome in 2003. Received into the Church in St. Peter’s, she attended her first High Mass as a Catholic on the Feast of Our Lady’s Birthday at Santa Maria Maggiore the following day. The historic Mass celebrated by Father Southwell in the Hungarian Chapel of the Crypt of St. Peter’s occurred the day before the Pontifical High Mass at Santa Maria Maggiore on the Feast of Our Lady Help of Christians. The following month, the first Missa Cantata for 37 years was celebrated in St. Mary’s, Ryde, by Father Martin Edwards.

The Isle of Wight is an important place of pilgrimage for Traditional Catholics. As today’s modern world degenerates rather than improves, it is good to go back in time. As Catholics we do very much want to go back. It is called getting back to normal. Crossing the Solent, leaving for a short while the heady troubles of the mainland, here there is refuge and peace. Even the refreshments after the Masses at St. Mary’s provided in the parish hall with such devotion, remind one of a lost world of timeless gentility. It is a chance to reflect, to take stock and, in the best sense of the world, renew one’s Faith. After Mass on the Feast of the Annunciation in 2003, the birthday of the Countess of Clare, a priest observed that it had occurred to him that if on one particular Sunday (the First Sunday in Advent in 1969), priests could all turn around and face the congregation, then presumably on another particular Sunday they could all turn back again. “That is what you would call a revolution,” he observed.

Later in 2003, after a Mass celebrated by Father Timothy Finigan in the church of St. Thomas of Canterbury in Cowes (founded in 1797 by another generous benefactress, Elizabeth Heneage), there was a procession to the newly-created Martyrs’ Memorial in the garden next to the church. The two Island Martyrs, beatified by Pope Pius XI in 1929, were hung, drawn and quartered on 25th April 1586. Like Father Finigan, they were graduates of Oxford University. Caught praying for calm weather after their ship sought shelter in Cowes on their return to England as priests from Douai, the two were taken to Winchester and London. Refusing to give the undertaking of not preaching the Catholic Faith, they were taken to the Isle of Wight for execution as a warning to islanders of the penalty of becoming a priest or giving assistance to a priest.

St. Paul of the Cross, the founder of the Order of Passionists in the eighteenth century, was praying on board ship when he and his brother decided to return to the mainland from the island off the coast of Tuscany where they founded their first Retreat. When miraculously their ship refused to move, they returned to the island and founded another hermitage, St. Paul tracing the outline like Pope Liberius in the painting. The Isle of Wight was once the home of another Passionist. For it was in Ryde that the Spencer family had a Summer residence, with gardens leading down to the beach, where the Venerable Ignatius Spencer spent summers as a child.

This very readable and well-researched book, with its well-chosen prints and photographs, reminds us of the eternal gratitude we Catholics have to our nineteenth century converts and our sixteenth century martyrs. Blessed Robert Anderton, Blessed William Marsden, Venerable Ignatius Spencer,

Orate pro nobis.