St. Thomas of Canterbury, Newport – the Oldest Catholic Church in England

By Peter Clarke

The secret chapels in the Manor houses of the Catholic aristocracy played such a significant part in maintaining the faith throughout penal times. Many of these, such as West Grinstead, Stonor and Mapledurcombe, continue to have the Mass today. The Catholic church is also fortunate to have a acquired a small number of pre- Reformation churches, such as St Ethelreda’s in London, However, it is not immediately clear which is the oldest (purpose built) Catholic parish church which has been in continuous use since its construction. One candidate for this unique position is the Church of St. Thomas of Canterbury in Newport on the Isle of Wight. Catholics were not allowed to built their own churches before 1790. The Second Relief Act lifted this restriction and the church was built for £2000 in 1791 and certified for the use of Catholic worship at the Quarter Session in Winchester on 17th April, 1792. Is it therefore the oldest Catholic church in England? The Church of Our Lady and St. Gregory in Warwick Street, London is certainly a few years older, but it started its life as an Embassy Chapel before becoming a parish church. The historic Milner Hall in Winchester was certified for Catholic use a few months after the church at Newport, but it holds the distinction of being the first church since the Reformation to be consecrated.

Why then did a small town on the Isle of Wight have a Catholic church so early? It was due quite simply to a determined and generous benefactor, Elizabeth Heneage, who was born in 1734 at Sheat Manor house near Gatcombe. No biography of her life has, as yet, been written, but when it is, it will surely record the significant contribution which she made to the growth of the English Catholic Church in the Late eighteenth century. The Westminster archives contain many letters from the Vicars Apostolic in England, thanking her for donations and gifts to charities. One letter records how she sent religious and historical books to America. Elizabeth Heneage spent her last ten years before her death in 1800, back on the Isle of Wight, where she had purchased Cosham House in Pyle Street, Newport. The Relief Act of 1790 allowed Catholics to build their own churches, which had to registered. Elizabeth wasted no time in obtaining the necessary authorization and the church was quickly built and opened in 1792. Elizabeth brought the Heneage family chaplain, Fr. Simon Lucas, from Lincolnshire, to be the first resident priest in Newport. He was followed by a French emigre priest, Fr. Etienne des Perques.

The church was dedicated to St. Thomas of Canterbury, as Elizabeth held that one of the knights who was so keen to ingratiate himself with King Henry II, and rid him of “this teacherous priest”, came from the Island. This was fitting reparation for this dreadful deed.

Whilst the interior of this simple, little classical style church, with its sanctuary in the apse, has altered considerably throughout its history; the exterior has hardly changed. Built as it had to be at the time, like a public meeting hall, with no external features, which identified it as a church, it is nevertheless spacious for its size, with a gallery on three sides, similar to non Conformist churches.

Elizabeth had her own chapel / room (now the confessional) incorporated into the church on the gospel side of the sanctuary. She would enter the church by walking from her house (now the presbytery) across the garden using her own private door. It was the norm for the gentry and aristocracy to separate themselves as far as you could from the rest of the congregation. When she died on 10th Dec, 1800, she was buried in the church. Over the years the exact location of her grave was forgotten, until in 1960 workmen dealing with dry rot, accidentally discovered her coffin under floorboards near the porch. An inscription now marks the exact spot of this remarkable woman.

In Victorian times St Thomas’, Newport developed a royal connection. When Queen Victoria and Prince Albert came to reside at Osborne House in the 1840s, visiting European Catholic royalty and aristocracy frequently came to St. Thomas’ for Sunday Mass. In 1857 the Emperor Napoleon III and the Empress came to Mass.

One parish priest, Fr. Thomas Fryer, found Newport very much to his liking and to his health as he held the post for fifty years (1839 – 1889).

To underline St. Thomas’ connection with Sheat Manor House at Gatcombe, (Elizabeth’s birthplace) a Mass was celebrated by Fr. Barnes on the lawn in front of the house in August 2002 (see picture in Gallery) with the kind permission of the present (non Catholic) owners, Lt. Col and Mrs Geoffrey Webber. This, we believe, was the first Mass there for over 220 years. Another Mass was offered there in 2006. The little Catholic church at Newport, can therefore be said to have developed from the secret chapel at Sheat Manor House, through the determination and generosity of its foundress, Elizabeth Heneage.