MILESTONES IN THE HISTORY OF OUR PARISH
1783: the Vicar of Abingdon in his returns to the Bishop: “Are there any reputed papists in your parish?” “One only - old and very poor.”
1850: Conversion of Sir George Bowyer, Knight of Malta, benefactor of our Church and school, to Catholicism.
1854: Appointment of first Missionary Rector (Parish Priest) of Abingdon by Bishop Thomas Grant of Southwark.
1857: Solemn opening of the Chancel of the Church Establishment of St Edmund’s School in the Sacristy, later moving to Friends’ Meeting House.
1858: Consecration of the Cemetery.
1860: Arrival of the Sisters of Mercy in Abingdon; establishment of Convent at ‘Mountjoy’ at Northcourt.
1865: Opening of Girls’ Boarding School in Convent Building of Church completed and solemn opening.
1873: St Edmund’s School completed and opened.
1882: Diocese of Portsmouth formed.
1883: Convent Chapel solemnly blessed and opened.
1954: St Edmund’s ceases to be an ‘all age’ school and becomes a primary school. Inauguration of the shrine of Our Lady of Abingdon and blessing of the Statue by Archbishop John Henry King.
1957: Centenary and Consecration of the Church of Our Lady and St Edmund by the Bishop of Portsmouth.
1961: Phase 1 of the new St Edmund School officially opened by Bishop Holland.
1971: The Deanery passes from Berkshire to Oxfordshire.
1982: New Parish Centre, former St Edmund’s school, blessed.
1990: ‘Abingdon Alive’, inauguration of the Church in Abingdon.
1991: Pilgrimage to Pontigny, ‘St Edmund’s burial place, to attend inauguration of the plaque given by Parish to Abbey at Pontigny.
1998: Parish Day as part of preparation for the Millennium.
2006: Our Lady and St Edmund's became part of the Thames Isis Pastoral Area.
2011: Sisters of Mercy left the Convent.
Saint Edmund of Abingdon. Co-Patron with Our Lady of the Diocese of Portsmouth
It has been said that whereas we revere Thomas a Becket for the manner of his death, we revere Edmund - who was born five years after Becket’s martyrdom – for the manner of his life.
The Early Years
Edmund was born in Abingdon in 1175, in a house that today is known as St Edmund’s Lane. The house no longer exists, nor does the chapel built over it in memory of him – but the lane does. It is an extraordinary thing to be able to walk the streets of Abingdon and look at the sights and some of the buildings with which Edmund would have been familiar.
Edmund was the eldest of a fair sized family. We hear quite a bit about his brother Robert - who accompanied Edmund through all the different stages of his life - and his two sisters Margaret and Alice, who became nuns at Catesby in Northamptonshire. Edmund’s father, called Reginald (given the nickname Rich), was a merchant who owned various properties in Abingdon, and was possibly employed for certain tasks by the Abbey.
In those days Abingdon was dominated by its Benedictine Abbey. Tradesmen and craftsmen were utterly dependent on it. The abbey controlled market, fishing and mill rights. It was a huge landowner and was mentioned in the Doomsday Book. (William the Conqueror’s son was educated there).
Edmund’s formidable mother – Mabel (from the French “Belle Marie”) – was originally buried at her death in St. Nicholas Church, a church which still stands today at the entrance to the Abbey Grounds. Mabel was the chief influence in Edmund’s young life. She possessed an iron will and strong character. Everyone who wrote of her mentioned her ascetic and disciplined way of life – which she imposed on her family.
Her husband ended his days a monk. It was laughingly said that he found life in a monastery less strict than living with his wife Mabel! As a boy Edmund was sent with his brother Robert to a school in Oxford – near the present day chapel of Brasenose College - and then when they were about fifteen Mabel sent them to study in Paris. As a farewell gift she gave them both a hair shirt!
Legend has it that - as a child - Edmund encountered the Christ child at Milham Ford near Magdalen bridge - and that he also placed a ring on a statue of Our Lady in the church of St Mary the Virgin and a ring on his own finger which he never removed - as a pledge of his commitment to her.
After Paris he returned to Oxford (which in those days numbered about 1500 students) where he became renowned as a teacher or Master of such subjects as grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.
He taught his students – “Study as if you were to live forever, live as if you were to die tomorrow.”
Then he was reputed to have had a vision of his mother urging him to study theology. Edmund did so and was ordained a priest. Now he was chiefly famed for his austerities, his compassion and his preaching.
In Oxford he lived on the site of the present day St Edmund Hall, and indeed is said to have built the Lady Chapel at the church of St. Peter in the East next door.
He wrote his famous book – Speculum Ecclesiae or Mirror of the Church – describing the various levels of contemplation.
From 1222 to 1233 Edmund became a Canon, Prebend and Treasurer at Salisbury, at the time when the new Gothic cathedral was being built. However, he chiefly enjoyed ministering to the needs of the people of Calne in Wiltshire where he lived 9 months of the year.
Then in 1233 he was chosen by the Pope to be the Archbishop of Canterbury on account of the moral inspiration of his lecturing and preaching and for his asceticism. He was genuinely reluctant to accept the post but obeyed, reflecting: “He who knows all things, knows that I would never consent to this election unless I thought that I should sin mortally by refusing it.”
His seven-year tenure of Canterbury came at a difficult and desperate time for the country. England was on the brink of civil war between the King Henry III and the Barons. But Edmund brokered a peace. It was said that people listened to him because of his virtue.
He preached that there are two things which make a man holy – knowledge of the Truth and love of goodness. He used to say, “If you want to be loved, show yourself to be loveable.”
Edmund died on the 16th November 1240 at Soissy in France on his way to see the Pope in Rome. His body was taken to the Cistercian abbey of Pontigny, where his shrine above the high altar remains to this today.
On account of his holy life and the miracles that occurred after his death, he was canonized seven years later. On his Feast Day, November 16th, we remember and seek the prayers of St. Edmund, Co-Patron with Our Lady of our Diocese.
Edmund was man of intelligence and deep spirituality, who was respected and loved by all. Unrelenting in defence of liberty and truth, he was unafraid to rebuke kings and stand up to Popes. He was a scholar and renowned preacher.
He was the first Oxford man to become Doctor of Divinity, Archbishop of Canterbury and Saint. He was heroic in self-discipline and compassion. He was a man of faith and deep prayer.
St. Edmund of Abingdon pray for us!
SISTERS OF MERCY
The Community of the Sisters of Mercy was involved in teaching and in Parish visiting at Our Lady and St Edmund of Abingdon.
In 1859 Father John O’Toole, Parish priest in Abingdon, asked Bishop Grant (Southwark) for some Sisters to found a Convent in Abingdon.
Much change and development has taken place since 1860 with Sisters engaged in teaching in the parish school, in their own private school which comprised of both boarders and day pupils and boys and girls.
On June 3rd 1999, the Community moved from the Convent on Oxford Road to Lismore Lodge, St John’s Road and 1996 saw the first lay Headmistress at Our Lady’s Convent Senior School and the first lay Headmaster at Our Lady’s Convent Junior School in 2007. This coincided with changes in the community that comprised of three Sisters in residence, one on sabbatical and one taking care of her mother. The presence of the Sisters remained vibrant in schools, Parish and Diocese until 2011, when the last two Sisters, Sister Helen Sheehy and Sister Monica Sheehy, two siblings, left Abingdon. Sister Monica was Headmistress at Our Lady’s for 16 years before retiring in the mid 90s and is now in a community in Derby, while Sister Helen moved to Alnwich in Northumberland.
Our Lady of Abingdon - Musings
Going over from the Convent to the Church on a Sunday morning, and taking a short cut through the cemetery, I sometimes pause by a grave where the headstone reminds us to pray for the repose of the soul Elsie Annie Emerton, who died on 9th October, 1971, aged 88 years. Mrs Emerton, her husband and their 2 daughters became Catholics in 1918. They were received into the Church by the Parish Priest, Father James Doran, having been impressed by a sermon preached by him at an outdoor Benediction, when, by chance, they stood to watch a Corpus Christi Procession. Leaving the graveside I muse on the possibility that the family might be given the gift of Faith through the intercession of Our Lady of Abingdon.
When the Benedictine Monastery was demolished in 1538, the stones were carried away for building, as far out as Culham. There in 1883 in the village inn, called the ‘Sow and Pigs’, Mrs Emerton was born, Elsie Annie Lewington, the only daughter of the proprietors, George and Mary Lewington. The inn was pulled down in 1913 and, in the gable end of the building was found a very large stone, which was placed on a rockery in the grounds of Culham House. Some years afterwards that property was acquired by Mr. Geoffrey Houghton-Brown, who realised that the large stone was a mutilated statue of Our Lady, which came from Abingdon Abbey. He gave the statue to Father Doran, who put it standing in the side chapel of the Church and there it stood for 13 years with a notice hanging round the remains of its neck, giving something of its history.To commemorate the centenary of the re-opening of the Abingdon Mission, Canon Michael Sexton, the then Parish Priest, had the statue restored. This restoration was undertaken by a well-known sculptor, Mr Philip Lindsay Clark, in conjunction with a Benedictine monk from Farnborough Abbey, Dom Theodore Bailey, an expert in medieval art.The statue was then fixed to the wall of the chancel. Beneath the statue an altar was later erected, the cost of which was defrayed by a legacy bequeathed to the Canon, the life-savings of a faithful parishioner, Mary Ann Fisher, who died at the age of 90 and remembered every priest during the first 100 years. At the age of ten Mary Ann was present at the funeral of Doctor John Paul O’Toole, the first priest of the Mission.
In her old age when asked about Dr O’Toole she would say in her Berkshire dialect: "Yes, I know’d ‘im well, I know’d ‘im well, everyone loved ‘im".
The relics enshrined in the altar were encased in a silver jewel casket donated by a convert, Miss Josephine Dockar-Drysdale, of Wick Hall, Radley, in thanksgiving for her Faith, which, she said, after God, she owed to the example of a servant maid. Mrs. Emerton presented a pair of vases, 2 silver tankards, once used in the ‘Sow and Pigs’, with the name engraved underneath.
On May 1st 1954, the centenary year, the ceremony of blessing the statue and the inauguration of the Shrine of Our Lady of Abingdon took place. It was performed by Archbishop John Henry King, Bishop of Portsmouth, whose family kept the Faith right through the Reformation. An appropriate sermon was preached by the Archbishop, and the ceremony was concluded with the Victorian hymn ‘This is the Image of Our Queen’. One could never forget seeing the Archbishop – ‘that piece of English oak’ – standing erect and singing lustily in his sonorous voice:
"In this thine own sweet month of May
Dear Mother of my God, I pray,
Do thou remember me."
Back in Winchester that evening, seated, with the proverbial pipe, in his favourite armchair, and with his prodigious memory, did the Archbishop muse, I wonder, on his schooldays in Abingdon over 60 years earlier, when he used to attend May Devotions and serve at Benediction in the Church on Sunday evenings, going over from the convent, through the orchard and along the cloister, or perhaps, sometimes, taking a short-cut through the cemetery.
Sister M. Catherine
Our Lady’s Convent, May 1990
Statue of Our Lady of Abingdon
The statue of Our Lady is English, medieval, polychromed stone.
This statue, originally a part of the great abbey of St Mary at Abingdon - a Benedictine monastery in the Middle Ages - was defaced and removed during the dissolution of monasteries in the 16th century. Early in the 20th century, the mutilated statue was found in the wall of the 'Sow and Pigs' public house at Culham and given to the church in Abingdon, where it stood for several years, headless and armless, in St Edmund's chapel. In the 1950s, in preparation for the Church's centenary, the parish priest, Canon Michael Sexton, had the statue restored by a well-known sculptor, Mr Philip Lindsay Clark, with the assistance of a Benedictine monk and medieval art expert, Dom Theodore Bailey. Today, the altar of Our Lady of Abingdon sits to the left of the high altar.
THE STAINED GLASS WINDOW
Nearly all the figures are in some way displaying the symbols (the cross) of the Order of the Knights of Malta. Perhaps a little less obvious is the small figure at the bottom of the centre panel at the foot of St Edmund (5), who is wearing the cloak of the Order and offering a model of the church to the patronal figures above.
This figure represents Sir George Bowyer, a local aristocrat and nationally known legal expert. He became a Catholic in August 1850, and following his conversion, used his wealth and personal prestige in support of the Church. He paid for the building of two churches – one in London and this church in Abingdon. The original St Edmund’s School (now the parish centre) was another of his benefactions. Apart from these philanthropic activities, Sir George was a major figure in the re-founding of an English branch of the Catholic Order of the Knights of Malta, and was made a Knight of Justice in 1858. This fact explains why the figures in the window, apart from Our Lady, St Edmund and Sir George himself, are saints of the Knights of Malta.
THE CENTRE PANEL
Top: Our Lady of Abingdon with her Son, Jesus.
Middle/Bottom (5): St Edmund of Abingdon (also of Canterbury).
Bottom (5): Sir George Bowyer QC., MP., Knight of Malta
1. St Ubaldesca (Virgin of the Order of Malta): St Ubaldesca was born to a humble farming family, and at an early age she resolved never to refuse the requests of the unfortunate. She entered the Order of Malta. As a nun, she gave the poor and the sick whatever she could. When she had nothing to give, she offered at least the comfort of her smile, paying close attention to their tales of trouble with fraternal understanding. She worked for 55 years in the infirmary attached to the monastery at Pisa. She died on 28th May 1206.
2. St John the Baptist (or of Jerusalem): He is the patron of the Order of Malta or Jerusalem, and as he is a very well-known figure, it is unnecessary to add anything in these short notes.
3. St Hugo (Religious of the Order of Malta): Though neither St Hugo’s origins or date of birth are known, he is one of the most highly venerated saints of the Order. He was Commander at Genoa and administered the hospital there. Despite his high position, he worked tirelessly for the poor, giving them food, money, spiritual comfort and brotherly love. According to a contemporary portrait of the saint made when he was still alive, we know that he was a thin, small man, but with a very big heart. He is believed to have died in 1233.
4. Blessed Raymund du Puy (Successor of Blessed Gerard and first Master of the Order of St John of Jerusalem): Born, it is said, in the Dauphine, Blessed Raymund was the first to assume the title of Master of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem. He also introduced among the religious, the triple division of chaplains, knights and serving brothers. The hospital prospered under his stewardship and several popes confirmed the Order’s aims, particularly Innocent II who, in 1130, ordered that the red banner with a white cross be carried into battle.
6. St Toscana (Religious of the Order of Malta): She was born in Zevio near Verona in Italy, in about 1250 and married a man from Verona, Albert Canoculi, with whom she began to do remarkable work for the poor. After her husband’s death, she sold all that she owned and became a nun in the Order of St John of Jerusalem, where she devoted her life to prayer and caring for the sick. She died on 14th July 1344.
7. St Fleur of Beaulieu (Virgin of the Order of Malta): Fleur, or Flora, was born about 1300 at Maurs in the south of France, and at the age of 13 entered the monastery of the Sisters of St John of Jerusalem at Beaulieu, near to Cahors. Here she devoted herself to caring for the poor and the sick in the hospital attached to the monastery. She died in 1347 and her relics are still in the nearby church at Issendulas.
8. Blessed Gerard (Founder of the Order of Malta): It is not certain whether Gerard came from present day Italy or France. He went to Jerusalem, and there he established a hospice for pilgrims and the sick, next to the Church of St John. To maintain his work, he founded a religious community governed in accordance with the Rule of St Augustine. On February 15th 1113, the Order was solemnly approved by Pope Paschal II.
9. St Nicasius (Martyr of the Order of Malta): One of the Kameti family (later known as de Burgo), he was born in Sicily in 1135. He became a knight of the Order of St John, fought as one of the defenders at the siege of Acre in Palestine and was captured and beheaded there in 1187 with many others, including, it is said, his brother Ferrandino, because he would not convert to Islam.