A Change of Century

By the turn of the century, the size of the Parish as a geographical unit had been considerably reduced: The Crays were cared for by a priest from St. Mary Cray (1873); Bexley Hospital was built in 1890 and from this time onwards was to be cared for by the priests of St. Mary’s, establishing a strong link, particularly between the nursing staff and the Parish. The approximate catholic population was 400. The average Mass attendance was 62 each Sunday at two Masses. Evening Service would attract more than 50 people.

Father Carroll

Monsignor Hogan, said to be a very severe man, retired in 1912 and was succeeded by Father Carroll, who moved from St. Mary Cray. Father Carroll was a scholar and writer, and a parishioner who knew him well, describes him as a walking angel. He was renowned for his long sermons and acts of charity. The year 1912 also marked the coming of the Marist Fathers to Sidcup.

Father Carroll was in Crayford through the period of the first World War. By 1915, the Catholic population had risen to 600, plus 1,000 Belgian refugees. Mass attendance was 252 and Evening Service had an attendance of approximately 70. On February 14th 1915, Bishop Amigo visited the church and it is clear from his report that the problem of lapsing was one which exercised the minds of the clergy. They were also concerned with the question of children leaving school, and asked the Bishop to encourage the people to go to communion more frequently. Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament took place on two Sundays of the year, Easter Sunday and Rosary Sunday. During the war years, there was a special Mass for the Belgian community at a Belgian chapel which used to draw an attendance of over 100 people. The chapel was situated in the Broadway Bexleyheath close to Gravel Hill. There was a Visitation of the Parish by the Bishop on the 5th June 1917 at which a very good congregation for a weekday was present. The same evening Sheerness was bombed and there was a threat that Crayford might suffer a similar fate. By 1919 the Belgian refugees had left. Father Carroll continued his parochial work and his care for the sick at Bexley Hospital, also known as the Bexleyheath Asylum. Father Carroll had real difficulties with the question of money raising for the Parish, since many people felt that as Father Alberry had been able to leave a considerable sum of money, he should be able to do the same. They were therefore not over generous. In 1923, the church was decorated by the men of the Parish who were out of work. They gave their labour free, and materials were supplied by a generous parishioner. In 1925, the average Mass attendance was just over the 100, and the income was £406. On the 21st July, 1927, the Altar Rails were erected as a memorial to Mrs. Hart Davis who formerly lived in Halcot, a large house now demolished. The sermon on this occasion was preached by Father Bede Jarrett, O.P. Father Hughes succeeded Father Carroll as Parish Priest. He had been a chaplain in the war and was a very nervous man. His stay was short.

Father James Malone

The appointment of Father James Malone as Parish Priest in 1927 coincided with a period of rapid housing development in the locality. Housing estates sprang up on land previously used for farming and orchards. For some time, discussion had been going on with a view to the provision of a church and school in Bexleyheath. Soon after his arrival, Father Malone was asked by Bishop Amigo for his views, as the diocese was considering buying a plot of land and the house on it from Mr. Ryan of Herbert House, Bexley, at a cost of £1,800. The deal was not concluded, as it was not considered to be completely acceptable. Father Malone continued to look for a suitable site and late in 1928 found one at the corner of Lion Road and Heathfleld Road. By 1932 plans were ready for the provision of a temporary church in Heathfield Road. At the same time negotiations were proceeding for the purchase of another site at Brampton Road. Unfortunately this fell through, and after another attempt, the site on the Parsonage Farm Estate, Belvedere, was obtained at a cost of £925, and is the present site of the Church of St. Thomas More, Long Lane, A temporary church was erected and opened in February 1936. For a period of time it was looked after by Father Malone and his curates until a priest was appointed there before the war. At the same time, the needs of the people of Bexley village required attention. Initially, the possibility of obtaining a property in Vicarage Road from the University of Oxford was investigated. However, difficulties were encountered and a site off the High Street, Bexley was found and purchased at a cost of £750. A temporary church was erected, and Mass was said there prior to the Second World War. The site was large enough for a permanent church and priests’ house.

In the Mother Parish of Crayford, the Catholic population continued to grow, as shown by the rise in the Mass attendance. A Parish Hall for the use of the Parish was erected in 1931 at a total cost of £608 including furniture. It was this same Hall that was to remain in existence until it was demolished prior to our present building programme. By 1933, two Masses were being said each Sunday in Bexleyheath. The Mass attendance was just under 200. One problem of concern for the priests at this time was the question of education, particularly for those children who were of senior school age, i.e. over 11, with the development of the new Central School in Iron Mill Lane. Church numbers continued to grow and by 1936 the Mass attendance at St. John Vianney, Bexleyheath was over 200 people on a Sunday, at St. John Fisher’s in Bexley 150, and at St. Thomas More it was well over 200.

Father Peter King

Father Malone left Crayford in 1936 and was succeeded as Parish Priest by Father Peter King, who was responsible for considerable alterations in the church, e.g. removal of the pulpit and erection of the oak panelling. With the coming of the war, many new problems were created, Many of the male parishioners were called up. An air raid in April 1941 badly damaged the windows, doors and slates of the church and school. The Parish of St. John Vianney became an independent Parish with its own resident priest.

Father Brendan Byrne

Father Brendan Bryne succeeded Father King as Parish Priest at St. Mary’s and was presented with the problems of the last years of the war and the post war years. The need to enlarge the Parish School of St. Joseph’s was acute and Father Byrne fought hard for this. By 1946 there were three Masses at St. Mary’s with an average Mass attendance of 306. By 1950 the Mass attendance had risen to over 400 and Old Bexley was attracting a congregation of just over 300.

Father V. St. Clare Hill

In 1955, Father Byrne was transferred by the bishop to Sutton and was succeeded by Father V. St. Clare Hill. At the same time the Parish of St. John Fisher at Bexley became an independent Parish with its own resident priest. In many of the post-war visitations of the Parish by the Bishop, the wish was expressed that a new building or enlarged church should be provided at Crayford. These words were taken to heart, and in the early sixties a Church Building & Restoration Fund was established. This fund, in fact, formed the basis of monies used in our present project. The Parish School was further extended and a new School Hall was completed in 1970. Now attempts are being made to enlarge the school into a two-form entry school.

The past ten years have been ones of change and development, with all the opportunities presented by the Second Vatican Council. Changes were particularly noticed within the liturgy, ecumenical relationships with other churches, and the social concern of catholics within the community. To assist and co-ordinate all this, a Parish Newsletter was launched by the St. Mary’s Entertainments Group in February 1967. In the late ’50s there had been a Parish magazine ‘The Toddler’, but this had ceased publication. In 1967, the Sanctuary was redesigned to permit Mass facing the people and greater participation in the liturgy. Other events were going on at the same time. In October 1966 the first All Night Vigil from the Parish to the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes took place. Late in 1967, the St. Mary’s Brownie Pack was established. The origins of the present building programme reach back to the work of the St. Mary’s Church Building & Restoration Fund (mentioned earlier) and to the formation of the Parish Co-ordinating Committee in May 1968, which had the task of co-ordinating all the life of the Parish. This Parish Committee was to be the preparation for the formation of the St. Mary’s Parish Pastoral Council. Linked to all this, in the Spring of 1968, House Masses commenced in the homes of the Parish on a systematic basis. To this end, the Parish was divided into Sections or mini-parishes.