Father Stephen Webb's History of the Bicester Catholc Mission.
In 1946 the then Parish Priest of Bicester, Rev. Fr. Stephen Webb S.J. wrote a short history of the Bicester Cathilc Mission for the Bicester Advertiser. The circumstances that caused this to be produced are not know. It is reproduced in its entirity below.
SHORT HISTORY OF THE BICESTER CATHOLIC MISSION CAOMPLED BY FR. S.F.WEBB, S.J.
It was in 1869 that the late Lord North (then the Hon. Wm. North of Wroxton Abbey, and Master of the Bicester Hunt) endeavoured to revive the Catholic Mission to Bicester. He and his wife had recently become converts to the Catholic faith. It was through his enterprise that Father J.Robson, then priest at Hethe, started to come to Bicester to offer the Holy Sacrifice in a cottage which once stood on the site of the present ‘Diamond Villa’ between Metcalfe’s and Cherry’s in Sheep Street. It was occupied by an Italian pedlar named Roccotenchio. It was probably the first time Mass had been celebrated since the dissolution of St. Edburg’s monastery in 1534.
It was for Father Robson’s successor, Dr. Philip Sweeney, to purchase an acre of land in King’s End in 1882 and in the subsequent year to erect a school-chapel to serve as a small school and in which mass would be celebrated occasionally.
The school was opened on St. Joseph’s Day, March 19th 1883, and the first Mass was offered on the Easter Day following, March 25th. At that time there were 25 Catholics in Bicester and Stratton Audley.
But shortly after the school was opened Dr. Sweeney was removed from Hethe, and the collapse of his work was only averted by the courage of the far from robust Father Glossop, who for twelve years travelled – sometimes on foot, sometimes by pony trap – to and from Souldern (eight miles distant) to keep alive the spark of catholicity and consolidate what Dr. Sweeney had begun.
It was during this period that Miss Elizabeth Durham was engaged as headmistress. She remained for 25 years in that capacity and founded the happy tradition which has never left the school. But the brave Father Glossop grew old and financially the school was weighed down by an annual debt of £150 (it was not until the 1902 Education Act that the Board of Education contributed to paying teachers’ salaries in voluntary schools). Things looked black. But once again help came, and Father Dolman, of Banbury, and at that time Dean, and Mr. Thomas Garner, of Fritwell Manor, took charge of the school as co-managers on July 27th 1901. That same year the property of ‘South View’ in King’s End came into the market and was purchased.
It was at this time that the religious Orders were driven out of France, robbed and impoverished, and three years later, on November 13th 1904, one of these exiled communities, a branch of the great Benedictine Order known as Olivetan Nuns, obtained permission from their bishop to settle in South View rent free. Count Arthur Moore aided them for three years. In 1906 a part of what had originally been the old monastic buildings known as the Old Priory was bought, and, having built the new extension (which now serves as the Catholic Church) the nuns, with eight of them on the staff, established a small private school for girls. But it was difficult to find sufficient means to support a priest to serve the nuns and the few Catholics in and around Bicester. First of all Fathers from the recently established Servite Monastery at Begbroke cycled over for Mass on Sundays and Benediction on Thursdays. They were helped by Monsieur l’Abbe Pasquier, sent over by the Vicar-General of Chartres. Both he and his successor, Father Venence Vie O.F.M., lived at ‘South View’ as did also the first of the Fathers of the Sacred Heart, Father Custodoat, from Betharram, near Lourdes. This religious congregation later started a petit seminare in ‘The Limes’, Church Street. The good fathers served the Convent until November 3rd 1920, when, the religious persecutions in France having subsided, the nuns returned to their mother country and the Fathers of the Sacred Heart to their native town in the Pyrenees. Father Permasse, the last to leave, will be remembered by not a few present residents of Bicester.
During this time, in 1908, part of the nuns’ chapel in the building adjoining ‘Priory House’ was screened off for public use. It was formerly opened on March 7th in that year. When the nuns left Bicester in 1920 the whole chapel was thrown open to the public. It is being used as the parish church at the present time.
From 1920 to 1921 the Catholics were served by Father John Hanrahan and from 1921 to 1924 by Father Christopher Heron. From 1924 the Mission was again served by priests drawn mainly from the Servite Fathers at Begbroke, until 1931, when Bicester was linked up with Hethe and supplied from there by Father Ignatius McHugh until April, 1937. On his retirement owing to ill-health, Archbishop Williams appointed Father Stephen Webb S.J., to succeed him as parish priest of Hethe and Bicester. He had the special task of collecting £950 to bring the school buildings into line with the requirements of the local education authorities, which entailed the addition of two new classrooms and he introduction of central heating throughout the building. This was completed in the summer of 1939.
Owing to the shortage of priests at the outbreak of war, due to the demand for military chaplains, Father Webb continued to act as priest in Hethe and Bicester. In August, 1942 he left Hethe and occupied the house at 48 King’s End which had been bequeathed to the archdiocese by Miss. Quigley, who had died there on February 9th of that year.
Owing to the growth of the congregation in Bicester during the war years, Bicester became a parish of its own in 1943. The same year the Catholic Women’s League erected a large brick canteen for service men and women on the property adjoining the school. It was opened by the Archbishop of Birmingham (Dr. Williams) on December 15th, 1943.
[The Bicester Advertiser and Mid-Oxon Chronicle, January 11, 1946]