The Archdiocese of Birmingham - The Parish of the Immaculate Conception

Rocco Tenchio and (probably) the first Mass in Bicester since the Reformation.

A page from Hewiett's Bicester Directory of 1864. The advertisment of interest is that of Rocco Tenchio of Sheep Street who,

"Begs to thank the Public of the Town and Neighbourhood for the patronage bestowed upon him for the past 20 years and hopes, by selling the best articles at the lowest possible prices, to share a continuance of the same."

Encouraged by the Hon. William Noth of Wroxton Abbey, near Banbury - he would later become the 11th Lord North and who, like his wife, had been received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1867, Dr. Philip Sweeny, Parish Priest at Hethe, in 1869 began celebrating the sacrifice of the Mass in Bicester. At the time there were some 34 Catholics in Bicester and Stratton Audley out of a population of 3,700. The Mass was celebrated in a thatched cottage in Sheep Street that was both the home and shop of Rocco Tenchio, whose English wife Elizabeth, who had also been received into the Church, gave catechism lessons to the children in the afternoon. A sucession of Rocco and Elizabeth's children were baptised by Fr. Joseph Robson and his busness survived late into the century. Rocco died in 1895 and his wife passed away a year later.

William North who, following his reception into the Church is said to have divided his time between prayer, business and hunting (he was Master of the Bicester Hunt), was a great-grandson of George III's minister. Lord North and was in his time: High Steward of Banbury, an Oxfordshire County Councillor, a magistrate for four counties and a Hon. Colonel in the Oxon and Bucks Light Infantry.

(Joy Grant - Hethe-with-Adderbury: the story of a Catholic parish in Oxfordshire. Archdiobese of Birmingham Historical Commission Publication Number 16.)

Lord and Lady North's interest in the Catholcis of the Bicester went further. The possibility of a future Catholic school is alluded to in a couple of lines appearing in the Bicester Herald, dated: 20th November 1868:

“Roman Catholicism is making progress in this locality, one of the results is the intended opening of a Catholic school at Bicester.”

A fortnight later, 4th December 1868, the same paper simply reports that:

“A Catholic school is opened and a Catholic chapel is spoken of, at Bicester.”

The existence of the school, possibly private, earns a mention in the Victoria County History for Oxfordshire (volume 6, page 53) and could have been situated somewhere in King’s End although its exact address is unknown. Hewitt’s Directory of Bicester, for 1870, lists a Miss. Harriett Luker who is described as a “Catholic school mistress”, and which the census the following year records as being aged 67, as having been born in Banbury and as residing on the Oxford Road in King’s End. Although this remains to be confirmed, there exists the speculative possibility that the school and Harriett Luker’s home were at the same address.

By January 1869 the school seems to have been sufficiently well established for the Bicester Herald of the 8th to report:

“Treat to the Catholic school children at Bicester – on Monday last the Hon. Mrs. North treated the children who attended the Catholic school, Bicester, to a tea. The gathering was attended by the kind benefactress and Master North, and the children spent a very pleasant evening.”

That Lord and Lady North took a keen interest in the school and its pupils is confirmed by subsequent reports. The Bicester Herald, this time dated: 17th September 1869, reports:

"The Bicester Catholic school children were, by the Hon.W.H.J.North conveyed to and from Straton Audley, on the afternoon of Thursday last, September 16. They had an excellent repast, and were waited on by the Hon. Mrs. North. Prizes were awarded in athletic games.”

Again, the following summer, 8th July 1870, the same paper reports that:

“The Catholic school children at Bicester have by the liberality of the Hon. W.H.J.North and his lady, had their annual treat and holiday.”

Unfortunately, at this stage mention of the school seems to disappear from the pages of the Bicester Herald and no further report of its existence has been traced. Its exact location, the duration of its existence and its eventual fate are, alas, a mystery and await further investigation. Twelve years later, in 1882, Dr. Philip Sweeny would purchase a plot of land, now the site of the Montgomery House Health Centre, and would build a school that would also serve as a chapel. After over three hundred years the Catholics of Bicester would again have a permanent place of worship.