A History of St. Michael's Catholic Church

From Early Times until 1997

Compiled and Written by Monica McAllister

Chapter 5: Father Maxwell and the Growth of Parish Life

The arrival of Father Maxwell brought with it the renewed hope, for the Catholics of Ashtead, that a proper church would soon be theirs. His first newsletter was issued on September 30th 1956 and much of it was devoted to re-assuring his parishioners of his awareness of their desire for a church. He promised them that he would do all in his power 'to see one built soon'. It was to be ten years before that 'soon' became a reality and Father Maxwell would not be alive to see it.

The story of the growth of the parish community and, to some extent, the final achievement of the building of a church can be followed by reading through the weekly newsletters, which Father Maxwell issued. These have been faithfully preserved in the parish archives. He called his weekly newsletter 'St. Michael's Trumpet' and this name is preserved in the title of our current quarterly parish magazine 'The Trumpet'.

Father Maxwell was a much-loved priest, who committed himself wholeheartedly to his people and was respected by them for his qualities of gentleness and patience. He was not a man of business, and dealing with finance and bureaucracy must have been a great trial to him. Something of his personality is shown in the many letters he assiduously wrote in connection with the building of the church. These letters are also preserved in the parish archives. In them he comes across as someone who was unfailingly courteous and always anxious to please. Perhaps he was too anxious to please for it was impossible to please everyone. He had to placate at times his Bishop, his Architect, the Local Council and, no doubt, a few of his parishioners as well.

His struggle to overcome the many obstacles that were put in the way of building a church occupied so much of his time in Ashtead that those, who were not his parishioners in those days, could be forgiven for being unaware of the great deal he achieved in other ways. Under his guidance the parish was to grow as a community and to begin to accept responsibility for its own development.

Given the state of the parish finances it was important that groups of people were formed to generate money which could be used both to pay off the existing debt on Rushmere and to begin a fund for the building of a new church.

Parish notes for November 1956 indicate that one such group had started a parish football pool. This was very successful. Parishioners were asked to encourage friends and neighbours to join as, while perhaps not wishing to contribute directly to the funds for our new church, many people would be happy to chance winning a modest sum on our pools! In one form or another football pools continued until well after the new church was eventually built, dying a natural death some two or three vears later.

In February 1957 he inaugurated a monthly family-offering scheme. Thus collections taken at Masses on a certain Sunday each month would pay for the cost of the weekly newsletter and begin the fund for the building of the new church. This was the forerunner of the covenant scheme, which was officially started in 1959. A young parishioner, Joseph Byllam-Barnes, was apointed organiser. Apart from one short gap, Joseph continued to organise the covenant scheme in the parish until the 198Os. The building fund must have grown very slowly at first. In October 1957 the monthly family offering amounted to £19:18:11d. On October 15th 1961 a special fund raising committee was elected. The position of secretary/treasurer was filled by Joseph Byllam-Barnes and among the committee members was Tony O'Brian who, at the time of the Silver Jubilee, was still a member of the Parish Pastoral Council.

Father Maxwell's desire to get the Bishop's support over the building of a Catholic church in Ashtead was shown in his notices of February 3rd 1957, when the following enjoinder was given:-

"The Bishop will visit the church next Sunday. He will himself say the eleven oclock Mass and administer the Sacrament of Confirmation. It is suggested that all parishioners, who will attend an earlier Mass, return, if possible, about 12 noon to kiss the Bishop's ring as he leaves the church - to show the need for a bigger church."

Psychologically this was a good move. The Bishop would emerge from the crowded hut chapel and be greeted by scores of parishioners standing outside. He could not, Father Maxwell hoped, fail to see the inadequacy of the present accommodation.

Direct giving was not the only way that money was collected for the parish needs. There were the annual seasonal events of the summer garden party and the Christmas Bazaar as well as parish dances and socials. In November 1956 the Bazaar raised £250. Christmas bazaars were held in the local village hall, the Ashtead Peace Memorial Hall. They continued to be held there until our own parish hall was built in 1986. At least one parish Dinner Dance was held in the Bull Hotel, Leatherhead. This was on January 8th 1964 and with tickets priced at £1 each this was obviously a major social event in the parish.

The summer Garden Party in June 1957 raised £150. Garden Parties continued to be held each yearand were very popular with the sum of money raised increasing each time. Father Maxwell believed in the importance of such an event in building up the community spirit of the parish. The Garden Party held in the lovely grounds of Rushmere was an opportunity to involve everyone. There were sideshows, stalls selling all sorts of handwork, refreshments and games organised for the children.

Caring for and providing for the children was high on Father Maxwell's list of priorities. Each year he gave a children's Christmas Party and this was so popular that a photograph and press report of the event appeared in the local paper on at least one occasion.

Also appearing in the local press were accounts of the May Processions and the crowning of Our Lady. Father Maxwell had a great devotion to Our Lady and the May Procession was a very important occasion, with all the children involved. The Sisters of St. Andrew, from the Convent in Grange Rd, prepared the children and helped with the organistion of the procession. The statue of Our Lady, which was the focal point of the procession and also always formed the background to First Holy Communion photographs, had been given to the parish by an American benefactor and blessed by Father Simon Blake O.P.on June 24th, 1956. When the new church was opened this statue was moved from the garden of Rushmere to the present site, outside the church. Sadly this statue was, during Father Veal's time vandalised on two occasions. After the second desecration it was so badly damaged that it had to be replaced.

During the years of Father Maxwell's pastoral ministry, branches of the Legion of Mary (Oct. 1961) and the Union of Catholic Mothers were formed. The ladies also formed an organised group of church cleaners and this tradition has carried on, with the present church cleaned weekly by groups of volunteers. In accordance with political correctness a number of the present cleaning teams now include men. In 1962 the newsletter mentioned the starting of the Repository at the back of the chapel. This was organised and run by Mrs. Joan Bond, who only retired from this particular responsibility in 1993.

None of this meant that Father Maxwell was in any way neglecting the spiritual needs of the parish or of others beyond the parish. On February 3rd, 1957 he started a series of talks for non-Catholics. March 15th 1959 saw the start of the first Mission in the parish. Fathers Hooe and McGowan, of the Catholic Missionary Society were the two priests who gave the mission. In 1960 he invited Father Peter Freed, a priest who was also a Head-teacher in Gui1dford, to preach a series of Lenten sermons and this was repeated each Lent during the following three vears.

Father Maxwell was concerned about the Faith development of the children and young people in his care. He considered that a Catholic education was important and was aware that not all parents were sending their children to a Catholic school. In February 1958 the weekly newsletter contained the following list of Catholic schools, which were available in the locality:-

  • St. Peter's, Leatherhead (5-11, mixed) - new building planned
  • St. Andrew's Convent (5-18, girls) - free after 11
  • Wimbledon College (boys) - fee paying or free with 11+
  • John Fisher, Purley (boys) - as for Wimbledon College
  • St. Peter's, Guildford (boys) - fee paying only
  • St. George's, Weybridge(boys). Fee paying and 11+ by LEA
  • Salesian Convent,Chertsey(girls) - fee paying,Boarding and Day.
  • Salesian College, Chertsey (boys) - as for girls
  • Convent of the Sacred Hearts, Epsom (girls) - fee paying
  • Effingham Hill Convent(girls) - fee paying, Boarding and Day
  • St. Philomena's,Carshalton(girls) - fees, 11+.Boarding & Day.

Father Maxwell made two rooms in Rushmere available for young people to use as a youth club in 1961. This youth club flourished because of the devoted work of Kathleen Ballinger. Kathleen was a parishioner with a full time job in London. However she not only found time to organise the young people but was also daily sacristan and voluntarily did all the typing and duplicating for the parish. It could be said that she was out first Parish Secretary, albeit unpaid. Her success with the young people is indicated in the notices of March 1963 which recorded that they were busy collecting and reselling paperbacks in order to raise money for famine relief.

Fr Maxwell's Memorial