A History of St. Michael's Catholic Church

From Early Times until 1997

Compiled and Written by Monica McAllister

Chapter 6: The Pressing Need for a Permanent Church

Not all went smoothly for the hut chapel or for Rushmere. In July 1958 an attempt was made to set the chapel on fire. Someone had gone in and placed lighted candles allover the chapel and then put a light to the newspapers at the back of the church. Fortunately no great damage was done.

In March 1963 silver candlesticks were stolen from the altar. They were however found by the police in an antique shop in Leatherhead and were able to be returned in time for the traditional Easter services on April 14th.

The inadequacy of the hut began to show as leaks appeared in several places. In November 1962 water came up through the floor during the sermon and Father Maxwell found himself preaching in a mini-pond. Theresa Connor, who has been a parishioner since 1954, recalls those days:

“Our church was a small leaky wooden hut on the site of the present carpark and when it rained the water seeped in and both priest and people stood in puddles of water. There were trestle tables, meant for the newspapers, at the back of the church but on wet days, as we stepped carefully across the duckboards at the entrance, my family recall that as small children the priest would call out to them to hop up and sit on these tables to keep their feet from getting wet. The church was so small that it was often crowded and people were standing at the back. It wasn't too comfortable even if one got a seat as in those days we seemed to kneel a lot more and those bare planks of wood (the unpadded kneelers) may have been good for the soul, but were very hard on the knees!”

Other parishioners recall carrying their children in so that they would not get their feet wet. It is recorded that as time went on the side walls began to sag because of the damage caused by water seeping in. Joan Bond recalled playing a wheezy harmonium which was worked by foot bellows. According to Joan it was always missing the very note which was needed to bring in the singing of the congregation. The need for a new church was becoming more pressing.

Meanwhile the congregation began to grow in size as Ashtead expanded and there was a need for the celebration of more Masses on Sundays. The Sisters of St. Andrew had a resident chaplain, who was a retired missionary priest called Father Coleman. His help was requested and he was able to come and celebrate an extra Mass each Sunday. Indeed he helped with the celebration of a Sunday Mass for a few years after the new church was opened in order that the parish was presented with a wide choice of Mass times.

More help arrived in 1963. A Catholic Boys' Prep School, St. Dominic's, was opened in Leatherhead (this school only existed for a few years). The Headmaster who had been appointed was a Father Bogan and accommodation was found for him at Rushmere so he was also a help at weekends.

The building of a new church had always been Father Maxwell's priority but getting permission from the Bishop to embark on the project was a different matter. He had to persuade Bishop Cowderoy that a proper church was a necessity and that the parishioners were willing and able to take on the financial costs involved. There was still the loan from the diocese for the purchase of Rushmere to be cleared.

In October 1959, during his visitation, the Bishop referred to the people's desire for a proper church. He promised them that they could start to build when one "third of the money needed had been collected. Father Maxwell encouraged his parishioners in various ways. Even the young were made to think about a new church and their enthusiasm was aroused by an art competition in connection with the 1960 Christmas Fair. They were asked to draw and paint a picture of what they thought the new church should look like. There were three prizes offered. One was for those under nine years of age, another was for those in the nine to twelve years age group and the third was for those between twelve and fifteen years of age.

In April 1955 the debt to the Diocese (for the purchase of Rushmere) had been £8000. By January 1957 it had been reduced to £6535 and, a year later, at the beginning of February 1958 it had been reduced to £4999, a cheque for £1036 having been sent off to the Diocesan Office. On January lst 1960 the loan oustanding was still £3449 but by December 31st 1961 it was nil and £4787:9:8d had already been accumulated in the fund for the building of a new church.

This improvement in the financial situation was the result of devoted efforts by the parishioners and also of the frugal manner in which Father Maxwell lived. Rushmere was not a comfortable house in the winter. Because of its age there were problems with keeping it warm. In a newsletter as late as May 1963, it is mentioned that the Dean on a visit to inspect the presbytery insisted it be painted and that some kind of heating be installed, as well as improved plumbing, damp proofing and insulation. Not only a modern church but also a modern presbytery was needed.

In May 1961 Father Maxwell telephoned Bishop's House and requested permission to approach an architect and ask him to draw up plans for a new church and presbytery for an estimated total cost of £38000. Written permission arrived on May 30th. A Mr. Eduado Dodds of Queen Anne St, off Wimpole St. was approached and wrote in September to confirm his pleasure at working on the project. He had already visited the site and lunched with Father Maxwell. He referred to this visit as a 'day in the country' and informed Father Maxwell that he was preparing drawings for a church to seat 350 people plus a Hall and Presbytery. He had also designated an area of the site for a car park and another for the later building of a primary school.

Fr Maxwell's Memorial