A History of St. Michael's Catholic Church

From Early Times until 1997

Compiled and Written by Monica McAllister

Chapter 4: Rushmere and the Hut Chapel

In 1947 Rushmere, the property behind Mawmead Shaw, came on the market. This was a large house standing in its own grounds and had been built in 1904. It was divided into three flats and the ground floor flat was vacant at the time of selling. Use of this would provide an opportunity for the Catholics of Ashtead to have a resident priest and also to have a parish centre. Father Patrick Kehoe, the Leatherhead curate who was at that time responsible for Ashtead, was very likely involved in promoting the purchase of Rushmere. Parish notices mention his death in early 1958 and remind people that he was connected with the purchase of Rushmere.

The Diocese of Southwark consequently decided to purchase Rushmere, on behalf of the Catholics of Ashtead. This was, of course, on the understanding that the Catholics of Ashtead would repay the Diocese the purchase money, as soon as they could afford to do so, and that they would start collecting money for the purpose of building a 'proper' church.

Meanwhile the original garage church had begun to prove woefully inadequate for the growing number of Catholics and so a large ex-army hut was purchased and erected in its place.

In 1948 the first Priest-in-charge was appointed. He was Father St. Clare-Hill.

On June 24th the first baptism in the hut took place. In the following January the hut was extended in order to seat 110 people and in February 1949 the first wedding was celebrated. Appropriately the first Catholic wedding, with Nuptial Mass, was that of the son of Mr. James Wright, who was so active in working for the establishment of the first post-reformation Catholic church in Ashtead.

Father Hill remained in Ashtead until 1955 when he moved to a parish in East Kent. He had been a chaplain in the services, during the war and his health was not good. It seems probable that it was considered that the building of a new church was too taxing a project for him to undertake. While he was in Ashtead he celebrated the Silver Jubilee of his priesthood. Father Smoker, who was parish priest of Leatherhead at that time, officiated at the special High Mass celebrated in the hut for the occasion.

Father Leake had been parish priest of Leatherhead at the time of the purchase of Mawmead Shaw and was very supportive of the proposed idea to build a church in Ashtead. Father Smoker, who was his successor, was not so keen. He felt that it was a great waste of monev and was in favour of selling the land and giving up the idea of a new church and parish. This was at the time of Father Hill's departure.

Monsignor Wall, who was the Southwark Diocesan Chancellor, was most concerned about this proposal.  He was very sensitive to the fact that so much had already been done by the Ashtead Catholics to raise money for their church.  He did not think it was right to ask them to give it all up.  He therefor volunteered to to takenup residence in Ashtead and to live at Rushmere, while still continuing his work as Chancellor.  He would offer Mass each morning and then commute up to Bishop’s House each weekday and do his work in the Chancellor’s office.  In the evenings he would return to Ashtead and undertake any pastoral duities there and at the weekends he would celebrate the Masses, hear confessions and be available for the needs of the parishioners.

It was a daunting task, for the work in the Chancellor's office was getting heavier. Mgr. Wall must have been very tired each evening, when he returned home to Ashtead. Nevertheless those, who remember him, recall the enthusiasm with which he threw himself into supporting the parish in its aim to build a church. Many an evening he would be found, working with a group of men, clearing the land of shrubs and bushes so that the site was ready for the start of building. He is remembered with affection by those who shared this labour and with gratitude for the regular production of a crate of beer to be shared by all at the end of the evening's work. "I wanted to do something to encourage people and to stop them getting downhearted" he said, in a telephone conversation which I had with him just before the church's Silver Jubilee in 1992.

Written records of his time at Ashtead still exist in the form of notes of the notices he gave out each Sunday at Mass.  He also made a regular recording of weekly Mass attendances which, during the year 1955-56 averaged 345.  Among matters which appeared to give him great concern was the need he felt for a viable youth group to be started in the parish.

After he had been at St. Michael's for just a year, Monsignor Wall was given an ultimatum by the Bishop. Either he resigned as Chancellor or he gave up his work at Ashtead and returned to live in Bishop's House. It was not considered possible for him to cope with the two tasks. In his heart he knew this to be true. After much thought he elected to remain as Chancellor but not before he had brought pressure in dioceSan circles to send to Ashtead a priest who would be capable of achieving the building of a proper church and establishing a separate parish in Ashtead. The priest the Bishop appointed was Father Edward Maxwell.

Fr Maxwell's Memorial