Early Days

As you enter Sacred Heart church, have you ever wondered about the history of Catholicism in our town? For most of us, the answer would be a resounding “Never!” but, as we enter the next Millennium, it is perhaps timely to pause, reflect and give thanks to those without whose efforts we might well not have a parish church at all.

None can be unaware of the traumas endured by the Catholic church in recent centuries and the long period when no Catholic churches existed at all. As the nineteenth century progressed and laws changed it gradually became possible for Catholics in England to establish their own places of worship.

A first mention of Catholicism in Leighton Buzzard was recorded in 1862 when Joseph Stevenson, a former vicar of All Saints, together with his wife, converted to Catholicism. He was ordained priest in 1872, but this is the only evidence of a Catholic presence in the area at the time. After all, Bedfordshire, and, of course, Bedford itself, was famous as the mission field of non-conformist John Bunyan.

As with many Catholic churches in the late Victorian era, Sacred Heart, Leighton Buzzard came from very humble beginnings. A visiting priest said an occasional Mass in one of the surrounding villages, then from 1881 onwards Mass was celebrated in Linslade by the Rev. Canon Stokes from Wolverton. A Father Wrigglesworth was invited to say Mass in Hockliffe Grange when it was in Catholic ownership.

Small Beginnings

Around this time Mrs Elizabeth White, the widow of a local wine merchant, persuaded Father Parkes, the parish priest at Wolverton, to say Mass in Leighton Buzzard on a regular monthly basis. Correspondence between Mrs White of Eagle House, 5 Market Square, and the Bishop, Arthur Riddell, shows that on 5 September 1892 she donated her investment in the then Midland Railway to the Diocese to make possible the founding of the parish saying:

Eagle House,

5 Market Square,

Leighton Buzzard,

Sept. 5. 92

My   dear Lord Bishop,

I   gave yesterday to Father Parkes my “Midland Railway” papers which he   suggested forwarding on at once by post, but I advised him to wait and take   them to you himself.

It   is with great happiness to me that at last the commencement of a mission is   made here & I trust it will bring a Blessing to the Town.

Yours   very sincerely,

Mrs   E. White

Mrs White’s gift amounted to two certificates of stock in Midland Railway, which had a nominal value of £436 and were set to return about £25 per year. The Bishop in his reply states that the money was to be used “for the benefit of Leighton Buzzard mission where Mass is now said once a month”. The gift may seem a trifling sum by today’s standards, but, at the time, it represented about four years pay for an artisan, or the purchase price of four or five houses in this area. The annual dividend of £25 would be about six months’ pay for an unskilled labourer.

The Mass Centre

The gift, and an advance of a year’s rent of £24, made it possible to hire a room as a Mass centre. The room was in premises in North   Street which later became the Co-op clothes’ shop, and is now D. Kings’ Opticians. The first celebration of what was to become monthly Mass took place on 22nd May 1892, and Father Parkes had temporary charge of the rising Leighton Mission.