The Catholic church in Okehampton

After the Reformation, there were no churches left in use for the practice of the Catholic religion until after the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. Among the first groups to re-establish Catholic worship were the Armed Forces, who reintroduced Chaplains for all denominations in centres of Service activity.

In 1900, Fr Michael Burns, serving from St. Boniface’s College, Plymouth, from where he travelled by train each week, was the Military Chaplain at Okehampton Camp on Dartmoor.

In 1905, he informed the Bishop that several Catholics from the town were  attending Mass up at the Camp on Sundays and were requesting that they might have a church down in the town, as the climb up the hill was too difficult for many. This was eventually arranged after they did some fund-raising themselves and bought a site in lower Station Road (now identified as the present number 55 and today called ‘Kirk Bungalow’!) in October 1905, for £265. An iron-built church was erected there the following year, and was ‘solemnly inaugurated’ by Bishop Graham on 7th June 1907. Fr Burns continued to provide cover until the first resident parish priest, Fr Francis Moulinet, was appointed to Okehampton in Sept. 1907; he had to live in rented rooms nearby as there was at this stage no presbytery, though Fr Southerden mentions ‘moving into the Presbytery’ in a letter dated October 1915. There is some suggestion in a later press-cutting after the church had been sold that there was accommodation available at the back of the sanctuary area of the church, where the priest lived. The church was officially handed over to the Diocese in December 1907, with the debt paid off.

Fr George Barrett replaced Fr Moulinet in 1911, but then died in 1914. The gap was filled by Fr James Shore until Fr William Southerden was appointed in 1915, but then Fr Southerden appears to have been moved on to Dawlish in October 1916. Fr Cyril Smith was then appointed in 1917.

Fr Smith seems to have been responsible for the move up to the bigger site in Station Road, where we are still. Land was bought in 1919 from Blatchford and Dawe, builders, and the old St Boniface church sold in 1920. The new site was described in a letter from Fr Smith as ‘a field’, and the deeds call it ‘freehold land, formerly part of a close known as ‘Higher Fuddlers’ (Interestingly the 1906 map of Okehampton had shown no other buildings except the Masonic Lodge on the left side going up Station Road below this point, and only the 8 Regency-style houses on the right hand side – see map). By this time, Fr Smith was living in rooms at the Brandize Park Hotel, owned by a parishioner, Miss O’Gorman, directly opposite the new site.

Plans were made to build a new presbytery, church, a schoolroom,(with possibly a Convent to be added later,) starting with the presbytery, which was built in 1920-1 by William Partridge a local builder. At an interview with his daughter in 1987 (when she was in her 70s,) she claims that there appeared to be no Architect’s plans, but her father and Fr Smith laid out the plot on the ground where they intended to put it…. Fr Smith said he wanted it ready to show any generous donor who might come along with the money to build it!

A postcard exists showing a drawing of an ambitious church and presbytery – labelled ‘proposed church and presbytery of ‘Our Lady of the Wayside and the Holy Souls, Okehampton, Devon’ – unfortunately unsigned and undated, but thought possibly from about this time – though as the church had been St Boniface’s from the start, the titling is unexplained.

Returning to the incumbents, Fr Cyril Smith left in May 1928 having paid for a lot of the building himself, and was replaced by Fr John Haslip from June 1928 – 1931; then Fr Aloysius Bourchier did a short stint until 1933 when he was replaced by Fr David Rea, then by Fr William Pedrick. At this time, the average congregation was said to be about 45. Fr Pedrick was a keen model-railway enthusiast and built a track round the grounds, with bridges, tunnels, cuttings and a viaduct leading by a gantry into the ‘engine shed’ in what was the priest’s garage! Cecil Cole remembers seeing evidence of the tunnels, cuttings and gantry when he first came here in 1947, though the track had gone. Apparently Fr Pedrick was an honorary member of the Railway men’s Union, and allowed to drive a steam engine! Fr Pedrick was replaced by Fr Timothy O’Leary in 1944, who was looked after in the presbytery by his two unmarried sisters. Fr Thomas Mellerick took over the parish in 1951, when average Mass attendance had risen to about 100; he in turn was followed by the first Fr Michael (John) Murphy in 1958. Towards the end of Fr Murphy’s time, in about 1965-66 the church was enlarged by adding on another nave area attached to the south wall of the presbytery, to the west side of the sanctuary, and a new entrance porch. The congregation at this time was swelled by a number of Polish ex-Servicemen and families, who had settled in the area, several buying farms.

In 1966, after Fr Murphy came Fr Donald Smith (a keen Glasgow Celtic follower), until being replaced in 1971 by Fr Michael Considine, (a one-time member of the Co.Clare hurling team) until 1975, when the second Fr Michael (Gerard) Murphy was appointed (both Fr Murphys were from Cork).This Fr Murphy served the longest spell yet in St Boniface’s parish, of 12 years until 1987, when Fr Aloysius Coles O.S.B., a Monk of Buckfast, was appointed; he was not very well, and sadly died shortly after he left us, in 1992. Monsignor George Hay (a keen angler), was then parish priest from 1992 to 1997. He organised the replacement of the very large and obstructive pillar in the church where the two parts of the nave came together. This had been over 4 feet square, supporting the outer wall of the presbytery above it, but a narrower steel tubular pillar and supporting RSJ were successfully inserted by Maddafords the builders, in 1994, which has appreciably opened up the church. Following Mgr Hay, Fr Michael Koppel was here from 1997 until exchanging posts in Axminster with Fr Peter Morgan O.S.B., our second monk from Buckfast, in 2003. During his tenure, Fr Peter enlarged the Parish Hall by extending it back into the priest’s garage and improving the old entrance doors at the end. In 2011, he moved to St Austell, and was replaced by Fr Darline Joseph Marianathan.

There are letters in the Diocesan archives which mention the presence of some nuns at the presbytery between May 1915 and 1918, but as there had not appeared to be a proper presbytery at this time – and what their function here was – there are obviously some more facts to be discovered. One other reference suggests that they were Italian nuns from London, seeking refuge from Zeppelin bombing. The absence of further references to the building of a Convent may confirm this, if they left at the end of the war. A chapel was provided in Bridestowe for a short time, possibly at Leawood, but there were difficulties in serving this before the priest had a car, and it appears to have been closed by 1911. Chagford had about 12 in their congregation at a monthly Mass in the Girl Guides hut in 1930, and by 1934 (now in the British Legion hall) this had risen to 40. Their new church was built in 1962/3 and now has weekly Sunday (9.0 am) and Thursday masses. From August 1952 until about 1969 there was also Mass (at 8.0 am) in the Town Hall at North Tawton – all these being served from Okehampton.

Finance was a continuing subject of letters in early days from priests to the Bishops. In 1915, for instance, the priest was paying 34/- weekly rent for accommodation, and the collections did not reach this figure. The Bishop added a quarterly allowance of £12 – even in those days not a great deal – which presumably had to cover all other expenses! An inventory after Fr Barrett died also highlighted how austere was priestly accommodation a century ago.

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