In December 1914, a Miss Noel expressed the wish to open an Oratory in her house (The Moats) in Fincham. With the permission of Admiral and Lady Noel, a painting studio was converted into a small chapel. Fr Joseph Vendé travelled from Swaffham to celebrate Mass in Fincham. He had taken on the Swaffham Mission in 1912 and he related these events in the Mission Book.
Fr Vendé continued to celebrate Mass in Fincham until the opening of the Downham Market Mission in 1915. The Mission Book tells us that "The principal event recorded for this year (1915) was the opening of the church at Downham Market. By permission of the Bishop, and the generosity of Miss Noel, the principal benefactress, together with Mrs Wayman, a local resident and recent convert, a stable was provided to be used as a chapel. On March 19th, I said the first Mass since the Reformation in Downham Market, in the presence of a few stray Catholics and in the evening I gave Benediction, at which many non-Catholics assisted. Miss Winter and the nuns of Swaffham were present, with the pupils, to form the choir."
In 1916, the Catholic population of Downham Market was 14 and there were 2 converts. In 1917, Fr Vendé said Mass alternately every Sunday at Downham and Narborough Camp ( a World War 1 aerodrome).
Thereafter, the history is rather obscure until a Fr Meadon rented a house in Priory Rd and said Mass there for several years.
In 1937, Miss Wall (a Catholic) bought Tower House on Howdale Rd as a home for people with learning difficulties. Part of the billiard room was converted into a chapel and Mass was celebrated by a Spanish priest who had escaped the Spanish Civil War.
In 1941, the stables belonging to Tower House became St Dominic's Church. The altar was originally where the sacristy is now. The church was blessed by Bishop Leo Parker and incorporated into the Diocese of Northampton (as it then was...now the Diocese of East Anglia). "The faithful practised the Penitential Rite there and then, by kneeling on a hard brick floor", one parishioner reported. Fr Pitt was our first parish priest. He had escaped the London Blitz, with impaired eyesight "but extremely unimpaired vision", it was said. "This much-loved man of God travelled in and around Downham on a bicycle, getting to know folk".
Tower House was a substantial Victorian residence which stood approximately where the present church carpark is now. During the First World War, it had been a Red Cross hospital. The McKenna family took over Tower House from Miss Wall and it continued as a home for people with learning difficulties until it burnt down in 1965. Only the billiard room survived and is now a private residence.
The McKenna family were a very special and exceedingly generous part of our parish history, donating property and land to the church.
The wrought-iron gates in front of the church originally stood at the entrance to Tower House. The stone pillars have "Tower House" inscribed on them. The parish room was originally a harness room and the upper room, a hayloft.
The church was extended in 1980, reflecting the growth in Catholic numbers over the years. A fine bell-tower was added, thanks to a huge and dedicated fundraising effort.
In recent years, the sanctuary has been enhanced by a new stone altar and lectern, marble floor and other fine stonework. Bishop Michael Evans finally dedicated the church in 2006. A stone plaque records the history of the church.
The Lady Altar has a statue of Our Lady of Walsingham. The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham is only some 25 miles away. The annual Diocese of East Anglia pilgrimage to Walsingham takes place in May. Our beautiful parish banner is proudly carried in procession on the pilgrimage. The banner (made by a very talented parishioner) is displayed on the wall opposite the Lady Altar.
We thank God for all the priests and parishioners who have worshipped in our church and built up our parish over the years, from its humble beginnings in a stable. And we pray that God will bless our parish and help us to carry on His work with hearts full of love and joy; to grow as His children and to reach out to others in friendship and charity.
Joe Walton (Parish Chairman)
FURTHER NOTES ON THE HISTORY
Parish of St Dominic, Downham Market
These notes on the history of the parish over the first 65 years are derived mainly from a booklet compiled by several parishioners at the time of the extension of the church in 1980.
The Rev. Fr. Vendé recorded in the Swaffham Mission Book that he had said Mass in an oratory at the house of Miss Noel, ‘The Moats’, in Fincham, by permission of Admiral and Lady Noel. The number of Catholics was two at the time, but there were also several refugees from Downham Market and district. Fr. Vendé continued to say Mass there every Sunday during 1914.
In 1915 a chapel was opened at Downham Market in a former stable provided by Miss Noel and Mrs Wayman, a local resident and recent convert from Roehampton. On the 19th March Fr. Vendé celebrated here the first Mass since the Reformation in this area, in the presence of a small number of Catholics. In the evening he gave Benediction attended also by many non-Catholics. A Miss Winter and the nuns from Swaffham convent were present, with pupils, to form the choir. Fr. Vendé said Mass here almost every Sunday except during the fourth year of the Great War, when Mass was said only once a month on account of heavy motor expenses.
In September 1915 the first convert, Mrs Neal, was received into the Church, as a consequence of a Mission, and on April 15th, 1916 a workman, Adolphus Staff was also received. At this time Fr Blackett, SJ served at Downham Market for a month. The average attendance at Mass and at Benediction was about ten, together with twelve from the Red Cross Hospital.
In 1917 Fr Vendé said Mass on alternate Sundays at Downham Market and at Narborough Camp. On January 1st he baptised the four children of Mrs Gayton.
Very little information is available regarding the parish over the next few years.
A later priest, Fr Meadon, rented a house in Priory Road where he said Mass for some time, at first with about five adults and three children.
Much later, in 1937, Miss Wall, a Catholic, bought Tower House, the former Red Cross Hospital, with many rooms and extensive gardens, and here she set up a house for Special Children. This became the Mass centre for Downham Market. Part of the billiard room was converted into a chapel and Mass was celebrated by a Spanish priest known to Miss Wall. The Special Children, the staff and several people from Downham Market and district attended Mass on Sundays and Holy Days.
A few years later Fr Pitt arrived in the parish, having escaped the London blitz. He travelled around Downham and the villages by bicycle, getting to know people. We learn that one great love of his life was the parish children for whom he arranged a class on Sunday afternoons, teaching them the Latin and singing for Mass and Benediction. We learn, too, that several statues were presented to the chapel including the Sacred Heart, St Dominic, Our Lady of Walsingham and St Thérèse of Lisieux.
In 1941the stables and harness room were given to the parish and became St Dominic’s Church, duly blessed by Bishop Parker, and incorporated into the Diocese.
Parishioners welcomed the Student Cross pilgrims en route to Walsingham in 1948, and were greatly helped by shopkeepers and townsfolk in providing food and beds for the night for the pilgrims. They passed through the market place in Downham where it is recorded that a certain Fr John Heenan (later Cardinal Heenan) had preached on a Catholic Evidence Guild platform many years before.
After the departure of Miss Wall, Tower House became the property of Mr and Mrs James McKenna and Mr Bates, who continued the work of looking after the Special Children. The McKenna family were exceedingly generous parishioners, donating property and land for the church. However, disaster struck in 1965 when Tower House, apart from part of the games room, was destroyed by fire. The main iron gates are now re-sited in front of the church.
Fr Oswald Baker became parish priest in 1949 and remained here for 24 years. Since he was solely attached to the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, the bishop appointed Fr Anthony Sketch, the parish priest of Swaffham, as parish administrator at Downham in 1975. He gave enthusiastic help for two years and was succeeded by Fr Anthony Seeley, who also ran the two parishes. At this time the harness room was converted into a sacristy.
In 1978 Fr Peter Brown came to Downham as Parish Priest. He endeavoured to be caring for the elderly and for the children. With his encouragement, and the co-operation of several parishioners, groups were set up for Scripture Study and Readers, catechism classes for over thirty children, Rosary recitation at 3.00pm every Wednesday, CAFOD/Survive Miva collections, and a CWL group which carried out much parish and charity work. There were also parish and children’s choirs.
A great event occurred in 1980, the church was extended, providing a dignified sanctuary and much additional space for the growing number of parishioners.
That, in brief, is the story of the first 65 years of St Dominic’s Parish.
During the past 36 years our parish priests have been; Fr Henry McCarthy, Fr Liam Crowley (1989), Fr Edward Eggleston (2003), Fr Michael Vulliamy (2010), and at present Fr Erico Falcão (2016), all of whom have made considerable contributions to parish life. Fr Eggleston was responsible for the wonderful stonework re-ordering of the sanctuary. The Dedication of the church followed in 2006.
Mass attendance has unfortunately declined over the last twenty-five years, from over 250 to fewer than 100 in 2016, but there are welcome signs of a reversal. Parish activities are reviving, organised by several dedicated parishioners; days of recollection, a parish pilgrimage to Walsingham, and various social events including parish lunches and suppers, and refreshments after Sunday Mass. There is a loyal organist, but sadly, no longer a choir.
Thanks to the pastoral resolve of Fr Erico we now have Morning Prayer before Tuesday and Thursday Masses, Rosary after Friday Mass, and a home Rosary chain in October. These activities are still not well patronised, but hopefully a strong community spirit will again soon develop at St Dominic’s Church.