A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1994.
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In the later 16th century and the early 17th Roman Catholic worship in the Colchester area centred mainly around the Audleys of Berechurch who were active recusants for over 140 years. Catherine Audley (d. 1611), her grandson Sir Henry (d. c. 1672), and Henry's widow Anne (d. c. 1704) were all supporters of the Catholic cause. In 1562 mass was said regularly in the Audleys' house. (fn. 1) In 1577 congregations of up to 30 people attended mass at Berechurch, and Catherine, described as a very wealthy and dangerous woman, was indicted for her involvement with 'riotous assemblies' of papists. (fn. 2) The daughter of Sir Richard Southwell, she was an ardent Catholic who encouraged her household and tenants to defy the authorities. Her servant, Thomas Debell, 'a notable papist and a lewd busy fellow', was imprisoned in 1584 for sedition. (fn. 3)
The 1560s and 1570s were a period of intensive Catholic activity when many papists were presented for recusancy; the bailiffs, who were very intolerant of Catholicism, did their utmost to persuade the dissidents to conform. (fn. 4) One very prominent Catholic was Richard Cousins who, in the 1550s, owned the White Hart inn in which Bishop Bonner's agents stayed. In 1562 Cousins was imprisoned in the moot hall for his papist activities. (fn. 5) Named repeatedly in the indictments was Roche Green (d. 1602), whose son Richard (d. 1590) was ordained in Rome in 1582, (fn. 6) and who, resisting earnest attempts to convert him, spent c. 20 years in prison, some of them in Colchester. (fn. 7) Other Essex recusants were imprisoned in Colchester castle, some for long periods. (fn. 8)
The use of Essex ports by papists crossing to and from the Continent was seen as a threat by the authorities; a priest and Mrs. Audley's son were carried to Douai, probably from Colchester, before 1577 by John Lone, a Wivenhoe mariner. (fn. 9) Other recusants on their way abroad, either from the Hythe or from Harwich, passed through Colchester; in 1578 a party of travellers which included nuns from the Low Countries was arrested at the White Hart inn on the way from Harwich to London. In 1584, in an attempt to control such traffic, commissioners were appointed to watch the port and issue passports; bonds were to be taken from all shipowners. (fn. 10)
During the 17th century and the greater part of the 18th the number of Roman Catholics in the town, c. 17 in 1625, declined steadily; in 1688 the mayor reported that no fines for non-attendance at church had been levied during the previous 11 years. In 1766 there were perhaps only 4 or 5 papists. The nearest priest was at Great Bromley Hall between c. 1720 and 1760 and at Giffords Hall in Stoke-by-Nayland (Suff.) in 1767. (fn. 11) By 1795 a small group of Irish Catholic exiles from the Continent were living in the town, ministered to by an exiled French priest. (fn. 12)
In the early 19th century large numbers of Irish Catholic soldiers arrived in the town. A priest in St. Botolph's parish who taught French to officers from the garrison in 1810 may have been Armand Benard, a French priest serving Colchester by 1812. In 1814 he recorded 11 civilian Catholics resident in the town and 12 baptisms, some presumably of soldiers' children, but no chapel seems to have been registered. (fn. 13) Many Irish Catholic soldiers settled in Colchester after the Napoleonic wars and Irish names figure prominently in the baptismal registers up to 1817. In 1816 the military were withdrawn, Benard moved to Witham Place, and for 19 years Colchester had no resident priest; Gifford's Hall and Witham Place were the nearest Catholic centres. (fn. 14)
In 1831 William Dearne, an ex-soldier who had settled in the town as an ironmonger and nailmaker, provided a small building at the foot of North Hill where mass was said regularly by a priest from Witham. (fn. 15) There may have been a small chapel in Moor Lane (later Priory Street) before the permanent church dedicated to St. James was built there in 1837. (fn. 16) C. P. King, who had already been serving Colchester from Witham for several months, became the first resident priest of the Colchester mission which covered c. 120 square miles of north-east Essex. William Joseph Stourton, Lord Stourton, (d. 1846) transferred from Witham to Colchester an annuity of £100 paid by his family. The annuity was reduced to £50 in 1880 and the family continued to support the mission until 1882 or later. (fn. 17)
In 1856 the civilian congregation of fewer than 100 was greatly outnumbered by the c. 800 Catholic soldiers and their families who came to the garrison at the onset of the Crimean war. Civilians and soldiers continued to worship together until 1865 when an army chaplain was appointed. By 1905 the civilian Catholic population had increased to c. 300 and the Sisters of Mercy, who came from Brentwood in 1891, were supporting the priest in his ministry. The Bourne Institute, named after and opened by F. A. Bourne, archbishop of Westminster, was built next to the presbytery in 1910. In 1918 Colchester became a parish in the newly created Brentwood diocese. (fn. 18)
To serve the growing population on the outskirts of the town several missions opened from St. James's. By 1944 mass was said in a room in the Dog and Pheasant public house at Mile End; in 1947 parishioners helped to build and furnish the little church of St. Joseph in Mill Road. (fn. 19) Services were held in the village hall in Berechurch from 1959 until 1964 when the church of St. Theodore of Canterbury was opened in Prince Philip Road. (fn. 20) Mass was said in a rented iron building in Straight Road, Lexden, from 1933 until 1937 when the church of St. Theresa of Lisieux was built in Clairmont Road. In 1954 a priest-in-charge was appointed and Lexden became a separate parish in 1960; the building was replaced by a larger church built nearby in 1971. The church of St. John in Iceni Way, a simple brick building which opened in 1961, is served from Lexden parish. (fn. 21) Mass was said in a church hall in Greenstead in 1974; by 1979 the church of St. John Payne in Blackthorn Avenue was serving the Catholic population of Ardleigh and Greenstead. The mission was given parochial status in 1983 when it also served Mistley. (fn. 22)
The church of St. James the Greater was known as St. James the Less by 1900. St. Helen was added to the dedication c. 1902. (fn. 23) The church stands in Priory Street near its junction with East Hill. Built of white brick in the Norman style to the design of J. J. Scoles, it originally comprised an apsidal chancel and an aisleless nave with a west gallery. (fn. 24) In 1861 the organ was removed from the gallery which was fitted with seating for 100 soldiers. (fn. 25) In 1904 and 1910 the chancel was extended and aisles were added to the nave. (fn. 26) In 1987 the church was reordered; glass by Pugin from a redundant church was inserted in the windows of the newly formed Blessed Sacrament chapel. (fn. 27)
A permanent army chaplain, appointed in 1865, conducted services in St. James's church until 1867 when he was permitted to use the camp chapel in Military Road, but in 1904 the parish priest again had the pastoral care of Catholic soldiers from the garrison. (fn. 28) In 1949 Catholic army families were worshipping in a barrack block. The Garrison church of Christ the King was completed at Le Cateau barracks c. 1954. After several years of falling attendances the resident chaplain was withdrawn in 1983, and the church was closed. (fn. 29) In 1988 a weekly mass for army families was held in St. John's, Iceni Way. (fn. 30)