Our Lady Immaculate and St Edmund, Withermarsh Green
www.suffolkchurches.co.uk - a journey through the churches of Suffolk
Our Lady and Immaculate is probably the most remote Catholic church in all East Anglia. Several times over the years I have come here, although only once for Mass, I regret to say. I originally wrote about it in 2002, when not a lot had changed here for centuries. But things have changed since, so perhaps the best way to start is to go back eight years, to a beautiful summer day.
2002: The lanes narrowed between high hedges, and the hills steepened. I had come this way from Ipswich, via the Dedham Vale, collecting churches for the 2002 Suffolk Historic Churches bike ride. This was my 36th. Two hours before, I had stood among the bedlam of Saturday morning Ipswich town centre shoppers, and since then had threaded through the busy parishes to the south. But as I turned north again, towards Hadleigh, it was as if the 21st century had fallen away behind me. Here, there was nothing but birdsong, and the humming of insects.
Occasionally, another church-chasing cyclist would hurtle past, waving merrily. I didn't see a car for half an hour. Quite what would happen if two of them met in these thread-like lanes I've no idea - there's nowhere to pass. I climbed up around the secretive park of Giffords Hall. The hills and rough fields intensified - it was like being in Derbyshire. Blackberries in the lanes provided my lunch, along with half a bar of chocolate I found in the bottom of my rucksack.
Remoteness took on a new meaning as I approached a high hedged, neatly trimmed graveyard, with this secretive white brick building beyond it. Barn-like, boilings of shrubs hiding its arched windows, it could have been a domestic or agricultural building of some kind, if it were not for the ornate castellated porch. A small house was attached on the other side, the fields falling away beyond, scrubby, dotted with cautious sheep. There wasn't another building for half a mile.
It looked early 19th century, and a memorial plaque dated 1991 revealed its purpose: Here at Withermarsh, the Mass has been celebrated without interruption from about 1216, first nearby in a medieval chapel visible from this place in the grounds of Giffords Hall; then in the hall itself under the care of the Mannock family who dwelt there for 460 years and finally in this chapel built in 1827 under their patronage and by public subscription to provide a permanent place of Catholic worship.
Where I was standing was in the pre-Reformation parish of Stoke-by-Nayland - the Anglicans would have it that it is still so. But, in common with many of the landed gentry, the Mannocks of adjacent Giffords Hall ignored the Reformation, and continued their communion with the Holy Catholic Church. For this, they suffered, although not as much as some in England, or even in Suffolk. For harbouring a Priest, for instance, they could have been put to death. The Timperleys of Hintlesham lost all their wealth, all their land and their beautiful house, for refusing to conform to protestantism. A descendant of the Timperleys remarked to me recently that his ancestor had backed the wrong horse - but for the Mannocks, the Timperleys, the Gages of Hengrave and the Drurys of Stanningfield, it wasn't so much a case of thinking that the Catholic church would finally overcome its local difficulties, as of actually believing the Church to be true.
There is much about the recusant history of Suffolk on this site; on several of the entries above, and even more on the entries for Ipswich St Mary and Old Hall. However, the date 1827 in the inscription above signifies rather neatly the Catholic Relief Act of that year, which gave Catholics broadly equal rights of free assembly with other non-conformist traditions. It was a time of reasonable optimism in Suffolk, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that Suffolk had fewer Catholics than any other county in England, at less than 1% of the population. The late 1820s saw the building of four Catholic churches in the county, each with their own resident Priest - the others were at Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds and Bungay. A cottage at Lawshall was also converted for Mass use, and much of north-west Suffolk was served by the Catholic Priest at Thetford, over the Norfolk border.
It is actually a bit more complicated than the plaque suggests, for the 1827 church here replaced an earlier one, erected quite illegally in the middle of the 18th century. Perhaps in such an out-of-the-way place it did not inflame Protestant feelings. Or perhaps the Mannocks were influential enough to get away with it - it was not until 1791 that Catholics could erect buildings for the purposes of Mass, and only then under cruel restrictions.
I stepped into a calm, traditional interior, with seemly benches facing towards a pre-Vatican II-style high altar. A large painting of the crucifixion hangs behind the big six candlesticks on the reredos. Two other paintings hang either side of the church, one in the style of Caravaggio. I assume that all three originally came from the Hall. In one corner stands an ancient statue of St Joseph and the Christ child - I assume that this came from the Hall chapel. The stations are rather sombre, and combined with the smell of incense and traditional furnishings, they give the church a rather French flavour.
Above the incense, the fragrance of late summer flowers caught my nose, and suddenly there was a chatter of birdsong from the bushes outside. This was intensified by the calmness of this remote place. Here, people made a stand, I thought, and it is because of people like that down the long centuries that I am here. I said a silent prayer for them, and then carried on taking photographs.
I went outside, struck again by how thoroughly domestic the building and its setting is. I craned my neck over the nearby fence, but I couldn't see the remains of the former chapel in the grounds. So I pottered around the pretty graveyard instead, thinking how strange the inscriptions saying Pray For The Soul Of seemed in such an English landscape. It struck me that, a couple of miles off, the glorious medieval church of St Mary, Stoke-by-Nayland, once the Catholic mother church of these parts, now plays host now to a tiny handful of Anglican worshippers.
2010: In the modern era, Withermarsh Green church was a chapel of ease to the Catholic Parish Church of St Joseph, Hadleigh, and was served from the beautiful modern church there, as was another Mass station at Nayland. We may assume that many people headed out to Withermarsh Green by choice rather than of necessity.
In East Anglia, Catholic Mass attendance is generally booming - the church I attend in the east Ipswich has gone from a regular Sunday attendance of barely six hundred in 1995 to well over nine hundred today - and nowhere in the Diocese is there a church which is foundering for lack of communicants.
However, in common with the rest of western Europe, the number of priests available to preside at Mass is in decline. The reasons for this are various: a lack of confidence in encouraging vocations, difficulties with priestly celibacy, the way in which the flourishing Church outside of Europe absorbs the former surplus of Priests there, and so on. The Dioceses of England and Wales have dealt with this problem in different ways, not all of them popular with the ordinary lay Catholics.
In East Anglia, the Bishop decided that, wherever possible, Mass stations within parishes should close, and the people should be encouraged to attend Mass at the parish church itself. The idea was that the parish would have more sense of itself as a community, rather than being fragmented. In addition, the parish priest could then concentrate on serving his people in one place, without the need to spend most of Sunday driving around the countryside. And so it was decided to close Our Lady and Immaculate church.
My criticism at the time was that there was nothing organic about the Catholic parishes of East Anglia. They had been created as expedient measures in the 19th Century in response to the availability of buildings, priests and the needs of local Catholics at the time. There was no reason why Withermarsh Green should not equally think of itself as a community as, say, Hadleigh.
Be that as it may, the church was closed, and it was put up for sale. At one time it looked as if it was in real danger of being converted into a private residence, but fortunately it was bought by the Fenwick family of Higham. It remains a consecrated Catholic church. Masses are offered on an occasional basis, and the church is also available for Baptisms, weddings and funerals. I am told that enquiries about these should be directed to the secretary Mrs Joanne Wright at The Estate Office, Higham Place, Higham, CO7 6JY.
Withermarsh Green remains within the Parish of Hadleigh, but this may also soon change, because Hadleigh and Sudbury parishes are to be merged under a single Priest. Merging of parishes is always an unpopular measure, but it may well be that it causes less pain in the long term than closing churches with centuries of history behind them.