The first record of any Catholic presence in the town of Weston-super-Mare
dates from 1806, when a Franciscan Father O’Farrell preached at a cottage
in the High Street. The small village of farmers and fishermen had a resident
population of only 163, but had been attracting summer visitors for 20
or 30 years. Perhaps it was the increased numbers during the season that
attracted Father O’Farrell. The resort grew steadily, and the early Victorian
era saw Jesuit priests celebrating Mass in the Assembly Rooms of the Railway
Hotel in Regent street during the summer months. In 1855 the foundation
stone of the Mother Church – St. Joseph’s - was laid. The following is
an extract from the local paper giving details of the quiet and simple
10th July 1858
New Roman Catholic Chapel – On Thursday the foundation stone of a Roman Catholic Chapel, to be built on the hill, was laid by the eldest son of Joseph Ruscombe Pool, Esq., through whose liberality the edifice principally owed its erection. The invitation was only made known to a few friends and consequently the ceremony was only attended by a select circle. The whole affair was of a most unostentatious character, and after a blessing being evoked upon the work by a gentleman in attendance, the party left and the locality assumed its customary retired aspect.
The “gentleman in attendance” was the Bishop Clifford of Clifton
The Lord of the Manor, John Hugh Wadham Smyth Pigott had become a convert to Catholicism and endowed the church. A stained glass window in St Joseph's is a memorial to the Ruscombe Poole family the donors of the land on which the church was built.
By 1858 the parish church of St. Joseph’s was completed. The first priest in charge was the Reverend William Pippet. He would sympathise with those of us who, occasionally, have to tolerate the noise of car and bike rallies on the beach, for he wrote to the Chairman of the Petty Sessions to complain that “Services were being interrupted on the Sabbath day by parties who behaved in a most unseemly manner”. The Chairman asked the police to “look well to their duty”, and the ‘parties’ were cautioned that anyone disturbing the congregation of any denomination “would receive the full severity of the law!”.
Canon Barron, the parish priest conceived the idea of a second Catholic church for Weston, although he was not able to bring it about. One of his schemes which failed was raising money through making a kind of leather from seaweed!
He had hoped to buy one of the town’s Nonconformist chapels, rumoured to be likely to come on the market. Canon Barron argued strongly that money to buy such a property had been promised by Miss Georgina Barham of Weston. Instead, however, Miss Braham made available £3000 for the purchase of the bishop’s house, St Ambrose, Leigh Woods, after Bishop Burton came to see her on Holy Saturday in 1904.
Nevertheless, by the time of his death in 1916, Canon Barron had raised some £800, which was the nucleus of the Fund taken over and increased by his successor, Father Lyons.
In 1919 Father Lyons made temporary arrangements for Sunday Mass to be said in one of the bigger rooms of the Catholic School at “St Heliers”, 25 Beach Road, which was more central than St Joseph’s.
Soon the chance came to buy an adjoining property in Carlton Street—a large disused stable, and some dilapidated coach houses. They were mostly replaced by a new building on the old foundations
The new chapel was opened in 1921, and called Corpus Christi—Body of Christ.
The chapel was appreciated by local people as well as Catholics “We do love your little chapel down here” said one lady. “It is a pretty place. It has tidied up our street and made it look so nice, But all the same, I do think it is hard that the landlord has raised my rent just because your chapel has made our street more respectable”
A new parish began to emerge from the Mass Centre. Only two months after it was opened, a site was being considered for a possible school and church, and land was soon purchased in Ellenborough Park South.
Within the decade the congregation moved from Carlton Street to the new church of Corpus Christi. The church was opened in 1929, exactly one hundred years after the Catholic Emancipation Act, and was consecrated in 1934.
In 1931, Corpus Christi School was established, run by the Sisters of La Retraite who had come to the town in 1899, opening schools on several sites. The new school was in what is now the presbytery.
In 1959, there were difficulties in maintaining this private school, with the heavy financial burden.
The Education Department would not allow the building of a new state maintained school without adequate playing field provision. Father Leahy, the Parish Priest, negotiated the purchase of Ellenborough Park on behalf of the Diocese. The school could then be built and maintained by the Local Education authority, but the capital fund of £42,000 had to be found by the parishioners. Great fund-raising efforts followed. One of the highlights of the parish year was the grand fete and fair in Ellenborough Park each summer.
The former presbytery and number 10 Ellenborough Park South had to be demolished to make way for the new school, which was opened with great joy in 1962.
The old school was converted into flats and a new presbytery, and the church was decorated and improved.
In 1966 thanks to the Edwin Austin Abbey memorial Trust Fund, the
mural was painted over the confessionals, by artist Jean Clark. They
show Christ granting forgiveness to the sinner.
In the next year The Stations of the Cross were painted.
In 1967, also, to conform with changes decreed by Vatican 2, a temporary altar table was installed facing the people; the Mass had been celebrated in English since 1964, and now the people could see what was happening. Easter week that year was historic, as it was the first time the Holy Week Liturgy had been said in English.
Over the years there have been many alterations and additions to the church, to bring it to the beautiful place it is now. Stained glass windows have been installed, each telling its own story, and often in put up in memory of a past parishioner. Canon William Ryan showed his appreciation of all the women who had worked in the parish, with the window to Margaret Clitherow. The windows in the Lady Chapel depict various incidents in the life of the Mother of God. The glorious round window above the choir, of the last Supper, is what the celebrant sees when he raises the host and the chalice during the Eucharist: a link with the event 2,000 years ago.
The organ in the choir loft, was built towards the end of the nineteenth century by Messers Wadworth of Manchester. It was originally in the Bible Christian Church, Barry Dock, South Wales, and was moved to Corpus Christi in 1965. The organ is said to be one of the finest in the West of England.
One of the biggest changes in the lay out and decoration of the Sanctuary came in 1995, when the parish priest,
Fr Martin Fitzpatrick, instigated the moving of the altar table from the back to the front, and the redecoration of the whole area. The cream, grey and terracotta walls provide a delightful setting for the liturgies that take place in the church. Although in most modern churches the tabernacle is placed to one side of the main altar so that people can sit somewhere to pray, the tabernacle in Corpus Christi has not been moved because the church is named after the Body of Christ.
During the 1990s, the church began to be used as a setting for concerts, both sung and orchestral. Local charities use it to raise funds, and the musicians and singers appreciate the excellent acoustics.
A building so close to the sea, suffers from damp and the famous Weston winds. During the last two years the roof has had to be mended, the walls of the Lady Chapel and sanctuary damp proofed and redecorated, and , this year the heating system completely overhauled. The workmen discovered a newspaper under the floor boards dated 1929, so it would seem that the system had not needed too much work done on it since then.