History of the parish of Our Blessed Lady and St John the Baptist, Ashley
The origin of the Catholic Church in Ashley after the Reformation can be traced back to Mass centres serviced by the Jesuits at The Rudge and at Gerards Bromley from 1760. (For this reason the stone commemorating the tree planted for this re-opening was taken from The Rudge.)
The increase in toleration towards Catholics in 1791 led to services being allowed in registered places. Fr Thomas Howel of Swynnerton registered a chapel house at Ashley and dedicated it to St John the Baptist.
For two years previously Mass had been said at Farmer Brown's house at Napely Heath by the French émigré, Abbé Louis Martin De Laistre, who having left France because of the Revolution, was residing with the Rector of Mucklestone, the Rev Offley Crewe.
The Catholics of Ashley wrote to the Bishop successfully requesting that he be appointed as their resident priest and sent subscriptions to aid his appointment.
In 1795 Fr De Laistre was able to build a small but new chapel house in Ashley and supported himself by giving French lessons and running a small farm that was bought with a loan from Mary Cartledge, widow of Philip Cartledge. The financial position of the Church wasn't easy but the congregation was happy to be having Mass on Sundays and Holy Days and agreed to send subscriptions.
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Fr De Laistre continued to serve Ashley and for a short time in 1803 he also took care of the Catholics in Swynnerton when Fr Robert Tindall was away.
Fr De Laistre’s death in 1813 came rather suddenly at the age of 60. It was rumoured that he had been murdered by a farmer from whom he had acquired a piece of land. Rumour had it that the farmer wanted it back and De Laistre refused.
His will, dated 1810, is most interesting. In it he left everything to Mary Cartledge with a request that the chapel house be continued to be used and that the Anglican Rector of the Parish Church, Rev Anwyl, should take all his books. His gold watch was to be given to Thomas Anwyl, the Reverend's son.
After his death the parish of Ashley was served by a priest from Swynnerton who in a memorandum to Bishop Milner described the sacred vessels and vestments found at Ashley as,
"an altar, tabernacle and crucifix with two wooden candlesticks. In the area there were a few old wooden seats. There was a small Chalice with Paten, of silver, formerly gilt, and another of inferior composition much like pewter. I also brought two small silver vessels for Holy Oils. There were a few vestments of divers colours but of no value. The best one, apparently new, was intended to serve all colours. Of Chapel linen I found very little: an alb, two corporals and an old cassock"
There was no resident priest from 1813 until 1825. Ashley was served by Swynnerton and Cobridge. An appeal was sent out that Ashley was unable to support a priest, which would require a salary of £5 per annum, and that the chapel house was in a bad state of repair. Subscriptions, in response to the appeal, were to be sent to the Bishop, Fr Robert Plowden at Swynnerton or Fr Louis Gerard at Cobridge.
It was around this time that Fr James Egan from Kerry became connected with Ashley, via Newcastle-under-Lyme. The appeal was clearly successful as Fr Egan, who was also a skilled architect and builder, was able to oversee the present church being built on land donated by Rachel Caulkin. The church, complete with stained glass windows, opened on October 18th 1823 being dedicated to St Bridgit.
An acknowledgement was put in the Directory as follows:
“Neither words nor pen could express the lively sentiments of gratitude towards our benefactors. Many years have we laboured under the most painful difficulties and now we have our Chapel. A little more assistance will enable us to support a pastor and our joy will be complete. Subscriptions can still be received.”
“The opening of the Chapel at Ashley was a grand occasion. A sung Mass by Fr Price of Stafford and his assistants, a choir from Cobridge conducted with such taste and credit both to themselves and the satisfaction of others was performed with solemn dignity and chaste strains that it pleased the ear and raised the mind in contemplation of heaven.”
This was the report given by the parishioners after the opening ceremony. It went on to say that there was a sermon in the morning at the Mass and one in the afternoon delivered by the most indefatigable and zealous missioner Fr Francis Martyn of Bloxwich — who became a Venerable of the Church (a bit lower than a saint!). It continued:
“He serves Mass every Sunday morning and again at noon and night, a duty imposed greater than on any other missioner in the kingdom. On this occasion his usual flow of eloquence was perhaps persuasive by the cause he pleaded. The collection was £18 - much more than was expected from such a congregation of poor people. The poor Catholics of Ashley and its neighbourhood had united their mite from the hard earnings and pittance they possessed to erect this commodious ‘edifice...’
This clearly helped towards the ‘little more assistance’ that was required, as did the Countess de Font, who in her will of April 1824 left £500 to the chapel. So, on January 3rd 1825 Fr Egan was appointed to Ashley, though things were still not all ideal, as the archives state:
`the house is small and damp and out of repair. Should any charitable individual feel disposed to contribute to this infant establishment, Fr Walsh of Oscott College will thankfully receive any contributions. The Catholics of Ashley have not had a priest for twelve years and can afford no more than £20...'
Fr Egan said Mass on Sundays at 10am with prayers in the afternoon at 3pm in the winter and 4pm in the summer. He left Ashley in 1829 for Newcastle-under-Lyme, where by 1834 he had built the far bigger church of Holy Trinity on the London Road: bigger, but clearly in a similar style to Ashley with its castellated parapet and patterned outside walls.
For a short time Ashley was once more served from Swynnerton until Fr Peter Holland came in 1829, to be succeeded the following year by Fr Gates. He found it necessary to carry out repairs to both house and chapel in an attempt to counteract the damp, which has been a constant menace to this day. He gave a detailed list of the expenses he incurred including,
“Snuffers 4 pence, a Japan coal box 10 shillings. Saucepans, spoons and a brush 3 shillings and 4 pence, and various amounts for blacksmith, carpenters and upholsterers”
It was during this time that a schoolroom was added to the house.
Fr Gates changed the chapel's name to the Blessed Virgin and St John the Baptist, who have remained the patrons every since. In 1840 he left Ashley for Thetford and once more the work passed to Swynnerton. In 1841, Fr O'Donnell, who lived at Woore, served the parish. Later that year Fr Edward Hodson took up residence.
The parish benefited under the will of Mrs Mary Frith who was living in Ashley in 1834 and died in 1841. She settled a house and garden at Forebridge, Stafford to the mission along with two plated candlesticks and branches and furniture, crockery, cutlery and glassware for the priest's house. A number of articles were bought for the chapel including a ciborium costing 10 guineas, a silver thurible, boat and spoon and an alb and surplices for the priest and acolytes. The Bishop stated that Mass was to be said every month for the repose of the soul of this generous benefactor.
In 1843 Fr Hodson notified the Bishop that Hugo Charles Meynell who owned most of Ashley had informed him that the property adjoining the Church was to be sold as he was giving him the first opportunity to purchase it. The property consisted of stables, a cottage and other outbuildings as well as a quarter of an acre of garden. The price was £200. He pointed out that the entrance to the church was from this adjoining property, as was the well that supplied the water.
The property was bought by the Bishop and remained until 1954, when the cottage was demolished into the well and the ground cleared for the car park, new entrance and new premises.
Fr Hodson left Ashley in June 1848 and again the parish was in the hands of Swynnerton, under Fr Harkness. He reported that the house and chapel were in need of repair and that the house was barely habitable due to the state of the roof, saying ‘several nights spent in it would test the most robust of constitutions.’
He also stated that the Catholics in Ashley numbered about 100, most going to Mass at Swynnerton or Newport. In Market Drayton there was a strong Irish community and there were families 7 or 8 miles away that he had been unable to visit. He received £46 per year and 18d a week from the congregation. Out of this he paid all his expenses as well as for the school, where there were 22 charity scholars. He only came to Ashley on Wednesday and returned on Thursday evening. Ashley still longed for their own resident priest.
The Rev Fr Francis McGrath was the next resident, commencing his ministry on Ascension Day, May 1849. He soon wrote to the Bishop concerning the presbytery, complaining that,
`the walls are split from top to bottom and when it rains vessels have to be put in the bedrooms to catch the water. The ceiling and walls are saturated and Dr Ryan, the neighbour, inspected the premises and condemned them as a danger to health.'
Despite this, Fr McGrath stayed until 1852 and then went to Shrewsbury. Once again Fr Harkness at Swynnerton took over. He stated that the congregation was now 105 but only 18 lived in Ashley - the others were scattered around Eccleshall and Ashley, and 50 came from Market Drayton.
Fr McGrath actually came back to Ashley in 1853 and stayed until 1857 before moving to Lichfield. He was the last remaining resident priest for 54 years.
For over half a century then, Ashley was served from Swynnerton, with at one stage, from 1884 to 1886, Mass being said only once a month - on a Tuesday at 8.30am! Ashley had an endowment of £90 and claimed £5 rent for the cottage. Some of this money was credited to Eccleshall for the school.
In 1887 Fr Alfred Hall was appointed to Eccleshall from St Austin's Stafford and he continued to say Mass at Ashley once a month. He left in 1892, and for the next six years Ashley was served from Eccleshall by Fr Michael Clancey, who later became Auxiliary Bishop of Birmingham.
In 1898 Stanley House, Eccleshall became the novitiate of the Picpus Fathers who said Mass at Ashley every fortnight on a Sunday. From 1900 they received £30 per annum for this from Bishop Ilsley. At this time James Stuart lived in the presbytery and paid £12 per annum for the rent. Fr William from Eccleshall had the use of one room when he came to say Mass and for this he paid £6 per annum.
In March 1901 Miss Frances Vernon Yonge from Charnes Hall, who was a convert, wrote to the Bishop to ask whether she might take over the tenancy of the house and chapel, so that a Catholic caretaker could be installed to care for the church. The Bishop agreed. The old doorway was re-opened, the vestments and furniture restored and a room converted to a sacristy and confessional. The congregation at this time was 25. During the next few years it was necessary to carry out more repairs where the woodwork and roof and floor in the chapel had rotted due to the dampness. The stained glass windows, which were installed in 1825 in Fr Egan's time, were still in the church but in need of repair. It was decided that it would be better if they were removed and replaced with frosted glass.
Miss Yonge started a catechism class in the schoolroom. It is recorded that she used to fetch the children from outlying villages in a pony and trap, and teach them; they often spent the night in the house, then she would take them back the next day.
In October 1907 the Picpus Fathers decided to close the Damien Institute at Eccleshall and transfer the students to the continent. A few students and the Rector remained for another three years. In 1909 Bishop Ilsley paid an Episcopal visit to Eccleshall and administered Confirmation to parishioners from Ashley as well. From 1909 Mass was said every Sunday at Ashley at 11am on the 1st and 3rd Sunday and at 8am on the others. The last Picpus Fathers left in 1911.
Then in 1912, after more than 50 years without, Ashley once more had a resident priest: Fr Cummings formerly of Trowbridge, Wiltshire. The cost of repairing and decorating the house was £90 of which the Bishop gave £70. Fr Cummings paid the other £20 himself. He also installed a new altar and tabernacle in time for Easter. He began by also celebrating Mass at Eccleshall but soon he could not undertake the travelling due to failing health. The Bishop decided that Eccleshall would only have a Mass once a month served from Ashley. Sick calls were dealt with from Swynnerton.
This soon changed though, possibly due to the state of the presbytery and its effect on Fr Cummings’ health, as he only stayed at Ashley for a few months, then went to live at Eccleshall instead. His successor Fr Thomas Newsome came and found the presbytery in an impoverished state. It contained no household linen or cooking utensils and he was forced to borrow a mattress and bedding and sleep on the floor! The housekeeper had the only bed in the house.
Fr Newsome left Ashley in 1914 for Chasetown, Cannock and was succeeded by Fr W. E. O'Dowd from Kidsgrove. Once again repairs, at the cost of £45, were necessary in an attempt to eradicate the damp.
The Sisters of Mercy from the Convent at Newcastle-under-Lyme now took over the tenancy of the cottage originally used by Mrs Cartlidge. It was to be a rest home during holidays for the Sisters running St Patrick's School in Newcastle. Canon Clancy informed the Sisters that the rent would be £71-10s per annum and he agreed to carry out repairs to the cottage.
When not in use the cottage was requisitioned during the First World War for Belgian refugees. Lord Stafford wrote to the Bishop setting out a scheme whereby 15 Belgians could be housed at the presbytery and he would pay the rent of £20. There is no record of them ever coming to Ashley or using the cottage, but many of them were resident at Stanley House, Eccleshall from 1914 to 1915.
The presbytery was then rented for the Royal British Red Cross to use as a hospital at the cost of £20 per annum, though again there is no record of it ever having been used for this purpose.
Throughout 1915 and 1917 Fr O'Dowd said Mass at Eccleshall every Sunday. By 1917 the congregation at Ashley was still twenty-eight.
In 1924 the Cheshire Joint Sanatorium opened at Loggerheads. It accommodated 240 beds for both men and women and it was hoped that a chapel might be built there for all denominations to use. It wasn't completed until 1933. However, in the meantime Fr O'Dowd did go there on Sundays to say Mass. For this he received £25 per annum.
Eccleshall now had its own priest - Dom Constantine Bosschaerts O.S.B. - who came and opened a convent in Stanley House. The Priory of Our Lady of Mount Olivet, as it was called, was run by the Olivetan Benedictines. Later that year they opened a school for girls.
Fr O'Dowd remained as Parish Priest at Ashley until he retired in 1926 when Fr Cyril Smith took over. He also had care of Eccleshall as Dom Constantine had left there and the nuns had left the convent. The school was actually extended to take in boarders in 1927, but by 1931 it had closed. Fr Smith moved into Stanley House, Eccleshall and let the presbytery at Ashley.
The Dean reported that the property at Ashley had to be overhauled once again at the cost of £325.6s. 10d of which the Archbishop gave £100 and collections came to £140. Fr Smith had an endowment of £80, £60 of which was from the Poor Mission Fund for both Ashley and Eccleshall. He received £25 from the sanatorium and £25 rent for Ashley Presbytery. Offertories at Ashley were only 7s a week and at Eccleshall 17s.
All the furniture was removed from Ashley to Eccleshall when Fr Smith took up residence there. The sanatorium chapel was now complete and ready for use so he said a weekday Mass there every month and visited the sick every fortnight.
Fr Smith left the district in 1936 and Fr James Young Murray from Kidsgrove came to Ashley. Due to blindness and ill-health, he was replaced in 1938 by a young Irish Missionary priest Fr M Whelan, who had just returned from South Africa. The years during the Second World War were difficult for him since all the young men of the parish were in the Forces or engaged in agricultural work. Parishioners in outlying areas couldn't get to Mass because petrol was rationed. He himself rode round on an old motorbike.
To make matters worse, in 1942 dry rot appeared in the chapel and presbytery and everywhere was very damp. Fr Whelan was serving Eccleshall and the Royal Ordinance Factory at Raleigh Hall, Eccleshall as well as Ashley. He was saying three Masses every Sunday in addition to the sanatorium Mass every Thursday.
Despite, or because of these difficulties, attendance at Ashley increased to 48 and Eccleshall to 80. Central heating was put in the church at Ashley and the plaster removed. It appeared dry for a short time. Fr Whelan received £60 from the Poor Mission Fund but £150 was needed to put the church right. He made an appeal to the parishioners and in 1944 repairs were carried out. New altar steps were put in because the original wooden ones had rotted, and the walls were re-plastered. The presbytery seemed to be in quite a good state, although still damp.
Fr Whelan left Ashley in 1950 and was succeeded by Fr Cyril Adams. In 1951 Fr Adams asked the Archbishop for permission to have a priest come to say a second Mass on a Sunday. The Chaplain to the Brothers of Christian Institution who were at Pell Wall Hall, Market Drayton, came and assisted and also said Mass at the sanatorium.
In 1952 Fr Adams renovated the Lady Chapel and dedicated it to Our Lady of Walsingham. Later, he also asked permission for the church to be decorated at the cost of £150. This was done, and the ceiling remains decorated today. Also, the sanctuary was enlarged, the wooden panelling that had been put up to counteract the damp was removed and the benches replaced. The Dean reported that the church had been renovated and decorated in good style. The last tenant of the cottage, Mrs Harham, moved out and the cottage was pulled down and the well closed up. The presbytery was comfortable to live in due to the generosity of a family in Ashley who provided much of the furnishings.
Fr Adams said Mass at Old Springs Hall, Market Drayton, the home of Major Harding every Friday.
Around Vatican II, in 1962, the sanctuary steps and railings were removed. In 1966 the entrance porch was made into a baptistry through the generosity of a family from the parish. This was a splendid affair with a sunken tiled floor to represent the River Jordan where Our Lord was baptised. Wrought iron gates lead into the church. The outside entrance was blocked off and a new porch was added which remains unto this day.
The church's 150th Anniversary took place in 1973. This was a joyous day for the Catholics of Ashley having had such a chequered history of religious worship. The occasion was honoured with a Concelebrated Sung Mass, with the Archbishop of Birmingham, the Most Rev. George Patrick Dwyer, Fr C Adams, the parish priest and, among others, Rev C Cassidy, from Stafford, Rev P Taylor, from Walsall and Rev G Jackson of Cobridge. There was a buffet and social afterwards in Ashley Memorial Hall. A week of celebration was concluded with a Concelebrated Sung Mass by Bishop Cleary and supporting priests.
Fr Adams also celebrated 25 years of priesthood while at Ashley, again an occasion for a social in the Memorial Hall. In 1983 he retired having been the parish priest in Ashley for 33 years, the longest any priest had ever stayed in Ashley.
He was succeeded by Fr Bernard Boulton. He and his brother Joe resided in the presbytery until Fr Boulton's death in 1997. Extensive alterations were undergone during Fr Boulton's time: the sacristy door was removed from beside the altar and the side extension to the church was opened up, a new presbytery was built onto the church and once more repair work was carried out on damage due to damp. Mass was said in Oddfellows Hall during these weeks. All of this work put the parish into a huge debt of over £250,000.
The repairs had not been completed, especially the internal decoration, when in 1998 the Redemptorist, Fr Quinn arrived from Chicago. This far from ideal situation contributed to him not staying long at all.
Later that year Fr Bernard Anwyl arrived. He renovated Oddfellows Hall and extended its use for the parish. He also looked after Eccleshall and Drake Hall Prison and stayed until 2003, when he moved to Swynnerton.
Fr Pat Farrelly then came to Ashley from Cannock, but did not settle and soon moved on to Tunstall. With the shortage of priests, a church badly in need of repair and a huge debt the closure of the parish became a distinct possibility, but instead Fr Stephen Fawcett was appointed to look after the parish of Ashley while residing at the parish of Our Lady and St Werburgh's in Clayton. Shortly after he arrived, Aubrey and Sue Sammons took up residence in the presbytery to work for Fr Fawcett in his ministry to Ashley.
We seem to have very little early history of Oddfellows Hall except that it was used during the War years by the Education Committee to accommodate the Hugo Meynell School Children for their daily dinners and was bought by the Diocese for £5,000 at auction, in the late 1950s. Although in a bad state of repair, a Mr Pardington offered to do it up and use it as a tailoring workshop if he could have it rent-free. He stayed there for about two years.
Much later, under Fr Boulton it was let to a local school of dance and it was used on many occasions for functions for the church. Later it was hired out to the Ashley School of Music. Under Fr Anwyl, it was used more for refreshments after Mass, which proved to be a popular way of parishioners having a chance to meet and chat.
The hall has since taken on many other lettings, including day classes by the North Shropshire Education Department and for Ashley Parish Council's monthly meetings. Most recently, it has also hosted many parish socials and the regular youth group