A partial History of Aldershot Catholic Parish

Canon Francis O'Farrell, who was Parish Priest of Aldershot for 40 years, left us a detailed history of the Parish from its beginning's until the 1970's. Other historical information is added as received, so please contact the Webmaster if you have any historical material relating to the parish

In the Beginning ...

Originally Aldershot came under the western part of the Southwark Diocese, and Bishop Grant, the first Bishop of Southwark, had a great love for the army. He knew a great deal about Aldershot from personal experience, and from conversations with his Father who had been in the 71st Foot Regiment. It was because of his efforts that the Catholic chaplains had been appointed to the Army. He himself loved to be with the solders. Consequently he was very often at Aldershot. In September 1859 he was nearly killed there. he was on his way to give Confirmation at North Camp. An Irish jaunting car had been sent to meet him; unaccustomed to that primative conveyance he did not take the precaution of holding on, and at a sudden bump of the car over a stone, he was thrown off head foremost and lay insensible on the road while the driver, not realising, went bumbling on until he came to his destination, and then discovered that the Bishop was gone! Everyone was alarmed, Canon Ringrose (Rector of St James, Reading) rushed back to look for him and found him where he had fallen, still insensible. He recovered, but not before rumour went around that he was dead. The French Ambassador had occasion to see the Queen just at the time, and Her Majesty expressed sorrow at the loss of so good a man, whose death would be so bitterly felt by all her Catholic subjects.

In 1855 two Garrison churches were opened by the War Office, one in South Camp, the other in North Camp. The church in South Camp was shared by Catholics and Anglicans. In 1863 the Anglicans opened their own Garrison Church, and the former shared church became solely used by Catholics, and was dedicated to St Michael and St Sebastian. The first Chaplain was Mgr John Vertue, later to be the first Bishop of Portsmouth.

Late 1860's - The Original Catholic Mission Began ...

The population of Aldershot in 1869 was estimated at 7 500, of whom it was thought 1 000 were Catholics. It was evident that the Chaplains could not adequately deal with the situation. They had done what they could, and in 1867, Fr McCarthy, one of the Assistant Chaplains,opened a room in the present High Street as a school. Forty-eight children attended, the number rising in the following year to sixty-seven. In 1869 Bishop Grant decided to make better provision for the town and district. He appointed Fr Purcell in charge, and he is considered to be the first Diocesan Priest in charge of the Mission. A disused public house was rented for £45 a year, and served both as school and chapel. The actual building still exists at the corner of Alexandra and Cambridge Roads, opposite the former Franciscan Convent and residential childrens home. There was a wooden building at the rear of the public house which was used as a chapel. The largest room in the house served as a school room. One of the upstairs rooms was used as a sacristy, and the rest of the house served as a residence of the school mistress. The Priest lived in lodgings nearby. The solemn opening of the chapel took place on the 29th July 1869. Bishop Grant was too unwell to be present. The Right Rev Dr Morris, Titular Bishop of Troy, officated at the high Mass. It is on record that Mozart's 12th Mass was rendered, that the band of the 25th Regiment played, and that a lunch took place afterwoods at the house opposite at which 46 persons were at present. The mission did not consist of Aldershot only; it reached to Finchampstead, Broad moor and Bagshot in the north; Pirbright, Puttenham and Elstead in the east; Frensham, Kingsley and Alton in the South: Odiham, Hook and Bramshill in the west. The area was therefore about 60 miles in circumference. It was felt at once that some provision had to be made for Catholics in the neighbourhood of Sandhurst and York Town. In September 1869 a room was taken in The Staff Hotel, at what was known as Cambridge Town, and Mass was said there on the 17th September, Feast of the Stigmata of Saint Francis. Fr Purcell also had to look after Broadmoor (then calles Crimanal Lunatic Asylum) and also to say Mass from time to time at Frensham where the Woodruffs lived. The work broke his health. He was forced to resign in 1871 but not before he had bought a plot of land at the junction of the Queen's Road and Edward Street.He paid £400 for it upon it now stands the present church of St Joseph.

Early 1870's - A School and a Presbytery

In November 1871 Fr Louis Hall was transferred from St Joseph's, Southampton to Aldershot. The following year he purchased a site in Queen's Road, and two years later the first instalment of St Joseph's School, including a school chapel, was built. Fr Hall later erected St Joseph's Presbytery. In 1874 he was moved to Reading and his place was taken by Fr Richard Davis.

Early 1880's - Portsmouth Diocese is Born

In May 1882 the division of the Diocese of Southwark took place and henceforth Aldershot was to be in the Diocese of Portsmouth. As Canon Francis O'Farrell in his history put it: "It was a special pleasure to welcome as first Bishop of the new See, him who had been the first priest to reside in the district since pre-Reformation days, the first Chaplain of South Camp, Mgr John Vertue". In August of that year Bishop Vertue made a change at Aldershot. He sent Fr Justin Mooney. The latter built an iron church with accommodation for 400. It was opened on the feast of Corpus Christi 1883 and served its purpose long and well, until Sunday 27th August 1911. It was then dismantled and transferred to Belle Vue Road, North Town, Aldershot.

Mid 1880's - Priest and Cavalry fall out plus Winston Churchill is chastised

In 1884 Fr Edward Riordan succeeded Fr Mooney. He brought the Sisters of Mercy from Abingdon to look after the school. Unfortunately, owing to financial difficulties, the Sisters had to leave in 1889. Their place was later taken by the Franciscan Sisters. The following is taken from Canon Francis O'Farrell's history: "There is one point of information concerning the attendance of the Cavalry at St Joseph's that I have not referred to in my notes. It is quite true that they (the Cavalry) so attended for a number of years. It was more the nature of a private arrangement made between Fr Riordanand friendly Senor Chaplains than anything else. No payment was received on account of their attendance, though the men used to put something into the collection. The arrangement came to an end through the men complaining of Fr Riordans habitual unpunctuality in starting Mass, which meant that they arrived back at the barracks late for dinner. Fr Riordan refused to change his habit, and urged that as he was not paid for the attendance of the men, the authorities had no right to call attention to his failing. The men were therefore withdrawn. Fr Riordan then promised to amend, and applied to the War Orrice for a revival of the old arrangement, but in vain. It was during the time that the Cavalry did attend that Fr Riordan felt obliged to rebuke a subaltern in charge of the Church Party for what he thought unseemly behaviour, by his lolling about and showing inattention. An apology set the matter right, else the young officer would have lost his commission. The subaltern was Winston Churchill, so famous later as Minster of State".

Early 1900's - Priest comes reluctantly to Aldershot, and builds a new Church!

In December 1901 Bishop Cahill made his first first Visitation of Aldershot. He discussed the future of the Mission with Fr Riordan.It was suggested that the Salesians should take it over. This could not be done without the consent of the chapter. The chapter refused consent with the result that Fr Stegall,the Priest in charge of North End, Portsmouth, was asked to go and see the Bishop. He had done great work at North End, building up the schools there and in many ways improving the Mission. The Bishop told him that he was very much worried about Aldershot and had been making the choice of a new rector the subject of earnest prayer to the sacred heart . He said that in his prayer the name of Fr Stegall kept coming before his mind and he therefore felt that he was God's choice. Fr Stegall was very much disturbed by this, he said that he was anxious to God's will, but apparently did not want to go to Aldershot. He qot quite ill and nearly fainted, and they had to give him restoratives in the way of drink. So it was agreed that he need not leave the Mission.

That very evening Bishop Cahill wrote to Fr O'Farrell asking him to take over the Mission of Aldershot. He had been in charge of St Patrick's, Woolston for the past five years and for two years he had been Acting Chaplain to the Forces at Netley Hospital. He was not all that anxious to go to Aldershot but he replied that he was at his Bishop's disposal and would go to Aldershot if ordered to do so. His assistant at Woolston was Fr Green, who later built the church at Newbury. Fr Green expressed the wish to go to Aldershot with Fr O'Farrell. His wish was granted but never materialised. The new Rector had an interview with Bishop Cahill in February. He told the Bishop that the first thing he needed in his new parish was a new Church. He suggested that he should immediately open a fund for this purpose and that the church should be a Memorial Church to the Catholic soldiers who had lost their lives in the South African Wars. The fund was opened, but it was 10 years before sufficient money was collected to start building. The Foundation Stone was laid by Bishop Cotter on 19th March 1912, and the following year on 30th January the formal opening took place. Pontifical High Mass was sung by the Bishop of the Diocese and Bishop McIntyre, Auxiliary of Birmingham, preached.

Early 1900's - The Parish gets a new School

If the first half of Fr O'Farrell's 40 years ministry in Aldershot was devoted to the building of St Joseph's Church, the second 20 years were concerned with the development of the parish and the building of a secondary school. Agreement was eventually given for the building of a Special Agreement School. Work was due to commence in the first week of September 1939. World events overtook the project. This was beneficial, as after the war Fr O'Hanlon secured a much better site, where the present All Hallows Catholic Secondary School and Sixth Form College is situated. Canon Francis O'Farrell OBE died on Holy Thursday, 2nd April 1942. For 40 years he had laboured in Aldershot. In 1918 he was on the tuerna of three names submitted to the Holy See for the Office of Rector of the English College, Rome. Monsignor (later Cardinal) Hinsley, one of the three named, was appointed.

Mid to late 1900's - Those Catholics just keep on growing ...

From 1942 to 1947 Canon Bernad Morris was Parish Priest. He was succeeded by Canon Daniel O'Hanlon, who remained in Aldershot for 29 years. Under him a new chapel of ease was built on the eastern side of the parish, and dedicated to St Saviour. It was opened in 1961 and was used by Catholics in Aldershot for about 20 years before being sold. The building continues as a place of worship and is now known as Park Church.

In 1961, the new All Hallows Catholic Secondary School opened its doors on Weybourne Road. The money to build the school had been raised by the people of St Joseph's Aldershot. The first Headmaster was John Doyle, who died in the Golden Jubilee Year of the school. His son Peter would go on to be ordained priest for the Diocese of Portsmouth in 1968.

In 1963 the old iron church of St Mary's was taken down, and a fine new building erected in it's place. This became, for some years, the centre of a new parish of St Mary's, which was erected in 1974.

In 1973 the old St Joseph's School in Queens Road was demolished, and a new Parish Hall built in it's place. A new infants school was opened in Bridge Road in 1966, and in 1978 a transferred junior school was built next to the infants school.

Fr Nicholas France was appointed Parish Priest in 1977. St Joseph's Church was re-ordered and consecrated on 22nd September 1982 by Bishop Anthony Emery, and a large extension to All Hallows School was completed in the same year.

The Third Millennium - Early 2000's

In 2000, Canon David Mahy was sent to Aldershot after 24 years as Parish Priest and Dean of Jersey. During his time in Aldershot, the Pastoral Areas were formed in the Diocese of Portsmouth in place of Deaneries and Fr David became the Co-Ordinating Pastor for the North East Hampshire Pastoral Area in addition to his responsibility for St Joseph's and St Mary's.

In 2004, after Formation at St John's Seminary in Wonersh, Deacon Tony D'Mello was ordained to the Permanent Diaconate on 4th July in St John's Cathedral, Portsmouth by Bishop Crispian Hollis. He has served all his ministry in Aldershot.

After 37 years as a priest in the diocese, Fr Peter Doyle was appointed Bishop of Northampton in 2005; a position he still holds.

In June 2010 a wonderful weekend of celebrations was held to celebrate Fr David's Golden Jubilee as Priest.

In 2011, the All Hallows' Secondary School celebrated its Golden Jubilee. As part of the celebrations, Bishop Doyle returned to celebrate a special Pontifical Mass in the School Hall and after the Mass he buried a time capsule in the school grounds. Two students who were servers at St Joseph's Church served at the Mass. In 2014, a new Sixth Form Centre and Concert Hall was opened. As a testament to Canon O'Hanlon's legacy, the Coffee Shop in the new building is called "Father Dan's"!

In 2012, Fr David retired to Portsmouth, the City of his birth and continues an active ministry at St John's Cathedral where he previously ministered in the 1970's as a young priest.

Present day

In September 2012 our present Parish Priest, Fr Chris Whelan came to Aldershot following seven years as Parish Priest of St John Bosco in Woodley, near Reading and before that as a Deacon and Assistant Priest in Fareham. Shortly after his arrival, Bishop Philip Egan was Ordained to the Episcopate as Bishop of Portsmouth following the retirement of Bishop Crispian Hollis.

In 2013, after a few months in the parish, Fr Chris led celebrations for the Centenary of the Opening of St Joseph's Church (January 1913) and the Golden Jubilee of St Mary's (March 1963).

In 2016, after Formation at the Maryvale Institute and St Mary's College Oscott, Deacon Craig Aburn was ordained to the Permanent Diaconate on 2nd July in St John's Cathedral, Portsmouth by Bishop Philip Egan.

In December 2016, Ansel D'Mello (Deacon Tony's son), a Final Year Seminarian at Wonersh, training for the Priesthood was ordained as a Transitional Deacon. God willing, Deacon Ansel is due to be ordained to the Priesthood for our Diocese this Summer. Please pray for him and all our Seminarians.

Much of the information above can be found in the book "Diocese of Portsmouth, Past & Present, by Gerard Dwyer (published in 1982 by the Portsmouth Diocese Centenary Committee). Other items have been added more recently by the Webmaster along with the more recent history from 2000 onwards.

For a list of clergy who have served Aldershot Catholic Community, click here