DURING 2020 St Columba’s church marked its Diamond Jubilee, but the Catholic community in Chesham is much older.

Modern Catholicism in Chesham

The modern history of the Catholic community in Chesham dates from the 1880s, when Father Michael Dwane, a visiting priest from Aylesbury, would occasionally offer Mass in the homes of Chesham Catholics. Around 1905 Bertrum and Ada Chevalier, a half-Welsh, half-French Catholic brother and sister, built a house at 164 White Hill in Chesham which they named St Telio,. Before they came to Chesham they had been attached to the Catholic Priory in Kensington, run by Discalced Carmelites friars (discalced friars are those who go barefoot, or wear sandals).

At first the Chevaliers joined other local Catholics who took the train from Chesham to attend the Rickmansworth Catholic church. Once a month a Carmelite priest from Kensington visited Chesham by train, and said Mass for local Catholics in a room, known as an oratory, in the Chevaliers’ house. This was attended by Catholics from Chesham, Chesham Bois and Amersham.

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St Joseph’s, Eskdale Avenue

In June 1907 the Chevaliers purchased a some land behind their house in Khartoum (now called Eskdale) Avenue, where they had two houses built. These were called Mount Carmel and St Helen’s (now 103 and 105 Eskdale Avenue). In 1909 the land and houses were sold to the Carmelite Order. Father Francis Lamb came to live at St Helen’s and 2 rooms at the back were converted into one, to make a place of worship called St Helen’s Oratory.

The first Mass was held on Sunday, May 9, 1909. Thereafter weekly services were held there at 10.30am and 6.30pm, with singing led by a choir. Confessions were heard in English, Italian , French, and German, reflecting the languages of the congregation. Later St Helens and Mount Carmel were linked by a corridor and used as community houses for training Carmelite novices (student priests). The 1911 census records eight novices from England and Ireland living there. From 1910 a chapel was created at Mount Carmel and which was called St Joseph’s church. The congregation of about 35 people came from Chesham, Chesham Bois and Amersham.

St Joseph’s, Chalfont St Peter

Meanwhile the Carmelites applied for planning permission to build a monastery, church and school in Chesham but this was declined. Instead on September 14, 1913 all the Carmelites moved from Chesham to Chalfont St Peter. In 1914 they built a new church called St Joseph’s Church and Priory at Austenwood Common, Chalfont St Peter, and established St Joseph’s Primary School. the Chesham chapel continued to be used for Sunday services, conducted by Father Eric Coleman, who travelled from Chalfont St Peter.

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Our Lady’s, Chesham Bois

It was decided that the Catholic community needed a larger and more central location for services. A plot was purchased midway between Chesham and Amersham stations. In October 1914 the foundations were laid for a new Catholic church at 30 New (now Amersham) Road in Chesham Bois. By this time the local Catholic community had doubled with the addition of Belgian refugees, fleeing the German invasion (see BFP Nostalgia Oct 6, 2019). The church was dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Succour (a title for St Mary), which is usually just called Our Lady’s. The last service at St Joseph’s in Chesham was held on April 15, 1915.

Thereafter services were taken by Father Eric Coleman at Our Lady’s, Chesham Bois. The building was officially registered for public worship in July 1915 and registered for solemnising marriages in August 1916. With no more links to Chesham, the Carmelites then sold their properties and adjacent land in Eskdale Avenue in Chesham.

Catholic services resume in Chesham

After the Great War most of the Belgian refugees returned to Belgium, but then during, and after, the Second World War the local Catholic population was swelled by about 300 Polish refugees and displaced persons. Many Poles were stationed in Piper’s Wood between Chesham Bois and Hyde Heath. Christians from different churches visited them and took them food supplies.

From 1940 Catholic services were held in an old army hut in Chesham for nuns and children evacuated from Brentford. The nuns later settled at Chesham Bois. From October 3, 1948 Father Nutt, the priest from Chesham Bois, held Catholic services at Chesham British Legion hall. In March 1956 it was announced that Father Tomlinson had found a site for a new church in Chesham at (now 432) Berkhampstead Road. The Chesham Catholic Association was then busy raising money for it.

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St Columba’s

A church building and priest’s house, called a presbytery, was designed by architects Messrs. Archard and Pariners of London. The church was built to accommodate about 250 people, and it was dedicated in honour of St Columba - an Irish holy man who brought Christianity back to Britain from Ireland in the sixth century. The foundation stone for St Columba’s was laid on August 30, 1959 by the Rt Rev Monsignor Thomas Leo Parker, Catholic Bishop of Northampton. On Wednesday June 1, 1960 the completed building was blessed by Bishop Parker in a ceremony attended by 200 local people, followed by the first mass. The first parish priest was Father Anthony Chadwick, former curate at Our Lady’s, Chesham Bois. From the start he maintained good relations with the other churches in Chesham and joined in inter-church events. St Columba’s had been officially registered as a place for solemnising marriages on May 26, 1960, and the first wedding was on Saturday July 31, 1960. This was between Allan Richard Steele and Angela Maria Storey, conducted by Father Chadwick. In 1994 St Columba’s formally joined Churches Together for Chesham, which arranges cross-church Christian events such as the Backpackers children’s holiday club. In 2020 St Columba’s marked its 60th anniversary.

If you have any information about local Catholic history please contact Neil Rees on nwrees@gmail.com