Francis Phillips, of this virtual parish and the Catholic Herald, has just offered a kind notice of a book ‘Catholic East Anglia’ to which I have contributed a chapter called “East Anglia in the Victorian Diocese of Northampton 1850-1901”. She notes the bleakness of the outlook at the beginning of that period:
For 300 years the area included in the bishopric (seven counties: Bucks, Beds, Northamptonshire, Huntingdonshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk) had been a most desolate one from the Catholic point of view.
Those who say persecution does not work might like to reconsider in the light of the situation 300 years after the reformation. In those seven counties twenty-seven priests served 86 churches and chapels in an area of 7,000 square miles; there were barely 6000 Catholics in the region. It remained untouched by the industrial revolution and the consequent urbanisation; the huge numbers of Irish Catholics escaping famine went to big cities, such as London, Glasgow, Manchester and Liverpool. East Anglia, on the other side of the country, missing out of industrialisation and urbanisation, and dominated by Nonconformity and Anglicanism was not an attractive destination for economic migrants.
In so far as Catholicism survived, it was in the purlieus of the gentry, and the location of the Catholic communities ‘mapped out recusant households.’ These old Catholic families had been impoverished by persecution, and ironically, for some, it was their very devotion to the Church which was leading to their extinction – sons and daughters becoming Religious was a gift to the Church, but placed a burden on eldest sons which often was not deliverable. These old aristocratic families did not much care for the restored hierarchy. They had managed to come to some sort of accommodation with their neighbours and the State, they did not welcome the revival of anti-popery riots. Given their memory of their past history, one of fines and persecution, they tended to keep themselves to themselves and did not seek to evangelise. It was a recipe for stagnation and decline.
The first two bishops of the new Diocese of Northampton were good men, but not up to the challenge of what Cardinal Manning would later call the ‘dead diocese’. It was the appointment of Arthur Riddell in 1880 which changed the situation. Riddell stayed in office for 27 years, and it would be fair to say that the existing Catholic establishment, whether in the form of the old Catholic families, or the Benedictine missions dependent on Downside Abbey, did not find him the easiest of bishops – but that was because he was not content with stagnation and decline.
Riddell opened 25 mission centres, 18 stations (where Masses were celebrated) and 14 chapels. By 1896, the numbers of clergy had risen from 25 to 61 and the churches from 35 to 61, alongside another 17 chapels and communities. There were also 41 Catholic elementary schools and a seminary. By the time of the bishop’s 25th anniversary the congregation of his diocese had risen to 12,744, with 70 priests and 35 parishes. Riddell’s evangelising methods followed a tried and successful pattern: at first, renting a room for a priest; then establishing a small oratory; subsequently collecting donations to buy land to build a church.
Not all Riddell’s missions worked, and once he had primed the pumps in an area, he let the locals sink or swim – but more did the latter than the former. It perhaps helped that Riddell came from a long line of soldiers. He knew the road would be hard, but he had a clear sense of duty which he articulated thus:
Meanwhile, what is our duty? It is to be thorough Catholics, Catholics in name and in deed; practical Catholics, fulfilling all our duties to God and to our neighbour, praying, hearing Mass, frequenting the Sacraments, keeping the days of fasting and abstinence, avoiding sin, practising virtue, loving God; this is the way for us to assist in the conversion of England, and there is no other.
As it was then, is now and ever shall be.