In 2016, just eighteen months from now, St Mary’s RC Church in Cresswell will celebrate its 200th anniversary. The Catholic community around Cresswell has been ever-present, even when the faith was under persecution, and it has had a more fascinating history than one could expect from such a little and out of the way place. The celebrations in 2016 will remember some of that history.
In this article, the current parish priest at St Mary’s, Father David Hartley, looks back at a famous person who figures in Cresswell’s Catholic history – a person whom many today think of as a saint.
Blessed Dominic Barberi and his Mission to Cresswell
Every year on 25th August the Catholic Church celebrates the feast-day of a very humble yet influential Italian priest, who came to England as a missionary in the 1840s, when Catholicism was only just being recognised again in this country.
‘Blessed’ Dominic Barberi is best known as the man who converted John Henry Newman, a famous Anglican, to Catholicism, and who then ‘received’ Newman into the Catholic Church. This happened in October 1845… and only a few months before, in December of 1844, Dominic had been here, in Cresswell, preaching a mission at St Mary’s.
Dominic Barberi had arrived in England in 1841. By late 1842 he had established a base for himself and fellow priests of the ‘Passionist’ order at Aston by Stone, just ten miles from here.
He began giving missions the next year, visiting places like Longton, and, of course, Cresswell, which in those days was one of only a very few established Catholic communities with a church (built 1816) and a long unbroken history.
But many local Catholic families had drifted into a half hearted lack of commitment, and as in other places he visited he found that they and others were keen to hear about the faith, almost for the first time.
He spent a few days here in Cresswell during Advent 1844, presumably staying at St Mary’s House next door to the church – which is where the then priest lived, and which had been used as a training centre for priests right up until 1832.
The following extract gives us an idea of his routine:
“Here is our method of giving missions,” he wrote to the ‘General Superior’ of his order (the Passionists) on 18th July 1844: “At 5am I give the first meditation of the Passion; at 3pm a practical instruction on Christian Doctrine, mainly on the Sacrament of Penance (confession/reconciliation); at 7pm I give a meditation on the Eternal Truths.
“I hear confessions” he again reported, in November, “from seven o’clock in the morning until ten o’clock at night. The people swarm around me and round the confessional like bees… and it seems impossible to get to the end of them.”
After a mission in Derby he reported in April 1845: ”We could not possibly hear the confessions of all who thronged to the mission. The local priests gave out tickets to try to keep some order amidst the confusion!”
We can’t imagine the numbers at Cresswell led to such busy and chaotic scenes, but another letter states “…over one hundred and fifty were reconciled at Wolverhampton and fifty at Cresswell, many of whom had lapsed in their youth.”
It was the beginning of rapid change for our village, especially with the arrival of people constructing the railway which opened in 1848. Some were Irish and brought their Catholic faith with them.
A Catholic school was opened, and the community grew in confidence – and other nearby parishes were now beginning to develop too.
Father Dominic stayed with the Benedictine nuns at Caverswall Castle during one of his tours of the region. It’s reported that while he was at Caverswall Castle (7-14 September 1844) he gave a lecture at Lane End (Longton) every night to a mixed congregation of Catholics and non-Catholics, and received four influential non-Catholics into the Church.
Caverswall Catholic Church is celebrating 150 years this year, because although local people had attended the Castle chapel in the years before, the actual church of St Filumena’s was built for the parish in 1864.
Although Father Barberi might have hoped to be remembered as a humble and hopeful missionary to the poor of this country, it is the conversion of John Henry Newman, a famous Oxford scholar, for which he will be most remembered.
Newman went on to become a priest himself, and eventually one of the great cardinals of the Catholic Church. It’s quite possible that Newman himself visited Cresswell, because for a while he stayed at Cotton village (near Alton).
Amazingly for a person who had such influence in this country, Dominic’s time here was short. He died in 1849 of a heart-attack, perhaps brought on by overwork, at the age of 57.
Such is his reputation for holiness that he was beatified (called ‘Blessed’) in 1963, and many would like to see him formally declared a saint. If that happened, it would be remarkable to think that a saint once walked through the very doors of St Mary’s Church here in Cresswell.
Fr David Hartley, Parish Priest of Cresswell
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