Commanding an impressive view over the skyline of Whitwick, the current Holy Cross Church was built in 1906 to serve the growing Catholic population in the village, replacing an older building.
The wave of Catholicism in Leicestershire and the roots of the Church in the area as it stands today began much earlier than 1906, however.
Perhaps most important to the growth of local Catholicism was Ambrose Phillips de Lisle. De Lisle became a Catholic convert (amidst much controversy) in 1825, having been bought up an Anglican by his uncle, a High Church clergyman. With his conversion came a great zeal and desire to reconcile Britain to Catholicism. As part of this plan, he purchased the land to build the nearby Mount St. Bernard Abbey at Oaks in Charnwood in 1835.
This was the first Monastery built since the reformation and today houses the only remaining order of Cistercian Trappist monks in the country. The buildings for the Monastery were designed by architect Augustus Pugin, a man most famous for designing the Houses of Parliament. Reputedly he offered his services for free when designing the Monastery.
A large part of the workforce who came to build the monastery were Irish Catholics. De Lisle arranged for a small chapel, graveyard and presbytery, also reputedly designed by Pugin, to be built on Parsonwood Hill in Whitwick in 1837. On three consecutive days in October that year, three separate chapels were consecrated within the boundaries of Whitwick parish – The Monastery, De Lisle’s own private chapel at Grace Dieu and the new chapel on Parsonwood Hill. Previously there had been only six Roman Catholic centres in Leicestershire as a whole. Of these, the Monastery of course still stands, de Lisle’s former home at Grace Dieu manor is now a school and while the original Parsonwood Hill chapel has since been demolished (circa 1908), the presbytery (now a house) and graveyard remain.
Once the buildings were in place, De Lisle sought to grow the congregation. He was assisted in this aim by Father Luigi Gentili, a Rosminian Priest.
Gentili travelled from Italy to become the chaplain at Grace Dieu in 1835. As part of this role he worked with Father Whitaker, Holy Cross’ first parish priest, to spread the faith and convert people in the local area. Gentili’s work cannot be overstated – by May 1841 it is claimed that as many as 520 people had converted since his arrival as far away as Belton, Osgathorpe, Shepshed and Loughborough, all of which he would have visited on foot. It is of note to consider that Father Gentili received the very first Anglican convert into the faith, Father William Lockhart. It was this act that persuaded John Henry Newman to convert in 1846, beginning the ‘Oxford Movement’.
After many years servitude to the faith, Ambrose de Lisle died in March 1878 and is buried in Mount St Bernard Abbey at the foot of the altar of St Stephen Harding. It cannot be doubted that without the zeal and significant financial donations of de Lisle and his friend John Talbot, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, the face of Catholicism in Leicestershire and further afield would have been very different. So great was the strain on the finances of the de Lisle family that shortly after the death of Ambrose, his son informed the then resident priest Father Van Paemal that he would not be continuing the annual stipend of approximately £100 a year – around £8,000 in modern money – but would leave the Church the priests house, convent and associated gardens rent free.
Development and Growth
Father (later Canon) O’Reilly arrived in Whitwick 1888. He soon realised there was much to be done – the Catholic school, at Turry Log, was too far away, and the chapel built in 1837 was now too small for the congregation which had swelled from the small beginnings; thanks in part to the work of previous priests and men like Father Gentili in converting so many people, but also because new industry in the area, particularly Coal Mining, attracted many Irish families looking for better fortune overseas. He also faced the problem of the fifty or so parishioners who lived in nearby Coalville that faced a long walk to Whitwick to hear mass. Father O’Reilly agreed to say a separate mass in Coalville, using a variety of venues before a temporary church was built in Highfield Street in 1899. Coalville did not become an independent mission until 1910 with the arrival of Father Degan.
Faced with these tasks, Father O’Reilly set about with zeal a plan of building and expansion for the Parish. The weekly collection in these years amounted to around £1 a week – around £90 in modern money. In order to get the new building programme started a new collection was started which managed £1.20 a week – just over £100 – and Father O’Reilly’s vision seemed a long way off.
Things began in 1902, with the construction of a new Presbytery, which we still use, and later that year the construction of Holy Cross School. The reason for the plural of “Holy Cross Schools” (which can still be read in the brickwork above the reception) was that the building amalgamated 3 previously separate Catholic schools in the village into one building. The old presbytery (still standing, now in use as a house) was given to the Rosminian Sisters and used as a convent for many years.
The school was finally opened in 1903, free of debt – the state had met 1/60th of the £5,000 building costs (£83.50, or £7,000 today) and Mrs Haydock, a local benefactor, had shown incredible charity in donating the remaining £4,916.50 – over half a million pounds today. The £500 (over £50,000 today) cost of fixtures and fittings was borne by the ratepayers of the village.
With the school and presbytery safely constructed, attention turned to the building of a new church. Previous priests had not been idle in this regard – Father Van Paemal had explored enlarging and improving the original 1837 building, but the death of De Lisle in 1878 almost certainly ended any possibility of that. Father O’Reilly had himself sought estimates for the renovation and enlargement of the 1837 chapel later in 1900, but it was decided that due to the poor state of the building a new one would be needed. Building of the new Church thus began in October 1904. The builders, Walter Moss of Coalville, won the tender with a construction quote of £5,455.00. This would be around £562,000 today! The first stone was laid in May 1905, and the first mass was said on March 25th in 1906.
The original building plans show the church comprising of the aisled nave and sanctuary, but the tower, North Chapel (organ loft) and the upper stages of the Sanctuary were left out due to lack of funds. It is not known if they were built at the time of opening in 1906, but they were certainly erected by 1907. The tower, 75ft above ground level, was added at a later date, thanks to the generosity of Samuel Wilson Hallam, who pledged £2,000 in his will for the construction of the tower and bells with the caveat that it would only be given after the death of his widow. Mrs Hallam died a fornight after her husband , so construction began much sooner than expected! The tower was completed by 1910 and contains, in 4 stages, a Choir Vestry, Organ Chamber/Ringing Loft and Belfry. The top of the tower itself commands an impressive view and the tower can be seen from nearly anywhere in the village.
With building work completed, attention turned to fund raising to cover the costs and the school hall was used extensively for dances, concerts, sales of work and other events. The school field, then privately owned, was also utilised for garden parties. This practice still continues today with the annual Summer and Winter fetes being held on the school field and in the school hall respectively.
One building which Canon O’Reilly never managed to secure was a ‘Parish Hall’. In November 1924 he wrote to the Bishop that “My schools, although spacious, are not suited to that purpose [A hall especially for parishioners]“. His dream was finally realised in 1997 however with the opening of our Parish Rooms, more information on which can be found on their own page.
May 1937 saw the Mission celebrate its 100 year anniversary with great solemnity and ceremony. Representatives of all those involved in the foundations of the Church were present at a special service. More recently the Church held a flower festival to celebrate 175 years of the Whitwick Mission in 2012.
The Modern Church
In accordance with the changes to the Church liturgy over the years, the interior and uses of the church have changed a little – mostly this occured after Vatican II with the removal of the pulpit and altar rails.
A traditional 15-bell chime was installed in the tower by Taylors of Loughborough in 1960. The bells can often be heard after Sunday mass or occasionally after a wedding!
Our current organ was installed in August 1964 by J.W Walker & Sons and is still in regular use today. This replaced the older, hand pumped example which many of the older parishioners can still remember.
The building interior was extensively modernised during the 1980s to allow it to move forwards into the new century – this included extensive rewiring, new lighting and a new central heating system as well as carpeting throughout and a full re-decoration. Since the year 2000 we have added additional radiators, ceiling fans and 2014 saw us replace the aging light fittings throughout the building.
Parish Priests of Holy Cross
The stability of the parish is such that the last 175 Years we have been served by only 11 priests to date, the longest serving of which was resident for 46 years. We have been fortunate enough that in some unsettled periods, particularly in the mid 1800s, Whitwick has been able to call upon Mount St Bernard Abbey for assistance, a function they still perform on occasion to the present day.
Between 1844-1859 the parish was served by a mixture of Rosminian priests, based out of Grace Dieu, and for a brief three year period by priests of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (known as the Conceptionists). This was partly down to Ambrose de Lisle, who had a vision for three Rosminian fathers to base themselves at Grace Dieu and manage the Whitwich, Shepshed and Grace Dieu missions from there. His vision was never realised, although the Rosminian priests did serve the parish at different times detailed below. The Rosminians finally withdrew from the Charnwood Forest missions in 1852, however, they still to this day serve St Mary’s Church in nearby Loughborough.
With the arrival of Father Bent in 1859, Whitwick has never been without a permanent Priest.
Parish Priests Chronology
1837 – Construction of first Church. Served by Father Odilo Woolfrey from Mount St. Bernard Abbey
1840-1844 – Father Samuel Whitaker
1844-1845 – Served from Mount St Bernard Abbey
1845-1848 – Oblates of Mary Immaculate
1848-1849 – Father F Signini (Institute of Charity)
1849-1850 – Served from Mount St Bernard Abbey
1850-1852 – Father N Lorraine (Institute of Charity)
1852-1859 – Served by Father Ignatius Sisk from Mount St Bernard Abbey
1859-1865 – Father G Bent
1865-1885 – Father Angelus Van Paemal
1885-1888 – Father Joseph Jackson
Second Church constructed 1906
1888-1934 – Canon Matthew James O’Reilly
1934-1956 – Monsignor Canon Henry Alphonsus Hunt
1956-1979 – Monsignor Canon Arthur Bird
1979-1984 – Father Peter Joseph Neary (BSc VF)
1984- 1991 – Father Thomas J Godley
1991 – 2001- Father Michael Bell (Rev Provost)
2001 – Present – Father James Cahill