Catholicism in Hadleigh
The history of Roman Catholic worship is a meagre one only relatively recent times. However, the Hadleigh Parish is linked with the Sacred Heart at Nayland and St Edmund's Withermarsh Green and the story of the latter church is particularly colourful and reflects the Catholic experience of Southern England immediately after the Reformation.
A flavour of the harsh environment for Catholics in this area can be deduced from a very positive letter sent to the Editor of the Suffolk Chronicle in 1827 in response to one sent previously from "a Hadleigh Dissenter".
"Sir - I was much gratified with the letter, touching the ceremony of the opening of the new Catholic Chapel at Stoke. I hope that his townsmen, influenced by the laudable example of his liberality and benevolence, will henceforth cherish more charitable sentiments towards their Catholic brethren. Hitherto the bloody manes of Dr. Taylor has so haunted their imaginations, and harrowed up their feelings, as not to allow them to take a dispassionate view of the real tenets of the Catholic religion." It concludes, "Insulted, calumniated, and vilified, as the Catholics are in this nation, I trust the time is not far distant, when our countrymen will do us the slender justice to believe our solemn asseverations: I have every reason to hope so much, at least, from the candour of your correspondent, the "Protestant Dissenter", at Hadleigh. Yours, M.A. Trovell."
In 1936, Father Geraghty of Withermarsh Green, received a letter from his Bishop asking him to "shepherd the Catholics of Hadleigh". Previously the few believers had been ministered to by a priest from Brantham. Father Geraghty visited the town and found only 7 Catholics and he held a mass at the lodge of the cemetery.
There was a large wooden building on the site of the present Catholic Church built between the Wars. Originally, it was intended to be a corset factory but was bought by Miss Louise Earle, an eccentric Catholic. She added to the building and even wondered around the town with a bell endeavouring to entice Catholics to join her in saying the Rosary.
The most significant moment for the church in Hadleigh in the modern era was the arrival of Father Montgomery Fulcher in September 1949. He found a destitute parish with 18 parishioners at Withermarsh, 25 at Nayland and 26 at Hadleigh for his first Sunday masses.
Father Fulcher's account details his struggles with housekeepers, problems with cars, his own decorating to save money, mishaps, poor attendances, transitory congregations, changes resulting from the second Vatican Council, his house to house catechism lessons and his won health problems over the next two decades.
In 1951, the church buildings were in part leased out to Messrs Boulton and Hawker Film Company. Later that year the first (Catholic) mission at Hadleigh since the Reformation drew a congregation of 41 but was less successful 3 years later. In 1957 electricity was installed.
On September 23rd 1964, St Joseph's was "burned to the ground. I appealed to the people to form a committee to start raising funds for a new church. It was like asking for a miracle. Although by this time we had managed to raise £2300 for a future church, this could only be a drop in the ocean. My average attendance at the three chapels was 110 and the average total weekly collection was £9".
Local churches rallied around and Fr Fulcher was offered a number of venues for mass including "a tiny chapel in George Street, which according to tradition was the last place the Rev Roland Taylor, the Protestant martyr of Hadleigh rested before being murdered by our Catholic ancestors". Eventually, masses were held at the Guildhall.
Meanwhile, Fr Fulcher planned a future church which would be suitable for an greatly expanded Hadleigh. He anticipated that the town's population would increase from 3000 to 11000.
Work started on September 6th 1965. A nave seating 140 was built with the scope to expand to 350. On July 17th 1966, he writes "Alleluia! Said mass and facing the people for the first time, at Hadleigh in the new church. Congregation was 111." The official opening was performed by Bishop Leo Parker on September 22nd.
Fr Fulcher's account of the history of the parish is dominated by his time as Parish Priest. By way of an explanation and apology, he writes, "Clearly in penal days it was inadvisable to commit much information to paper. Anything they did write would almost certainly have been hidden away for security sake, and it is now lost. Moreover not everyone has a sense of history".
Father Fulcher died on 28th July 1973, suddenly while assuming vestments for a service.