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History of St Birinus Church

St Birinus

The history of St Birinus Church began in 634 with the coming of St Birinus from Rome

The history of the parish and church of St. Birinus belongs to the whole Christian community in Dorchester-on-Thames. It begins as long ago as the year 634 when the young Pope Honorius sent Birinus on a mission to England, some 37 years after St Augustine had arrived in these shores. Although the nationality of Birinus is now lost to us, for there are some who say he was Italian, others Irish, others German and yet others Frankish, we do know that he been consecrated a Bishop by Archbishop Asterius in Genoa. He landed on the south coast at Portchester and after staying in Cholsey met King Cynegils of Wessex, and preached a sermon to the King at Churn Knob in Blewbury. To this day Anglicans and Roman Catholics commemorate the occasion each July with a pilgrimage from Churn Knob to the Abbey church in Dorchester. The kings of Wessex, Mercia and Norhumbria were at that time at war. William of Malmesbury (1143) says of one conflict: “The kings escaped, and were not long after enlightened by the heavenly doctrine by means of St Birinus….Cynegils, veiling his princely pride, condescended to receive immediately the holy rite of baptism.”
As Birinus made his way to Dorchester to be installed as Bishop, there are reports that many of his courtiers received baptism en masse in the Thames. Happily for the people of Wessex not only was their king converted to Christianity, but King Oswald of Northumbria was already a Christian, and the kings were able to declare an end to war and to cement their new alliance by the betrothal of Cynegil’s daughter, Cyneburga, to Oswald. Thus it was that Birinus was consecrated Bishop of Dorchester by both King Oswald and King Cynegils.
King Cynegils died in 643 and the new king, Cenwalh, sent Bishop Birinus to Winchester. Birinus himself died in 649 after building and consecrating many churches in Wessex. For the work he did he was long remembered as “The Apostle of Wessex” and “The Enlightener of Wessex”, and the people recorded “The Great Miracles of Birin”, as he came to be known in the Anglo-Saxon community. Nowhere, however, was he remembered more fondly than here in Dorchester.

The history then is of a Christian community living peaceably in Dorchester, their commitment to faith being declared by the building of the Abbey in Dorchester, a foundation of the Augustinian Order, and in due course in 1526 a shrine to St Birinus was built in the Abbey.
Soon afterwards, during the reign of Elizabeth 1 in 1566, there appears the first record of the family to whom we owe such a debt of gratitude for the building of the Church of St Birinus, the Daveys of Dorchester. At that time the family lived in Overy Manor. Thomas Davey had his own chapel in the house where mass was said, despite the hardships of the time. In fact the people of Dorchester were not unduly harsh towards those who still adhered to the old faith, but even so there are records to show that Thomas Davey was required to pay double taxes because he was a recusant. The Davey family was one of a number of recusant families in Oxfordshire whose influence is still felt to-day, but the reputation of the Daveys was sufficiently well established in Roman Catholic circles for a priest to write to Cardinal Allen in Rome in 1583 to report that he had ordered thirty collapsible chalices like the Davey chalice.
Despite the amenability of the people of Dorchester it required courage for the family to remain loyal to the faith. By 1700 the reward for the arrest and conviction of a Catholic priest was worth over £5000 in to-day’s money, and by 1706 any person who converted someone to Catholicism was guilty of treason. It is therefore not altogether surprising that at the time of the census during the reign of Queen Anne there were no more than 293 Catholics in Berkshire and only 14 recorded in Oxfordshire. The Daveys, however, survived and apparently prospered. In 1712 they built a new house at Overy Manor where mass was said seven times a year in their secret chapel. Relics in the form of vestments and paintings and chalices were handed down from one generation to the next. Some remain in Dorchester in the Abbey or in our presbytery, but others have been scattered. It is a tribute to the devotion of the Davey family that by 1769 it was recorded that there were nineteen Catholics in Dorchester.
When the French Revolution occurred in 1789, involving as it did violent anti-clericalism, the antipathy of the British government towards Roman Catholics began, perhaps, to thaw a little. In 1791 the Catholic Relief Act was passed to enable French Catholic clergy to seek refuge in England. In the following year Monsignor Michel Thoumin des Valpons, Vicar General and Archdeacon of Dol in Brittany was offered shelter by the Daveys and came to live as part of the community at Overy Manor. Thousands of French priests sought refuge in the south of England, the numbers being such that arrangements were made for those from different regions in France to be kept together when they arrived here. Something of the order of about one hundred Breton priests were accommodated in Thame, and it seems likely that Mgr Thoumin des Valpons was one of those, although history does not relate how he came to be taken up by the Daveys.
The Monsignor, whose prie-dieu still remains in the presbytery, was obviously a well-respected figure in Dorchester, for when he died in 1798 at Overy Manor not only did the Warden of New College pay for his funeral but he was buried with honour in Dorchester Abbey, where a memorial to him can be seen in the south west aisle in front of the altar. In 1801 another French priest, Father Julien Triquet, came to take his place and to be a guest of the Daveys at Overy Manor.
In 1820 the devotion of the Davey family over centuries of persecution began to bear fruit. Willaim Davey was obviously a man of considerable local influence, and indeed in 1811 was asked to lay the foundation stone for Dorchester Bridge, but in 1820 the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed and William, a gentleman farmer with 300 acres and 600 head of sheep, was now accepted in the highest circles. George III came to visit Willaim and declared him to be “The neatest, truest ploughman I anywhere viewed”. His son, John Davey, was also a keen farmer and founded the Oxford Agricultural Society, who made a presentation to him in 1821.
Two years later the architect of our church, William Wilkinson Wardell, was born to an Anglican family in Poplar. As he was growing up, Willaim Davey died and his son, John Davey, moved back from London to live at Overy Manor. Wardell meanwhile was training to be an engineer and took employment under the commissioner for sewers in Westminster. He then turned his hand to being a surveyor of railways, and as he travelled around the cathedral cities of Britain in that capacity he came to admire and appreciate Gothic architecture.
Fate then took a hand. Wardell came to Oxford and married the daughter of Henry Butler, a magistrate and wine merchant with premises in St Aldates. While in Oxford he came to meet Newman and Pugin. It was a turning point in his life. In 1843, at the age of twenty, he converted to the Roman Catholic faith and decided to train as an ecclesiastical architect, specialising in the romantic values of the Gothic style that Pugin had introduced into the design of Catholic churches in the mid-nineteenth century. Three years later he embarked on his new career, and between 1846 and 1857 Wardell designed and built some thirty Roman Catholic churches and chapels around Britain, mostly in the Gothic style. In later life Wardell emigrated to Australia where he built the Catholic Cathedrals in Melbourne and Sydney as well as many other ecclesiastical and secular buildings, but in 1848 his talent came to be recognized by John Davey.
In 1848, the year in which his brother Henry was ordained as a priest, John Davey decided to build a church on the land adjacent to what had been the Dower House which was now offered by him for use as the priest’s house. He did so, it is said, as a result of a violent incident that has become part of parish history but which is unfortunately so ill recorded that there are now several different versions of what happened. According to one version John Davey was accidentally shot by a stranger but the bullet was stopped by his missal. Another version is that it was his son and not a stranger who shot at him when they were having a quarrel, and it was a button rather than a missal that deflected the bullet. In either case it is believed that John Davey decided to commission the building of the church in thanksgiving. A different, and more prosaic account, is that John’s son was dissolute, and land which otherwise would have been his inheritance was given to the Church.

The Church of St Birinus

So it was that Wardell, then only 26 years old, was commissioned to design and build the Church of St Birinus in the Gothic style. The priest with responsibility for the parish at that time was Father Newsham S.J. His parish was based in St. Clement’s in Oxford, where there was a school for Catholic boys, but on alternate Sundays he celebrated mass in Dorchester. In 1849 Fr Newsham moved into the Presbytery at Bridge House and brought his school with him. His special contribution to the parish, which included the donation with George Davey of the the magnificent rood screen and other church furnishings, is marked by a plaque on the south wall. The debt owed by the parish to John Davey is itself marked by a beautiful brass engraving showing John and his wife, Elizabeth, holding up the church between them as an offering.
The Church of St Birinus was completed in 1849 and was consecrated at a Pontifical Mass celebrated by Bishop Ullathorne, the last of the Vicars Apostolic before the formal establishment of the Catholic Hierarchy in the following year. Representatives of the major Catholic families in Oxfordshire such as the Stonors, Eystons and Barretts were present to mark this very special occasion in the life of the parish. Bishop Ullathorne described the church as “a perfect gem” and indeed generations of parishioners have come to appreciate its beauty and the way in which in different parts of the fabric of the building the history of St Birinus, of Dorchester and of the Davey family is set out for our contemplation. No doubt the members of those Catholic families who attended that Mass would agree with Cardinal Newman who said of the Daveys a few years later that they were “a good family, champions of Catholicity in Dorchester”. John Davey died in 1863, having survived Elizabeth by seven years, and was buried in our churchyard. Despite the progress made by Parliament in acknowledging the contribution of Roman Catholics to the life of the country, it was not permitted until 1880 for Catholic clergy to carry out interments, so although a Requiem Mass for John Davey was carried out by Bishop Ullathorne, the actual burial had to be performed by the Rector of Dorchester.
Sadly, the fortunes of the Davey family declined in the latter part of the 19th century. The original house at Overy Manor fell victim to a major fire in 1877 and the last Davey resident in Dorchester died in 1901. It has therefore fallen to the parishioners themselves, under the guidance of their priests, to maintain the life of the parish and to preserve and enhance the fabric of the building. Thanks to the efforts of all our predecessors throughout the 20th century a vigorous life of faith has been maintained despite the widespread area covered by the parish, and with appeals for funds in 1915, 1949 and 2002 our relatively small parish in terms of numbers has maintained and recently enhanced the fabric of the building. It should also be noted as well, as part of the life of our Catholic parish, that throughout the years since 1849 we have continued to receive support form and, when occasion arises, to offer support to the Anglican community in Dorchester. Relationships between the Rectors of the Abbey Church and the priests of the Church of St Birinus have remained warm and cordial over many years, and it is perhaps forgotten now that the parishioners of the Abbey accepted an offer from their Catholic brethren to worship at St Birinus when some years ago the Abbey was out of commission during earlier restoration works there, an occasion marked by the gift by them to us of the lectern.