History of the Parish

Over two hundred years ago, the Benedictines attached to Lady Petre’s Chapel, Cheam, had taken on the spiritual and pastoral care of Epsom. Then the Dominicans accepted responsibility. Abbé Chabot, a French priest, did what he could for the people of Epsom and the neighbouring areas. He held services in a private room, mostly for refugees, but all Catholics were welcome. Abbé Chabot died at an advanced age and no one took his place.

In 1859 Fr Alphonsus David, who was in charge of the Mission in Croydon, was approached by a Mr J Wickwar, a civil servant, with a view to starting a Mass Centre in Epsom. A cottage, 5 Stanley Villas, near the railway terminus, was rented for £14 a year. Fr John Hearn took possession of the house in April 1859. The first children were baptised in July 1859. The first Mass in Epsom was said in August 1859.

In 1861, Fr Charles Tunstall who had a congregation of 29 in Epsom bought the land in Heathcote Road and started work on the church. He remained until 1865.

1861 Epsom Purchase

Purchase money

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It would seem that Fr Tunstall approved the plans for the church but had retired from active work before the official opening. For some time Canon Thomas Sing of the Diocese of Nottingham was in charge. He was soon succeeded by Fr Joseph Dalton.

A note dated August 1860 mentions that the collection at Mass averaged £14 a year. So the difficulties of Fr Tunstall must have been considerable, yet only a very small debt remained at the time of the official opening of the church. Much credit is also due to Fr Dalton, assistant priest, who died in 1874 in Roehampton Convent, where he retired in the same year. To him must belong the greater part of the credit for the early days of the parish.

From 1865 the church was registered for marriages. Fr Dalton was replaced by Fr Peter Haythomthwaite from the Isle of Wight. He was followed by Father Charles Collingridge and then in 1876 Fr Thomas Morrissey came to Epsom and remained until 1883. He moved to Chatham at this time but returned in 1890 and remained until 1916. He died in 1929. During his time in Epsom the outlying parts of the parish were gradually removed by the setting up of new parishes, but the work increased. Leatherhead, Ewell and Worcester Park remained under Epsom.

In 1899 we find the first reference to the Mental Hospitals; The Manor and Horton. By 1900 Leatherhead was no longer considered to be part of Epsom. The parish of Worcester Park began in 1906. More hospitals were set up. By the end of Fr Morrissey’s time five mental and two general hospitals had come under his care.

Fr Charles Turner came in 1916 and was succeeded by Canon Robert Christall in 1923. In 1926 he was appointed Parish Priest. During his time the church was enlarged. The Convent of the Sacred Heart had been set up in 1928. A part of the premises acquired by the Sisters, The Clock House, was available for a parish school.

Fr John Chatterton came to Epsom in 1956. A new hall was built, then a new Presbytery and finally the old church of a hundred years ago was pulled down so that a larger structure could take its place, to cater for the rapid growth and development of the parish.

Monsignor Canon William Westlake succeeded Fr Chatterton as parish priest and the Consecration of the Church by his Lordship Bishop Michael George Bowen PhL STL took place on the Feast of St Joseph, 19 March 1974.

Fr Oliver Heaney, who had been assistant priest from 1968 to 1975, was appointed parish priest of Epsom from 1981 to 1990. Through Fr Heaney’s encouragement Rev John Brockman was ordained as Epsom’s first permanent deacon.

Fr Tony Shelley then served as parish priest from 1990 to 1992. During his short period at Epsom, Fr Shelley began exploring the possibility of members of a religious community coming to help with the ever expanding pastoral and spiritual needs of the parish. This would eventually lead to the arrival in October 1992 of two members of the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary: Sr Fionnuala and Sr Margarite, to be followed later by Sr Brendan.

The new church

Bishop Cormac came to Epsom in February 1992 to inform Fr Flower, who was then in charge in the absence of Father Shelley, that the diocese wished to explore the possibility of moving the church from Heathcote Road.

The existing church had drawbacks. There was no room for development on the site. The church building was in need of extensive and expensive repair. The hall was small and there were no meeting rooms to enable parish activities to thrive. Parking facilities were almost non-existent and its central location in a narrow road led to problems of traffic congestion.

The Convent of the Sacred Hearts School reluctantly had to close and the grounds in the Dorking Road were at the time put up for sale. The diocese saw the need and the opportunity to have a deanery church to be of service to the larger Catholic community in the Epsom area. A feasibility study was set up to explore the possibility of building a new church on the Convent site.

Fr William Davern was appointed in September 1992. He wrote to the Provincial of the Sacred Hearts, but the Sisters were not in an economic position to grant land to the parish and it was clear that any purchase would have to be at full market price. The existing buildings were not suitable for conversion and the land fronting the Dorking Road, which would have been the ideal site, had been earmarked by the local planners, in conjunction with the Chamber of Commerce, for a hotel.

Other possible sites in the Epsom area at less cost had been considered and rejected when it was decided to explore the possibility of relocating directly adjacent to the primary school on a little used playing field owned by Surrey County Council. With Bishop Cormac’s help, a meeting was arranged with the Council to discuss the sale of the land which was agreed at a cost of £100,000, one-sixth of the projected cost of the development land at first contemplated. Such a successful outcome was of course due to the efforts of the Bishop and Fr Davern – but some credit should also go to Mother Teresa and the burial of a Miraculous Medal on the land by the parish priest and headteacher together.

The parish had of course been informed of proposals and developments as they happened, but the time had now come to put them fully in the picture as to what the relocation would entail and how it would have to be funded. A parish open meeting was held at W S Atkins on 28 February 1995 when the Steering Group made a presentation on the project and parishioners were able to air their views, with only a small minority really adverse. This was followed by a Mass on Palm Sunday 1995 celebrated by the Bishop who stressed the need for everyone to give the project full support, knowing that paying for it would entail considerable sacrifice.

Soon after this, a first appeal was launched to the parishioners alone, resulting in a starting fund of over £450,000 by way of donations and covenants, given and pledged. Not only was this heartening in itself, it showed the diocese that the funding of this immense project they had asked us to undertake was within the bounds of reality and it gave an impetus to the organisation of a funding programme. A further open meeting was held at W S Atkins later that year to bring the parish up to date with progress.

An enthusiastic design committee was set up whose first task was to select the project architect. 28 applications were received at the first stage and a second short list of three submitted designs which they presented early in 1996. Messrs W S Atkins were selected, their architect Hugh Edgar showing considerable flair in his design which, with very few minor alterations, lasted through to the finished product.

In June 1996 completion of the purchase of the land, paid for from a generous bequest in the will of Olive Doran, a former sacristan, led to a Service of Dedication on the site. In April 1998 we received full and detailed planning permission from the Council. We had now reached the stage when we felt a proper project launch was justified and this was organised on 19 June 1998 at the Queen’s Stand on Epsom Racecourse, where we had ‘The Sights and Sounds of Summer’ – a night where everything went right, graced by the presence of the Bishop and the Mayor, from whom we had two witty speeches, entertained by our own Rosa Mannion and Julian Gavin, international opera stars, and blessed by a sunny warm evening in the middle of a wet spell of summer. All this and champagne too.

On the Feast of St Joseph in 1999, Bishop Cormac and the Mayor, Paul Arden-Jones, each wielded a spade and cut the First Turf on the actual site, the first step towards the building. Messrs Gleesons had been awarded the construction contract but we were not yet in a position to start.

Matters had not gone well all the time. Fr Davern had had to suffer a lot of acrimony, not only from dissenting parishioners and choleric local residents who resented the impending demolition of the Heathcote Road building and erection of the new church, but also from the opposition of local Council members and officials, as well as, at times, a hostile press. Such hurdles had to be overcome and led to delay, but at this point the financial advisers to the diocese had cold feet and for a time it seemed that, however impossible to contemplate, the project might have to be abandoned. But wise counsels prevailed and agreement was reached to enable the Diocesan Trustees formally to approve the project on 14 September 1999.

As soon as the news spread that the demolition of the church was to go ahead, further unrest forced us to start before we were really ready and the building came down in October 2000. We celebrated our final Mass in the old church on 10 October 2000. Parishioners who were involved in all aspects of parish life processed in with symbols representing their particular ministry. These included cleaners, flower arrangers, musicians, eucharistic ministers, readers, as well as co-ordinators of each of the parish’s Special Interest Groups. At the end of Mass they processed out of the church and removed items to be stored in preparation for the new church.

In the meantime, we worshipped in the church hall and we were grateful to the school for accommodating us for the family Mass at 9.30am.

The construction work began on 6 December 1999. It was hoped that the building would be completed by early March 2001 year, but the weather did not help the contractors. However, aided and abetted – and sometimes buffeted – by our excellent project manager, Frank Campbell, to whom we all owe a tremendous debt of gratitude, as well as a host of parishioners who came in force to help in the last week, the St Joseph’s Deanery Church and Community Centre was open for the Easter celebrations and the first Mass celebrated on Thursday 12 April 2001.

First Mass – Maundy Thursday, 12 April 2001