The Congregation in England
I. Bethnal Green.
It was at the beginning of the twentieth century that the Congregation of the Assumption first began its work in England. London was not altogether unknown to the Assumptionists, for Fr. Pernet, founder of the Little Sisters of the Assumption, had on several occasions visited one of their convents established there.
When, in 1901, the religious orders in France were spoliated by the persecuting government of the day, Cardinal Vaughan, then Archbishop of Westminster, expressed the desire that the Assumptionists should establish themselves in his diocese. Negotiations between the Cardinal and Fr. Picard, the Superior General, were immediately set under way. The outcome was that the Fathers could choose one of two parishes that were then unprovided for, the one poor and abandoned in the East End of London, the other more attractive in every way. With characteristic disinterestedness, Fr. Picard decided that his sons should inaugurate their work for souls in the poorer parish. Thus it was that the first Assumptionist mission was opened in Bethnal Green in 1901.
Fr. Joseph Laity, who was in Paris at the time and who knew a little English, was given charge of the new foundation. The beginnings were hard. A corner shop with its disused stable became a presbytery and a church. Three other priests came and the new community assisted at the first parish Mass celebrated in the stable‑chapel on the first Sunday of October; six people formed the congregation. The poverty of Bethlehem could hardly have been greater. The chapel soon proved too small and the more spacious shop and parlour were transformed into the parish church and the stable served as the refectory. The congregation steadily grew, however, and again the problem of more ample accommodation arose. A third move was now made, this time to a disused workshop, measuring forty feet by twenty, over which was another room of equal dimensions. The only serious drawback about the new quarters was that the narrow lane, North Passage, in which they were situated, was conspicuously presided over, top and bottom, by two gaudy “gin-shops”.
The following year Fr. Gelase was appointed parish priest in the place of Fr. Laity who was sent to America. The new Rector arranged a fortnight's mission which was preached by a Servite Father and which attracted congregations of over a hundred and twenty. This event definitely put the new parish on a solid basis and the parochial boundaries were officially established. The resources of the mission were barely sufficient to maintain the community of four priests and one lay brother and the financial situation regularly became critical at the end of the quarter when the rent fell due. Devoted parishioners would then come to the rescue, organize an entertainment and generally succeed in raising the necessary £13.
As was perhaps to be expected, the arrival of a Catholic community in this part of the East End caused some comment, and not always of the friendliest kind. The windows and doors often served as targets for mud and stones, and street refuse sometimes found its way through the windows and even into the Brother's frying-pan.
More serious were the hostile activities of the notorious Protestant Alliance. Armed with an Act of Parliament, one of the “No Popery” acts which at that time had not been repealed, these champions of Protestantism prepared to take proceedings against what they styled “this monkish invasion”. One sensational pronouncement had it that “a great number of Assumptionists, who had been turned out of France for trying to upset that country, was settling in East of London, notably about the Old Ford Road, and that some two hundred of their nuns had also come with them.”
This was but a phase of a more general campaign against Religious Orders in England. A fanatical clergyman, named Stirling, acting for the Alliance, had summoned the Jesuits to the Marlborough Street Police Court. The presiding magistrate, finding the Jesuits to be no danger to the State, dismissed the case. Not satisfied with this rebuff, Stirling went to the court of appeal where the magistrate's view was upheld, and the Alliance was condemned to pay the costs. It was at this juncture that the new community attracted attention, with the result that, towards the end of 1902, a summons was served upon the Superior. He was cited before the Thames Street magistrate under whose jurisdiction Stirling believed him to be. The proceedings came to an abrupt end when the magistrate pointed out that as the “Monks” were not resident in the Tower Hamlets they were not citable to his tribunal. Nothing daunted the would-be persecutor who then went to the Worship Street magistrate, this time with a solicitor better acquainted with the topography of London. There an application was made for a summons against Fr. Joseph Laity. The magistrate, wishing to investigate the case more fully, postponed his decision for a fortnight. In the meantime he made Stirling go into the witness-box, where the latter made an affidavit declaring that Fr. Laity was actually the head of the Assumptionist Order of Jesuits (sic!) etc. etc. Such an Order of course, has never existed, and as for Fr. Laity, he had never been the head of any Order, and, at the time this perjury was uttered, he had for months been living in the United States. Not at all impressed by this forensic effort the magistrate quashed the case, and thus ended the open opposition of the Protestant Alliance. If we have resisted the temptation to omit these serial-comic incidents, it is because they vividly serve to illustrate the fact that, in this land of liberty, penal laws were turned against Catholics as late as the twentieth century.
But to resume our story; in 1904 another step forward in the development of the Bethnal Green parish was made when Fr. Gelase moved from North Passage and established his headquarters at the old Polish church, an unpretentious building seating about two hundred persons and situated in Cambridge Road. Only the parish priest was able to live on the premises; the rest of the community sought asylum in rooms across the road under one of the beetling arches of the Great Eastern Railway viaduct. On the ground-floor was a flourishing fried-fish shop. Its noisome fumes were poor compensation for the deafening roar of trains overhead and the bellowing of cows stabled behind the milk-shop next door. Happily this intolerable state of affairs did not last long. A large house, next door to the church but facing Old Ford Road, was bought in 1905, and there the community lived until 1912. In the meantime a plot of land within a stone's throw of 1, Old Ford Road, was acquired. Upon it stood an old protestant conventicle which served for a time as the Parish Hall. This, together with a few equally tumble-down cottages, was pulled down and the foundations of a Church and Priory were laid. In 1912 the Church, gothic in design and of noble proportions, was solemnly blessed by His Eminence Cardinal Bourne. It was a gift to the parish of Mrs Cottrel-Dormer, a generous benefactress who after much good work in this East End quarter wished thus to leave an enduring memorial of her deceased husband. The community took possession of the adjoining Priory which, built by the Order in the style of the Church, presents a striking appearance in Victoria Park Square with a beautiful statue of Our Lady of Salvation smiling benignly upon the passers-by from its niche over the main entrance - a handsome church and a roomy monastery. How different from the stable-chapel of a decade earlier! Even so, the parish still lacked something essential to its future development: there were no Catholic schools for its children. Fr. Gelase Uginet, upon being appointed secretary to the Superior General, had been succeeded in 1906 by Fr. Francis Mathis under whose guidance the new church and priory were erected. In view of the future schools the latter bought suitable land in Bonner Road about five minutes’ walk from the Priory. The War, however, had long been a thing of the past before Fr. Omer Rochain, who succeeded Fr. Mathis in 1923, began to build the Schools. The first stone was laid, in 1926, the jubilee year of the Mission; and when the building was completed the press referred to it as a model elementary school. Now it provides a sound Catholic education for over two hundred children. Such is, in brief, the story of the beginnings and the rapid growth of the first Assumptionist mission in England. This residence soon attained the dignity of a Mother House, for other foundations sprang from it in its earliest days.