Our History

History of St Francis de Sales and St Gertrude

Extracts from "A Centenary history of the church of St Francis de Sales and St Gertrude, Larkhall Lane, Stockwell – 1902-2002" by Patrick Heren

Stockwell was a poor and heavily industrial area running from the riverfront west of Vauxhall inland towards Brixton. It had no Catholic church of its own, though it was bracketed by two well-established churches, St Anne's at Vauxhall and St Mary's, the Redemptorist headquarters at Clapham. St Anne's and St Mary's both had Catholic schools attached. The Redemptorists had upwards of a dozen clergy, although these were committed to their traditional preaching role, as well as to the demands of the huge parish of Clapham.

By the latter years of the 19th Century, it was clear that Stockwell badly needed a church of its own, which would be carved out of the two neighbouring parishes.

A mission of St Francis de Sales and St Gertrude had been established in a temporary chapel at 87 Stockwell Lane in 1899. On 16th April of that year, the second Sunday after Easter, Bishop Bourne (subsequently Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster), celebrated the first Mass. A Fr. Davidson was appointed rector, but only five months later he joined the Redemptorists at Clapham and the mission was closed.

In early 1902, a site was acquired on Larkhall Lane, and the church of St Francis de Sales and St Gertrude and the presbytery were opened a year later.

In 1890, Stockwell underground station had opened as the southern terminus of the Northern Line, and rapid development of smaller workmen's cottages and flats commenced. By the time St Francis de Sales was being built, Stockwell had changed from a middle-class suburb to a highly urban district of London, with a broad sweep of population. Then, as now, immigrants made up a sizeable proportion of the population in many inner parts of London. Many of them were Catholics from France, Germany, and Italy, but the majority from Ireland.

The diocese was chronically short of money, and was grateful to wealthy benefactors willing to help finance the necessary expansion across south London and south- eastern England.

Prominent among these was Mrs. Ellis, an heiress about whom remarkably little seems to have been known, either now or at the time. She was described in a recent history of the archdiocese as "the most munificent of our benefactors".

Frances Elizabeth Ellis was born into a wealthy family in Brighton in 1846 and raised as an Anglican. She was left a considerable fortune by her father, and devoted much of her adult life to caring for her blind mother and infirm sister, as well as to other acts of charity. She seems to have been drawn to the Catholic faith while staying at Ramsgate in Kent.

During the 1890's, Mrs Ellis began to buy sites and give money to found new churches in the Southwark diocese. Although few records remain, her method seems to have been to find a core group of the faithful in a "frontier" area, and then to work with them and with the diocese to establish a new church.

Mrs Ellis herself generally bought the sites, as well as giving generously to the construction. The prospective parishioners also contributed, as did the diocese. Mrs Ellis was instrumental in setting up at least twenty-one new churches in South London. They were:

• St. Benet's, Abbey Wood
• St Gertrude's, South Bermondsey
• Our Lady of the Rosary, Brixton
• St. Helen's, Robsart Street, Brixton (since merged with Corpus Christi, Brixton)
• Holy Cross, Carshalton
• Holy Cross, Catford
• Our Lady of Grace, Charlton
• St Vincent de Paul, Clapham Common
• St Bede's, Clapham Park (she lived next door in the house that is now the presbytery)
• St Gregory's, Earlsfield (since replaced)
• St William of York, Forest Hill
• SS Philip and James, Herne Hill
• St Wilfred's, Kennington Park
• St. Bartholomew's, Norbury
• St Matthews, West Norwood
• St Thomas Apostle, Nunhead
• St. James the Great, Peckham Rye
• SS Simon & Jude, Streatham Hill
• Our Lady of the Assumption, Links Road, Tooting (since replaced)
• St. Boniface, Tooting
• St Francis de Sales & St Gertrude, Larkhall Lane

Mrs. Ellis particularly favoured a Romanesque style with a single large rose window, but as money was short, they were mostly without ornament. Usually, Mrs. Ellis insisted on employing an architect whose normal line of work was designing railway sheds, and this utilitarian approach is in evidence at St. Francis and a number of other churches in Southwark.

The first parish priest
The mission got off to a good start with its first rector, who took charge in October 1903.

Fr. Francis Erconwald Pritchard — always known as Erconwald — was a young priest only recently ordained. He was a man of great energy and enthusiasm, intelligent and
forward-looking; he had a long and full career, eventually becoming a Canon of Southwark Cathedral and, for the last 24 years of his life, parish priest at Our Lady of Pity & St. Simon Stock, Putney.

Fr. Erconwald celebrated his first Mass in the new church at Larkhall Lane on 9th October 1903, the intention being for "The Most Forgotten Priest". Other intentions recorded at St Francis in the early years may also look quaint, even strange, to early 21st Century eyes: "For the Soul next leaving Purgatory"; "For the Grace of a Happy Death"; "For the Conversion of England", "For the most forgotten Soul". But they were also indicative of the very precise seriousness with which priests and laypeople took their faith.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, Mass was celebrated exclusively in Latin, as had been the case in the Roman Catholic church for 1800 years. Other liturgical rites, such as Benediction, were also in Latin. Only the sermon, notices and hymns would normally be in English. During Mass, the celebrant faced the altar, which was at the back of the sanctuary. There was no verbal "dialogue" between priest and people: the congregation prayed largely in silence, and, except during a sung High Mass, the church would be much quieter than it is today.

Liturgical Latin was widely understood, in part because popular missals carried the English translation in parallel columns. In a church with many immigrants, one benefit of the use of Latin was that it dissolved some of the barriers between worshippers of different nationalities.

War time
The experience of war at St Francis was a hard one. Altogether 29 men from, or associated with, this small Catholic community were killed in action during the First World War. The last one, Lt Leo Karrigan, was killed on 10th November 1918, the day before the armistice.

One is struck when reading the old records how much the Catholic Church in general agonized over the war, and how much the people were urged to pray. Pope Pius X ordered a Requiem to be sung on 26th August 1914, at the time of the first battles, and similar calls went out throughout the war. On 29th November 1915, St.
Francis celebrated a Solemn Requiem by permission of the Holy Father for all who had fallen in the war. And on the evening of 17th November 1918, the first Sunday of the armistice, a Te Deum was sung in church in thanksgiving for the end of the war. Dr Allanson, the priest at the time, exhorted the people: "This evening let the church be filled!"

The end of the war brought a sense of liberation, but new difficulties soon followed. For many of the congregation of St Francis, the struggle in Ireland would have been uppermost. The British army had quelled the Dublin uprising of 1916, but as soon as the war in Europe was over, fighting began in earnest throughout southern Ireland.
Once the British had called it a day and agreed to partition Ireland in 1922, a civil war broke out between the hardliners of the IRA and the consolidators. It was during this period that the body of the mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney, who had died on hunger strike, lay in St George's Cathedral.

The Second World War brought great hardship to the Mission of St Francis de Sales. While there were fewer casualties at the fighting front than in the first war, air power, and later rockets, had a terrible impact on civilian Londoners. The bombing was especially heavy just to the north of the church, as the Germans targeted the armaments factories and railway marshalling yards across the Wandsworth Road.

The war soon made itself felt in two ways; mass attendance and the numbers of communions fell once more, reaching a nadir in 1941. The church and presbytery were twice damaged by bombs, in November 1940 and May 1941. On the first occasion the bombs destroyed the large terraced houses next to the church. The second time incendiaries came through the roof, burning the sacristy and all its contents. To add insult to injury, the house was burgled on the afternoon of Easter Sunday 1941, and the Easter donations and Fr. O'Beirne's gold watch stolen. The congregation responded swiftly, providing £90 for repairs. The damage to the church and presbytery were made good on a temporary basis and Mass continued to be celebrated without a break. Full repairs had to wait until after the end of the war.

Rebuilding for the future
Stockwell, and St Francis, ended the war battered but optimistic. The new Labour government that swept to power in 1945 promised, and to a large extent delivered, a better life for all the people. The National Health Service was perhaps its most lasting legacy, but there were many other improvements, including a massive home-building programme, especially in the bomb-damaged inner cities.

Money was also poured into schools and social services. Although austerity continued to reign — especially in the matter of food coupons — life was clearly on the up.

Also rising were attendances at St Francis de Sales. The statistics are quite startling: from a low point of 220 in 1941, they rose to 290 in 1946, 398 in 1948 and 480 in 1949. There were several reasons for this heartening leap. The post-war period was most certainly an age of faith - church-going was a popular activity. Many people had emerged from the war with their faith enhanced. It was, for instance, a period when the Catholic Church had no difficulty filling its seminaries, often with men who had found their vocation while serving in the armed forces.

There was also the rebuilding. New homes were being built throughout Stockwell, and the population density around St Francis de Sales began to rise. Blocks of flats replaced the rows of small terraces that had existed before the war.

There was also more work (this was a time of full employment), and more immigrants were drawn in. At this time they were still mostly from Ireland and southern Europe, although as the decade ended the first black faces were seen in south London.

The church and presbytery were finally repaired and redecorated in 1949, with the aid of a grant from the War Damage Commission. As the Dean remarked in his
report: "All spick and span!" Another source described the redecorated church as "devotional and homely."

Throughout the 1950's, the congregation continued to grow, as more and more new flats were built on the bombed sites. In 1954, the spectacular new bus garage was built around the corner on Lansdowne Way, bringing more jobs and more families to the area. In particular, London Transport was beginning to recruit large numbers of Afro-Caribbeans to work on the buses and in the tube. Although primarily belonging to the Anglican, Methodist, Baptist and Congregationalist churches, a significant minority of the West Indian immigrants was Catholic. The ethnic mix at St Francis de Sales, for most of its existence heavily Irish, began to change.

1960 onwards - A new era in the life of the church
St Francis de Sales made the transition from the Latin Mass and other devotions to the vernacular without too much trouble, although there was a certain amount of grumbling among the parishioners. But in fact the church had been introducing more and more English into the Mass in the years before the Vatican Council, and so the change was not quite so abrupt as it is sometimes painted. Nor was all Latin dropped. A Latin choir had been established some time after the end of the war, and this continued to function at high Mass and during Benediction.

For the first time, there was a requirement for lay readers to read the lessons and psalm in English at every Mass. A major re-ordering took place to reflect the needs of the new liturgy. This was done mainly by volunteers in the parish, and lasted well until 1992.

Among the major changes, the old altar fixed to the back wall of the sanctuary was replaced by a simple communion table at the front of the sanctuary. This enabled the celebrant to face the congregation — one of the central requirements of the new liturgy. What became of the old altar is not recorded. As can be seen in photographs, it was a reasonably elaborate affair, although not so splendid as would have been found in larger and older churches. The new communion table was itself replaced in 1991 by the austerely beautiful stone altar now in the church. The new Altar was donated by the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood (FMDM) from their nursing home, Alvernia, at Hindhead, Surrey. The altar is incised along its front edge with the words:


Also during this time the older-style pews were removed, and new, simpler seating was installed. At this period there was a Lady Chapel to the left of the Sanctuary.

The church hall was finally built in 1982, in the space between the back of the church and the house. This filled a need keenly felt by all at St Francis since its inauguration in 1902. There had never been a proper place for meetings, or for parties or for catechism, or for any of the hundred other functions involved in a busy parish. The style of social activity was moving with the times: discos and barbecues were the rule.
Despite falling numbers worldwide, nuns were becoming more involved in the life of the parish. There had always been good support from the Sisters of the Assumption in Cedars Road. But the first formal parish sister was Sr. Ita Tobin, of the Daughters of Charity. Sr. Ita's coming as Parish Sister added a new dimension to parish life. She lived the spirit of her founder in expressing her love for the poor, quietly and generously.

The sisters of the Holy Family of Villefranche moved to Albert Square in 1980, and established their provincial house for Britain and Ireland. Their coming has proved to be a major blessing for the parish. They play a full and active part in parish life.

Patrons of the church
St. Gertrude was a medieval German nun who was constantly in spiritual communion with Our Lord, and who was devoted to the Blessed Sacrament and to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

St. Francis de Sales became Bishop of Geneva in 1602 during the worst confrontation between the Catholic Church and the Calvinists. By nature quick-tempered, he worked hard over many years to master his anger. He came to be seen even by the heretics as gentle and kind. He relied on persuasion, as embodied in his own axiom: "A spoonful of honey attracts more flies than a barrelful of vinegar." He believed strongly that sanctity was compatible with everyday callings: "It is an error ... to say devotion is incompatible with the life of a soldier, a tradesman, a prince, or a married woman." And he was guided always by Christ's words: "Learn of me for I am meek and humble of heart."

Priests in charge of the Mission and later Parish of St Francis de Sales and St Gertrude, Larkhall Lane
Fr. Francis Erconwald Pritchard 1902-1908
Fr. Hugh Kelly 1908-1910
Fr. David Cox 1910-1916
Dr William Allanson 1916-1939
Fr. Stephen O'Beirne 1939-1966
Fr. Michael Curtin 1966-1973
Fr. Daniel Stack 1973-1978
Canon Anthony Verhees 1978-1989
Fr. Thomas Heneghan 1989-2005
Fr. Peter Gee 2005-2013
Fr Ugochukwu Emmanuel Nnaji MSP 2013-

Fr. W. McLaughlin
Fr. G Grady
Fr. JP Redmond (1914)
Fr. Cecil Crawford (1915)
Fr. John Winder (1916)
Fr. Peter Smith (1960s)
Fr. Michael Murphy (1970s)
Fr. Sean Scanlan (1970s)