The arrival of the Sisters of the Visitation

The origins of Sacred Heart parish can be traced back through a community of French nuns. The Visitation Order was founded at Annecy in Savoy in 1610 by St Francis de Sales and St Jane Francis de Chantal. It is enclosed and contemplative. The Order was introduced to England in 1804 by Mrs Tunstall, widow of Cuthbert Tunstall of Wycliff Hall, Yorkshire, who obtained for the English foundation three sisters expelled from their monastery at Rouen during the French Revolution.

They were hospitably received by the Augustinian nuns at Spetisbury (later Newton Abbot) and they also stayed for a short while at Wardour Castle, home of Lord and Lady Arundell, the latter being a relation of Mrs Tunstall’s. Finally they came to Acton near London in 1804 and began to receive English postulants, among whom was Mary Weld of Lulworth Castle and sister of Cardinal Weld. She became the first English superior.

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St Ursula's and the Sisters of Mercy

In 1810 they moved to Shepton Mallet and then in 1831 purchased the mansion of Westmead in Westbury-on-Trym from Mr Irving, a Methodist minister. The community decided to build a convent on the site with accommodation for local Catholics to attend Mass. The choir, chapel and cloisters were completed first and the main buildings commenced in 1859 and were finished by 1862. In 1868 the sisters opened a school in a converted stable and coach house, the teachers being provided by the Sisters of St Joseph of Annecy. In 1896, when the Visitation nuns moved to Harrow-on-the-Hill, London, at the invitation of Cardinal Vaughan, the Sisters of Mercy took over the convent and the school which became St Ursula’s. The boarding school was closed in 1924 and the number of day girls increased. These school buildings were largely destroyed during the war and rebuilt in 1948.

By the 1930s a new church was needed to relieve the overcrowding of the convent chapel, so the Reverend Mother at the time gave the diocese a plot of land for a church and presbytery. The building was completed in 1939 and blessed by Bishop Lee on 13 September. The first parish priest, Fr (later Mgr) Cyril Hookway, introduced several fund-raising schemes to clear the debt of £7,000.

The Holy Year of 1950 saw the consecration of the church on 20 June with three bishops and over fifty clergy attending.  The ceremony had been preceded by a series of sermons given by eminent speakers including Mgr Ronald Knox, the Abbot of Downside and Fr Edwin Essex OP who had given the first mission in 1944.

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Mgr Joseph Buckley and the Newman Hall

In 1956 Mgr Joseph Buckley was appointed as the new Parish Priest. He wanted to build a new parish hall that would also accommodate the needs of the Bristol Catholic Players. By 1962 parish finances enabled the construction of a new hall with a magnificent stage. The architect was a parishioner, Gerard O’Brien of Ivor Day and O’Brien. The builders were Stansell and Co Ltd of Taunton who had also built the church. The Newman Hall as it was named, cost £28,000 and included a large mural of characters from Gilbert and Sullivan operas painted by a famous local artist, Frank Shipsides. The mural was unveiled by Donald Adams of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. The hall later became the home of the Bristol Catholic Players, who continue their annual productions of Gilbert and Sullivan here. Dr (later Mgr Canon) Joseph Buckley, their founder, had become parish priest in 1957.    

After the Second Vatican Council the parish under Mgr Buckley was a centre for many new ideas including being the first in the country to have an elected parish council complete with constitution. It was also the site for two South West Ecumenical Congresses with both National and International clerical leaders present. Two priests were ordained in the church: Fr Michael Healy in 1971 and Fr Richard Northey in 1974. Also associated with the parish were Fr John Reville in 1965, Fr Peter Craddy OSCO in 1973 & Fr Cavan McElligott in 1999.

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Fr Vincent Ryan and the Golden Jubilee

In 1978  Fr Vincent Ryan took over as Mgr Buckely retired. Then in 1985 Fr Ryan was responsible for the considerable re-ordering and redecoration which took place and new lighting and sound systems were also installed. The golden jubilee celebrations included a parish pilgrimage to the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Paray-le-Monial, the original home of the Visitation nuns, which gave rise to the dedication of the church.

1989 was a truly memorable year. The Berlin Wall fell and with it the end of the Iron Curtain, which lifted communist rule across a swathe of Europe. Here in Westbury we were celebrating the Sacred Heart Parish Golden Jubilee.  The end of May saw the Parish Pilgrimage to Paray-le-Monial, origin of the worship of the Sacred Heart, and the visions of St Marguerite-Marie Alacoque. The year climaxed with the Jubilee Mass on 13 September followed on 15th by a Parish Dinner.

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St Ursula's closes

Also in 1989 the Order of Mercy took the decision to withdraw from teaching to concentrate on social work. A trust was formed and bought the school to run it as an independent Catholic school from January 1991, when the remaining sisters moved to a smaller house in the parish to continue their pastoral work. The school finally closed as a Catholic school in 2010.

Discussions were held about the uses to which a large legacy the parish had been left might be put - Fr Ryan had entered into negotiations with the architects for an extension to the church porch which never came to fruition. Prayers were offered at this time for Fr Burns, a former curate at the Sacred Heart, who had died. In February 1991 Fr Ryan warned of the future shortage of priests in the diocese and a working party was set up to discuss possible cuts in the number of Masses. 

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Fr Pat de Wolf becomes Parish Priest

In 1992 Fr Ryan, after a long illness, retired and we welcomed Fr Pat de Wolf as our new parish priest - no stranger to us, as he had been a former curate here in 1975-77. A cheque was given to Fr Ryan in recognition of his services to the parish and flowers were also presented to Renee, his faithful housekeeper over many years.

The parish council debated community-building and much attention was drawn to topics such as the youth of the parish and the creation of a 'Welcoming Ministry'. Things soon began to happen and by the end of the year new special ministers were being trained, a Parish Youth Club had been formed, a Folk Group was in operation, volunteers had offered their services as welcomers at Mass, and a Newcomers Evening was being planned. The next year, 1994, saw these new changes become firmly established.

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Fr Cullen and the Philippines

A familiar figure in the parish was Sister Rita, the parish sister who threw herself into her work with energy and enthusiasm, visiting every home in the parish in the year. In November a moving letter was received from Fr Cullen saying that at the age of 70, at the request of the Bishop, he was once again returning to the Philippines to a new parish of poor sugar-cane workers where there is no water, no electricity and no postal service. In addition he said that the Church was in constant threat from communists who are suspicious of 'foreign interference'. It was agreed to continue our support for Fr Cullen’s parish for the foreseeable future.

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Fr Danny O'Sullivan and Peru

In February 1997 Fr Cullen announced his retirement and it was decided to change the Parish Project to support Fr Danny O’Sullivan, one of our diocesan priests, who was working in Peru.

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Millennium celebrations

In September 1999 newly ordained Fr Cavan McElligot celebrated his first Mass in the church. He had been an Altar Server many years previously.

In October 1999 the parish pilgrimage to the Holy Land took place, led by Fr De Wolf and Bishop Mervyn. It was a great occasion and a fitting event to herald the forthcoming Millennium.

2001 saw another great parish event to celebrate Fr De Wolf’s 40th anniversary as a priest. Many parishioners attended a buffet lunch in the hall.

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Sr Angela retires and Mgr Buckley dies

In 2002 Sister Angela, the parish sister retired to join Sr Rita in the convent at Fishguard. It was typical of Sister Angela that she wanted no fuss made about her leaving the parish but it was felt strongly that all her hard work deserved some permanent record and this was organised. In October Mgr Buckley died and his funeral Mass was celebrated in the Cathedral, attended by a large congregation and one of his surviving sisters. 

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Fr Kevin Mortimer and the Parish Council   

In September 2004, on the retirement of Fr Pat De Wolf, the parish welcomed Fr Kevin Mortimer as the new Parish Priest. One of his first actions was to reconstitute the Parish Council.

2006 opened with the news that later that year two new stained glass windows would be installed, one featuring St Wulstan, dedicated to the deceased of the parish and the other St Cecilia, in memory of our former parish priest Mgr Buckley, both kindly funded by donations from the Catholic Players.  In February another Parish Pilgrimage took place, this time to Santiago de Compostella in Spain.

From July to September the church was undergoing a complete redecoration, all the windows replaced and repairs made to the flat roof of the Newman Hall. The stained glass windows were later to be installed by Christmas. For 9 weeks Masses were held in the Newman Hall or in St Ursula’s Chapel. 

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Diocesan consultation 'Seeking the face of Christ'

On 17 February 2007 Mass was celebrated for the dedication of the new stained glass windows, which was attended by Geoffrey Robinson the designer and maker, and of a new wooden statue of the Sacred Heart.

The year also saw the beginnings of the diocesan consultation of the views of parishes about the future of the diocese - 'Seeking the Face of Christ'. Meetings were held to discuss this document.     

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Pilgrimage to Poland

2008 saw the publication of a Parish Information Pack which was to prove highly useful for newcomers to the parish. CAFOD Fast Day realized nearly £1900. In February the Little Hearts Toddler Group for pre-school children recommenced in the hall. The long awaited Parish Pilgrimage to Poland took place from 9-16 June and the parish was asked for prayers for its success.

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'Called to be a People of Hope'

Work continued on the implementation of the Diocesan document 'Called to be a People of Hope'. In November 2008 the new Sacred Heart Parish Pastoral Council met for the first time. In implementing the parish vision, the Pastoral Council, in conjunction with the parish as a whole, agreed three objectives each year. The year ended with the news of Fr Kevin’s appointment as an Honorary Canon.

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70th anniversary of the Sacred Heart

Later in September 2009 the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Sacred Heart Church was celebrated with a buffet lunch in the Hall after the 11am Mass.

The results of a survey to ascertain parishioners’ views on the future of the parish and diocese were published. When asked which parish people had links with or would most like to share with, St Bonaventures’ and the Cathedral came top.

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Pope Benedict visits Britain    

In June we were once again asked to express our views in a questionnaire about future Mass times in the anticipation that Sacred Heart church may in the future have to share one priest with St Antony’s, Henbury.

The big event of the year 2010 was of course the visit of Pope Benedict to Britain in September. Sacred Heart joined with St Antony’s in running a coach to Birmingham for the Beatification Mass of Cardinal Newman held in Crofton Park. It was a truly memorable event for all who attended.

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Canon Bernard Massey becomes parish priest

In September 2010 the 'Knowing God Better' talks began in the presbytery which were well attended. In the same month Fr Kevin retired and was succeeded by Canon Bernard Massey. A buffet lunch was held in the hall on 26 September and Fr Kevin, in thanking all for their gifts and good wishes, reminded the parish he would be living only a 'stone’s throw' away in Redland.

The induction Mass for Canon Bernard took place on 22 October. Many changes were soon underway including newly refurbished kitchen and meeting rooms on the ground floor of the presbytery, which was to facilitate more room for parish meetings.     

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St Antony's

A working party of 12 parishioners prepared practically and spiritually for a number of months, with each event attracting up to 30 parishioners, on building a relationship with St Antony’s, Henbury. St Antony’s was identified by the Diocesan 'Parishes In Communion For Mission' document as one that the Sacred Heart was likely to share a priest with in years to come. As a result the two PPCs began to meet together to talk about what form this relationship could take.

St Antony's was in fact originally founded as a daughter church of Sacred Heart. During the early 1950s coaches were arranged to bring parishioners from the newly-built estates in Henbury to Mass at Sacred Heart. In 1952 land was bought in Henbury for a new church that would be St Antony's. The new church of St Antony's was opened on Easter Sunday 1954.  Initially, the priests from Sacred Heart would go to Henbury each Sunday to celebrate the Masses at St Antony's, until such time as a new parish priest was installed at St Antony's. When Fr Michael Walsh moved from St Antony's to Calne a few years ago, Mgr Massey became the parish priest also of St Antony's whilst remaining resident at Sacred Heart. Thus the two parishes came together - or, in a sense, back together.

In February 2017 Mgr Bernard moved to Taunton and was replaced by Fr Colin Mason, who became the new Parish Priest of Sacred Heart and St Antony's.

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80th anniversary of the Sacred Heart

The year 2019 marks the 80th anniversary of the Sacred Heart church building.  The foundation stone for the new church was laid by the bishop in March 1939 and so March 2019 marks 80 years of the presence of the church of the Sacred Heart.  September 2019 represents the 80th anniversary of the opening of the completed church.

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St Ursula girls from the 1920'sSisters of Mercy and priest by the convent entrance

picture details, left to right: St Ursula girls from the 1920's; Sisters of Mercy and priest by the convent entrance