A Brief History of the Shrine Church of Our Lady of Consolation West Grinstead
The first Catholic Shrine in honour of Our Lady to be established in England since before the Reformation is to be found in West Sussex, just a few miles south of the market town of Horsham, close to the busy A24 London to Worthing road: The Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation.
An imposing church, built in a relatively isolated rural location would seem to be an anomaly, but the reason for its existence lies in the story, firstly of the Caryll family – an old land-owning, truly devout Catholic Sussex family – and secondly in a long line of devoted priests who, supported by this family, took played their part in keeping the Catholic faith alive in recusant times, through their care of the West Grinstead Mission. It was the fact that Mass was offered here throughout those dark recusant days that led a French émigré priest, Monsignor Jean-Marie Denis, to establish this Shrine in honour of Our Lady and in thanksgiving for the official restoration of the Catholic faith in England.
The Caryll Family
In the reign of Elizabeth I the Carylls lived in the near-by parish of Shipley, at Benton’s Place – an imposing farmhouse, which still stands and also at West Grinstead Park, an ancient manor house, no longer extant. A great landowning family, they possessed many houses and farms in this vicinity as well as in other parts of Sussex and Hampshire. They were known to be supporters of the “old religion”, giving shelter to priests, many of whom, while disguised as servants, acted as chaplains to the family particularly at West Grinstead Park.
The Priest’s House
It is not easy to accurately date the so-called Priest’s House. It belonged to the Carylls, as part of their West Grinstead estate; it was possibly in existence as early as the middle of the 16th century. Originally just a small cottage, consisting of one room on each of the ground and first floors, priests lived here disguised as local stockmen (shepherds). Under the thatched roof the Caryll family provided a hayloft that also housed a tiny hidden chapel. Additionally, two other hides (Priest’s Holes) were built into the massive chimneybreast that supports the centre of the cottage.
The original hayloft and Chapel would have been very different to what is found here today. Under a thatch roof, the loft would have been windowless and access would originally have been via a vertical ladder rising from the first floor on the West side of the house. It was in the middle of the 18th century that the hayloft was cleared and the present small chapel was created. At the same time, the Priest’s House was extended – indeed, its 18th century extension constitutes some 75% of the whole building.
This once small cottage, known today as The Priest’s House, is reputably the oldest continuously occupied Catholic presbytery in England. It came to be euphemistically known as the little cottage in the forest – a ‘safe house’ where priests and seminarians could find, not just good Catholic hospitality, but the possibility of hiding, should militia or magistrates be in hot pursuit. The River Adur runs about a quarter of a mile to the south and was extensively used by those many travelling between London and the Continent. There is no evidence that any priest was ever captured at West Grinstead (the very fact that the House has survived is itself proof of that); but it is not possible to speak with certainty of the many who undoubtedly used this house as a refuge. Written records were not kept for obvious reasons of security and anonymity.
After the persecutions and executions that followed the Titus Oates plot in 1680, the death penalty for being a priest was eventually removed. Instead, unscheduled fines and taxes on Catholics were doubled and all remaining civil rights were taken from them. Nearly all the remaining local Catholic families conformed at this stage, but not the Carylls, who stayed faithful to their religion and to the Stuart monarchy. As a result they were continuously harassed and eventually became impoverished, having lost all their houses and lands.
The Sale of West Grinstead Park
John Caryll (the seventh of this name) followed James II to France. In exile he became Secretary to King James’ Queen Mary, and was given a title by James of Lord Caryll. Eventually the title went to his great nephew, John Baptist, the last Lord Caryll. He it was, who in 1754, having lost most of his fortune, largely because of his loyalty to his religion, sold West Grinstead Park for £6,000. However, he first endowed the Priest’s House to the Catholic Church via Bishop Richard Challoner (1691-1781), in order that Mass could continue to be offered for the people of the locality. Bishop Challoner himself had made a visitation to the West Grinstead Mission in 1741; and had found 80 Catholics at Mass – being celebrated in an upstairs room of the extended Priest’s House – the Mass purportedly being celebrated on the first floor Landing of the House; the Faithful congregating in the area which now constitutes two rooms on the South Front of the house.
The End of Penal Days
After the departure of both the Caryll family and their Franciscans priests, French émigré priests – who had fled from the French Revolution – served the Mission. It was during this time in the early 19th century that Catholicism in West Grinstead declined. (However good and well intentioned he might be, a ‘foreigner’ who did not speak the English language could not make much headway with the Sussex country folk!) The parish, therefore, was at a low when Mgr. Jean Marie Denis was appointed as its priest in 1863. He was originally from the Brittany area of France. With the encouragement of the first re-established Bishop of Southwark, Bishop Thomas Grant and after him, Bishop James Dannell, he revived West Grinstead in a remarkable way so that it once more became a lively force in the story of the Catholic Church in Sussex. Shortly after Mgr. Denis’ arrival Bishop Thomas Grant made an Episcopal Visitation to West Grinstead; and despite the declined numbers, the bishop gave great encouragement when he said, “This mission has nothing to fear – it has seen far harder times. It has protectors in heaven and you will see at West Grinstead things that will surprise you”.
Inspired by his bishop, Mgr. Denis straightway began to make improvements. That same year, 1863, he opened a school for poor children in a wooden stable behind the House. By 1868 the school’s numbers had increased from the original eight, so that new accommodation had to be found in the kitchen. In 1871 the Education Act meant that a completely new building was necessary and soon generous donations made it possible to build a large hall to take more than 100 children.
West Grinstead in the 20th Century
By the time Mgr. Denis died in 1900, he had left a well-established parish behind him, with a flourishing school, a convent and a growing pattern of regular pilgrimages.
In 1965 the Southwark Archdiocese was further divided and the Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation became part of the new Diocese of Arundel and Brighton. Although the large annual Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage ceased, others pilgrimages, both large and small, have continued regularly here throughout the summer months. So once more, a constant stream of pilgrims still make their way to West Grinstead to leave their petitions at the Shrine and at the historic altar in the ‘Secret Chapel’ located in The Priest’s House.
Although the history of this Catholic Mission goes back to the days of Henry VIII and the split with Rome, Mgr. Jean-Marie Denis established the Shrine Church of Our Lady of Consolation of West Grinstead as recently as 1876. His efforts at begging the necessary funds, not only locally, but also in France, Belgium and Holland, enabled the building of the fine late 19th century Gothic church that is here.
When choosing a title for the shrine Mgr. Denis had decided that it would be better to have one which was well known on the Continent, in order that it would share from the start in already established prayers, privileges and blessings. At that time few were so venerated both for antiquity and universal fame as the Consolata at Turin. So it was that the title of Our Lady of Consolation, (also well known and venerated in Pre-Reformation England), was the title he chose. The West Grinstead shrine, affiliated in such a way as to be a true extension of that of Turin, is nevertheless separate under its own title of Our Lady of Consolation of West Grinstead, founded by Pope Leo XIII and with the Episcopal approval of Bishop Grant. The ceremony of crowning was performed before a great crowd of pilgrims on 12th July, 1893 by the Papal Delegate, Bishop Butt, representing the Holy See and Pope Leo XIII.
A Seminary Begins in 1889
With the arrival of Mgr. Denis, the number of parishioners steadily increased and in 1887 a curate was appointed to assist him. This curate was none other than Fr. Francis Bourne, who later became the famous Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. He remained for two years working particularly with the boys of the orphanage. It was about this time that almost every diocese began to set up its own seminary. Bishop Butt, while in retreat at the Carthusian Monastery in nearby Cowfold, decided that it was time Southwark had its own seminary and he appointed Fr. Bourne to take charge as the first Rector in 1889. Boys had already begun training for the priesthood with Fr. Bourne and three of them formed the nucleus of the first seminary. Their training began at the West Grinstead Priest’s House, although it moved after two years to a larger domestic property at the nearby village of Henfield, where it remained whilst the purpose-built seminary at Wonersh was being completed. However, as both the first students and the first Rector came from and lived at West Grinstead, it can fairly be said that The Priest’s House was the cradle of the present St. John’s Seminary.
Our Lady of Consolation of West Grinstead
Have pity on us