A short history of the Oxford Mass Centre

Michael Morley

It is not now possible to determine an exact date of the beginning of what one might call the Oxford Mass Centre. Of course we know it is 49 years since the disastrous promulgation of the Novus Ordo Missae but it is Oxford’s boast to have had a tiny cell which saw it coming. Over half a century ago, well before 1969, Miss Kathleen Pond, a formidable lady who could well have been the inspiration for Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Agatha, horrified by the anti-Catholic wind blowing through the university city, turned her diminutive basement into an unpretentious little chapel in order to facilitate the continuance of the traditional Mass now coming under increasing attack even from within the Church itself. Indeed, so diminutive was this cellar that—after the priest, a server and three of the faithful had squeezed into the room—the rest of the (admittedly small) number of attending latter-day recusants were obliged to congregate precariously on the stairs.

The names of the few good Fathers who came to administer the Sacraments in those early days, when they realised they could no longer remain within their modernising communities or parishes, are now remembered by the Holy Ghost, but Father Bancks, retiring from Dorchester-on-Thames was one of them. Fathers Chadwick, Cresswell and Bouvier were all to make periodic visits to Farndon Road in Oxford before joining Father Peter Morgan, the first SSPX priest in England in 1971.

As time went by and Miss Pond could no longer make provision for the escalating congregation on her stairs, the faithful of the area found two alternative venues. In the first, Holy Trinity Church at Hethe near Bicester, Father George Smith, keeping a low profile, said the old Mass exclusively, and it was here that the future District Superior of the SSPX in England, Father Paul Morgan, came to worship as a boy with his family. In 1975 Father Smith, having received the attention of his bishop, was moved to Burford. But in 1976, Mrs. Shirley Bourke-Cockran persuaded Father Basil Wrighton, her former parish priest at Goring-on-Thames but now retired to Hendred House, the home of Lady Agnes Eyston, to welcome the increasing numbers of souls determined to remain true to Tradition. For many years this stalwart old cleric said Mass for the burgeoning congregation in the Chantry of St. Amand—one of the very few private chapels to have escaped the destruction unleashed by Thomas Cromwell during the Reformation.

Numbers attending Mass at East Hendred grew steadily as the modernist revolution wreaked havoc within the Church. Father Wrighton gave his wholehearted support to Archbishop Lefebvre’s seminary at Ecône and professed himself truly blessed to have lived long enough to see the consecration of the four bishops in 1988; and it was only a few weeks later that the kindly old priest was summoned to receive his eternal reward.

But the good Lord did not leave that body of His faithful bereft, for it was then that Father Michael Crowdy appeared over the Oxfordshire horizon and Miss Penelope Renold, who had done so much already to support the SSPX in England, found the Women's Institute Hall in Middle Way—smack next door to the Christian Spiritualist Church, (not that anyone ever confused the two)! This rented acquisition in 1988 gave the Oxford faithful their first consistent place of worship and I think we could say that the Oxford Mass Centre proper might be defined from this date, although at this stage it was only affiliated to the SSPX. Each week for the next eleven years, the altar was erected and dismantled and chairs provided by the WI were set out as pews to accommodate the congregation as Fr. Crowdy said Mass on most Sundays, and the already retired Fr. Beecroft stepped in latterly from Newbury to help out once a month.

By 1998, Fr. Crowdy was contemplating his own retirement and Dom Andrew Southwell of the FSSP was introduced to the OMC. However, as the majority of the congregation favoured the SSPX, the District Superior, Fr. Emily, kindly agreed to supply priests from Burghclere. There then followed the inevitable split of loyalties and, in the meantime, the WI notified us of their intention to put the hall onto the market for development.

We must cut a long story short. After a desperate search all over the city, suitable accommodation was found quite literally just around the corner at the North Oxford Conservative Club, complete with free parking on the premises! It was not ideal—each Sunday morning the faithful had to troop past the bar through the previous evening’s spillages and stale cigarette smoke—but it served our straitened purposes well. As we made friends with the management and the cigarette ban came into force, Sunday mornings at the centre became more pleasant and right up until the time of departure, the NOCC made no move to increase our rent: it remained the same for the almost twenty years of our tenancy!

As in the WI hall, the altar and chapel arrangements had to be repeated every Sunday in the NOCC but we were pleased to be able to welcome so many traditional priests to say Mass for us. Many have since gone on to other stations around the world and one or two, like Father Crowdy, have passed into local legend! In no particular order (and I apologise if any of them have been overlooked): Frs. Morgan, Emily and Sherry; Dreher, Kurtz, Summers and Purdie; Wingerden, Webber and McLaughlin, Portugal and Ockerse; Barrett, Hennick and the two Bruccianis, Robert and John and, not the least of them, the martyred South African priest of such fond memory, Fr. Eldred Leslie.

But during the whole of this time we were blessed by the steadying presence of our dear Fr. Gary Holden, and he is owed our special thanks! I think there will be no contradiction if I say that Fr. Holden has been the Petrus of the Oxford Mass Centre, whose sermons have been both enlightening and inspiring and who has been tireless in his priestly duties towards us all in our medieval city; not only in the confessional and in the celebration of the traditional Mass but also in the dozens of scapular enrolments, the blessings of countless rosaries, statues, Christmas cribs and many other devotional objects. He has blessed cars and houses and officiated at many baptisms and funerals! I believe all of us at the OMC consider Fr. Holden to be the nearest thing we had to a parish priest in these turbulent times.

But now, with much regret, the Oxford Mass Centre must bow out. We understand that the authorities have diverse claims upon them and that, like so many other Mass centres which have come and gone as demand has fluctuated, it is now our turn. Actually, our congregation has not increased; we have lost through natural wastage and other reasons—almost 100 faithful since 1988—and there have been nothing like the numbers to replace them. But we owe the Society of St. Pius X our grateful thanks for the 1,560 Tridentine Masses celebrated in the city over the last 30 years!

May Almighty God bless, thank and give eternal rest to our saintly Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre!

Michael Morley (2018)

P.S. As it happens, Fr. Crowdy was an Oratorian priest who actually began to work in the city five years before the Oxford Oratory was itself established there as an independent Congregation.

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