Monday, 21 October 2019

History of Reading Society

History of Reading Society

FOLLOWING their talk to the society in May on the subject of “The return of Catholicism in Reading”, John and Lindsay Mullaney invited members on a guided visit to St James’s Church in Reading in June.

The tour began at the church’s west porch. Between it and the presbytery there lie the gaunt fragments of the north transept of the former abbey upon whose footprint the church stands.

The fragments came to rest there in the siege of Reading during the Civil War. The occupying Royalist army had employed gunpowder to reduce the height of the abbey ruins in order to provide a clear line of sight for their cannon mounted on Forbury Hill.

In 1829, Parliament passed the Catholic Emancipation Act so that for the first time since the Reformation Roman Catholics were permitted to worship openly and to participate fully in the civic life of the nation.

However, there was a problem for the newly revived English Roman Catholics: the Church of England had occupied their old places of worship and stripped them of their shrines and images. This new generation of Catholics had to build new churches.

In Reading the building of the Catholic Church of St James was made possible by the generous benefaction of the devout Catholic James Wheble, of Woodley Lodge.

In 1834, he purchased the abbey site from Nicholas Vansittart, Lord Bexley, for the purpose of excavating it for historical research.

Later, he provided funds for the erection of a church there and engaged the eminent ecclesiastical architect Augustus Welby Northmoor Pugin to design it.

Unusually for him, Pugin produced a design in the then unfashionable Romanesque style, perhaps in polite submission to the late-Norman architecture of the former Reading Abbey.

Construction began in 1837, the year Wheble became High Sheriff of Berkshire, and the church opened on August 5, 1840 with a service of consecration led by Bishop Thomas Griffiths. Sadly, Wheble had died of a heart attack two weeks earlier.

The first permanent priest was John Ringrose.

In 1840, the church comprised a nave and an apsidal sanctuary and it could seat nearly 300 worshippers.

Wheble had chosen to dedicate his new church to St James the Great, recalling the ancient abbey’s dedication to the saint.

Buried in the sanctuary are the remains of Francois Longuet, founder of the Chapel of the Resurrection the progenitor of St James’s.

Among the church’s furnishings, the most interesting piece is the receptacle of the baptismal font. It was discovered in 1835 during Wheble’s excavation of the abbey site where it was buried in the area where the chancel had stood.

Among the theories put forward as to its original function, the most plausible one was that, due to the ornate decoration of interlacing foliage scrolls, it was a pillar capital that supported an arcade. In 1840, it was given a new base and lid and converted for use as the font.

In the early 20th century, due to the growth of the congregation, schools were built and the church itself was extended in 1926 with an aisle to the south of the nave, a larger west porch and an ambulatory behind the sanctuary being added.

The architect was Wilfrid Mangan who at the time also designed the English Martyrs’ Catholic Church opposite Prospect Park.

Today, the church attracts a congregation of more 400 worshippers for Sunday Mass and 40 languages are represented.

For more information about the society, visit
historyofreadingsociety.org.uk

Sean Duggan

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