Before the reformation of the Church in England and the dissolution of the Monasteries, Great Yarmouth was home to eight religious houses. The main church, Saint Nicholas, stands near the town market place and is now the Anglican parish church. It is said to be the largest parish church in the country. This shows the great faith in those early days.
Little is known of the townsfolk who kept to the old faith during penal times. Priests were few and in great danger. Many came to this coast in secret and no doubt Mass was said in the town.
Things were easier in the late eighteenth early nineteenth centuries, when Lord and Lady Bedingfield from Oxburgh Hall in North West Norfolk had a summer residence in the town. As prominent Catholics, a priest would accompany them on their visits. Records show that Mass was said in some of the old houses in Yarmouth’s famous rows and in a house which stood in the shadow of Saint Nicholas church.
A MacDonald's and Kentucky fried chicken café now stand on the site of the Bedingfield summer residence...
In 1824 the Society of Jesus decided to start a mission in the town. The man picked for this was Father Tate S.J. His first impressions couldn’t have been very good, as he complained in a letter that:“The town is just fish offices and fish shops not suitable for a Chapel.”...He was being a bit hard on the town as it was published at the time that: “Yarmouth has an up to date bath house with douches for hot and cold sea water, a jetty, the best constructed bathing machines with expert drivers and proper assistance, air of the purest quality and extremely conducive to health, so that agues were few and fevers more so.
There was a new concert establishment, new docks, new subscription rooms patronized by a society of gentlemen of great respectability, a theatre favored with appearance by all the London actors and on the south denes a new monument to Lord Nelson, a local Hero....
Father Tate soon found more than fish shops. In a very short time he managed to buy a house and warehouse which he converted into a chapel. This building stood in the heart of the old rows and, although badly damaged by bombing in the last war remained until demolition in the 1950’s making way for new council flats.
In 1841 a new pastor arrived, a refugee from his native Spain; Father Don Claudio Lopez. It was said of him that he had a great love of the poor. This would have made him feel very much at home in the town. By now the little chapel was too small for the growing numbers and Father Lopez set about finding a site for a new church. This proved difficult as some to the local people didn’t want a Catholic Church built here. Finally a site was found on a small lane leading from the town to the sea. When asked at the time why he built his Church on the Denes he replied:
“The town will follow me”.
How right he was.
An eminent Irish architect, Mr J.J. Scoles was chosen to plan the new church. He had built St. Peter’s Anglican church in the town some twenty years before. This is now the church of the Greek Cypriot community in Yarmouth. He was also the architect of many famous churches throughout the country, including the church of Saint Peters at Stonyburst, Saint Xavior in Liverpool, and the well known church at Farm Street in London. The original plan for Saint Mary’s shows it with a steeple. However, it was built just as you see it today and, apart from necessary repairs, it is just as the original builders left it.
The building of the church didn’t run smoothly. On the 14th February 1848 a report said:
Work proceeded satisfactorily and although the foundations were constituted upon rubbish no danger was anticipated. However the tower being almost complete and the work well in hand, it was discovered during the dinner hour while the workmen were away, that the inner arch of the tower had suddenly given way, and in consequence exceptional pressure was put upon the outer casing causing the masonry to crack. By this timely discovery and the prompt measures taken to shore up the tower and await the Architect from London, who was telegraphed for, an accident was avoided. Upon the Monday following the town was satisfied that the danger had been averted. The fact is that a first class spirit level was taken to the top of the tower and it was found not to have deviated from the perpendicular by a single degree.
When, 110 years later, the tower was being restored it was found to have a backward lean of eleven inches.
The church was opened on September 24th 1850 by Bishop Wareing, soon to become the first Catholic Bishop of Northampton after the reformation. There was a congregation of 800. A newspaper report of the time said:
“The Mass was chanted in the most delightful manner while the whole service was calculated to impress the senses of the spectator.”
It was also said:
“This Church was opened amid great joy for the year was that of the restoration of the Hierarchy, 1850”.
In 1962, the Jesuits left the town after being here for 138 years. Secular priests under Father J. Mossey took over the running of the parish. In 1972, after being away from the town for 425 years, the Augustinians returned. They remained here until 1995 when the church returned to the care of diocesan priests.
A Brief Tour of the Church
The main entrance is through the porch in the base of the tower leading into the west end of the building.
At once the full beauty of the church can be appreciated. Nothing detracts the eye or breaks the effect. Notice the ceilings decorated in traditional East Anglian style in crimsons, blues, greens and gold. The ceiling panels contain over 800 carved wooden bosses.
Walking towards the north aisle, you will see on your left a large oil painting of the Nativity. This is at least 180 years old and has recently been restored.
Turning into the aisle you will see some of the Stations of the Cross, including the nailing of Christ to the Cross. Look out for the nail held in the teeth of the man hammering in the nails.
At the end of the aisle there is a carved font and pulpit. The font has been moved from the back of the church, the pulpit lowered and the Sanctuary floor raised to conform to modern liturgy.
The Sacred Heart chapel, with its limestone Altar is part of the original design. On the floor of the chapel there is a memorial brass to Father Lythgoe S.J. parish priest from 1852 until 1855.
Moving to the centre aisle the full beauty of the Sanctuary can be seen. The limestone Altar with its many saints, the east window, and the wall paintings are typical of early East Anglian churches.
To the right of the Sanctuary there is a stone niche with a statue of The Immaculate Conception. This was erected in memory of the builder of the church, Father Lopez.
In 1978 all the statues were vandalized, leaving Our Lady’s statue in over 200 pieces. Saint Joseph with the Child Jesus, a fine wood carving, needed a new face and hand, and the rest of the statues’ needing major restoration. This was taken on free of charge by a local craftsman, the work taking over two years to complete.
The next area you approach was once the Sacristy but in the late 1890’s it was rebuilt as a Lady chapel. The stained glass in the window is considered to be the best in the church. The chapel contains the Shrine of Our Lady of Yarmouth. This originated in the time of the wars between England and France in the fourteenth century. A nearly record says:
“After the battle of Sluy’s in 1340, King Edward the third, with many of his followers went on a pilgrimage to our Lady of Ardenbugh”
“The ships of the town of Great Yarmouth above all the English navy at the time were commended for their service”.
Many Yarmouth sailors went with the King on this pilgrimage. On their return they founded, under it’s local name, the Altar of Our Lady of Yarmouth in the Benedictine church of Saint Nicholas. By 1378 devotion to Our Lady under this title had grown and a chapel was built and dedicated. This stood until 1619 when it was demolished and the stone used to repair the harbour. In 1921 Father Thompson S.J. restored the shrine to its new home at Saint Mary’s. He commissioned Archibald Jarvis to paint the mural on the south wall.
The centre of the mural shows Our lady with the child Jesus. On the left, benefactors of the original Shrine. On the right are priests with local connections who suffered for the Faith. Two of these were imprisoned in the ancient Toll House at Great Yarmouth, which can still be visited. You will see above this group a dove with an olive branch painted in by the last restorer as a symbol of peace between denominations and religions.
On your way back down the church, look up to the choir loft. You will see our 112 year old organ which has 1032 pipes. This was presented to the church by Mrs. Bowen, whose family were publicans in the town’s market place.
At the end of the aisle, to the left, there is a fine wood carving of Christ crucified. At the back, a carving of Mary with the crucified Christ. The wooden rails were the original Altar rails which were removed from the front of the church to conform to modern liturgy in 1978.
The Exterior of the Church an article written in The Tablet of May 1850 said of the church:
‘The exterior of the new Church is a real gem, considered by archaeologists to be the most successful building if its kind lately erected in England.’
The church is typically East Anglian, with very high quality flint work. Have a close look to see the way the flints are cut (knapped) this is an art that has practically died out. Unfortunately the limestone used in the building has not stood up well to the sea air, and although a great deal of restoration has been carried out, there is a lot left to do.
The two heads either side of the Church door are, on the right, Saint Edmund King and Martyr, and on the left, Saint Augustine.
Finally to see just how many people have worshipped here, and how bad the old road must have been, look at the wear on the foot scrapers either side of the entrance.
We hope you have enjoyed your visit and that you found this haven of peace and prayer an oasis among the hustle of Regent Road.
God be with you