Our Lady of the Middle Street
History of Saint Mary's in Gosport
The title of this article may seem strange, but the early surroundings at St Mary's were also strange. In approximately 1750 the first chapel was built, in a rather congested area, in South Cross Street. This site is now the Police Station parking area. The Gosport baptismal register was opened in May 1759 when Fr Philip Wyndham of Havant baptized Cornelius Looney, son of Cornelius and Honora Looney, at St Mary's.
Fr Wyndham was an intrepid horseman and walker and served St Mary's from Havant Catholic church for a long period. He was later transferred, by Bishop Talbot, to Arundel. Henry Slight's "Strangers' Guide to Gosport" written in 1834, referred to the small Catholic chapel as standing behind the Independent/Congregational chapel in
Middle Street, the former name of the High Street. The Congregational Chapel was destroyed by enemy action in World War Two and the site is now occupied by the Gosport Post Office.
As the country was at war with the French, there was a need for a chapel due to the large number of Irishmen serving in the militia and in the Navy. Bishop Talbot, a member of the family of the Earl of Shrewsbury, purchased the present site of St Mary's in 1776 and built the first chapel behind the cottages fronting Middle Street. This was remarkable inasmuch the first Relief Act allowing Catholics to own property was not passed until 1778.
As Portsmouth was a registered Borough only the established church was allowed to function. As Gosport was not a registered Borough many Catholics crossed over from Portsmouth to attend Mass at St Mary's and non-conformists and various religious denominations flourished. During these so called "Penal Days", times were difficult for many of our fellow Catholics who lived in other parts of the country. The Gosport Catholics were fortunate to be able to practice their faith without persecution.
Gosport itself consisted mainly of the town area and was merely a fishing village. Outside of this area, which we know as the Town Ward, there was a great deal of open country. For the villagers living in Forton, Alverstoke, Hardway, Rowner and Elson it was no easy task to reach the Chapel for Mass - no bus services!
The Hierarchy was nearly non-existent and apart from three or four Bishops hardly any men could be ordained for the priesthood. The few priests that served the chapel had been trained for the priesthood in Douai.In 1830 the small chapel was enlarged by Rev John Clarke and again in 1834 when the Carlist Queen, who had been residing at Alverstoke Rectory, died. She was temporarily interred in the sanctuary, before the High Altar, and remained there until 1885. Her body was taken to Trieste, where her husband had died in exile after losing his struggle to regain the Spanish throne. (There is a tablet on the wall of the Lady Chapel commemorating this event).
In 1849, Dr Angelo Baldaconi was appointed and he was responsible for commencing the building of the present church over the old one. He did not live to complete the building, which was eventually finished by his successor Canon Doyle (1868-1898).
Canon Doyle also had the first St Mary's school built in 1870, on ground which is now part of the north loading road. This now serves the shops on the north side of the High Street since pedestrianisation. The school had been built to conform to the new Education Act of 1870, which made education compulsory to all. The Canon, therefore, completed the church, with its final touch being the stained glass window above the old High Altar in 1878. He died in 1898.
Owing to a shortage of priests the Bishop took charge of the parish until 1902, when Canon Watson was appointed to Gosport.
This priest bought the ground at Ann's Hill and built the brick building as a school in 1904, and the corrugated iron church alongside in 1903 (now demolished and the site is the car park). During the First World War, the old St Mary's school in Mumby Road was closed, and used as a club for parish meetings, until the new St Mary's Hall was built in 1964, in Father Quinn's time, after the new school had been built at Ann's Hill. The old St Mary's school at Mumby Road was demolished in 1965.
The old brick building at Ann's Hill became empty in 1968 and Fr Foley had it thoroughly examined professionally, and it was found to be quite sound. It was extended, improved internally and became the new St Joseph's Church and opened on 16th July 1971.
The Gosport parish had been fortunate in having "building" priests in the parish, to improve its facilities as and when Gosport developed. Firstly, with Dr Baldacconi (1849-1868) starting the present St Mary's. Secondly, Canon Doyle (1868-1898) completing the church. Thirdly, Canon Watson (1902-1928)- church and School at Ann's Hill. Rev J P Murphy (1928-1946). Rev A Quinn (1946-1967) - new St Mary's School at Ann's Hill (1954-55 1st phase,1961-62 2nd phase).New St Mary's Hall Mumby Road - 1964). Rev T Foley (1967-1997) - repaired war damage St Mary's church, floor tiled, Sanctuary modernised, various roof repairs. Replaced solid fuel central heating by oil in 1970.New St Joseph's Ann's Hill.Additional classrooms and storage St Mary's School. (This historical outline was put together by the late Mark Palmer 1912-1998, who gave many years of faithful service to the parish).