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St Thomas of Canterbury


The Catholic Church of St Thomas of Canterbury was first built in December 1894 as an ‘iron church’ by Christina Benyon, youngest daughter of William Henry John North, the eleventh Lord North (1836-1932).  William, and her eldest brother, another William, had converted to Catholicism in 1867; her mother, Frederica, and the other children then living followed in 1868; Christina Philippa Agnes North was born more than a year later, in December 1869.  She gave the church for the use of Wroxton’s Catholics in memory of her late husband, Captain Thomas Yate Benyon (1840-1893), an Anglican, who is buried in the churchyard of All Saints. A magnificent angel and railed enclosure marks his grave.  

The site for the church of St Thomas was chosen for its proximity to ‘The Cottage’, now Wroxton House Hotel.  This was Christina’s Wroxton home in widowhood until 1903, when she remarried.

 Christina’s iron building gave public Catholic worship in Wroxton its first purpose-built home since the Reformation.  A Catholic ‘mission’ had commenced in Wroxton in 1882 when an upper room of the North Arms was rented by Fr. Charles Bowen of Banbury and converted for use as a chapel.  It seems likely that this arrangement was primarily for the benefit of William, the future eleventh Lord North, and his family, although baptismal records suggest some public attendance.  Following William’s accession to the barony in 1884, Catholic services transferred to the Abbey.  Public provision was made in 1887, when William converted a laundry or wash house to become the chapel of the Immaculate Conception.  Attended both by local Catholics and by the family it was, however, damp, and said to be unusable in winter.  St Thomas of Canterbury would have been a welcome replacement, built on a new site in Shepherd’s Close, at the edge of the village.  Lord North’s private chaplain served as the mission priest, saying mass also for North and his household in the Abbey’s chapel.

From at least 1891, until 1919, the chaplains lived in a house near the Abbey gates, rented by North from Trinity College Oxford. The dwelling is now known as ‘The Old Farmhouse’. The last of Lord North’s Wroxton chaplains, Father Arthur Hoole (1923-1932), lived in ‘The Priest’s House’ in Church Lane.  The first of the mission priests, the Dominicans Fr. Edmund Buckler and Fr. Sadoc Silvester, had been housed in the North Arms, the room being hired in 1882 by Fr. Bowen, but were probably not continuously resident.

In 1947 the ‘iron church’ was found to be in a poor state of repair. It was largely rebuilt, taking its present form apart from the open front porch, which is later, and was given its distinctive thatch.  It is the only thatched church in Oxfordshire.  The stained glass windows, which are war salvage, were introduced at the same time. In consequence, their style is varied, and there is some duplication in subject matter. Most were acquired from the antique dealer Joseph ‘Shirley’ Brown of Tredington (1885-1978). The front windows, clearly visible from the outside, show rural occupations and are the work of Charles Alexander Gibbs (1825-1877). Canon Arthur Wall of Banbury led the restoration committee, and his features were used for the face of the statue of St Thomas of Canterbury that stands over the inner porch.  The rebuilt church opened in October 1948.  In the interim, Lady Grace Pearson, the new lessee of Wroxton Abbey, allowed the congregation to use the private chapel in the house.  

 The Norths had a long tradition of support for the Anglican church of All Saints, Wroxton.  William’s father, Colonel John Sidney North (previously Doyle), was, for example, a particularly generous benefactor and a staunch Anglican. This accord and support changed with William’s accession to the barony in 1884.  Following on from other squabbles between William and the Anglican vicar of Wroxton, a bitter quarrel took place in 1887 between the Reverend John Izat (vicar of All Saints 1878-1892), and William, now the eleventh Baron North, over Izat’s perceived refusal to allow the bells of the parish church to be rung to celebrate the birthdays of North and his eldest son. (Click for transcript of correspondence).  This acrimonious scenario was repeated under Reverend Arthur Dickens (1929-1935), leading to the dismissal from all his church offices of a bell ringer who supported Lord North and the old tradition. The bells were rung instead from St John’s, Banbury. In contrast, Lord North’s relations with the Reverend Jocelyn Speck (1892-1907) were generally cordial; and two of William’s adult (and Catholic) children, Roger North and Mina Fitzgerald, are buried in All Saints churchyard.

The Norths left Wroxton after the death in 1932 of William, eleventh Baron North, and the barony itself became extinct in 1941.  By 1936, in consequence of the departure of the Norths, St Thomas of Canterbury, Wroxton, had become a chapel-of-ease for St John the Evangelist, Banbury, so continuing until 1968.  Since 1968 St Thomas of Canterbury has been a chapel-of-ease to the Catholic church of St Joseph the Worker, Banbury.  It is in regular use - Sunday Mass 9am  (Confessions before Mass)


Margaret Condon

  


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