At the sign of the Barking lion...

Holy Family, Brantham

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Brantham Catholic
Holy Family

Holy Family  

It was the summer of 2001, I should think, and we were on our way to a garden fete. Nothing wrong with that, except that it was in Mistley. "But that's in Essex", I complained. My wife gave me her look, which means "if you are going to behave like an obsessive, then I shall start treating you like one". My four year old daughter is mastering the same look. We all got in the car, and headed for the border. Soon, we were speeding out of Ipswich, past Alton Water. This is not a good road for cycling, so I was happy to be in a car. We soon reached the Brantham Bull, and the sharp dog-leg turn that leads into Brantham itself.

As an act of mercy, we stopped just short of the border, and I was dropped outside Holy Family, a church I'd never visited before. Brantham is, essentially, a suburb of the Essex town of Manningtree (I can hear the complaining e-mails already being fired), the River Stour separating it from its larger, and prettier, neighbour. The old village is still pleasant enough, gathered around the medieval church of St Michael, but the long stretch into Manningtree is thoroughly urban and industrialised.

It was at St Michael that the Catholic priests of this parish ministered before the Reformation. But that is now in Anglican care, of course, and so now we have to go to this functional little brick building if we want to go to Mass. The dirty red brick detracts from the cool simplicity of the windows. The church dates from 1919. In those days, it was a parish church; technically, it isn't any more, but through no fault of its own.

A couple of miles away is the famous village of East Bergholt, and it was there that a Benedictine convent was established in the late 19th century. In 1946, the nuns left Old Hall, and their building was taken over by a community of Franciscans. The Franciscans administrated the Brantham parish, providing priests to it. And what a big parish it was! It extended northwards to the heathlands south of Ipswich (where nobody actually lived, so it was purely a stroke of a bureacrats pen). And then, in the 1960s, the great expansion southwards of Ipswich began. Large parts of Sproughton civil parish were taken within the Borough boundary, and on the former Sproughton Chantry lands the vast Chantry Estate was built, home to some 30,000 people. Interestingly, they all lived within the Catholic Parish of Brantham, but almost 8 miles from this church, which sits snuggly in the south east corner.

The obvious thing was to build a chapel of ease on Chantry, enabling Catholics there to attend a Mass centre. The Diocese of Northampton (in which, unlikely as this may seem, Brantham then was) decided to go one step further, building a large modern church on Chantry, St Mark. This would become the parish church, and Holy Family at Brantham retreated to the status of a Mass station. There was another Mass station halfway between the two, at Capel St Mary, where the Catholics shared the Anglican parish church there. So Brantham must feel quite isolated from its daughter-turned-mother church, but it is obviously still a lively place, judging by the modern extension to the south. Indeed, there is something wholly beautiful that has been added in the last few years.

This is Gabrielle Pready's stained glass of 1997, installed in the apse-like ending behind the altar. One side shows the Holy Family, the other the Blessed Virgin. I should very much like to have photographed them properly, but the church was locked. It was still locked when I cycled this way in the summer of 2009 (I am assuming it has been open a few times in the intervening period, obviously). I moan often enough about Anglican churches being locked, but a Catholic church should always be open, to enable the faithful to enter into the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. The same is not liturgically required of a chapel of ease like this, but wouldn't it be nice?

I am indebted to Dick Shively, an American correspondent of the site, who took photographs of the inside in May 2003. Dick and his wife Anita had actually been married in the church in 1963, and had revisited for a 40th anniversary Mass. You can see the eastwards view below, and a close-up of the altar at the bottom. As you can see, the church has been neatly reordered in the Vatican II manner, and angled light pine benches face towards to simple modern altar set in its apse. There is a rood group set in relief on the front of it. The walls are plain and white, offsetting rather elaborate stations that may have come from Old Hall. The Pready glass contributes to a feeling of lightness.

And so, we headed onwards. I flinched slightly as we crossed the border, but Mistley turned out to be very nice after all. And the church there was open.


Simon Knott, October 2009

altar looking east



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