At the sign of the Barking lion...

Our Lady of Good Counsel, Clare

At the sign of the Barking lion... - a journey through the churches of Suffolk


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The east end, with the Upper Room above.

First sight.

Looking east.

A light against the darkness.

looking west. The window on the right was an internal doorway.

Focus of the upper room.

Light of lights...

A restored Priory building beside the church.


Our Lady of Good Counsel: the former infirmary of the Priory.

The importance, and size, of Clare during the later middle ages is signified by the sheer hugeness of the medieval parish church. The inside has been scoured of virtually all its Catholic integrity, and for the last 460-odd years its care has been in the hands of the Church of England, but still today it is not possible as a Catholic to pass it without going "wow - was that once ours?!"

The town of Clare was the site of a major Priory, home to the first foundation of Augustinian friars in England, and we may assume that they regularly made the short walk beneath the castle mound to preach in the parish church. In 1538 that all came to an end, of course. For the next 300 years Catholics could worship nowhere legally; even after the Acts of Catholic emancipation, there was the long journey to Coldham Hall or Bury to hear Mass or receive the sacraments of Holy Mother Church.

At the end of the Second World War, Lady Helena May, a direct descendant of the Barnadistons who had received Clare Priory lands from the greedy Henry VIII and had lived in it ever since, decided not to return to the house. It had been used by the armed forces during the war, the fate of so many historic buildings, and she was keen to see it returned to its original owners. By 1953 this had happened.

The Augustinian community had returned to England in the 19th century, but it must still have seemed very exciting to come back to residence in their mother house. They established an Oratory in the Priory itself, but one of their first acts was to convert the largest surviving building in the medieval range from a barn into a Catholic parish church. It was dedicated to Our Lady of Good Counsel, a memory of the wedding at Canaan, where Mary advises the servants at the feast to 'do whatever he tells you'. This episode is central to the rule of St Augustine, which is followed by the residents of the Priory; they provide the clergy for the Catholic parish.

I came here on one of the last days of October, 2003. It was a good six years since my last visit, but still the deep peace of the Priory grounds settled on me, and it did not feel long that I had been away. I came with Aidan Semmens of Sylly Suffolk. He was writing about Norton church for a magazine, and I offered to come along for the ride. Then the Prior invited me to come and look around, so I persuaded Aidan he really wanted to come and take a look as well. Aidan is an ardent agnostic, but I think he warmed to the peculiarly laid-back character of Augustinian communities.

We stepped out of the sunshine into the chill of the church. The building is tall and thin; you can see where the upper storey once was, housing the novices. The lower storey, where the floor now is, was the infirmary. The original priory church was to the north, across the modern garden.

The church is very simple, revealing its pre-Vatican II origins in fixtures and fittings that may well be 19th century. The east end is ordered simply and beautifully. Candles burn beside the sanctuary.

Above the east end of the church is the Upper Room. When I was last here in the mid-1990s, this was still in use as a liturgical space for simple Masses, devotions and reconciliation. However, some of the furnishings have made their way to the Shrine of the Mother of Good Counsel, and this area is now used for Children's liturgy on a Sunday morning.

Looking back to the west, three windows let in the late afternoon light. These are all shown blocked up on a drawing of the 1820s; indeed, the most northerly window was an internal doorway in medieval times. Through the long penal centuries it must have seemed impossible that I would ever see this sight, but there was something relentless and inevitable about the way the Church eventually returned to this country. I looked up for a few moments at the pale light, thinking not so much of wheels coming full circle as how the power of love cannot be denied forever.

In the garden: guru, mystic and teacher.


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