The following text is taken from:
A History of the Catholic Church of Saint Thomas of Canterbury, Woodbridge
by Barbara Pratt. Privately printed. 1989.
There was a great deal of local interest when, in January 1929, the Diocese of Northampton negotiated for the purchase of an old public hall built 1850 to the designs of William Pattisson (1805-78) in St. John’s Street. Many Woodbridge adults and children had performed in concerts there or visited it to attend lectures or art exhibitions; Father Ernest Shebbeare had held an exhibition there of his water colours and heraldic paintings. The "Industrial and Art Exhibition" of 1883 and 1887 attracted entries from the nuns at Ipswich and from children aged 8 at their orphanage who had knitted a counterpane.
In 1843 the whole area around St. John’s Church and the site of St. Thomas’s Church was open country known as Pye’s Close. In May of that year 211 plots of land suitable for private residences were laid out for sale by auction. In 1850 a committee was formed to raise money by private donation and through the issue of £5 shares to purchase three plots, already partly built upon, to convert into a public hall, which was called at first “The Temperance and Lecture Hall and Committee Room” but which later became known simply as “The Lecture Hall and Mechanics' Institution” - the latter was established in Woodbridge in 1837. Later the Y.M.C.A. took over but eventually the usefulness of the building declined and it was sold to the Catholic Diocese of Northampton.
In April 1929 the purchase was completed for the sum of £ 1,200. After a year’s work it was transformed at a cost of £ 2,000 into a classical church. The architect was J. Arnold Crush, F.R.I.B.A., of Birmingham, a catholic convert and a pupil of Lutyens. The main feature was the Sanctuary which has a baldacchino supported by four Corinthian columns. The heraldic achievement displayed on the pediment are the arms of Achille Ratti, H.H. Pope Pius XI, 1922-1939. The exterior of the church is of white London brick and composite stone dressings. It is now a Grade II Listed Building.
Mass was celebrated for the first time in the new church on 8th March, 1930, feast of St. Felix, after a simple blessing by Father Shebbeare. The old church at Crown Place was sold to Mr. Eno for £150. The solemn opening of the new church took place in July 1930 on the feast of the Translation of Saint Thomas of Canterbury. On Saturday 5th July, Father Shebbeare was delegated by the bishop to perform the Rite of Blessing of a new church. On Sunday the bishop celebrated Mass at the Carmelite Convent and later performed the ceremony of clothing of a nun. He gave Benediction during which Father Ronald Knox preached the sermon. Later that evening he confirmed 24 candidates; nine of whom were converts. He gave Solemn Pontifical Benediction. On Monday 8th July there was Solemn High Mass in the presence of the bishop. It was celebrated by Monsignor Duchemin who came from the Beda College, Rome, where he was Rector. The choir was from Westminster Cathedral and was conducted by Dom Alphege Shebbeare, O.S.B. (A monk of Downside Abbey and the brother of Father Ernest Shebbeare, parish priest.) Father Knox preached again. After Mass lunch was served at the Crown Assembly Rooms. There was an afternoon garden party at Bredfield House, home of Mr. and Mrs. Lachlan White.
Under the direction of Ipswich based conservation architect, Mr. Nicholas Jacob, an extensive programme of exterior repairs to the church building was carried out from February to April 2018 and the interior of the church was redecorated during June and July of 2018. While the church was closed for redecoration, the Catholic parish community held their Sunday service in the Woodbridge Methodist Church. There is an album of photographs of the church redecoration in the photo gallery section of this website.
Woodbridge Carmel, 1920-1938
Sometime after 1920 a community of Carmelite Nuns was established at Woodbridge from the Carmelite Convent at Notting Hill, London. A house was given to them by Father Cooper who was living in retirement in Church Street, Woodbridge, with his housekeeper in 1919. He quietly retired to a flat in Hasketon Manor. Nine nuns and two extern sisters arrived at the convent on 6th September, 1921. On 8th September Cardinal Bourne (Archbishop of Westminster) blessed the grounds and the convent, which he named "Convent of the Magnificat".
Despite the hardships of religious life the number of nuns had grown to twenty by October 1925. However, the convent on Church Street became too small for the nuns as numbers further increased and the town became increasingly noisy. The bishop closed Woodbridge Carmel and the nuns left to establish themselves in Rushmere village near Ipswich, on 9th November 1938. They moved from there to their present convent at Quidenham Hall, in Norfolk, in 1948. In Woodbridge the site of the former convent on Church Street is now called "Carmelite Place".
Photograph: Quidenham Carmel. Reproduced with permission.
The Sisters of Mercy at Woodbridge, 1923-1943
Three sisters of Mercy arrived at Woodbridge on 22nd August, 1923. They stayed at Hasketon Manor until their house “The Beeches” was ready. This was a five bedroom house on a site behind No. 2 Castle Street. Their new convent was dedicated to our Lady of Lourdes. A shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes and a grotto were built in the convent garden. The whole formed a focal point for parochial processions.
Father Shebbeare blessed the house and grounds on 15th September and the nuns settled in. Three days later they opened the school in the convent. It admitted catholic children whose parents could not afford to pay fees besides fee-paying pupils of any demoniation. There were only 24 Catholic children in Woodbridge at this time. The school was dedicated to Saint Philomena. By Christmas of 1923 the original 30 pupils had increased to 40 and in January 1924 the school reopened with 50 pupils. By October 1924 a bungalow had been built in the grounds comprising a dormitory for boarders, a classroom and a large dining room connected with the main building by a covered way. In 1927 four cottages in the convent grounds were given to the nuns so that they could found an orphanage for girls.
In 1926 the older girls formed a Confraternity of the Children of Mary. The younger ones became members of the Guild of Saint Philomena, while the boys formed the Guild of Saint Aloysius. Catholic children not attending the school came to the meetings.
Cardinal Bourne, Archbishop of Westminster, visited Woodbridge on his way to Ipswich in 1926. He was pleased with the school when he was shown round it and kindly signed the pupils’ autograph books. The Bishop of Northampton always visited the school on his parochial visitations and on one occasion the children sang an ode in his honour and presented him with a wood carving by an Aldeburgh man, Mr. Cross. The nuns were always seeking to improve their standards. They attended the local Red Cross courses on First Aid, Home Nursing, Hygiene and Sanitation. They ran jumble sales to raise money so that the school could improve to the government standard for registration.
During the Second World War the coast of Suffolk was designated a "danger zone" and in 1940 children were evacuated from it. The number of children at the school dwindled to seven and the number of nuns in the convent to two. The school closed for the Christmas holiday period in December 1941 and did not re-open. The parents received letters of notification and contacted the parish priest who did what he could to organise a transport fund for the older children to attend one of the Ipswich Catholic Schools. Canon Thompson also organised a small kindergarten for the Catholic children under six years of age but he could not keep it staffed. It closed after a few months. Until February 1942 one nun remained at the convent. The property was sold in 1943.