A History of English Martyrs' Strood

This article appeared in Church Handbook  1975-76. The Parish Priest was the Rev. Patrick Murtagh and the curates were; Rev. John B Duggan and Rev. Patrick O'Leary.  If anyone has further information please let us know as we would like to get the history updated.

Strood, like Chatham, sprang from a little Mission at Old Brompton, where a small Catholic Chapel was built in 1798. Until 1863 this was the only Catholic Chapel in the Medway Towns; then St. Michael's, Chatham, was built.

Meanwhile Strood was not overlooked and the possibilities of doing something for the scattered Catholics of the district were surveyed. Nuns of St Chretienne came over from France and founded a convent in Mill Road, Frindsbury. At first they had their own Chaplain who depended for his livelihood, at least in part, upon the offerings of the faithful made at Masses attended by others than the Community, but these being so small, he could not live, and soon left. His place was taken by the Jesuits at Higham, who had opened a school there at 'The Old Hermitage' (since burned down).  They served the nuns until Fr. Bolger, Parish Priest of Chatham from 1905- 1922 took it over in 1909. Fr. Hessenauer (who later changed his name to Carden) was the first of the Chatham curates to take charge of Strood, but the first priest to reside in the parish was Fr. Spencer Borrow who died in 1921. There is little record of his work here.

In 1910 Fr. Bolger purchased land, costing in all about £400, for a future church in Hillside Avenue. It was a gift of the Catholics of Strood to be repaid by sittings taken in Convent Chapel and by contributions to a collection, but it was some years before use could be made of the land.

By 1919 the total number of Communions for the year was 4,000 and the question of building a church began to take definite shape. This was bought to a head by the return to France of the St. Chrettienne nuns and Strood was threatened with the loss of its Mass Centre. Fr. Bolger approached Bishop's House.

The question then arose as to whether the site in Hillside Avenue was a good proposition as it was small and could not be extended. Therefore the site known as 'the Chalk Pit' was acquired and the land in Hillside Avenue sold for £100 more than it cost.

Strood was now separated from Chatham and made a separate Mission with Fr. Nugent, hitherto curate to Fr. Bolger, as its first Rector. The building of the church was begun, Messrs. Durrant & Sons of Rochester undertaking the work.

The nuns had sold Ravenswood Priory to a lady and her companions, ex-nuns, known as the  Oblates of St. Benedict. They carried on the school for a number of years before it was taken over by the present Community of Olivetan Benedictines .

The church was completed and blessed by Fr. Bolger in 1922. Then Fr. Nugent's thoughts turned towards a parish hall. He launched a big appeal and was soon able to build the John Fisher Hall  (now the English Martyrs Hall) which proved a most useful source of income. The ensuing years were largely occupied in furnishing the church.

In 1931 Fr. Francis Dorman took over and stayed until 1934 when Fr Norman Gillet took  over.  He stayed until 1936 when he was succeeded in quick succession, first by Fr  Herbert Leach then by Fr. Oswald Bussey.

With the help of Mr George Hughes, a parishioner, and a generous grant from Bishop's House, Fr Bussey built the presbytery and also enlarged the sacristy. In 1939 Fr. Frederick Coffey replaced him.

Fr Coffey remained in the parish throughout the war years during which development was at a standstill. He left in June 1945, being succeeded by Fr. William Parker.

The end of the war saw big developments in the area. Several factories were established resulting in a rapid increase in the population which included its quota of Catholic families. A large housing estate sprang up in the Temple Farm area. A site for Catholic was obtained and in 1950 St. Justus' Church was built.

Meanwhile the Southwark Travelling Mission had established Mass Centres in the villages of Hoo and Grain where Mass was offered at intervals.

In 1952 Fr. Parker left the parish and his place was taken by Fr. Francis Corley. Now the parish began to spread eastwards. The building of the oil refinery at Grain bought thousands of workers, including many Catholics to the area although the value of the agricultural land prevented much housing development there. Hundreds of houses were built at Frindsbury and Hoo bringing another influx of parishioners.

On his arrival in the parish it was obvious to Fr. Corley that the most pressing need was for a Catholic school and he set to work to obtain one. After many set-backs and disappointments the Education Authorities at last granted permission and in 1960 the English Martyrs Primary School was opened.

It had four classrooms to accommodate 160 children, but by this time it was already inadequate. The following year a temporary building was erected containing two more classrooms and in 1963 a further classroom was added.

In 1954 the historic little church at Dode was returned to the church by the Arnold family of Gravesend. It had fallen into disuse at the time of the 'Black Death', the parishioners having been wiped out by the plague. The Arnold family eventually bought and restored it, finally returning it to the church in June 1954. His Lordship the Bishop re-dedicated it under the title of 'Our Lady of the Meadows'. Being isolated it is impossible to bring it into full use but Mass is offered there at least once a year.

In 1957 Fr. Corley was  able to rent a disused Army hut at Grain. He turned it into an attractive little church and since then Mass has been offered weekly for parishioners there.

Meanwhile in  Hoo the Village Hall used for Sunday Mass was no longer large enough. The Oil Refinery at Grain was being enlarged and there were a large number of Irish labourers in the district. Always generous to the Church, these men gave much of their spare time to help to build a church at Hoo which was opened in 1958.

Still the parish grew; the number of Catholics continued to increase and it soon became evident that something would have to be done about English Martyrs Church, now too small to accommodate the increasing congregation. Much time and thought were given to this grave problem for the site on which the church stood did not allow any great extension of the existing church. After consultation with the Bishop it was finally decided to pull the church down and build a larger one. In November 1962 the old church was demolished and building began on a new and modern church. During the re-building Mass was offered in the school hall. After the usual troubles and delays the church was sufficiently advanced for the first Mass to be celebrated in it on the first Sunday of Advent 1964, at which some 50 children made their first Holy Communion.

Meanwhile, the first Vatican Council decided on several changes in the Liturgy. So it happened that the first Mass in the new church was celebrated in the new rite, for it was on this day that the changes came into operation.