The first Catholic Church in Balsall Common, dedicated to St Philomena, was opened on 2nd December 1948. The Most Reverend Joseph Masterson, 4th Archbishop of Birmingham, assisted by two former curates of the Dorridge parish, Fathers Timothy Cronin and Horace Relph, dedicated it in the presence of a large congregation.
There were many priests of the Archdiocese present including Canon Bernard Manion the Parish Priest and his then curate, the recently ordained Father Laurence Smith (1948-1954). Students from Oscott College formed the choir. Many parishioners of St Philomena and of St George & St Teresa, Dorridge attended the opening, with Mr Charles ‘Bunny’ Goodliffe Neale as Master of Ceremonies and the young Bernard Hammond, still a parishioner, one of several altar servers.
There followed a luncheon at the Abbey Hotel, Kenilworth, attended by the clergy and many of the parishioners. Father Laurence Smith later recalled driving Canon Manion to the Abbey. During the journey he was asked to put a few words together for a speech – the Canon was a very busy man! It was a great day of celebration for the parish – one that long afterwards he remembered with pride and joy.
Previous to 1941, when Canon Manion was appointed Parish Priest of St George & St Teresa, Dorridge the Catholic Parish of Balsall Common was part of St Austin’s Parish, Kenilworth. In those days there was no public transport and very few families had cars. The Parish Priest, Canon William Swift, must have found it almost impossible to look after his flock in Balsall Common and the area around it. He was not a young man. Likewise these parishioners found it difficult to go to mass in Kenilworth. They must have felt as if they were in limbo.
In the early 1940s Mr & Mrs George Hammond, together with their two small children, Monica and Bernard moved from Yorkshire to Balsall Common. They had no car, only a bicycle. George was away in the army and his wife found it impossible to get to mass on Sundays in Kenilworth. She went to visit Canon Manion to enquire about having a Mass Centre in Balsall Common.
Soon afterwards, in 1942, he obtained permission to use two classrooms in the local primary school in Balsall Street each Sunday and Holy Day for the celebration of mass. The local ATC also used the school for their meetings. Sometimes there was a clash with our mass and their music practices!
One classroom was used for confession – the confessional being made out of army beds - we had to make sure they were safe. Fortunately none came down on anybody! The other classroom was used for mass. The teacher’s table was the altar and the adults and children sat on the school chairs and in some cases in the school desks. The room was prepared each Saturday by various parishioners, including Mrs Beryl Williams, who lived in Balsall Street until she moved to live in Wales a couple of years ago. This continued until the new church opened in 1948.
During this time a farm in the village, with approximately 22 acres of land, came on the market. A loan of £5,000 was obtained from the Archdiocese and the land was purchased for the future development of the parish. Canon Manion’s intention was to build a church, a presbytery and finally, a school. He was very involved in the Diocesan Schools Association, later to become the Diocesan Schools Commission. Not all of his plans materialised. However, a school was eventually built in Dorridge. The children from our Parish have attended there for the last 45 years.
A local parishioner, Colonel Blennerhasset, accompanied Canon Manion in searching the country for disused army huts. This was during the period 1945/46 when the war was over. Eventually they found three huts. These were to form the basis of the church. Frank Deeley was given the task of putting them together with brickwork to form a suitable building with the footprint in the shape of a cross. Various items such as the altar rails, sanctuary lamp, Stations of the Cross, statues, candlesticks and so on, were kindly donated by parishioners of Balsall Common and Dorridge
St Philomela’s in Balsall Common
Not unnaturally, due to the connection of the church of St George & St Teresa with the cult of St Philomena, Canon Manion had a great devotion to the little martyr of the Catacombs. For the rest of his life he maintained that it was through her intercession that the purchase of the land and the building of the church were achieved. To no one's surprise it was to her the church was dedicated.
A shrine to St Philomena had been blessed in the original church at Dorridge on her feast day, 11th August 1933, shortly before the fire, which destroyed the building. Another shrine was eventually established in the new church. Public Novenas continued to be held four times a year until after the war. However devotion to the saint began to wane and the novenas ceased altogether when she was removed from the international church calendar in 1961.
In the early days the parish had two regular visitors from the staff of Cotton College. The first was Father Dennis Manion, a nephew of the Canon, later to be our Parish Priest himself (1975-1988), and now living in richly rewarded retirement at St Joseph's, Harborne. The other was his great friend Father (now Monsignor) Tom Gavin, who was to be one of the Canon's successors as both Headmaster of Cotton College and with responsibility for the Diocesan Schools Commission, and recently retired after many years as Parish Priest of St Thomas More, Coventry. They regularly celebrated mass for us.
The parishioners of Dorridge have always been very supportive in many ways. One of our curates Father Timothy Cronin (1943-1947) could not drive and friends from Dorridge drove him over for mass throughout the years he was with us.
In the late 1940s Mr & Mrs Hadley came to live in ‘The Cafe’ in Berkswell, opposite The Bear Inn. They kindly gave us the use of the cafe and their beautiful garden for parish functions. It was there that the parish celebrated in 1950 when Canon Manion was made a Prelate of Honour and received the title of Monsignor.
Many a happy hour was spent in the Hadley’s garden raising money for the church. Mrs Hadley, a former actress, would produce an annual pantomime in the Berkswell Reading Room. Much of the profit went into the St Philomena building fund. Those enjoyable times still bring back many happy memories for some of our older parishioners.
Since there was no Catholic school in the parish, weekly instructions were held on Sunday afternoons before benediction and eventually switched to Saturday mornings. Often Monsignor himself would come over or failing that his curate. A frequent, much loved catechist was Father Anthony Emery (1954-1962), later to become an Auxiliary Bishop in the Diocese and subsequently succeeding Bishop Derek Worlock in the See of Portsmouth. He followed Monsignor in having responsibility for the Diocesan schools. However, the work proved so onerous he had to give up the Saturday morning instructions and a layperson took over.
First Communions became a very happy annual occasion with the Communion Breakfast taking place in the ‘back room’ and Monsignor or his curate sitting down with the children. The instruction classes continued long after the school opened at Dorridge. Happily the parish still celebrates with their first communicants.
Fund-raising was always high on the agenda, since from the very beginning there has been a debt looming over the Parish. In the early days when Father Cronin went home to Ireland for his summer holidays he would organise raffles, etc for St Philomena’s, thus helping to reduce the debt.
Jumble Sales, Bazaars, Garden Fetes and Whist Drives were held every year. All except the Garden Fete were held in the Village Hall. The first Jumble Sale raised £200, which for the period immediately after the war was a lot of money. Whist Drives, rarely heard of these days, were held every month, with a special one at Christmas, including a Christmas Draw. They were hard work, but great fun. The clergy were regular participants at this popular event
Parish Growth and Fund Raising
Many of our young people attended the thriving youth club, which was held in the church hall at Dorridge on Sunday evenings, cycling over in all kinds of weather. Then in the mid 50s a youth club was set up for St Philomena’s in the attic and kitchen of ‘Sunnyside’. Everyone who attended always had a good time.
Weddings were solemnised in the church. The Hammonds’ daughter Monica was married there in 1955 and her daughter Tess in the 1970s. In later years a Parish Committee was established at first with Mrs Frankie Spray in the chair. This brought new life into the Parish. Many ideas were put into action. Discussion Groups in parishioners’ homes considered doctrinal and social themes, sometimes at great length.
The Union of Catholic Mothers (UCM) was founded in the Parish. This proved to be very beneficial. Eventually it was wound up and the Catholic Women’s League (CWL) took its place, thus giving an opportunity for all women in the Parish to become members. Frequently with both groups meetings would be preceded by the celebration of mass. A wide range of speakers and social activities were arranged. They were always happy occasions.
In 1970 one of our parishioners became involved in the Handicapped Children’s Pilgrimage Trust (HCPT). Since then thousands of pounds have been raised through Coffee Evenings, Raffles and the Sale of Christmas and Easter Cards. The money goes towards the expenses of the children who go to Lourdes with Group 83 at Easter. On several occasions since the opening of our new church we have been privileged to share the celebration of mass with the pilgrims before they have set off on their journey.
The CWL gave way to a Ladies Group doing more or less similar things. Some years ago a Millennium Committee started to consider how we might celebrate this important milestone. Consequently, in 1999 we started to raise money for Father Ed O’Connell, one of our regular Columban Father visitors, and his Parish in Peru. Since then several thousand pounds have been sent to him and we are pleased to help in selling the splendid goods made by the women’s co-operative in his parish. Our Millennium Project will continue to the next millennium!
Even now fund-raising is high on the agenda. The Parish has an even greater debt to pay off. Jumble Sales, Parish Quizzes, Race Nights, Skittle Evenings and even Dinners still take place. They bring the Parish together and are hard work but enjoyable and at the same time raise money. Barbecues and rambles have been organised to add to the social life of the Parish.
Throughout the last sixty five years parishioners have ebbed and flowed. New faces have appeared and old ones have disappeared - but the Parish has thrived. At the beginning mass was always celebrated at 9am with Benediction at 4pm each Sunday. The Rosary was recited during the months of May and October and the Stations of the Cross were observed during Lent. These were always followed by Benediction, which was often attended by many people from outside the Parish. .
In early days the organist came from Coventry to play each Sunday. As the parish grew it became necessary to have two masses at 8am and 10am on the third Sunday of each month. Eventually this became the norm. Later the first mass was changed to 8.30am. Confessions were heard before mass and sometimes on Saturday morning after Instruction Classes. Occasionally there would be a weekday mass on Wednesday at 7.45pm, now of course it is held on Tuesday evenings at 7.30pm. And of course we have a team of talented musicians and an excellent choir.
Occasionally mass with a Harvest theme has been celebrated. The harvest gifts being given to various families and individuals in the village. At Christmas, Midnight Mass was always very popular, the church regularly being full to capacity, with only a handful of people attending the morning mass. Now the situation is reversed - the morning mass being more popular.
A Thriving Parish
For several years a Carol Service has been held on one of the Sundays before Christmas with people of all ages taking part. A custom that has come from this is for gifts to be distributed by the children and young people of the Parish to the elderly, sick, and housebound in the Parish and further afield. In 1997, for the first time, a Christmas Giving Tree appeared in the Narthex some weeks before Christmas, covered in present ‘tags’, thus helping us in our objective of making our Christmas a time of giving and thinking of others.
Since around 1943, it has been the practice of helping Father Hudson’s Society or Father Hudson’s Homes, as it was then known. House-to-house collections have been organised each year. Thanks to the many collectors a vast sum of money has been raised and sent to the Society’s headquarters in Coleshill.
For many years there was little development in Balsall Common, so the church was adequate for our needs. The parish gradually repaid the loan to the Archdiocese with Canon Patrick Smith (1967-1975) happily informing us of the final payment in 1967. In 1970 the village began to grow and planning permission was given for some of the land purchased by the Parish during the war. The Archdiocese stepped in and sold the land for £300,000, the implication being that when we wanted to build our permanent church, the money would be made available for the purpose – how wrong we were! Outline planning permission was sought and obtained for a church in the early 1970’s but not proceeded with.
In 1973 we mourned the passing and celebrated the life of our founding Parish Priest, Monsignor Bernard Manion (1941-1967). For over thirty years, and even in retirement, he had been a focal point of parish life. He was recognised as one of the finest priests in the life of our Archdiocese. We cannot do better than to quote from Bishop Anthony Emery’s homily at the funeral mass held in Dorridge.
“After leaving Cotton in 1941 and for the next 26 years Monsignor Manion was Parish Priest here in Dorridge. Those who were parishioners during his first seven years know the energy and apostolic zeal with which he gave himself to the Parish. Indeed the boundaries of the Parish could not contain his zeal and it burst through to establish very soon the Chapel and Mass Centre of St Philomena at Balsall Common.
“But after a few years in 1948, the Archbishop entrusted to him the mammoth task and responsibility for the planning and organisation of Catholic Education in the Diocese required by the Education Act of 1944. Monsignor Manion gave himself with characteristic dedication and spent himself in carrying out his new responsibilities. It was with considerable trepidation that he did so, as he confided to me later, for this was completely new ground - there were no precedents to guide him. It involved a thorough study and knowledge of the Education Act - it necessitated a detailed knowledge of the geography of the diocese - of population and its movement into new housing areas. It involved personal negotiations with 15 local education authorities and with the then Ministry of Education. To say that he burnt the midnight oil is an understatement - he turned night into day on many occasions. Our Diocese owes Monsignor Manion a debt of gratitude for the wisdom, foresight and energy he gave to the planning and provision of our Catholic School system in the decade 1950-1960. Those were crucial years in which the foundations had to be laid for the unprecedented development which took place in the 1960’s and which is still continuing to the present decade. Thank God that under His Providence Monsignor Manion was equal to the task. But you know how the work took its toll of his health and strength.”
We do indeed.
In 1985 a Parish Mission was held. Fathers Kevin O’Connell and Michael Keogh from the Catholic Missionary Society in London conducted it. A lot of work went into the preparation for it. It reaped many blessings on the entire Parish.
Building a bigger church and the dedication to Blessed Robert Grissold
When Father Dennis Manion came back to the Parish as Parish Priest it became evident, with the rapid growth in the population, that a larger church was needed. Sufficient land had been kept for a new church, presbytery and hall if necessary. There was a large field adjacent to St Philomena’s. This had been leased initially to Balsall Parish Council and subsequently to Berkswell Parish Council for recreational purposes. Originally of course it had been hoped this would be the site of the school.
In 1988, Father Anthony Maguire, a former White Father, (1988-2001) arrived and plans to build a new church began in earnest. An application was made for a building on the ‘playing field’, but due to opposition from some local residents and Solihull MBC, it was rejected. Apparently a church in a pleasantly designed rural landscape is not an acceptable incursion into the Green Belt. What a pity.
Our excellent architect John Holmes from Leamington Spa, whose church at Monks Kirby we had much admired, drew up further plans for a church on the land occupied by St Philomena’s, the site to include space for three house plots which would be sold to help pay for the new church. Eventually the Archbishop decided to retain one of the plots for use as a presbytery to be built at no cost to the Parish. A bungalow was built and initially became the home of Father Christopher Thornton, who although officially retired regularly celebrated or concelebrated mass for us.
The last mass was celebrated in St Philomena’s in March 1994 - a sad day filled with memories for many of those present. Very soon after this the inside of the church was stripped of its contents. The statues, Stations of the Cross and the tabernacle were taken away and restored to their former splendour for installation in the new church, while the altar and benches were given to another parish in the Archdiocese. The building was then demolished and the builders, J Guest, began to erect our new church.
On 4 November 1994 the Most Reverend Maurice Couve de Murville, 7 th Archbishop of Birmingham, came to bless the foundation stone. He expressed his delight at seeing ‘a church which looked like a church’. The work was completed in time for the first mass to be celebrated on Christmas morning, a day of great joy and more tears, this time of pleasure. At the end of mass messages of goodwill were read from our friends in the other local churches, a reminder of the many years Christian fellowship we have shared in what we now know as ‘Churches Together in Balsall and Berkswell’.
As in St Philomena’s, many items in the church have been donated by parishioners and well-wishers, several in memory of loved ones. The remembrance of St Philomena’s lingers on with the statues, stations, tabernacle and above the altar the crucifix that has been part of our worship since 1948.
Although we had hoped to be able to celebrate the life of a local saint, there was not a little surprise when the Archbishop informed us that the name of Blessed Robert Grissold had been selected. Surprise gave way to admiration when we learnt more of this good man born only six miles from Balsall Common and who had been prepared to accept martyrdom, together with the priest Father John Sugar, at Warwick on 16 July 1604.
The Grissolds were a well-known Warwickshire Catholic Family and the name appears very frequently in the Recusant Rolls. Robert Grissold, who was born in nearby Rowington between 1550 and 1560, was fined £80 in 1593 and £60 in 1594 for not attending the services of the Church of England. On 8 th July 1603, when the Grissold house was raided by the pursuivants, Robert helped Father John Sugar to escape and with him was arrested on the highway. In Warwick prison, the layman showed his respect and love for the priest by refusing the opportunity of making his escape unless Father Sugar could escape with him.
Robert Grissold was a simple agricultural worker with little education but he resisted all attempts to persuade him to give up his religion and never wavered in his faith. In court, during his trial, one of the justices shouted at him in exasperation, ‘Grissold, Grissold, go to church or else thou shalt be hanged’. On the scaffold he said that he died ‘not for theft nor for felony but for conscience’. Without flinching he watched the cruelties inflicted on Father Sugar and then calmly offered himself to the hangman.
A Modern Parish
In December 1995 the Archbishop returned to celebrate mass with us on another memorable day in our Parish history. Some months later we heard that the church had received Solihull MBC’s Design Award for 1995. The plaque was subsequently presented to Godfrey Chesshire, Chairman of the Pastoral Church Council and of Balsall (civil) Parish Council by the Chairman of Solihull’s Planning Committee, Councillor Jim Ryan.
Fundraising continues to be a fundamental part of parish life. Funds are raised not only to pay off the church debt but also to support three external charities: the Millennium Project for Father Ed’s parish in Lima; the Handicapped Children’s Pilgrimage Trust; and Jesus Youth United Kingdom, Father Sebastian’s group of young Cerulean people.
In August 2001 we bade farewell to Father Maguire after fourteen years during which he had ensured our dream of having a permanent church had become a reality. In saying farewell to him we welcomed the arrival of Monsignor Daniel McHugh, whose achievements in developing the work of the Maryvale Catechetical Centre in Kingstanding were the envy of other dioceses.
Subsequently in 2004, after a link with the Parish of St George and St Teresa lasting over sixty years Blessed Robert Grissold became part of the Parish of St Francis of Assisi in Baddesley Clinton with Father John Sharpe as Parish Priest and Father Sebastian Arikat as Priest in Charge. In addition to his parochial duties Father Arikat also looks after the needs of the Kerala community throughout the United Kingdom and is chaplain to St Peter’s School in Solihull.
We have been blessed over the years with the quality and experience of our priests. Canon Patrick Smith came to us having spent several years as Chaplain to both Dudley Road Hospital and Winson Green Prison. Father Maguire often recalled his work as a White Father in Africa. During nearly forty years the Columban Fathers have talked to us of their experiences with the church in Peru, the Philippines, Indonesia and China. Now Father Sebastian shares with us the work of the church in India.
There are many in our Parish who could recall their own special memories. Let us leave the last words with Maureen Carroll, who only missed the first mass at St Philomena’s because, unlike Bernard Hammond, she had to be in school that day.
“The first church in Balsall Common, St Philomena’s, was in use for over forty years. Monsignor Manion only intended it to last for ten! It holds many memories, both happy and sad. It certainly does for me. My father cut the first sod and my mother’s funeral was the last to be held there. They both gave much to St Philomena’s together with the priests and other parishioners who have now reached their eternal home. We all owe them a debt of gratitude. Please remember them in your prayers as I’m sure they remember you in theirs.”