World War II saw the arrival in this area of many Irish Catholic workmen to help build a Royal Air Force airfield at Allen’s Green, just outside Sawbridgeworth. And it could be said that their arrival laid not only the foundations of the airfield, but of what is today the parish of The Most Holy Redeemer.
The nearest Catholic churches were both about four miles away – to the north, St. Joseph’s in Bishop’s Stortford, served by the Redemptorist Fathers, and to the south, a private chapel at Mark Hall, Harlow, owned by the Gilbey family.
So it was that Mass was said for the workmen in a newly-built ‘Nissen’ hut one Sunday in July, 1940 – the first such celebration in Sawbridgeworth since the Reformation. The hut was just inside the boundary line of the town, on the edge of a field belonging to Parsonage Farm, adjoining New House Farm. Appropriately, Parsonage Farm had been, pre-Reformation, a monastic establishment surrounded by a moat, and including a large tithe barn. A footpath, known as ‘Monk’s Walk’ ran from the farm to the now Anglican parish church of Great St. Mary’s. Father Richard Marsh CSsR, a Redemptorist from St. Joseph’s, said the first Mass, but not before everyone waited whilst he heard confessions.
A regular Mass was said after that, though in a variety of places. Soon, Fr. Bernard Griffin CSsR, was appointed ‘Padre’to the RAF, and a Catholic chapel was built alongside an assembly hall and gymnasium, nearly opposite New House Farm. Another Redemptorist, Fr. Lawrence Doyle, replaced Fr. Griffin. He said Mass in the new chapel, which was not very large – about 35 foot by 35 foot – and fitted with mess-type wooden chairs and kneelers. Blue curtains with ‘fleur de lys’ motif surrounded the altar on three sides, and to one side was a picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour. The concrete floor had a cover of dark red linoleum. RAF personnel soon outnumbered workmen, and it became difficult for Fr. Doyle to keep track of his flock as they were posted, on leave or just missing. He drove an Austin 10 horsepower two-seater with a canvas hood which was usually stuffed with ecclesiastical impedienta such as a prayer stool, hymn books, candles and the odd biretta, and he drove his machine at a fearful pace. If anyone needed help, the ‘Padre’ was there.
The War ended, and the Air Ministry sold the assembly hall and gymnasium, including the chapel, for the War Memorial Hall erected at the Forebury. This meant that the small remaining congregation would have to go to Bishop’s Stortford or Harlow for Mass. However, the Redemptorists arranged to say Mass on Sundays and Feast days in a room at the White Lion pub, which was owned by Rayment’s Brewery of Pelham, which had a Catholic as director, the late Captain Lake.
Mrs. Bird, who lived a few yards away, next to Harris the Bakers, prepared the room each Sunday morning. A warm fire greeted the congregation every Sunday. The first Mass at the White Lion was offered at 9am on November 5, 1950, by Fr. Vincent Young CSsR, with a congregation of 18, including children. Numbers grew and it seemed the floor of the White Lion room might not take the extra weight. From January, 1953, services were held at the newly-built War Memorial Hall, which whilst excellent accommodation, still had the atmosphere of War time. Then news came that the old town cinema in Sayesbury Road was up for sale. Father Conroy, Rector at the Redemptorist monastery, was not very enthusiastic about the idea of buying the building as numbers in Sawbridgeworth were still low, and St. Joseph’s had responsibility for a wide area including Stansted and all outlying villages to the North and Sawbridgeworth and Much Hadham to the South. Whilst discussions continued, news came that the cinema had been sold to another buyer. The idea of having a church was shelved. Some time later, however, that sale fell through. By now, St. Joseph’s had a new Rector, Fr. Austin, who proved himself a man of action. He said an early Mass next morning and was on the train for London at 9 am to see Canon Rivers of Westminster about funding.
Having bought the cinema, the enormous task of transforming it into a church was undertaken by a group of volunteer parishioners, who enlarged the stage, ripped out the old coal-fired heating and levelled the floor, which sloped 4ft 6in from entrance to screen. The group of men finished the job in about three months, working every weekend and late in the evenings. On one occasion a policeman dropped in to remind them of the time – it was 1 am. Folding chairs were purchased at a North London army surplus sale for one shilling (5p) each. And Mr. Joyce later did better by buying much superior chairs at the same price, which he brought from Bishop’s Stortford, two at a time, on his bicycle. He and his son built a new stage, large enough for a sanctuary. And the local Walter Lawrence company provided a new altar at a nominal cost. Total cost of painting, conversion and buying new items came to just £320.
Mass was celebrated for the first time in the new church on December 2, 1956. Fr. Vincent Young returned as priest-in-charge in 1965. The church remained unaltered until 1968, when a renovation programme, costing £8,000, was undertaken. A new ceiling, curtains, toilets and Sacristy were added and the interior redecorated; the old projection room, cash desk and some external ornamental stonework were demolished. Bishop Butler, Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster and former Abbot of Downside, re-opened the church in September, 1968.
Then, 1973 saw the arrival of Father Joseph Hanton, who had arrived at St. Joseph’s Monastery the year before. A former Redemptorist novice-master and Rector, Fr. Hanton was also an avid fan of Everton. As chaplain to St. Joseph’s Catholic primary school, Bishop’s Stortford, he was revered by the pupils, and not just because of his tradition of giving them Everton mints when his team had a good win. No one, least of all Fr. Hanton, could have imagined that he would continue to serve Most Holy Redeemer for 28 years, until 2001 when, aged 82, it was only through failing health that, reluctantly, he retired from the parish he loved and which dearly loved him. Sadly, he died a few months later at St. Peter’s Nursing Home in South London. Improvements continued during Fr. Hanton’s time to the building and the heating, including the arrival of new, solid benches to replace the chairs.
For the Millennium, a further major renovation was undertaken, including building a new roof, replacing timbers and redecoration. At the same time, the parish removed stage curtaining and a low ceiling which had been installed to retain heat. These had proved to be a disaster for the acoustics, so there was a sense of liberation for Choir and congregation when sounds could once again be heard bouncing from the high, wooden roof. The Redemptorists moved from Bishop’s Stortford in 1994, though Fr. Hanton remained to serve alongside the diocesan clergy who replaced them.
Following the departure of Fr. Hanton, in 2001, the future of Most Holy Redeemer was uncertain. However, Bishop James O’Brien, Bishop in Hertfordshire, asked Fr. Bob Styles S.J., who had moved to Much Hadham, in June 1997, after a working life devoted to education and university chaplaincy, to look after Most Holy Redeemer as well.