On the morning of July 28th 1883 the Clevedon Mercury had the following report: “It is announced that a body of Franciscan Friars has taken two large houses and a cottage at Portishead with the intention of establishing an educational branch of their order there.”
In these ecumenical times, with our thriving congregation, our new hall and school, it is difﬁcult to imagine the effect the arrival of the Friars had in Portishead in 1883. They were used as “bogey men” to frighten the children and their singing of the Divine Ofﬁce at midnight caused people living nearby to call the police.
These friars, more generally termed the French Fathers had come to England from France some time before and had ﬁrst settled in Taunton, then at Clifton and Clevedon, from which places a number of fathers and brothers had come to Portishead.
The ﬁrst community numbered about 20, the Superior was Father Peter Baptist and the number of Catholics in Portishead at that time was thought to be 6. A small chapel was built and in the following year, 1884, 31 converts were received into the church.
The present church was built in 1887, the year Queen Victoria celebrated her Jubilee. Services were well attended and the Sunday evening service and sermon attracted many non-Catholics. It was said that the children from the Unitarian Church listened attentively to a sermon on the Sacrament of Baptism and went home and baptised each other!
Soon after the opening of the church the friars left their rented cottage and moved back to Clevedon and for twelve years the priest-in-charge travelled by foot to Portishead to conduct weekday and Sunday services Local Catholics helped to maintain the church, prominent among whom was Mr Edbrooke, Coog’s grandfather
In April 1907 a new chapter opened when the Greyfriars arrived. These were the Order of Franciscans Minor Conventual, a branch of the other Franciscans who wore the brown habit and were referred to as the “Brownies” The Greyfriars were returning from exile on the continent and St Joseph’s Parish Portishead was honoured to be the ﬁrst Canonical Friary they set up in this country. The parish continued to prosper and in May 1908 the ﬁrst Corpus Christi procession since the Reformation was held.
The war years saw a great inﬂux of activity in Portishead with the arrival of evacuees and troops and in19l4, the property, which later became the Friary (now the vets) was bought, although not actually inhabited by the friars until 1934. The friars played a major role in helping a number of Belgian refugees, most of whom were Catholics, to ﬁnd accommodation in Portishead. By 1915 soldiers were stationed in Portishead and a camp of Royal Engineers was set up in Pill and Portbury. Fr Vincent was the official chaplain and the number of Catholics in the area rose from 60 to 250.
The end of the war saw a decline in parish activities when the troops and refugees returned home, so on Easter Sunday, 1919, a special envelope collection was taken up in an effort to reduce the church debt, which stood at £150. This collection reduced the debt by one third! During the early l920’s records show that collections were still taken for The Red Cross, The Starving Children of Austria and the Catholic Labourers of Belfast. These show that the parish still tried to relieve the distress caused by the years of wartime upheaval.
In 1924 Mr and Mrs Wulstan Berkeley came to live in Portishead and bought as their residence the estate on the Down Rd, since then known as Bruton Manor. Mr Berkeley was a cousin to the Berkeley’s of Berkeley Castle and came from a branch of the family which had remained staunchly catholic throughout penal times. Mrs Berkeley also was of a grand catholic family, the Vaughan’s. This family had produced 5 nuns and 6 priests, 3 of whom became Bishops and 1 a Cardinal of England. Consequently St Joseph’s Church often saw many visiting dignitaries and the Bishop of Clifton granted the privilege of a special chapel at Bruton Manor and the Fathers said Mass there once a week.
In 1939 when the Second World War broke the friars formed a ﬁre ﬁghting party and did duty on West Hill/ Springﬁeld Rd. Five military camps were set up and the fathers acted as chaplains. Sunday Mass was said in Lodge Farm Camp, Redcliffe Bay and a padre’s hour was conducted there and in Portbury until the end of the war.
By the beginning of 1940 blackout curtains had to go up and even the sanctuary lamp had to be concealed. Parishioners were told; “In case of the sirens going off at Mass times on Sundays and Holydays, the Mass will be postponed until 10 minutes after the all-clear had sounded”. Mass was often said to the accompaniment of gunnery practice and to the intermittent booming of the big naval guns on the Battery. The West Hill area felt the impact of a high explosive that dropped in Channel view, unfortunately killing one person. Fortunately the only damage sustained by the church was when a piece of shrapnel fell through the roof above the choir gallery. The friars worked with the wardens throughout the night.
The war over and peace restored once more, the two Victory Days were celebrated with a solemn High Mass of Thanksgiving and Benediction, followed by a party for the children at the Convent. Sometime later a Requiem Mass was said for two members of the parish. Mr Anthony McLarnon, serving with the army in Burma and Mr Leo O’Shaughnessy, serving as a naval ofﬁcer on the ill-fated Prince of Wales.
Fr Edmund, who is the source of our information, arrived in 1943 and later wrote his History of the Parish. What he did not tell us was how poor the friars often were. John Herniman remembers how as a small boy he used to watch Brother Godfrey tending the friary garden lovingly and growing enough vegetables to feed the friars for there always a number of curates as well as the parish priest. Peter Briggs remembers his grandfather telling the friars would often visit the parishioners and always be given a hearty meal.’
It is appropriate to conclude this brief history of the parish by saying that Fr Godfrey was German and was interned for a period during the war.’ However, people living in the area got up a petition to have him released. This shows how the attitude of local residents changed since the arrival of the friars in 1883.