A Brief History of the Parish of St Thomas More, Dulwich

With the Catholic revival and the restoration of the Hierarchy in 1850, Thomas Grant was appointed Bishop of Southwark in 1851. In 1879 the Franciscans, who had a mission in Peckham, began to say Mass in the house of Mrs Lucy Taylor in the Gardens, Peckham Rye. Then a site became available in Lordship Lane, in the Bassano Street area, where the St Thomas More Hall is now. The Franciscans converted the house into a monastery and the stables and coach house into a church. Mass was first said there on Whit Sunday 1879 and a school was opened on the site in 1882. As the Franciscans felt that the mission did not fit with their role as itinerant missionaries, the parish was taken over by the Benedictines from Downside Abbey. Abbott Terence Snow, who became the Rector in 1894, planned a Catholic community grouped around a mini-monastery and used some of the land to build a number of small houses. Unfortunately the debt from this venture meant that the houses had to be sold and the priest’s house abandoned and demolished.

When Dom Meinhard Fulton succeeded the Abbott it was clear that a new church was needed. In 1907 a site of 1¼ acres adjacent to the public library was leased from the Dulwich Estate, provided a church and presbytery were built within five years. The presbytery was completed by 1908 and fully paid for by 1910. The church could not be completed within the stipulated period so an extension of three years was granted and Downside guaranteed the necessary funds. A Board of School Managers was set up in 1905. A multitude of Catholic societies had grown up in the parish and in 1909 Fr Meinhard suggested that they join together as the Dulwich Union, a sort of primitive Parish Council. The First World War effectively halted any further development within the parish, especially the building of the new church.

In 1923 Downside decided to hand the parish back to the diocese. On 23 July 1923 Fr James O’Donoghue, then 40 years old, took over the parish. There were 980 practising catholics in the parish and 130 children were attending St Anthony’s School. Further negotiations with the Dulwich Estate leased an appropriate site on which a church must be built by 1928. Work was started in December 1927 and completed by 1929. The church was opened on 29 May 1929 but the church was not completed and the debt finally cleared until 1939. In May 1935 it was officially named St. Thomas More. The school, still in Lordship Lane, continued to flourish and there were 140 students on the roll and an excellent and stable teaching staff. Parish organisations, both spiritual and social flourished and after the opening of the new church the premises in Lordship Lane were refurbished as a Parish Hall.

The parish was not spared from the trials and tribulations of the Second World War (1939 – 1945). The parish shrunk due to the evacuation of children and also to bomb damage to the church. After the most severe damage on 13 July 1944, Mass had to revert to St Anthony’s church in Lordship Lane. Fr O’Donoghue had to live in various houses around Dulwich which continued to suffer damage and loss of life.

The immediate post-war task was the restoration of the bomb damaged church. By February 1946 the War Damage Commission had completed their inspection of the church and in August 1946 the necessary licence for the repairs was granted. The work was slow and the first Mass was not said until 15 February 1953. The congregation had shrunk to about half its pre-war size. The school also made a slow post-war recovery. In 1950 the school was given “aided” status so that a government grant covered 85% of the total expenses. As early as 1951 it was realised that a new school was needed and in March a school building fund was started. In 1960 an envelope scheme was started to fund school building in the diocese, a minimal subscription of 1/- was suggested. In 1959 Fr O’Donohue celebrated his diamond jubilee and refused the £500 collected by the parishioners. By 1961 his physical health was deteriorating and on 19 December 1961 he died in Dulwich hospital, having given many years of devoted service to the parish.

He was succeeded by Fr John Kenny and a curate was appointed to assist him. More Masses were said and Mass attendance increased significantly. Fr Kenny set about improvements to the church including the Sacred Heart Chapel and the painted decoration of the sanctuary ceiling. Council 117 of the Knights of St Columba generously subscribed to the new Lady Chapel which was opened on 26 November 1970. Much of the £4000 presented to Fr Kenny was raised by Mr Albert Farmer KSG. Finally a new wall and gates were built. Mass attendance had risen to 1700 by 1970. During Fr Kenny’s tenure there were two assistant priests and a number of visiting and trainee priests. In the late 1960’s Mass in the vernacular was introduced and by 1970 the new English Mass came into use.

Work on a new school on the present site in Etherow Street began in February 1963 and the school was opened on 11 January 1964. A PTA was started in 1965. Since then the school has flourished, performing above average and being oversubscribed.

The parish institutions had rather dwindled in Fr O’Donohue’s later years but were revived by Fr Kenny. It was clear that the income of the parish was less than the expenses and so in 1961 a football pools scheme was started. This did not raise sufficient funds and so in 1963 a planned giving scheme was started. The campaign manager was Mr Albert Farmer and the aim to raise £30,000 in three years was exceeded. In the early 1970’s a covenant scheme for tax refund was also set up. An Altar Society was formed in 1961and about the same time a St Thomas More youth club was formed which functioned very sporadically over the next decade. The nucleus of a choir was also formed in 1961 and by December 1965 had developed sufficiently to sing a Latin Mass. The Legion of Mary was established about the same time and the Children of Mary, Guild of the Blessed Sacrament and an amateur dramatic group all had a transient existence. The Knights of St Columba have continued to flourish and a scout group was formed in 1964 to which Cubs and Brownies were added in 1968. As a result of Vatican II a Parish Council with appropriate sub-committees was formed. In 1969 Fr Kenny celebrated his Silver Jubilee.

In 1987 Fr Kenny moved to SS Phillip and James, Herne Hill where he served for a further seven years before retiring to Ireland where he died on 9 July 2010. He was replaced by Fr John O’Connor who celebrated his Golden Jubilee on 2 June 2007 and retired on 14 February 2011 when he was replaced by Fr Gerry Mulvihill. During Fr O’Connor’s tenure there were a number of assistant priests including Mgr Bill Saunders, Fr Joseph Oseke and Fr Roy Tablizo. The Benedictines from Worth Abbey established a small outpost in Dulwich in the mid-nineties and remained for 10 or 12 years.

The John Paul Centre in the church grounds was opened in 1985 under the auspices of Fr Kenny. It has acted as a focus for the activities of various parish groups including the UCM, SVP and so on. In 1989 the old organ was removed and replaced by one acquired from a convent in St Mary Cray and located in the main body of the church. The present organist has worked very hard and increased the size and scope of the choir producing a remarkable variety and quality of church music for all occasions. The Parish Council had fallen into abeyance and about 2005 the Parish Forum, made up of representatives of the major parish activities was established. There has been a Sunday School for many years initially for Catholic children who were attending non-Catholic schools but latterly for all the children in the parish. For the last ten years there has been a youth group for teenagers in the parish. Likewise, there have been regular meetings of the RCIA over a similar period of time. St Anthony’s school has continued to be very popular and the buildings are currently being expanded to accommodate the number of pupils.