The first Catholic Shrine in honour of Our Lady to be established in England since before the Reformation, is to be found in West Sussex, just a few miles south of Horsham and close to the busy A24 London to Worthing road: The Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation.

To a passer-by, an imposing Victorian Gothic-styled church, built in a relatively isolated rural location might seem odd.  But the reason for its existence lies in the story of the brave Catholics who continued to live and celebrate the Catholic Faith after 1534 and Henry VIII’s oppression and brutal persecution.  The inspiration and courage of the local Catholic community lay in the support of the Caryll family.  Long-established in the area, the Carylls owned a swathe of houses and farms, stretching from the eastern end of Hampshire, through to central Sussex.  This devout Catholic family had given many of its sons and daughters to the Church as priests and Religious; and from 1534 had created a long line of devoted priests who played their part in keeping the Catholic faith alive here in recusant times, through the temporal and spiritual care provided by the West Grinstead Mission.

Back house

The Priest’s House

The so-called Priest’s House belonged to the Carylls and was part of the West Grinstead estate.  There is no record of exactly when it was built, but it was  possibly in existence from the early years of the 16th century.  Originally just a Crofter’s cottage, it is thought to be the oldest continuously occupied Catholic presbytery in England.  It came to be known euphemistically as ‘the little cottage in the forest’, and was one of many ‘safe houses’ where priests and seminarians could find, not just Catholic hospitality, but the opportunity of hiding, should militia, magistrates or other suspicious persons be in pursuit.  The cottage originally consisted of one room on each of the ground and first floors.  Here priests would live disguised as local stockmen (shepherds). Under the thatched roof the Caryll family provided the priest with a hayloft; and hidden within that loft was a tiny chapel for the priest’s personal devotions.

The River Adur runs about a quarter of a mile to the south of the Priest’s House and was often used as a means of transport by people, including priests travelling incognito, travelling between London and the Continent. There is no evidence that any priest was ever captured at West Grinstead (the very fact that the House has survived is itself proof of that); but it is not possible to speak with certainty of the many who undoubtedly used the House as a refuge.  (Written records were not kept for obvious reasons of security and anonymity.)

During these early years, the Faithful would have been encouraged to attend Mass in the chapel that was part on the ground floor of the Manor-house in West Grinstead Park.

Particularly during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, persecution of Catholic priests was vicious and normally resulted in execution (martyrdom).  However, after the persecutions that followed the Titus Oates plot in 1680, the death penalty for being a priest was removed.  Instead the laity were targeted; and unscheduled fines and taxes were imposed on Catholics and their civil rights removed.  Sadly, almost all the remaining Catholic families conformed.  However, not the Carylls, who stayed faithful to the Old Religion and to the Stuart monarchy.  They were continuously harassed; and eventually became impoverished, losing all their houses, lands and possessions.

The Carylls were particularly harassed by a local Protestant family, who greatly coveted West Grinstead Park.  The Magistrates at near-by Horsham finally succumbed to their demands and the Carylls were ousted.  However, before their final departure (in the first-place to the Continent, then onwards to many other countries) the Carylls made provision for the remaining Catholic flock at West Grinstead.

Firstly, the Priest’s House was endowed to the Catholic Church via Bishop Richard Challoner (1691-1781), in order that Mass could continue to be offered for the people of the locality.

Front house

Secondly, the south side of the Priest’s House was extended; and behind a typical 18th century domestic exterior, a church was created.  Bishop Challoner made a visitation to the West Grinstead Mission in 1741 and recorded that he had found 80 Catholics at Mass.

It was at this time that the old hayloft was removed and the present small chapel created in its place.  So it is that West Grinstead can claim to have celebrated the Mass continuously since the time that saints Augustine, Wilfrid and Cuthman first brought the Faith to Sussex.

The End of Penal Days

The departure of the Caryll family and the Franciscan priests who had mostly served the Mission, was timed with the arrival of French émigré priests – who had fled to this country from the French Revolution.  Sadly, in the early years of the 19th century, Catholicism in West Grinstead declined.  Thankfully, for all English Catholics, emancipation was finally decreed by English law in 1829.  The Bishops of England and Wales were reinstated in 1850: West Grinstead falling within the Southwark Diocese.

The parish was at a low when Mgr. Jean Marie Denis was appointed as its priest in 1863.  He also was originally from Brittany in France.  With the encouragement of the first re-established Bishop of Southwark – Bishop Thomas Grant and after him, Bishop James Dannell – Mgr. Denis set about the revival of West Grinstead and it once more took a lively part in the story of the Catholic Church in Sussex.  Shortly after Mgr. Denis’ arrival, Bishop Thomas Grant made an Episcopal Visitation to West Grinstead. Despite the declined numbers, the bishop gave great encouragement when he said, “This mission has nothing to fear – it has seen far harder times than these.  It has protectors in heaven and you will see at West Grinstead things that will surprise you”.

Inspired by his bishop, Mgr. Denis straightway began to make improvements. He opened a school for poor children in a wooden stable behind the House, which soon grew to accommodate 100 children.  He also made plans for the building of the new church.

The Shrine

Although the history of this Catholic Mission goes back to the days of Henry VIII, the Shrine to Our Lady of Consolation of West Grinstead is comparatively recent.  With the departure of the Carylls in the late 18th century, there was little local financial support.  So from 1876, Mgr. Denis begged the necessary funds, not only locally, but also in France, Belgium and Holland, to enable the building of the fine late 19th century ‘Gothic’ church that is here.

Turin Consolata
Santuario della Consolata, Turin, Italy

Rome had agreed from the outset that this church should be built as a Shrine ‘in honour of Our Lady and in thanksgiving for the restitution of the Catholic Faith to England’.  When choosing a title, Mgr. Denis reverted to a well-established devotion to Our Lady which has its origin at Turin in northern Italy.  The shrine to Our Lady of Consolation, West Grinstead, was founded by Pope Leo XIII with the Episcopal approval of Bishop Grant. The ceremony of crowning was performed before a great crowd of pilgrims on 12th July, 1893 by the Papal Delegate, Bishop Butt, representing the Holy See and Pope Leo XIII.

Our Lady of Consolation of West Grinstead:  Have pity on us.

Blessed Francis Bell – Heavenly Patron of West Grinstead

Bl Francis Bell

Alongside Our Lady, another great heavenly patron of the Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation at West Grinstead is Blessed Francis Bell – a Franciscan priest and martyr. Although for obvious reasons, records of the priests who served the Missions through the dark days of recusancy are few and far between, nevertheless it is believed that Fr. Francis Bell spent some time as the Mission Priest at West Grinstead in the early years of the 17 th century. This may well explain why West Grinstead came to possess a number of sacred objects which are associated with him, including a large primary relic and the last letter Fr. Francis Bell wrote, to his Superior, a day or so before his martyrdom.

In life, Blessed Francis had a great devotion to Our Lady; and doubtless he continues to plead with her from his exalted place in heaven for the needs of our beloved Shrine, its patrons and pilgrims; and although the name of Francis Bell may not be one of the best known of the many inspiring martyrs of Tyburn, his memory is revered in the Archdiocese of Birmingham (where he was born at Temple Broughton Manor, near Worcester), as well as here at the Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation at West Grinstead.

Born in 1590 he was Baptised Arthur, adopting the name Francis after his Priestly Ordination. In 1614 he went to study at the English College in St. Omer with the intention of becoming a priest. Then in 1615 he was sent to Valladolid in Spain and studied with the Jesuits. However, after his ordination, on 14th April 1618, he took the Franciscan habit. He worked strenuously for the Franciscan Order, secretly in this country and openly on the Continent. Quickly he become assistant to the Provincial Superior and was given the task of restoring the English Provence at Douai.

During the following years he was to oversee the spiritual care of many Franciscan groups in this country and on the Continent.

He was a notable scholar and linguist: he would say his Rosary and daily Office in Latin one day, Hebrew the next, then in Greek, Spanish, French, Flemish and English. His linguistic skills led to his translating various spiritual books, (now sadly lost from common usage in England).

As the years of the seventeenth century progressed and Fr. Bell became ever-more involved in encouraging and nurturing the Faith in this country, so things became more hazardous, both for him and for others devoted to the Old Faith. During 1630-1 several developments took place. As part of his responsibility to the Governing Council of the regional Order, Fr. Bell was appointed a Definitor – responsible for matters of clarity. He was also a Guardian of the Convent of St. Bonaventure, and a Professor of Hebrew and Sacred Languages to the Franciscan novices and newly ordained priests.

There is evidence that he was friendly with the Caryll family and involved in their endeavours and family affairs. He officiated at the marriage of Catherine Petre of Cranham Hall, who married John Caryll in 1625. They had three sons, John, Richard and Phillip – young men who were to continue to uphold the Catholic Faith in West Grinstead. Fr. Bell, along with the other priests of the time, would have used the little old Priest’s House at West Grinstead. We can be sure that many members of the family over the generations would have known of the Secret Chapel: many would have worshipped there.

Secret chapel

Records regarding Fr. Bell (and indeed, most of the other Catholic priests during this time of persecution) are, of necessity, scant. However, we know he served at West Grinstead somewhere in the 1630-40s. He knew this area well: not just through his connections with the Caryll family, but also because he would have used the River Adur in his journeys to and from the Continent.

Of his arrest in November 1643 in either St. Albans or Stevenage, Hertfordshire (there is dispute as to which town), it is documented that Fr. Bell and his party were stopped by the militia, on suspicion of their being Catholics. Tell-tale details on a scrap of paper was found in Fr. Bell’s pocket indicating that he was a priest. He was immediately arrested and taken to London. At his trial in Newgate Prison, he readily admitted to being an English priest. He was condemned on 9th December 1643 for “being a Popish priest” and part of the evidence against him included his “having said Mass at West Grinstead in Sussex for a time”. Before his trial he wrote several letters from prison, one to the Benedictine nuns at Brussels describing his capture and ending with the words “for myself the worst they can doe to mee is the best and most desired. May God’s Holye will bee done.” Later, fully knowing the awful pain and ultimate death that lay ahead of him, he told well-meaning officials from the Spanish Embassy not to plead on his behalf lest they denied him the reward of his martyrdom.

On 11 th December 1643, proclaiming he was “astonished that God should have pleased to honour me with the crown of martyrdom”, he was dragged through the streets of London on a wooden sledge and went bravely to his death at Tyburn. To his joy, in the manner of Christ on the Cross, he restored a thief’s belief in God just as he was about to be disembowelled whilst still alive, beheaded and his body quartered. The executioner burnt his heart and intestines, but could not prevent his ardent followers from obtaining relics, several of which were treasured by the high-born and royalty including the Queen-Regent of France and the wife of Charles I, the Queen of England.

Other relics found their way to West Grinstead where they can still to be seen and venerated. His ‘final letter’ written from Newgate Prison on 22nd November 1643, is at West Grinstead: Written to his Superior, he apologises for the fact that he would not be able to help Fr Richard Angelus at Douai “due to the impediment’ of his being in Newgate Prison awaiting trial and probable execution”. He continued: “my Lord Jesus Christ knows that I am prepared to go with Him to the Cross and to death.”

The cause for his beatification was put forward in 1900, and in 1987 Pope John Paul II honoured him as Blessed Francis Arthur Bell. We continue to pray for his Sanctification.

Extract  from A short history of the The Catholic Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation and St Francis written by Father David Goddard, parish priest 1997-2018