Parish Information

We are the Roman Catholic community in Isleworth. Isleworth has been a settlement since Saxon times. In the Middle Ages, it was the site of a magnificent Abbey of the Bridgettine Order. After the Reformation, Shrewsbury House was the location for one of the earliest Catholic missions in the south of England.

The present church was opened in 1909. Its architectural style is from the Italian Renaissance. The interior was completely redecorated to celebrate the Millennium. The Isleworth Catholic community today is marked by its diversity.  Between twenty and thirty countries of origin are represented, though the majority of our people come from England, Ireland and Scotland.

Our homes are in Victorian terraced streets and villas, semi-detached houses from the 1920s and 30s, and post-war apartments; some are in high rise blocks and modern neo-Georgian developments. Most of our young children go to school at St. Mary’s Junior, Infants and Nursery School. Older students go to Gumley House, Gunnersbury and St. Mark’s Schools.

Our sick and elderly are cared for in West Middlesex Hospital and in several residential homes. Some of us work in London, some at Heathrow Airport and others locally in commerce, transport and public services.

Most of the community lives within the geographical boundaries of the parish but some travel in from neighbouring areas. We have a reputation for being welcoming and inclusive. Our style is informal. There are about 500 regular churchgoers at St Bridget’s.

History

THE COMMUNITY TODAY

The Catholic community in Isleworth has a very long history, spanning more than 250 years but the parish of Our Lady of Sorrows and St Bridget, as we know it today, emerged in the period 1906 to 1929 under the leadership of Father Eric Green. He was building on firm foundations. He was supported by a large congregation, which included a number of influential, talented and wealthy lay people. It was at the same time socially very diverse and, like most Catholic communities in England, most of its members were poor.

Father Green came to serve at Isleworth in 1906 and found a large and growing Catholic population (he estimated it at 1,200-1,300) served by a small back street chapel with a capacity of 200. There were several religious houses and a number of schools. A poor school for boys was attached to the chapel and the nuns of Gumley House provided one for girls. Gumley House also provided a convent boarding school for older girls.

Father Green was an able and enterprising priest who had a gift for mobilising support. Like the Church as a whole, he gave priority to education and built a new boys’ school. The confidence of the Catholic community was growing at this time and under his leadership initiatives were taken that demonstrated that confidence and a desire to engage fully in civic affairs. In 1907, he started the annual outdoor procession in honour of the Isleworth Martyrs. He went on to organize the construction of a new church in a prominent position at a main road junction on the edge of the village. The new church was consecrated in 1910.

The First World War hit Isleworth hard. In all, 386 Isleworth men lost their lives. The townspeople subscribed to build the town war memorial, which is sited in the square outside the church and was designed in a style sympathetic to the façade of the church.

A bell tower was added to the church in 1927 and a parish hall in 1931. Father Green died in 1929 and is buried in Isleworth Cemetery but the community and his successors have continued to build on the foundations laid in the period of his ministry.

 

THE DEDICATION

Isleworth Catholic Parish is dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows and St Bridget of Sweden. Many parishes are dedicated to Mary, the Mother of God, either simply as St Mary or under one of her many titles. In England, few churches are dedicated to St Bridget. The reason for this unusual dedication is to be found in the history of the Middle Ages.

In 1415, King Henry V chose his royal manor of Isleworth as the site for a magnificent monastery of the Bridgettines, an enclosed order founded by St Bridget of Sweden in the previous century. Syon Abbey, as it was known, was staffed by 60 nuns and 25 monks living in separate enclosures. The Abbey was a place of almost continuous worship as the nuns and monks sang the Office in shifts. It was an instrument of spiritual renewal, the monks being known for their powerful preaching and works of religious literature. The monastery was closed at the Reformation but many of the nuns stayed together and their community has survived to this day. They now live in Devon but they maintain friendly relations with the Isleworth Catholics. Although little of the monastery remains, its site being occupied by Syon House, the Isleworth Catholics never forgot it and their chapel and later their church were dedicated to the Swedish Saint who had founded the Order.

Saint Bridget was a remarkable person. As a young woman, she was a wife and mother of eight children, a lady in waiting to the Queen of Sweden, a mystic and visionary. In later life she founded and led her Order, travelled extensively and was not afraid to offer prophetic advice on matters spiritual or political, welcome or unwelcome, to popes and kings.

In 1923, Sweden celebrated the 550th anniversary of the death of Saint Bridget (Birgitta) who is the patron of Sweden. There was an exchange of telegrams between Father Green in Isleworth and Prince Eugen, Duke of Nark, the youngest brother of the King of Sweden, who presided at the celebrations in Vadstena where the shrine of the saint is located. In 1999, the Pope declared Saint Bridget a patron of Europe.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CATHOLIC COMMUNITY IN ISLEWORTH

Isleworth is home to one of the oldest Catholic communities in England. It was in certainly in existence in 1741; some sources say it began as early as 1675. The legal situation of Catholics in England up until 1778 was that they could hold their religion in private but could not practice it publicly. Places of worship, schools and religious houses were all illegal. Priests were prohibited from exercising their ministry and could be imprisoned or put to death if convicted. These penal laws were not always rigorously enforced and limited activity did continue even under these conditions. The permanent post-Reformation Catholic presence in Isleworth started in the household of the Earl of Shrewsbury. He had a mansion known as Shrewsbury House on the Richmond Road. He maintained a chaplain who ministered to the household and to local Catholics not only in the village but also throughout West Middlesex and the nearby parts of Surrey. A chapel was provided within the house.

The Talbots eventually left Isleworth but the mission continued.

Dedication and saints

Isleworth Catholic Parish is dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows and St Bridget of Sweden. Many parishes are dedicated to Mary, the Mother of God, either simply as St Mary or under one of her many titles. In England, few churches are dedicated to St Bridget. The reason for this unusual dedication is to be found in the history of the Middle Ages.

In 1415, King Henry V chose his royal manor of Isleworth as the site for a magnificent monastery of the Bridgettines, an enclosed order founded by St Bridget of Sweden in the previous century. Syon Abbey, as it was known, was staffed by 60 nuns and 25 monks living in separate enclosures. The Abbey was a place of almost continuous worship as the nuns and monks sang the Office in shifts. It was an instrument of spiritual renewal, the monks being known for their powerful preaching and works of religious literature. The monastery was closed at the Reformation but many of the nuns stayed together and their community has survived to this day. They now live in Devon but they maintain friendly relations with the Isleworth Catholics. Although little of the monastery remains, its site being occupied by Syon House, the Isleworth Catholics never forgot it and their chapel and later their church were dedicated to the Swedish Saint who had founded the Order.

In 1923, Sweden celebrated the 550th anniversary of the death of Saint Bridget (Birgitta) who is the patron of Sweden. There was an exchange of telegrams between Father Green in Isleworth and Prince Eugen, Duke of Nark, the youngest brother of the King of Sweden, who presided at the celebrations in Vadstena where the shrine of the saint is located. In 1999, the Pope declared Saint Bridget a patron of Europe.

OUR LADY OF SORROWS

Mary, a humble young Jewish woman, was chosen by God to be the mother of Jesus, the Messiah. This unique privilege was a source of both joy and sorrow for her. In particular, she was destined to watch her son die in appalling circumstances. The dedication is therefore naturally associated with bereavement and churches with this dedication often contain a ‘pieta’ – a statue that depicts the mother of Jesus cradling her dead son in her arms after he had been taken down from the cross.  In the case of our own church, there is a ‘pieta’ which was donated to the church on its opening in 1909. The church itself was the gift of a wealthy Catholic widow and so the gift itself may have been a response to bereavement. Also in 1909, the date in the calendar of the Catholic Church devoted to remembering the sorrows of Our Lady [the 15th September] had just been promoted to a higher status.  At that time, the title of Our Lady of Sorrows was associated with the passage in Scripture [Luke 2 v34-35] in which Simeon prophesies that a sword will pierce Mary’s soul. Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, ‘You see this child: he is destined for the fall and for the rising of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that is rejected – and a sword will pierce your own soul too – so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare’. This was taken in those days to refer to her suffering as a mother. Today however scholars think that the phrase ‘a sword will pierce your own soul’ should be understood in a rather different way. They suggest that Simeon is saying that Jesus will severely challenge accepted religious beliefs and that his mother Mary, like every other person who encounters Jesus, will have to make a choice – am I for him or against him.
Mary’s commitment to Jesus and her obedience to God are what makes her a model for Christians throughout the ages

ST BRIDGET OF SWEDEN

St Bridget is the patron saint of our parish, of the Swedish nation and of Europe but she is not so well known as she deserves to be. Perhaps this is because she is often confused with the popular Irish saint, Brigid. Perhaps it is because she was a woman. Perhaps it is because she lived 700 years ago; perhaps because she came from a country that was on the very edge of Christendom.The Church creates saints not as a reward for their virtues and hard work or suffering – their reward is eternal life – but as examples to us of how the Christian life should be led. Saint Bridget of Sweden deserves to be better known because she provides an example in so many spheres of life. Woman, wife, mother, friend of the poor, counsellor, visionary, reformer of the Church, politician, author, penitent, founder of the religious order, promoter of learning, pilgrim, migrant – her rich life affords examples of all these.

Bridget was born about 700 years ago in Upland, Sweden, the daughter of the provincial governor. She was educated and prepared for the life of a noblewoman in the feudal world in which she lived. She was married at fourteen to Ulf Gudmarsson who came from a similar background and shared her deep faith and religious commitment. The marriage was happy and successful and Bridget gave birth to eight children, four boys and four girls.

When she was in her early thirties, she was summoned to be lady-in-waiting to the new Queen of Sweden, Blanche of Namur. Bridget and her family moved to the royal court. She found King Magnus and his new wife self-indulgent and irresponsible and she set about trying to influence the Queen and, through her, the King towards a more moral life and a more responsible attitude towards her duties. Bridget was aware of her vocation because she had spiritural experiences – she called them visions – which she understood as personal revelations from God. The Church is always suspicious of such experiences because quite properly it regards itself as the unique channel of God’s self-revelation, but Bridget was steeped in the scriptures and entirely orthodox in her faith. The revelations did not always impress her contemporaries, however, and some at court saw her as a dreamer, forgetting perhaps the important part that dreams play in both the Old and New Testament stories.

Finding that her advice was unwelcome, Bridget and Ulf set off on pilgrimage, first to the shrine of St Olaf and then to Santiago di Compostela in Spain. When her husband fell dangerously ill on the return journey, they agreed that if they were spared they would both enter monastic life. Ulf did recover, only to die shortly after his return to Sweden, in the Cistercian abbey in Alvastra.Bridget remained at Alvastra for four years after Ulf’s death, adopting the role of penitent. At this time, her visions became more disturbing and insistent and she began to doubt their divine origin. She sought guidance from trusted spiritual advisers. They recognized that the visions were authentic and encouraged Bridget to follow where they were leading her. Moreover, they suggested that she should have them written down and preserved for posterity. This was done by her chaplain and secretary, Peter of Alvastra.

Her retirement did not last because she became convinced that she had to go back to the royal court and issue a warning to the king and his entire household that God was losing patience with their sinful and corrupt behaviour. Like Jonah at Ninevah, however, she was sucessful and the king improved his behaviour, instituted reform and generously endowed her project for a new monastery at Vadstena in which both nuns and monks would live under austere rule of life. The woman and men of the order lived in separate enclosures but shared a chapel and drew spiritual strength from their common vocation. All surplus income had to be given to the poor, fancy architecture was forbidden but, significantly, there was to be no restriction on the expenditure of books.

In the Jubilee Year of 1350, Bridget decided to go to Rome. At this time, the popes had removed their court from Rome to Avignon in southern France as a result of political conflict and interference in church affairs. Bridget established herself in Rome and began campaigning for the independence of the papacy and its return to its ancient home. She was outspoken in her criticism of rulers, bishops and even the pope. She was, all the while, working tirelessly amongst the poor of the city. Inspired by further visions she went on to visit Assisi and then made a tour of all the shrines in Italy. In 1371, she felt a call to visit the Holy Land and embarked on an expedition, supported by her daughter Catherine and two of her sons. Disaster struck twice. Her favourite son became entangled in a scandalous relationship with the Queen of Naples which ended only when he died there of a fever. Then, when the party resumed the journey, their ship was wrecked off the coast of the Holy Land and Bridget nearly drowned. In spite of these setbacks, Bridget and her party pressed on and spent more than a year visiting the holy places, only returning to Rome in 1373 where she died on 23 July, aged 71.

She was canonized only 18 years later on 7 October 1391 by Pope Boniface IX.The Order she founded, the Brigettines, never grew large but retained a high reputation for holiness and scholarship. The only English foundation of the Order was here in Isleworth at Syon Abbey, which stood on the site of Syon House. She was a remarkable woman by any standards. She was, you could say, a woman for all seasons.

Priests

On 1st September 2017 we welcomed 2 new priests to our parish following the departure of Fr. Stewart. The following article appeared in the Parish Newsletter on 3rd September. Fr Nico comes as Parish Priest and Fr. Kieran as Assistant Priest. The Diocese has confirmed that Fr. Stewart will not be returning to the Parish and is taking a year’s sabbatical leave.

“Welcome to Fr. Kieran A. Fitzharris SVD and Fr. Nicodemus Lobo Ratu SVD to our parish.

Both of them are members of the Society of the Divine Word ( Societas Verbi Divini: SVD), known as Divine Word Missionaries. They are an International Community of Catholic missionaries – Priests and Brothers. Founded in 1875 by St Arnold Janssen (1837-1909). Today there are more than 6,000 members serving in more than 70 countries. SVD in England belongs to the Irish British Province ( IBP). St Arnold Janssen also founded 2 sister’s congregations; Servants of the Holy Spirit (SSpS) and the Sisters Servants of the Holy Spirit of Perpetual Adoration (SSpSAP). The other known Saint of the society is St Joseph Freinademetz, (1852 – 1908). He was a pioneer of SVD in China. One of his most famous quotes, ”the only language understood by people everywhere is the language of love”.

Fr Kieran Fitzharris was born in Dublin and was a former bar worker and postman. He originally joined the Society of The Divine Word to be a Brother: that was in September 1975. “Through my formation in the seminary I suppose you could say that I drifted into the priestly vocation”. He was ordained in December 1981. For the first 12 years of his ministry he served in Colombia, South AmerMica, including a year in Panama. In February 1994 he returned to this part of the world, both Ireland and England. For 9 years he worked in St Mary Magdalene, Willesden and 2 years in Hanwell and another 4 years in Bristol.

Fr Nico began his first formation to the priesthood in Indonesia (1992 – 1998) and in Ireland completed (1998 – 2003), was ordained to the priesthood in his hometown in Indonesia 23rd September 2003. After ordination Fr Nico was appointed to work in St Mary on The Quay, Bristol (2004 – 2016).

Fr Kieran and Fr Nico are looking forward to being with us here and express their joy and enthusiasm. They thank God for this wonderful opportunity and invite us all to pray for them and to work with them to make our parish community an International Community of love. As this is their first SVD parish in Westminster Diocese, of course there will be many challenges ahead, but with faith and togetherness they say “we shall encounter the joy of being loved and being at home.”