HISTORY OF OUR LADY OF LOURDES THAMES DITTON
Our Lady of Lourdes Church is an imposing presence on the busy Hampton Court Way with its towering crucifix and glittering stained glass window. But you may be surprised to learn that Catholics in Thames Ditton first met for worship in a rather more modest setting – a converted garage in Esher.
And the journey from a suburban house to “The Round Church”, as it’s fondly called today, was largely thanks to the alliance with our friends at Holy Name in Claygate. We have to go back almost 100 years - to 1923 – when the Church of the Holy Name was built. With a growing number of Catholics moving into the area, there was a real need for another church between Holy Name Church and St Raphael’s in Surbiton. In 1938, Mrs Joan Carroll met this need when she opened her doors - or to be precise, her garage – at 59, Ember Lane and the Weston Green Mass Centre was born. Joan washed and ironed all the altar linen and served breakfast to all the priests who came to say Mass every Sunday morning. At the instigation of the priests in Claygate, a second Mass Centre popped up in Hinchley Wood, first at a school hall, then a filling station which was later taken over for war purposes.
The Mass Centre continued in the unlikely setting of the bar of the Mason's Arms at Winters Bridge, and finally in Claricarde House School Hall in Manor Road North until 1940. When it became evident that a more formal Mass Centre was needed, The Claygate parish liaised with the Bishop and funded the building and furnishing of The Chapel of Ease and Church hall at Sandown Hall. Fr. Franklin orchestrated the purchase of a site in Imber Park Road for £5,000 in 1952, later to be known as Sandon Hall. (Now a residential cul-de-sac, the only clue that the Mass Centre was based here is “The Old Presbytery” house on the corner of Chestnut Avenue.)
In 1957, Fr John Gillespie joined the parish and two years later Thames Ditton became a separate parish. Sandon Hall was a thriving Mass Centre with a growing community and successful nursery, attracting children from Claygate, Hinchley Wood and Thames Ditton, and laying the foundation for St Paul’s Primary School. Having outgrown Sandon Hall, plans were made for a new church at Weston Green. Fr Gillespie was offered a £10,000 interest free loan towards the building fund and he also negotiated a bank loan to purchase the land on Hampton Court Way. Fundraising went into overdrive with summer fetes held for many consecutive years in the early 1950s in the garden behind the Church of the Holy Name, Claygate, along with parish football pools and then the 200 club, which is still going strong in our parish today.
Father Gillespie stressed the need for a school to be built before the church, as the children needed a Catholic education. So, two years after the first Planned Giving Committee, he cut the first turf for the building of St. Paul's School in 1962, with many parishioners present. It was at Fr. Gillespie's suggestion, that the school was called St. Paul's, as a compliment to his curate Fr. Paul Baker. St. Paul's R.C. Primary School was opened on September 9th, 1963, with 120 children.
With a new school to serve the Catholic families, the parish forged ahead with plans for a new church. At a Parish meeting it was decided that the shape of the Church would be round, reflecting the new thinking stemming from Vatican 11. Fr Gillespie, a progressive thinker, thought the design by architects Broadbent and Partners was more meaningful and prayerful, with the priest surrounded by the people. Plans were approved by the Bishop in March, 1962, and the Foundation Stone was laid on May 16th, 1964. A celebratory tea followed in the school hall and bricks went on sale for 2/6 each (12.5p). The 12-foot high statue of Christ that towers over Hampton Court Way was carved in situ by David McFall and placed over the main entrance of the Church. The White Friars Glass Company employed Pierre Fourmaintraux to design and work the stain glass at a cost of £890 and on All Saints’ Day, 1965, a ceremony was held to mark the opening of the Church.
Fr. Gillespie and Fr. Paul Baker worked well together at Sandon Hall and Our Lady of Lourdes, building up the Church and Community by their spirituality and example. Father Gillespie encouraged parishioners to take Planned Giving seriously and he supported the introduction of Eucharistic ministers from the laity. Fr. Baker left the Parish in 1965, and he was succeeded by Fr. John Rees who stayed for one year. Fr. Michael McGlade joined in 1969 which is when the church underwent a name change. So for a short while, Our Lady of Lourdes became `Our Lady of Perpetual Succour’. This was at the request of Mr. Ruiz-Mateos, a generous benefactor to the Parish who had administered a foundation for the patronage of Churches dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Succour throughout the world.
In 1972 ill health forced Fr Gillespie to leave the Parish. His contribution to our thriving church community can not be underestimated and he was sorely missed. Successive priests include: Fr McGlade, Fr Tony Clarke, Fr High Dutton, Fr Bell, Fr Seamus Hestor, Fr Frederick Cork, Fr Christopher Towner. Fr Eric Flood arrived in 1983 and he worked with curates Fr Towner and then Fr Peter Edwards. After Fr Peter Edwards left in 1989 Our Lady of Lourdes became a one-priest family with a supply priest weekly. At this time the former Presbytery was sold, with the proceeds funding the new Presbytery on site behind the church and the church hall, named after Fr Gillespie.
As with any large family, there has been joy and happiness as well as tragedy and pain. We remember especially the Lockerbie disaster in December 1988 when all perished on flight PA 103, among them an entire family from our Parish, the Stevenson family. They had been in the Parish a short time, but had become involved in many parish activities. The parish Room, the site of Our Lady’s Nursery, was named after them. Shortly afterwards the Women’s Group was formed, run by female parishioners with a desire to support one another and raise funds for charities. It ran for over 20 years, drawing members from Church of the Holy Name, and forging lifelong friendships. At this time the Musical Tots group was formed, serving mothers of preschool children with an hour of nursery rhymes, coffee and good company. This became a stepping stone to our Lady’s Nursery in the Stevenson Room next door. The nursery was a real community affair with many parishioners and St Paul’s mums working there part-time. Sadly, it closed its doors in 2019 after 27 successful years, building a bridge between the church community and St Paul’s School. What remains of the nursery is the pocket-sized garden, once populated by toddlers on tricycles, and now serving as an Eco Garden for St Paul’s School.
Fr Eric Flood left the parish in 1995, to be replaced by Fr Bernard. Fr Bernard was a big supporter of the youth and organised an annual visit to the panto for the growing numbers of altar servers, introduced table tennis to Gillespie hall and invited groups onto his boat on the Thames. He also handed out lollipops to little ones at the end of mass which made him very popular with younger parishioners!
On November 1st, 2005, exactly 40 years since the church opened, there was a celebratory mass to mark the 40th anniversary of Our Lady of Lourdes Church. The church was packed to the rafters with Fr Eric Flood and Fr Bernard’s friends in attendance. But the joy turned to tears the following day when it was discovered that Fr Bernard passed away that same evening, after enjoying a meal with friends in the Presbystery. The Parish was left reeling and Fr John McKay came out of retirement to temporarily fill the void. It was an emotional chapter in Our Lady of Lourdes, but the arrival of Fr Rob Esdaile in October 2006 was very welcome.
Everyone warmed instantly to Fr Rob. His thought provoking (and sometimes political!) homilies were legendary. A great orator, he used the altar, speaking from the front without notes. Ten years into his time at Our Lady of Lourdes, Fr Rob had the vision to overhaul the church building. With a quote of £250,000 for the work, it was all hands to the pump to raise the funds, and Fr Rob played his part, publishing a volume of poetry. The renovation works were painful (with Sunday services squished into the Gillespie hall) but the finished church is a testimony to his vision and a beautiful place of worship, with a welcoming narthex and stained glass window, new altar and pews and a soft green colour palette on the walls. But once a year parishioners leave their polished pews to enjoy mass on the school field next door. The outdoor mass is now an annual tradition, followed by a picnic and Pimms – and the British weather has yet to unleash its worst on the event.
The Gillespie hall (named after Fr Gillespie), meanwhile, has been the venue for many fundraisers and socials over the years: cake sales, ceilidhs, quiz nights, parish monthly soups, Christmas Teas, Strawberry Teas and music evenings.
With such a vibrant community, these events were much missed during lockdown, but Fr Rob was a big support for the school and the wider parish during this difficult time. He made the bold move to live-stream daily masses while the church doors remined shut, first from his trusty Nokia phone, and later with the installation of cameras. It’s a tradition that remains today, ensuring that the housebound can livestream mass from home.
After 16 years in our parish, we bid a sad farewell to Fr Rob and welcomed a new future as a shared parish with Holy Name in Claygate with Fr Sebastian at the helm. With our rich shared history, common faith and vibrant communities, we hope to grow together as a holy, happy family for many years to come.