St Joseph & St Mary
The Early Catholic Church in Guernsey
The Catholic faith had been removed from the island during the Protestant reformation but returned through exiled priests, who served Irish workers and soldiers who refused to surrender the religion of their homeland.
In 1749, a Jurat of the Royal Court wrote that the Church of England was the only religion in Guernsey, but within 50 years, fleeing anti-Christian fervour of the French Revolution, French Catholic clergy were in the island. Permanent priests were in the island from 1802 and in 1829 a chapel was built on the site of Notre Dame in Burnt Lane. The foundation stone of St Joseph’s Church was blessed by Father Eugene Connatty on 21 May 1846, only a short time after the land at Cordier Hill had been secured for a new church.
Cardinal Wiseman, Archbishop of Westminster, opened St Joseph’s in 1851. But he was treated with discourtesy, according to reports: The opening of the church received no coverage in local newspapers and a mob smashed windows of his Euston Terrace residence.
The Building of the Church
The church was designed by Augustus Welby Pugin, whose work on the design of the Houses of Parliament is well known. It was in the gothic style, made almost completely of blue granite, with facings and pillars of Caen stone, and overlooked the Town. Like many of Pugin’s buildings, St Joseph’s has suffered from the ravages of time and fashion.
‘The architectural importance of St Joseph’s lies in its being the only work in the Channel Islands of Pugin.’
‘Today Pugin is much more appreciated than perhaps he was more than half a century ago’.
The name of Mary, wife of Joseph, was added to retain the title of the chapel at Burnt Lane, which had been closed at the opening of St Joseph’s in 1851. Notre Dame reopened in 1860 to serve the French-speaking community.
There was a spate of activity in the next few years as the church was decorated and prepared for consecration. The Le Messurier brothers took a particular interest in the Sacred Heart Altar – the elder of the two worked on the development of St Peter Port Harbour and went on to become an engineer of the Liverpool Docks. They carved the whole of the white Caen stone of the Reredos of the Sacred Heart Altar. Bishop Grant consecrated the altar, and designated it privileged in the early 1860s. The same period saw the windows in the main sanctuary, and in the Sacred Heart and Lady Chapels, filled with stained glass from the studio of Leveque in Beauvais.
The Parish Joins the Diocese of Portsmouth
In 1882 the Channel Islands, having originally been attached to the French Diocese of Coutances, left the Diocese of Southwark and became part of the Diocese of Portsmouth, a link that still remains. The first Bishop was John Vertue, who has gone into history as John the Magnificent. He visited Guernsey regularly and developed a great love for the church, which was the first he consecrated as the Bishop of the new Diocese.
On his annual visit in August 1885 he was able to consecrate the church, by then debt-free. The ceremony, including mass, took four hours, beginning at 8am. It was the first consecration of a church in Guernsey since the town church in 1312.
‘Guernsey can boast a church which, with the exception of the cathedral, cannot be surpassed by any in the diocese,’ said the Bishop.
Redecorations and Refurbishments
Former Catholic Dean, the late Mgr Raymond Lawrence, wrote in the 1980s that at its opening the church was virtually a shell – ‘the building was lacking in almost everything which could add to its beauty or give dignity to the services’.
Until 1882 there were only chairs for the congregation. The decoration of the walls, and the roof of the main sanctuary was completed by 1894, but now just the roof decoration remains. The Lady Chapel, for many the most beautiful part of the church, was completed a year later. And work on the spire, designed by Peter Paul Pugin, son of the original church architect, was started in March 1899. Electric lights were installed, replacing gas lights, in 1901, but the church’s Golden Jubilee was not celebrated – money was apparently too tight – and instead a number of improvements were carried out 10 years later.
In 1933 the church was completely renovated by men from the Cleaning Services of London. Although the reaction to their job was apparent delight, it is now believed that many of the original paintings on the walls of the church disappeared during ‘a thorough electric cleaning’.
Major changes to the church since the war have been rare, but significant. In 1971 a Guernsey granite altar with marble top replaced the Gothic high altar. The latest refurbishment took place in 1996-7, when the Church was cleaned, repainted and a new altar dedicated.