This history of the parish is taken from a booklet produced to mark the Golden Jubilee of the parish of St John Fisher in 1985
The recent history of the Parish of St John Fisher is closely linked with that of St Mary of the Crays, at Crayford. Although the first church in Bexley, St Mary the Virgin, dates back to the 12th century, the Reformation in the 16th Century meant the Catholic church was forced underground. Although many of the anti-Catholic penal laws were gradually changed it was not until the Roman Catholic Relief Act was passed by Parliament in 1829 that many Catholics felt free to openly practice their religion and build new churches and on May 11th, 1842 the Church at Crayford opened.
The new parish was massive stretching from Shooters Hill to Northfleet and from the Thames across the Crays to Farningham. Gradually the size was reduced as churches were built in Dartford in 1860. About the same time the Capuchin Fathers established themselves at Erith and in 1912 the Marist Fathers arrived in Sidcup.
Although the parish may have shrunk in size the number of Catholics increased and it soon became clear to the newly appointed Parish Priest at St Mary of the Crays that something had to be done:
FATHER JAMES MALONE
Parish Priest, Crayford 1927 — 1936
In 1927 Fr. James Malone was appointed Parish Priest at St Mary of the Crays. It was a time when this area of North West Kent saw the start of a housing boom.
Soon after he arrived he started the search for land for, not just one, but three churches, at Bexleyheath, Bostal Heath and here in Bexley Village. He realisedthe need to provide Catholics with a church closer to their homes.
The first to be built was St. John Vianney, in Bexleyheath, which was opened in 1932, while here in Bexley initial negotiations for land in Vicarage Road fell through. The search continued, however, and in 1934 Fr. Malone had bought a site in the heart of the Village. The cost was £750. It was cheap because it was ‘back land’, in other words it did not front onto any roads. The only real access was by the alleyway between what was a bank (now a wine bar) and the timber yard. It was a large site, big enough Fr. Malone said for a church. a house, a hall and a school.
WASTE OF MONEY
At the time the land was bought there were about 50 Catholic families living in the area some of whom felt it was a waste of money to build a church here. “What’s wrong with walking to Crayford?”. they asked, but Fr. Malone rightly foresaw that the area was about to grow rapidly. While the church was being built, Ideal Homesteads were building hundreds of homes between Bexley and Sidcup at Albany Park.
The church building itself was exactly the same as that of St John Vianney and indeed the temporary wood and asbestos construction was also used for the third of Fr. Malone’s churches — St. Thomas Moore at Bostall Heath — the following year.
One of our longest serving parishioners, Miss Win Morden, remembered the day they heard that a church was to be built here in Bexley.
She recalls watching the building gradually taking shape and when it was finished in July 1935, she was given the job of typing out the envelopes for letters to be sent to all the Catholics in the area, giving them details of the opening and times of Mass. There were 50 for parishioners and 50 for staff at Bexley Hospital, who were mainly Irish Catholics.
The opening of the church took place on Friday 26 July 1935 and it was reported in the UNIVERSE.
THE CHAPEL OF EASE
In the early days there was only one Mass a week, at 8.30 or 10.30 on alternate Sundays. Since those were the days of fasting from midnight, before receiving Holy Communion, parishioners tended to go to Crayford or Sidcup if there was not an early Mass.
Gradually the number of services increased. Miss Morden recalls: “We decided we wanted Benediction. That was agreed and on Sunday evenings we had Rosary, Sermon and Benediction. Since a Host had to be consecrated for Benediction, it was also agreed we should have a 9.30 am Mass on Mondays. Soon after that, we had a Mass every day.”
So it was that the Chapel of Ease at Bexley gradually became more active. Though still administered from Crayford, an assistant priest was appointed especially to help look after it. The first was Fr. Martin Keane, then Fr. Laurence O’Grady who became a familiar figure cycling through the village in wet weather with his umbrella up. During the war Fr. Patrick Cox was also appointed to help and he introduced two early morning Masses at 7.30 am on Tuesdays and Thursdays for people going to work. After the War, and into the early fifties, Fr. Jeremiah Hyde, Fr. Michael Murphy and Fr. John Morris all took their turn looking after the parishioners in Bexley.
The Parish Priest at St. Mary of the Crays by that time was Fr. Brendan Byrne who also often walked to the village to say Sunday Mass. Parishioners only had to glance at the hymn- board to know if he was officiating, it was always — ‘I`ll sing a hymn to Mary’ .
If it had not been for the War, it seems likely that Bexley would have become independent of Crayford much sooner than it did. In the late ’30s Mass attendance was 150 and by 1950 that had doubled.
According to Miss Morden. in those early days one of the constant complaints of the parishioners in Bexley was that they never had anything new for their church. “We always got Crayford`s cast-offs. If they got new altar cloths, new vestments or books, we got the old ones. Whenever we complained we were told: “wait until you get a priest of your own.” That finally happened in February 1955 with the appointment of Fr. Vincent Ryan as Priest-in-charge.
FATHER VINCENT RYAN
1955 — 1971
Fr. Ryan came to Bexley from a parish near Guildford, although he had served in the area before as an assistant priest at Chislehurst. His elder brother was also a priest in Southwark Diocese – Fr. Laurence Ryan, a former Parish Priest at Herne Hill.
At a time when the majority of priests seemed to come from Ireland it was only natural that people assumed that someone with a name like Ryan was Irish. His father was, but whenever Fr. Ryan was asked by an unsuspecting Irishman which county he came from, he replied in his English accent: “Surrey”.
Those early years cannot have been easy for Fr. Ryan. His first priority was to find somewhere to live and a house was eventually bought in nearby Bradbourne Road. The only problem was there was no money to furnish it. So an appeal was made to all parishioners for help and eventually Fr. Ryan was able to move in with a collection of second-hand chairs, table, sideboard and bed.
Fr. Ryan hardly had time to settle into his new home when an unexpected problem cropped up which could have eventually meant the demolition of the church. The then Bexley Council put forward a new road scheme for the Village, proposing to build a roundabout by the library and cutting a road through to the middle of the High Street, straight through the church.
There were hurried meetings and negotiations and eventually the scheme was dropped. That was not the end of the matter though, other suggestions were put forward for developing the church land by building houses and Fr. Ryan was offered part of what is now the ‘Golden Acre’ at the end of Hurst Road in exchange. The site however, was not as large and Fr. Ryan turned it down.
Although the plans for the roundabout were dropped Bexley Council did go ahead with one road scheme; the extension of Thanet Road. Originally it ended just short of the presbytery, where it met the church land. It was not until the late sixties that it was extended and though it cut through the site purchased in 1934 by Fr. Malone at least it meant that it could no longer be described as ‘back land’.
In those early years Bexley was financially a very poor parish and Fr. Ryan found it difficult to appeal for money. However, he did decide to go ahead with at least one part of the development of the site. He could not afford to build a church, but it was decided Bexley could afford a presbytery.
Work started in 1960 and by September 1961 Fr. Ryan was able to move in, still incidentally, with all his second-hand furniture. Not everyone agreed with the building of the house. One of the criticisms was that it was too large for Fr. Ryan. Living on his own that was true, but the decision to build a large house looked to the future when Bexley would be able to support an assistant priest and a permanent housekeeper.
Gradually, under the guidance of Fr. Ryan, the church of St. John Fisher became a proper parish and continued to grow. Several times during the 1960s Fr. Ryan hoped to build a new church. Various plans were drawn up, including one for a round church with the tabernacle suspended in the middle; the estimated cost was £42,0()O. There was even a model on display, but the finances of the parish just would not stretch that far. It may be difficult to appreciate now, but the weekly income of the parish in the late 1960s was under £40. With a Mass attendance of 563 on 23rd June 1967 the total collection was £33.2s.9d (£33.13).
Fr. Ryan must have been disappointed that he could not build a church, but appealing for money was not easy for him. He was basically a shy man of few words; not renowned for his diplomacy, at least with adults. With children it was a different matter, he enjoyed their openness and simplicity. For him there were two high spots in each year; a children’s Christmas Party – which he paid for from his own resources – and the First Holy Communion Sunday.
Until Fr. Ryan arrived in Bexley, children from the parish did not make their First Communion here. First Communion was made either at Crayford or at their Catholic School. Fr. Ryan was determined to change that and the first First Communion was held in June 1955. The breakfast afterward was in his small house in Bradbourne Road.
In subsequent years Fr. Ryan arranged to use the Ex-Servicemens” Club hall which was next to the church land. For many years it was used for a variety of parish functions, from bingo and bazaars to Sunday School. Fr. Ryan was a popular member of the Club and is still remembered as a demon snooker player. He made many friends there and when, in the mid-sixties. he was in hospital there was a constant stream of visitors from the Club. In fact they were the cause of a little unintentional embarrassment . .
Fr. Ryan never really enjoyed good health. He was not very good at looking after himself and, despite the efforts of many parishioners, often did not bother to eat. He was painfully thin and it was no real surprise when he was whisked off to hospital with lung problems. The doctors took one look at him and said he had to put on weight and recommended Guiness.
Within days members of the Ex-servicemen’s Club had found out and every visitor after that turned up with at least a couple of bottles of Guiness to put in his locker. Fr. Ryan did not realise just how much there was until a nurse opened his locker and, much to his embarrassment, it was crammed full – enough to supply the whole ward!
Inside the old church. The two statues and the Paschal candle stand are still in use in the new church.
Fr. JOSEPH COLEMAN
1971 — 1980
THE NEW CHURCH
Fr. Coleman came to Bexley in May 1971. Previously he had been parish priest at Goudhurst, Kent. He was told by the Archbishop that one of his main tasks was to build a new church and within months of arriving he had started work.
The first thing he did was to get out the old plans that Fr. Ryan had commissioned and which in 1968 had been costed at £42,000. Building costs had risen rapidly and in 1972 Fr. Coleman was told a rough estimate of basic building costs was £71,()00. However, since wages and material costs were shooting up practically every week, to take advantage of that price, work would have to start immediately and that was impossible.
The stumbling block, as it had always been, was lack of cash. The Diocesan Finance Office had to approve any debts incurred by the parish and anything borrowed had to be repaid within 15 years. They took one look at the books and decided the round church was too expensive — by May 1973 it had risen to £95,000.
New plans were drawn up with the aim of keeping the costs down to £75,000 and at the same time Fr. Coleman started negotiations to sell off some of the church land to help finance the building.
Even the new plans did not satisfy the diocese and months of argument ensued as changes were made to try and save money, eventually, thanks to the successful sale of land, Fr. Coleman finally convinced the Finance Office that Bexley could afford to build.
In all £49,000 was raised by selling off the small triangle of land on the opposite side of Thanet Road and by selling the old church with part of the land to Bexley Council. The agreement with the Council was that we could continue to use the church until the new building was complete.
Work started on Monday September 30th 1974. By August 1975 it was almost complete. The first Mass was arranged for Sunday, August 31st, but had to be cancelled until the following Sunday because the builders took a weeks holiday.
The church was officially opened on September 30th — the final cost, just over £80,000. The debt was completely cleared three years later, enabling Archbishop Cyril Cowderoy to consecrate the new church on October 31st, 1978.
Once it became clear that Bexley could easily meet its debt Fr. Coleman started again to negotiate the possibility of building a hall. The Finance Office gave the go—ahead, but said the most the parish could borrow was £45,000.
Plans were drawn—up and displayed and Fr. Coleman hoped he could persuade the Diocese to increase their limit. His hopes were dashed in August 1979. By then the cost for the hall was £68,000 and the answer from Archbishop’s House was a firm No! The maximum was still £45,000.
Fr. Coleman spent practically all his time at Bexley arguing with the Finance Office. He also had the many problems associated with the planning and building of the new church. Not surprisingly his health suffered and he spent several long spells in hospital. At the end of 1979 the Archbishop decided it was time he had a less demanding parish and in February 1980 he moved to Cranbrook, being replaced by Fr. Thomas Power.
It came as a great shock to all in Bexley when just over a year later there was news from his new parish, St. Theodore’s that he had collapsed and died at the age of 57.
Archbishop Cowderoy had said of Fr. Coleman, “l will send you a priest who will build a church.” Within five years it was built and three years later consecrated. He said himself he never knew how it was done so quickly.
Fr. THOMAS POWER
1980 — 1988
THE NEW HALL
“You won’t be a proper parish until you build a church hall.” – Fr. James Malone 1935.
The move to Bexley was a complete change for Fr. Power. Born in County Waterford, he was ordained in 1946 and after five years as a curate in Brighton, he moved to London. First he was assistant priest at Dockhead, where he spent 11 years. He then became parish priest at the church of the English Martyrs, at Walworth.
In all he spent 28 years working in two of the most run-down areas of London and towards the end of his 17 years as parish priest the Archbishop had decided that the Carmelites should take over the parish. Fr. Power was asked to stay for three months to help ease them in to the work locally. During that time various other parishes became vacant – including Crayford – but it was not until New Year’s Eve 1979, that he was told about Bexley.
“I had a phone call from the Archbishop offering me Bexley. He told me to think about it and added that he wanted my reply by noon on New Year’s Day.”
Fr. Power recalls that he set out next day to have a look at the area. He put on his dark glasses and sports cap and drove up and down Thanet Road, passing Fr. Parkinson, who was then assistant priest here.
His first thoughts as he drove around were: “Now I know how the other half live.” What caught his eye most of all were the gardens. “I had spent 28 years in areas with hardly a window box, there were certainly no gardens with trees and flowers, and few open spaces.”
Before making up his mind Fr. Power also spoke to several friends. Their advice was quite simply “take it”, and by midday on January lst 1980, he was ready to tell the Archbishop he would go to Bexley. In February he took over from Fr. Coleman.
He jokingly told friends that after the life in Walworth, Bexley would be semi-retirement, but within weeks of moving in he was hard at work on the plans to build a church hall.
He had been told by the Archbishop that the parishioners wanted a hall and that the original plans had been dropped to save money. However, by the time Fr. Power moved in the parish was well off financially. The debt on the church had been paid and there was £22,000 in the bank . However, the weekly income of the parish still was not very high, certainly not high enough to borrow sufficient money to start work.
Long negotiations followed with the Diocesan Finance Office, plans were drawn up and amended and the arguing went on. What finally clinched it was the launching of an Interest Free Loan Scheme . That raised £65 ,000. Fr. Power called it “The miracle of Bexley”, and the Finance Office gave its blessing.
Work started in the summer of 1982, and got off to a bad start when the builder discovered he could not get the right bricks to match the church. That delayed construction for about a month.
The hall was completed in April 1983 at a final cost of £103,000, and for Fr. Power it was a notable achievement. Previously, he said, he had never had a chance to build anything. His previous parish had already built a church, a hall, a school and a house, but here in Bexley he finally managed to build something for the Church.
The hall was formally opened on 30th April 1983.
Footnote: Sadly Fr Tom was taken ill in 1987 and although he was able to continue as parish priest he died in 1988. He was succeeded by Fr George Torre who had come to Bexley to help Fr Tom and found himself in charge. When he retired in 1992 he continued to live in the presbytery for a number of years.
Fr Paddy Cannon Parish Priest 1992 – 1996 Although ordained as a priest for Southwark diocese, he had worked in Peru for a number of years with the Missionary Society of St James. Normally an attachment from the diocese to the missions would have been five years but Fr Paddy says the Bishop had “forgotten he was out there”. It was only when he and a colleague had sent a letter to the then Archbishop congratulating him on an anniversary that he was “re-discovered” and it was decided he was needed back here in Southwark. He reluctantly returned and was appointed Parish Priest in Bexley.
Although he and the parishioners enjoyed his time here, he longed to return to the missions in Peru and in 1996 he was eventually given permission to go back to South America. However it did not all work out as he had hoped. Instead of Peru he was sent to Bolivia and from the moment he arrived in the capital La Paz (the highest capital city in the world) he suffered from altitude sickness. It was so bad that he was eventually forced to return to England. Since then he has served in several parishes in the diocese and is now Parish Priest at St Dominic’s in Waddon, Croydon.
Monsignor Patrick Keaveny Parish Priest 1996 – 2000 Born in County Sligo in Ireland in 1930, he trained at St John’s Seminary in Wonersh. He served in the parishes of Dockhead and Forest Hill and in 1978 was appointed as Private Secretary to Archbishop Michael Bowen. In that role he was involved in the preparation and organisation of the Papal visit of John Paul II in 1982 and it was in recognition of his services that he was made a Papal Chaplain.
That same year he took over as Parish Priest at St Vincent de Paul, Clapham Common, where he served for 12 years, before returning to Ireland and semi-retirement. But after two years in Dublin he was called back to fill the vacancy here. In November 2000, due to poor health, Monsignor Patrick was forced to retire and he went to live at St Mary’s, Blackheath. In 2007 he moved to the Sacred Heart Residence, Dublin, where he died in 2010.
Fr Francis Hartley Parish Priest 2001 – 2013 Born in Westgate in Kent, Fr Francis was one of four brothers, three of whom went into the priesthood. He studied at the junior seminary at Mark Cross and completed his training at St John’s Seminary, Wonersh. He was ordained in 1962 and served in several parishes in the diocese including St Thomas Moore in Bexleyheath, before being moved, in 1972, to Our Lady Help of Christians, Blackheath, better known as St Mary’s. The parish priest at the time was Monsignor Charles Henderson who was later appointed assistant bishop of Southwark. Fr Francis was then made priest in charge. Initially they worked together until Bishop Henderson’s duties became more demanding and Fr Hartley was appointed parish priest.
After 28 years in Blackheath the announcement of his move to Bexley was sad news for his parishioners at St Mary’s and something of a surprise to Fr Francis. However he was soon very much at home at St John Fisher.
One of the greatest loves in life was music and at a flat he shared with his brothers in Westgate, he had an extensive collection of music from the big band era of the 1940’s and 50’s all on 78’s. His knowledge of the bands and their music was phenomenal.
In 2012 he celebrated his golden jubilee as a priest but soon after it became obvious his health was not good enough to carry on for much longer. Fr Christian Onyigbuo was brought in to help but by the Spring of 2013 Fr Francis decided it was time to retire. He moved into a retirement home at West Wickham where he lived until his death in May 2020.
Fr Hartley with Bishop Pat together with his two brothers Fr John (left) and Fr Edmund (right)
Fr Christian was ordained in Nigeria and came to the United Kingdom to study while assisting in the Archdiocese of Southwark. The sudden departure of Fr Francis left him in charge of the parish and he was appointed Parochial Administrator.
Despite all the demands of running the parish he did manage to complete his studies and graduated with a doctorate in July 2017.
In September 2018 it was again all change in the parish, Fr Christian moved to St Joseph’s at New Maldon to face new challenges and Fr Douglas Bull who was parish priest at the church of The Holy Cross in Catford, moved to Bexley. His first instruction: “please don’t call me Fr Douglas. It’s Fr Doug! Otherwise I’ll think I’ve done something wrong.”