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Parish History

Written by Fr. Robert L. McCormick

On Sunday March 9th 1952, Bishop Leo Parker, Bishop of Northampton opened our church here in Diss. It is of interest to recall the short history of Catholicism in Diss and district written by the late Brigadier Philip Jermy-Gwyn on the occasion of the opening of our church:


"There has not been a Catholic place of worship in Diss for nearly 400 years. The last Mass must have been said in the Parish Church of St. Mary some time between the death of Queen Mary, 17th November, 1558, and the coming into force of the Act of Uniformity, 24th June, 1559. From then onwards the Catholic Faith was driven underground and that it survived at all was due to the existence throughout the country of local families who refused to abandon their religion. There was one such family near Diss and for the next 300 years the history of Catholicism in the neighbourhood is largely the history of the Havers family. John Havers, of Winfarthing, who married a girl from Brome, was a steward of the Duke of Norfolk and remained a staunch Catholic, as did his son, Thomas Havers, who built Thelveton Hall in the last years of Queen Elizabeth I. The Havers always remained recusants sheltering priests, at first in secret and at their dire peril, but later, with more tolerant times in the Eighteenth century, as chaplains to the Hall. After about 1840 chaplains were no longer maintained there but the Hall remained a Mass Centre served from Bungay, itself a continuation of another old Catholic family, the Tasburghs of Flixton Hall, until 1864 when the property was sold to Mr. Thomas Mann. 


There was no such continuity on the Suffolk side. Yaxley Hall was in Catholic hands up to 1630 and perhaps even later and used for harbouring priests. Later, Colsey Wood House in the parish of Stoke Ash came into the possession of a younger branch of the Bedingfeld family of Oxburgh in 1693, and Catholic chaplains were maintained there until the final disposal of the estate about 1800. There were also occasional Mass Centres in the 18th and 19th centuries at Stradbroke, Palgrave and Botesdale, but none of  long duration.


With the closure of the Mass Centre at Thelveton Hall in 1864 there were only very occasional Masses in the district until 1907 when some French nuns with their chaplain took over "The Court", near Diss Railway Station, for four years. When they returned to France in 1911, Diss was served once a month from St.John the Baptist, the Duke of Norfolk's great church in Norwich . This arrangement continued with varying success until the Norwich Blitz of 1942 forced the evacuation of aged and infirm nuns from the Notre Dame Convent there to Scole Lodge. There, from 1943 to I946, their chaplain, a delightful Breton, Father Guimar, was indefatigable with Mass Centres at Scole, Eye, Diss and Prisoner of War Camps nearby; but he was, it must be confessed, a public danger on the highway as despite a long sojourn in England, he persisted - or so it seemed - in driving his car at great speed on the continental side of the road.  


When the tenancy of Scole Lodge by the Notre Dame Sisters was given up in 1946, Father Chaterton, of Bungay, had a Mass Centre at the POW camp at Pulham, and when this was closed, he transferred his activities to Brockdish, giving this up to the regret of all his congregation just a year ago (1951). Meanwhile, Carmelite nuns had purchased Quidenham Hall from the Earl of Albermarle in 1948 and their Chaplain (and now ours), Father Hemphill, soon opened a Mass Centre at Diss, first of all in Wren's Restaurant and when that proved too small, at the Magistrates' Room in the Corn Hall. And now we have our own chapel in our own town. We will not be fully satisfied until we have a parish priest of our own resident in Diss." (Brig. Philip Jermy- Gwyn. March 1952) 

The wish that Diss be a parish in its own right was fulfilled on the 12th of November 1968 when Bishop Charles Grant of Northanpton gave Diss parish status and made our church of The Holy Trinity the Catholic parish church of Diss and a surrounding area of some 370 square miles. 


An extract from Bishop Grant’s letter of November 12th 1968 ......'lt has given me great pleasure as Bishop of the Diocese of Northampton to see the day when that part of Norfolk around Diss could be made into a parish. It was at the beginning of this century that the arrival of a community of Ursuline Nuns, exiled from France , brought the Holy Mass back to Diss. When the nuns returned to France , the priests from St John's in Norwich used to come each month to serve the small group of Catholics in the area. The parish in Wymondham has also done much to strengthen the Faith in Diss, and people will remember with gratitude the work of Father Malcolm Cowin. They wiil also think of the work done by the Diocesan Travelling Missioners and by the chaplain to the Carmelite Monastery at Quidenham. With God's help, the faith has been maintained and strengthened and there are now enough Catholics to warrant the setting up of a new parish." 


Father Edmund Rees- Jones was appointed first Parish Priest of The Holy Trinity, Diss on November l2th 1968 and remained so until the autumn of 1975. Father Robert L. McCormick was appointed Parish Priest in December 1975 but due to illness was unable to take up the appointment until February 1st 1976. On June 2nd 1976 the new Diocese was formed and from having been a parish in the Diocese of Northampton we became a parish in the Diocese of East Anglia with our cathedral church of St John the Baptist in Norwich .   


(Fr McCormick writing in 1986) MAY 25th 1986 Today sees a republication of this short history of our parish. February 1985 saw the purchase by our parish of 'Waveney House'  (The Old Bakery House on Fair Green.) During the next five months the house was recovered  from industrial use and converted into The Parish Presbytery. Fr McCormick moved in on 25th June 1985.  On the 2lst August 1985 the rest of the old bakery buildings were purchased by the parish, thus providing us with a block site from Stanley Road to Fair Green.  


The house & buildings purchased had been the bakery of H.F.Wren Ltd. and were purchased from Mrs.June Wren, the widow of the late Mr.Peter Wren who was the son of the late Mr.Harold and Mrs.Ivy Wren. Mr & Mrs Harold Wren were the owners of 'Wren's Restaurant' in Mere Street which was used as a Mass Centre from mid 1948 until the end of 1950. It was Mr & Mrs Wren who provided the site for our present church in 1952. Please remember Mr. Harold Wren in your prayers - he died on the l8th August 1985.  

Do please also remember in your prayers the repose of the souls of Miss Irene Stock, Miss Helen Grace, and Fr Edmund Rees–Jones whose legacies to our parish made it possible for us to purchase the old bakery and house. 


Saturday, March 15th 1986 saw the opening of a bigger parish-hall which has been made out of the main 'oven-room' of the old bakery. This Feast of the Holy Trinity 1986 sees our parish with one large site on which we have our church, presbytery, two parish-halls, car park and a site for a bigger church sometime in the future!  


During the 1980's there had been a steady increase in regular Sunday Mass attendance and  in the number of resident parishioners. This increase was such that by 1988 Diocesan permission had been given to explore the possibility of having a new church here in Diss. During 1989 & 90 a 'Design & Build' firm drew up plans for a church, church-hall and meeting rooms all under one roof. They were exciting times and hopes were growing that the Diocesan Development Fund would support a substantial part of the mortgage  for the proposed new church. Meeting followed meeting & hope began to fade. On 22nd May 1991 Fr.McCormick received a letter from the Diocesan Financial Administrator to say that the Diocesan Finance Board had been advised by its accountants that no financial assistance could be given to a project in Diss at the present time. 


The same letter said "The Bishop intends that the Diocesan Development Fund be revitalised - when this is achieved the new church in Diss will be among its priorities."  This was sad news but another sad thing made the refusal of the mortgage somewhat more bearable. A marked decline in Sunday Mass attendance was noticed from about Christmas 1990. The decline continued throughout 1991 & 92 but now in the middle of 1993 the attendance has levelled out but it means that today we have 60 fewer people at Sunday Mass than we did at the end of 1990. Our present average Sunday Mass attendance is 210. This decline would have made it almost impossible to service our part of a mortgage on a new church. God works in strange ways!  The first half of 1993 saw the complete redecoration of our church & the installation of fire-doors & emergency lighting.  We look to the future with faith and hope! 


On 21st March 1999 Bishop Peter paid his second official visit to the parish for Confirmation. Fr. McCormick was able to put our plans for the new church extension to him. He seemed impressed and gave him to understand that he would give it his complete backing when the final decision was put before the Diocesan Planning Committee.  In the last week of April 1999 South Norfolk Planning Authority passed our new church extension plans and Mike Canham Builders were given the go-ahead as soon as they could fit the work into their schedule. 


The building work started on Monday 12th July 1999 and was completed on 24th September. Our little ‘industrial unit’ church which was built in 1952 at long last looked like a proper church! The work of ‘fitting out’ the new sacristy, foyer and porch continued for another 3 or 4 months. A new ‘sound system’ incorporating a loop for the hard of hearing was installed. On April 28th 2000 at 7.00 p.m. a Service of Thanksgiving for the completion of our new extension was held in our church. It was good to see so many representatives of other denominations in the town present. Our Parish Ladies provided wonderful refreshments for everyone in the large parish-hall afterwards. The year 2000 saw us start a new period in the history of our church.


Average Sunday Mass attendance is now 176 which is very sad but it seems to reflect the widespread ‘falling away’ throughout the country. We continue to pray for a renewal of Faith. On a personal note perhaps the next update of this short parish history will be written by my successor as I have now had the privilege of being Parish Priest here for somewhat over 25 years and by the law of averages! 


In 2014 Fr. David Bagstaff was appointed as the parish priest.

In September 2019 Fr. Alex Anaman took over from Father David

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