Father John Warmoll was the founder of the parish of the Holy Child & St Joseph. He died on 14th February 1885 in Bedford.
We had a Mass on the anniversary of Father John Warmoll death at 10:45 am, where Michael Simmonds gave a talk about his life.
He gleaned the following from Jack Robbins’ book, ‘John Priestley Warmoll, Apostle of Bedford’:
Father John Priestley Warmoll, the founder of this parish, was born in Norwich into an Anglican priest’s family, in 1830. When he was older, he studied in Oxford and then moved to Walthamstow. When there, he made the decision to enter the ministry of the Church of England. He was ordained deacon in February 1857 and became a curate of Wootton Wawen in Warwickshire in March 1857. He was not there for long and was appointed to the Anglo-Catholic church of Saint Barnabus in Pimlico around 1859. He was still a deacon and may never have been ordained as an Anglican priest. He witnessed much poverty in Pimlico. His last duty there was to baptise a little girl. Five days later, on 21st December 1859, he was received into the Catholic Church by Canon Henry Edward Manning of Westminster, later Cardinal Manning. It caused great upset and distress in his Anglican family, especially to his father. John Warmoll was also distressed at his family’s reaction to his conversion.
He travelled to Rome with Canon Manning and was introduced to Pope Pius IX. In February 1860, he entered the Venerable English College in Rome. He learned Italian and in later years said he was thinking in Italian. He was ordained a priest on Whitsunday, 30th May 1863. A few weeks later he returned to England where his first appointment was to the pro-cathedral of St. Felix, Northampton. A new cathedral, our present one, designed by Pugin, was in the process of being erected. Bishop Amherst of Northampton sent Father Warmoll to Bedford late in 1863 to ascertain if there were any possibility of establishing a mission in the County Town of Bedford. At that time, the nearest Catholic church was at Shefford. There were about one hundred Catholics in the whole of Bedfordshire.
“It was after darkness had fallen on Christmas Eve 1863 that Father Warmoll arrived alone and unnoticed in Bedford… It was cold and windy…. he had £2.00 in his pocket, a borrowed silver watch and a leather portmanteau containing all his worldly goods and those of the Mission, no doubt including vestments, sacred vessels and a heavy altar stone.”
He knocked on the door of what is now 7 Little Grove Place, which is off The Grove, which is off Goldington Road. He was welcomed by the Tandy family. It was in their front parlour, a small enough room (which my wife and I have visited), where Father Warmoll said his three Christmas masses, at midnight, at dawn and later in the morning. The first since the Reformation. The congregations totalled fourteen people. Father Warmoll lodged with the Tandys for a couple of weeks and then rented an upstairs flat above a wash-house near the prison in Tavistock Street.
He wrote many begging letters in The Tablet, The Universe and the Weekly Register. Gradually people donated. The strain was beginning to show as Father Warmoll had insipient heart trouble that worsened as time went on. The people of Bedford were hostile towards Father Warmoll and the Catholic Church. However, in 1865 he purchased the land we are on now, for the building of this church. In 1866 Fr. Warmoll said his last Mass above the wash-house. On 31st March 1867, Mass was first celebrated in the new chapel-schoolroom, now the Guild Room, adjoining the new presbytery. All this time, Father Warmoll was still writing begging letters in the Catholic press to pay for building expenses.
The foundation stone of this church was laid in October 1872 by Bishop Amherst. Only half of the church was built by Father Warmoll because of lack of funds. It was dedicated to the Holy Child and held about two hundred and seventy people. The High Altar and the Sanctuary, with its ornaments, was the gift of children. When this church was re-ordered in 1986, the Book of the Holy Child was found under a slab at the base of the altar, listing names of over two thousand children from many parts of the country and the world, rich and poor, who donated from pennies to shillings. Father Warmoll changed the name of the church of the Holy Child to The Holy Child & St. Joseph, considering the parish began on Christmas Day 1863. In mid-July 1873 Fr. Warmoll was made a Canon.
By December 1876 the new Catholic School of the Holy Child in Priory Street was being roofed and was opened on 7th August 1877 to accommodate three hundred children of both sexes. In 1882 Canon Warmoll was installed as Provost of the Cathedral Chapter of Northampton.
Canon Warmoll befriended everyone, old and young people of every denomination and none. He took a lively interest in activities and events in the town, joined various societies… and in turn, won general love and respect. He had a pet rat and lots of pet spiders.
”Sadly, the pressure of work weakened him, leading to a complete breakdown of health in 1884. In October he had a severe heart attack but made a remarkable recovery and had a few weeks holiday while other priests covered for him. On 14th February 1885, he was hearing confessions in the evening when a violent attack seized him. He ran through the presbytery into his room upstairs, throwing himself upon the rugged hair sofa which for twenty-one years had been his only bed. His screams of pain had attracted help, but it was of no avail. Now came the final revelation of faith to this holy priest, faithful to the last. It is said that he exclaimed, ‘It is too good; it is too good’. At a quarter past nine there were a few moments of struggle, and anxiety for his flock lest they should not have the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass the next day. Then with the prayer on his lips, ‘Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit’, his soul passed peacefully into the presence of his Maker.”
When he had arrived in Bedford he was hated as a Catholic and a Catholic priest. Yet, at his funeral, through the entire distance from the church to the Fosterhill Road cemetery, the roads were lined with people. Most of the shops along the route via Silver Street, High Street and Cemetery Road had their shutters up, and in private houses, the blinds were drawn as a token of respect to the priest they had grown to love.
Michael ended the talk by quoting from Canon Warmoll’s sermon at Christmas 1881:
”It is to you rather than to myself that I look for re-establishing the ancient faith of Jesus Christ in this neighbourhood, your example, your piety, your faith and your constancy in professing it will do incalculably more than all my talking and preaching.”