The Community Today
The Catholic community in Isleworth has a very long history, spanning more than 250 years but the parish of Our Lady of Sorrows and St Bridget, as we know it today, emerged in the period 1906 to 1929 under the leadership of Father Eric Green. He was building on firm foundations. He was supported by a large congregation, which included a number of influential, talented and wealthy lay people. It was at the same time socially very diverse and, like most Catholic communities in England, most of its members were poor.
Father Green came to serve at Isleworth in 1906 and found a large and growing Catholic population (he estimated it at 1,200-1,300) served by a small back street chapel with a capacity of 200. There were several religious houses and a number of schools. A poor school for boys was attached to the chapel and the nuns of Gumley House provided one for girls. Gumley House also provided a convent boarding school for older girls.
Father Green was an able and enterprising priest who had a gift for mobilising support. Like the Church as a whole, he gave priority to education and built a new boys' school. The confidence of the Catholic community was growing at this time and under his leadership initiatives were taken that demonstrated that confidence and a desire to engage fully in civic affairs. In 1907, he started the annual outdoor procession in honour of the Isleworth Martyrs. He went on to organize the construction of a new church in a prominent position at a main road junction on the edge of the village. The new church was consecrated in 1910.
The First World War hit Isleworth hard. In all, 386 Isleworth men lost their lives. The townspeople subscribed to build the town war memorial, which is sited in the square outside the church and was designed in a style sympathetic to the façade of the church.
A bell tower was added to the church in 1927 and a parish hall in 1931. Father Green died in 1929 and is buried in Isleworth Cemetery but the community and his successors have continued to build on the foundations laid in the period of his ministry.
Isleworth Catholic Parish is dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows and St Bridget of Sweden. Many parishes are dedicated to Mary, the Mother of God, either simply as St Mary or under one of her many titles. In England, few churches are dedicated to St Bridget. The reason for this unusual dedication is to be found in the history of the Middle Ages.
In 1415, King Henry V chose his royal manor of Isleworth as the site for a magnificent monastery of the Bridgettines, an enclosed order founded by St Bridget of Sweden in the previous century. Syon Abbey, as it was known, was staffed by 60 nuns and 25 monks living in separate enclosures. The Abbey was a place of almost continuous worship as the nuns and monks sang the Office in shifts. It was an instrument of spiritual renewal, the monks being known for their powerful preaching and works of religious literature. The monastery was closed at the Reformation but many of the nuns stayed together and their community has survived to this day. They now live in Devon but they maintain friendly relations with the Isleworth Catholics. Although little of the monastery remains, its site being occupied by Syon House, the Isleworth Catholics never forgot it and their chapel and later their church were dedicated to the Swedish Saint who had founded the Order.
Saint Bridget was a remarkable person. As a young woman, she was a wife and mother of eight children, a lady in waiting to the Queen of Sweden, a mystic and visionary. In later life she founded and led her Order, travelled extensively and was not afraid to offer prophetic advice on matters spiritual or political, welcome or unwelcome, to popes and kings.
In 1923, Sweden celebrated the 550th anniversary of the death of Saint Bridget (Birgitta) who is the patron of Sweden. There was an exchange of telegrams between Father Green in Isleworth and Prince Eugen, Duke of Nark, the youngest brother of the King of Sweden, who presided at the celebrations in Vadstena where the shrine of the saint is located. In 1999, the Pope declared Saint Bridget a patron of Europe.
Isleworth is home to one of the oldest Catholic communities in England. It was in certainly in existence in 1741; some sources say it began as early as 1675. The legal situation of Catholics in England up until 1778 was that they could hold their religion in private but could not practice it publicly. Places of worship, schools and religious houses were all illegal. Priests were prohibited from exercising their ministry and could be imprisoned or put to death if convicted. These penal laws were not always rigorously enforced and limited activity did continue even under these conditions. The permanent post-Reformation Catholic presence in Isleworth started in the household of the Earl of Shrewsbury. He had a mansion known as Shrewsbury House on the Richmond Road. He maintained a chaplain who ministered to the household and to local Catholics not only in the village but also throughout West Middlesex and the nearby parts of Surrey. A chapel was provided within the house.
The Talbots eventually left Isleworth but the mission continued.