Friday, 28 October 2016

Father John Cunningham and the Beginnings of “Vauxhall”

Back with the "Catholic Herald" of January 1957 this week, and the story of Father John Cunningham.

Father John Cunningham and the Beginnings of “Vauxhall”
Very few altar-boys of St Mary and St Peter, who carry the processional cross to and from the sanctuary, Sunday after Sunday, realise that. the cross may be over a century old, and, as the: inscription on the back relates, " Was presented by Subscription to the Church of S.S. Mary and Peter, St. Helier, as a Memorial of the Reverend J. Cunningham, formerly pastor of the Church who died A.D. 1848 ".

The name of Father Cunningham, although he was rector for only nine years, and died at the early age of forty, is still one of the household words in St. Mary and St. Peter's, ranking with those of Monsignor McCarthy and Canon Hourigan, who between them ruled the parish from 1848 to 1931-a period of 83 years. And rightly is his name honoured for he was responsible for the building of the original Church in Vauxhall, to replace the tiny chapel in Hue Street. He was not the first rector of the latter, by any means.

After, apparently, being served until 1821 by the Abbe Le Guedois, rector of the French Chapel in Castle Street, it was under the charge of at least the following :-the Reverend Carroll (1821--27), Matthew Ryan (1829-33), Timothy Riordan (1834-7) Edmund Murphy (1837-9), and then, from 1839, the Reverend John Cunningham.

For the rest of the story we can let contemporary records speak for themselves:-

Chroniques de Jersey Wed. 13th October 1841 (translated): “The foundation stone of a new Catholic Chapel to be erected in Vauxhall will be laid today at twelve noon by William Burke, Esq., of Windsor Crescent."

J. N. de la Croix's “La Ville de St. Helier” (published 1845): - ' The foundation stone of the English Roman Catholic Chapel in Vauxhall was laid in 1841. A brass plaque inlaid in the foundation stone bears the following :-(translated from the Latin) " The foundation stone of this Church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary was laid by William Burke, Esquire, in the year of Our Lord 1841, The Right Reverend. Thomas Griffiths Bishop of Olena being Vicar Apostolic of the London District, the Reverend. John Cunningham being Pastor, and James Parkinson the Architect ".

L'Irnpartial of 4th January 1843 (translated) : --" The Roman Catholic Chapel in Vauxhall was dedicated in honour of the Blessed Virgin on Monday (Jan. 2) and was yesterday opened to the Public. A crowded congregation gathered at the magnificent High Mass whose singing was rendered by Miss Rafter and Messrs. Forzoni, Le Tarouilly and John Rafter. The Chapel will he consecrated by his Lordship the Bishop of London (sic) in the course of this month or the month of February

That St. Mary's Catholic Church, Vauxhall, was no mean structure can be seen from the engraving here reproduced. Unfortunately, no record of the activities of those early years has survived. The next event recorded is the untimely death of Father Cunningham.

Jersey Times, 25th August 1848:-" We regret to have to announce the death of the Reverend John Cunningham: the truly benevolent Minister of the English Roman Catholic Chapel of this town. After a long illness, with occasional delusive intervals of comparative health, he expired on Tuesday afternoon last, between the hours of 2 and 3 o'clock, in (we believe) only the 41st year of his age, to the deep sorrow of his friends and flock (synonymous terns, indeed) and to the sincere regret of the entire community, amid all classes and sects of which, he was generally, we may almost say universally, esteemed.

Of the late Mr. Cunningham as a member of the Catholic Priesthood, it is not for a Protestant journal to speak ; but as a good citizen and a kind friend ; as a man of considerable information, and extended and liberal views, both political and religious ; as a warm-hearted adviser, as a charitable reliever of the Poor and the Unhappy, without distinction of Nation or of Church ; as, in fact, a man and a Christian ; we should do violence to our own sense of right no less than to his memory, and to the public estimation of his goodness of heart, his intelligence, his integrity of life, were we not to lay upon his bier this our humble tribute to the excellence of the lamented late Roman Catholic minister of Jersey.
Mr. Cunningham expired in St. Heller, at his residence adjoining the Chapel where he had for many years so laboriously and zealously officiated, and within the precincts of the consecrated ground of which, his remains will, we believe, be this morning interred."

In those days when ignorance and suspicion of things Catholic were still very strong, it must have been remarkable to receive such a tribute. The following lines, published a few days later, are even more remarkable:-

(Jersey Times 29th August 1848)

To the Memory of
The Reverend. J. CUNNINGHAM, R.C.C.

The shadow of the holy fane
  Falls softly on thy breast,
When even-light is on the wane --
  On peaceful he thy rest
They laid thee lowly in the tomb,
  With nought of pomp or pride,
Nor show of well dissembled gloom
  Grief's hollowness to hide.
No need, when sorrow welleth up
  From the deep fount of tears
No need to dash the bitter cup
  With unavailing cares.
I've seen thee weep with them who wept
  Another's grief, thine own
And of thy voice hath memory kept
  A well-remember'd tone.
And many a heart will long retain
  A record of thy worth,
That knelt not with thee in the fane,
  Nor saw thy face on earth.
Too soon was ended thy career,
  For all but only thee ;
For, what is Life ;- - a drop, when near
  A vast eternity.
Calm be thy rest within the dust,
  Where heart-,warm tears shall shower;
Bright, thine awaking with the just,
  At the appointed hour !
A Protestant
St. Helier, August. 26th.

For all the above quotations, we are indebted to Raymond Falle, Esq, F.R.S.A, Deputy librarian of the Public Library, to whom we take this opportunity of expressing, our thanks. His interest was aroused by an enquiry sent to the Evening Post, earlier this year, by a great-great niece of Father Cunningham's, Miss Eileen Egan, now living at Shillingstone, Dorset. 

The enquiry was it happy one, from our point of view, because it has brought to light definite dates of the beginning of Vauxhall, which before could only he vaguely guessed at. Indeed, the Centenary Booklet, published in 1948 turns out to have been five years too late ! But such mistakes easily happen in matters historical, and better late than not at all.

In some later issue of the Record, we hope to speak of F'r. Cunningham's grave ; but for now it is too long a story.

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