Norfolk has been an extremely strong area for Catholics because of the Shrine of Walsingham and many churches and priories had been built in the area. The persecution of the Catholic faith severely diminished our numbers and the remnant, suffering also the loss of many medieval churches, gathered secretly in people’s houses such as Oxburgh Hall and other large Catholic houses for the Mass. The Act of Emancipation in 1829 ended many of these troubles.
At the turn of the 20th century a North Walsham draper, Frank Loads, became interested in the Catholic faith. He went under instruction to the parish priest at Cromer and was received into the Catholic Church. One can imagine the upset this caused even in those days but he was a man of great determination and conviction. Frank Loads was hopeful that Mass would be celebrated in North Walsham and provided the use of the drawing room over his draper’s shop (now PACT) for this purpose. The priest from Cromer came each month to provide for the needs of the small Catholic community living in North Walsham and the surrounding villages.
In 1904 North Walsham was declared a “mission” by the Catholic bishop of Northampton as a direct result of Frank Loads’ conversion in that same year. In 1912 Frank and his wife made a pilgrimage to Rome and were able to have an audience with Pope Pius X (now St Pius X). He asked the Pope for permission to build a small chapel in North Walsham. The Pope agreed to this proposal amd Frank returned with great determination, bringing back to North Walsham an icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, which had been blessed by Pope Pius X.
Frank soon set about changing the loft of his garage behind the shop into a Gothic-style chapel which could accommodate about 35 people for Mass. A charabanc was provided to go through the villages collecting Catholics for Mass on a Sunday. By 1926 North Walsham had its first resident Catholic priest since the Reformation, Fr William Arrowsmith, who was a convert Anglican priest.
The mission grew and by 1929 plans were made for the construction of a proper church building. Two years later, at a cost of £750, Frank purchased a site of three quarters of an acre adjacent to his own property, and in 1933 he commissioned the Calvary (the crucified Christ) at a cost of £75.
In 1934 Frank donated the land to the diocese of Northampton and on 30 November of that year the bishop, Rt Revd Laurence Youens, laid the cornerstone for the new building. By 4 April 1935 the building was completed and a solemn Mass of Blessing was celebrated by Fr Snowden, the priest-in-charge of the mission. The Catholic population continued to grow and by 1960 the bishop constituted North Walsham as a parish in its own right. The church was solemnly consecrated by Bishop Alan Clark, the first bishop of the new Diocese of East Anglia, on the Feast of the Sacred Heart in 1990, thus bringing to conclusion the great dream of Frank Loads.
The parish is dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and the Sacred Heart statue is a constant reminder that the love of Christ comes from his wounded heart and that his love is withheld from no one.
There are two chapels in the church, one dedicated to Our Blessed Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the other to St Nicholas, for the original pre-Reformation church (the parish church) was dedicated to these two saints. In the Lady Chapel one can see the icon brought back from Rome, and near it is the statue of Our Lady as Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, a special title bestowed on her, for she learned to love people with something of the same love that Christ had. The most famous church dedicated to Our Lady of the Sacred Heart is in the Piazza Navona in Rome.
In the porch is a statue of St Joseph, carved from a single piece of wood by a German prisoner of war which he gave in thanksgiving to the parish after his liberation at the end of the second World War.
Within the altar lie the relics (bones) of many saints: St Gregory the Great, St Augustine of Canterbury, St Edward king and martyr, St Francis of Assissi, St Bernard, St Gemma, St Alphonsus and St Jean-Marie Baptiste Vianney.
The fourteen Stations of the Cross tell the story of the first Good Friday and are used as a Catholic devotion. The twelve brass crosses and candleholders are called consecration crosses. They remind us that the church is built on the faith of the twelve apostles, and that we are to be the light of the world.
The architectural style is art deco, in the fashion of the early 1930s. The church may have few outstanding features, but one grasps instantly that it is a place of prayer where the community gathers to celebrate Mass. The parish hall was built in 1999. 2004 saw the addition of the choir loft. The sanctuary was reconfigured in 2004, and the font repositioned in 2008.
Thanks to Michael Fogarty for the following reminiscence:
No doubt many of you will have read the late Cathy Bateman’s article in the “Key magazine” on the early days of the Catholic Church in North Walsham. I will try to pen a few more items which I hope will be of interest.
I will start with a short history culled from Fr Eugene’s leaflet, which you can read on this page (above), and the excellent book “Catholic Revival in North Norfolk” which was published to celebrate the centenary of the church of Our Lady of Refuge, in Cromer.
Frank Loads of North Walsham, a convert, was the first person to be married in Cromer church, in May 1903. The first mention of him in regard to North Walsham was when he provided a room over his shop for the celebration of Mass in Holy Week, 1904. This was the first Catholic Mass to be celebrated in North Walsham since the Reformation!! Frank Loads’ shop was a real old “two and eleven three-farthings” type of shop. It was called a departmental store and had higgledy-piggledy rooms which seemed to be reached by secret winding stairways. A great loss to the town—such is progress! Mass continued to be said occasionally in a room lent by Frank Loads’ wife, Sara: Fr Carter from Sheringham usually celebrated.
In 1913 Frank Loads built a small chapel above the stables in his yard and it was furnished with equipment kindly given by the nuns of the convent of Perpetual Adoration in Cromer. A Miss Cobon provided the tabernacle for the blessed sacrament. In July 1926 the bishop of Northampton visited Cromer and decided that North Walsham should be a separate parish, whose first priest was Fr Arrowsmith, a convert Anglican clergyman. It was in 1912 that Frank and Sara Loads made a pilgrimage to Rome and obtained the blessing of Pope Pius X on their proposal to build a permanent chapel. They brought back with them the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour—this picture is the one in the Lady chapel.
During the Great War, many Catholic soldiers heard Mass here, kneeling on straw scattered in the stable yard, before being shipped from Great Yarmouth to the battlefields of France. For many, sadly, it would be their last Mass in this green and pleasant land of England.
The resident Catholic population consisted of the Loads family, Miss Cobon—she who presented the tabernacle—an Italian family called Bianche, and the Buck family, whose young sons went to the boys’ home at Shefford, where coincidentally a future parish priest Fr Whyatt came from. There was also a family named Barry. After Fr Arrowsmith came Fr Snowden. In 1928 he rented a room in what is now the town’s tourist information centre, Brentnall House.
In 1929 the church building fund began, the Loads family provided land adjacent to their house on Norwich road, now the church presbytery. This land was given to the diocese in 1934 and in November of that year the cornerstone of the church was laid and it was completed in April 1935 by the local firm of Cornish and Gaymer—just seventeen weeks from start to finish!—at a cost of £3700.
The building was designed by the distinguished architect, Bower Norris, in the art deco style, and is described in the Architects’ Journal for August 1935 as being “situated in the Norfolk fens”. It is believed that the church has the largest unsupported pre-stressed concrete roof in England.
On 1st February 1935 Sara Loads died, just a few month before the completion of her and Frank’s dream. On 4 April of that year, Frank received a papal medal of honour for his work, and the church was opened, with the first Mass celebrated by Fr Snowden.
In 1960 North Walsham was designated a parish in its own right with Aylsham as a chapel of ease. In 1990 North Walsham cleared its debt and was consecrated on the feast of the Sacred Heart: Frank and Sara Load’s dream brought to fruition!!!