Catholic Parish of Tavistock
Catholic Church of Our Lady and St Mary Magdalen, Tavistock
Diocese of Plymouth
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Church Address:
Callington Road
Devon PL19 8EH

Priest in charge:
Fr John Greatbatch
Tel: 01822 612645

Our Lady Tavistock

Church Story: History of Our Church


The market town of Tavistock, one of the prettiest towns in Devon, was once a great centre of Catholic Christian life in the West Country.  In the 10th century a Benedictine Abbey was founded, dedicated to Our Lady and St Rumon, followed in the 14th century by the church of St Eustachius which is now the Parish Church for the Anglican community of Tavistock.

In the Middle Ages Tavistock also had a leper hospital with associated Chapel, dedicated to St Mary Magdalen and St Theobald, which came to be known as the 'Maudlin Chapel'.  This hospital with its Chapel was situated on the west side of Tavistock, slightly to the north east of the current Catholic Church.  A street close by is called 'Maudlin Lanes', a reminder of this chapel.  

The Benedictine Abbey was closed at the time of the dissolution of the Monasteries but the Maudlin Chapel continued in use as late as 1672.

The history of the Church of Our Lady and St Mary Magdalen in Tavistock 

The Dukes of Bedford

The lands of the Benedictine Abbey covered much of Tavistock.  When King Henry VIII dissolved the Monasteries he granted the Abbey to John Russell who came to own most of the town.  The Russell family later became the Dukes of Bedford but kept their links with Tavistock, with the eldest son of the Duke being granted the title of Marquis of Tavistock.

In the 19th century significant quantities of copper were found on land to the west of Tavistock, and the population boomed.  In the 1860s William, eighth Duke of Bedford, decided to build a Chapel of Ease for the Anglican church of St Eustacius, to meet the needs of the population on the western edge of the town. This church was not consecrated but was known as the Fitzford church as it was close to the manor once owned by the Fitz family.

In the early 1900s the then Duke of Bedford decided to sever the family's links with Tavistock and West Devon, and passed over the buildings that he owned to Tavistock Town Council, although the church became the property of the Parish.  In 1913 the eleventh Duke withdrew the annual contribution towards the maintenance of the church and gave the Parochial Living to the Bishop of Exeter.

Church building

The Church of Our Lady and St Mary Magdalen, Tavistock, was designed by Henry Clutton  The church was designed by Henry Clutton, a renowned architect, who also proposed a design for Westminster Cathedral and for a cathedral in Lille, northern France.  This Chapel of Ease in Tavistock was erected between 1865-1867 at a cost of £12,000 and opened on 28th November 1867. 

The building is in an Italianate manner with a tall almost-detached tower on the north side, under which is the principal entrance. There is also a second more ornate entrance on the south side which was for the use of the Dukes of Bedford. The detailing of the church is a mixture of Romanesque arcading and Gothic capitals.

The church is built of the local Hurdwick ashlar, a beautiful grey/green stone used for many of the public buildings in Tavistock erected at that time; and there are contrasting dressings of limestone, with the roofs covered in Cornish Slate.  The building consists of a Nave with a lower Chancel, Clerestory and Tower with Spire.  The architectural significance of the church has been recognised by it being given Grade II* Listing by English Heritage in 1951. At one time the tower contained a single bell that had been cast in 1867; weighing about one ton. 


In the east wall of the Sanctuary there are three stained glass windows.  These windows were erected on 28th February 1912 by the children of Sarah Ann Trist, in her memory.  The two lower windows are scenes from the life of Our Lady; the Annunciation and the Nativity.  The third window, set high, is partially obscured by the framework installed to stabilise the building and depicts Christ welcoming the faithful into His kingdom.  At the west end of the church is a glorious rose window with clear glass.


Just inside the main door on the north side of the church are three marble plaques tracing the church's history.  The top plaque commemorates the building of the church in 1867, the second the reopening of the church in 1936 after a period of closure, whilst the third plaque commemorates the dedication of the building when it became a Catholic church in 1952.

The Crucifix high on the east wall of the Sanctuary was donated to the Catholic Parish of Tavistock by the Bridgetinnes of South Brent. It is believed the Crucifix was carved in Portugal some time after 1594 when the nuns moved there following the Reformation.  The nuns returned to England in 1861, bringing the Crucifix with them.

During WWII there were servicemen of many nationalities stationed in camps in West Devon, and one group were Poles at the air station in Yelverton.  They worshiped at St Joseph’s chapel in Gunnislake and paid for an altar to be carved in memory of their comrades who died in the war.  With the closure of St Joseph's church at Gunnislake this altar has been transferred to Tavistock where there is also a memorial plaque naming those parishioners who died during the War. 

The Crucifix in the Catholic Church of Our Lady and St Mary Magdalen in Tavistock 

The interior of the church has further interesting features.  There is a high stone circular lectern with a pattern of intersecting circles.  The reredos, restored in the early 1900s is of massive plain English oak framework with deeply cut diaper panels.  The four central panels are arranged to form a cross, whilst the outer panels are of a different design. This framework carries a battlemented, richly carved and moulded canopy forming an arcade of four semi-circular arches.  In the space below are the words:

 “HEAVEN and EARTH are full of the MAJESTY of thy Glory”

 The church was dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalen Evolution of the congregation

By the end of the nineteenth century the copper mines were becoming worked out and the population of Tavistock, especially on the western side, declined significantly.  There was no longer a need for this second Anglican church and it was closed in 1918.  In 1936 the Anglican community decided to reopen the church which was dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalen.  In the interim there had been little maintenance, the fabric had deteriorated and repairs were needed before the church could reopen.  To raise the money, the land surrounding the church was sold off for housing.

The church continued as a place of worship until 1947, when again it was closed.  In 1948 the burden of supporting this building was too great and thus it ceased to exist as a place of worship for the Anglican community.

Since the reformation there had been no Catholic church in Tavistock, although from 1906 to 1922 parishioners had used a chapel at Mount Tavy.  After the Carmelite nuns came to Tavistock, they kindly allowed their little Convent Chapel to serve as the parish church, and into this crowded the small but increasing number of parishioners.  In late 1950, the parish priest of Tavistock, Father Michael McSweeny heard that the church was to be sold and possibly used for business purposes.

Father McSweeny informed the Bishop of Plymouth, Dr Francis Grimshaw and on Ascension Day 1951 the church became the property of the Catholic Diocese of Plymouth.  In 1952 the Abbot of Downside carried out the consecration of "Our Lady of the Assumption and St Mary Magdalen".  Its dedication maintained a link with the old Benedictine Abbey and the Leper Hospital.  The first Mass was celebrated in the Church by Bishop Grimshaw on Laetare Sunday, March 23rd 1952.

In his sermon the Bishop told of a Devon man, Arthur Rye and his wife who had saved a considerable amount of money over many years, to provide a church for the Catholics in the West Country.  Mr Rye died before he could achieve this object but he made provision for this in his Will and his widow fulfilled his wishes by paying off the debt on this church.

Following the first closure of the church in 1917 almost no maintenance was carried out during the following 40 years and the fabric deteriorated.  Even after the acquisition of the church by the Plymouth Diocese there was little or no work on the structure which consequently became run down, damp and cold.
Action was taken in the early 1990s when a new heating system was installed and a major part of the church re-roofed.  This expensive work was paid for by the Diocese with English Heritage granting money towards the re-roofing.  Shortly after more work needed to be done and the parishioners made a significant contribution to the costs through a very active program of fund raising, accumulating some £7,000.  In 2008 studies showed that although the fabric is fundamentally sound, further repair work was needed; especially to replace the collapsed Victorian drains.  The £60,000 necessary was raised by the Parish and the work completed in September 2012.

Today the church building is warm and the parish active and welcoming.  The numbers are growing with a congregation of some 110 each Sunday attending Mass.  In the past few years many children have celebrated their First Communion and some twenty have been Confirmed by Bishop Christopher Budd and five in 2016 by Bishop Marc O'Toole.

The year 2012 was the Diamond Jubilee of the church as a place for Catholic worship and this event was celebrated in September with a Mass attended by Bishop Christopher. Pilgrimages to Lourdes are a regular annual event.

Tavistock Parish is part of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Plymouth, Charity number: 21322
(c) Last updated 8th June 2018
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