Reminiscences of St Joseph's Gunnislake by Miss Marie Hutchins
A Catholic family, the Branfields, had moved to Gunnislake in the early 1920s from Devonport with the hope for Mrs Branfield's health improving. The family regularly walked to Tavistock for Mass and instruction for the children, making use of all the footpaths and short cuts.
Fr. Phillip Mary Northcote M.C. who had known them in Devonport, visited them in Gunnislake and dismayed by the lack of Catholic life available in the area, decided to start a mission.
He and his sister arrived in Gunnislake in 1927 and he bought a large area of land. On this he built first a bungalow and then close by, a garage of asbestos and corrugated iron. Following several requests to the Bishop, this structure was permitted to become the Mission Church of St. Joseph, Gunnislake.
The Branfields were the first Catholics to attend Mass in the new church, kneeling that first Sunday on the concrete floor. By the following Sunday all the family had made kneelers for themselves.
Next Fr. Northcote spread his efforts to Callington where he built a similar, yet smaller church dedicated to Our Lady of Victories. This building was demolished when the Secondary Modern School was extended in 1953 and a new Our Lady of Victories church was built on the current site; with an extension added in 1987.
Miss Northcote was always known throughout the area as “Sister” Northcote. She had a wonderful way with cats and sick and ailing cats were treated either at people's homes or were brought to her at the Presbytery. In this the village got to know, love and respect the Northcotes and what they stood for; and the Northcotes learned about the village.
It was decided to start a Catholic school with 'Sister' in charge. Hence another timber and corrugated iron building was erected, the east end being the school with eventually two classrooms; the west end later having a small bungalow attached for the use of a second teacher. This school; which was for Catholics only, became quite noted. There were several conversions at this time; the congregation grew and the school numbers increased. Plays were performed in Gunnislake Public Hall, including 'The Last Supper' and 'St Joan of Arc'. A very forward teacher was 'Sister' Northcote.
Church activities included daily Mass, Children of Mary, choir, Benediction etc. etc; all then normal activities. The church, all its life, was just a corrugated iron and asbestos building but when the parishioners responded to the church bell which stood outside the building, they entered a well-appointed; well cared for spiritual home.
The day it was demolished it had the feeling of a holy place, perhaps due to all the prayers and efforts and full Catholic life over many years of a small but devoted congregation. Fr Northcote organised outdoor processions down to the village; for Good Friday the local coal man scrubbed his lorry and put it in the village square (outside the Cornish Inn). There Fr Northcote would use it as his pulpit to preach to the parishioners and villagers who gathered to hear him.
Another interesting story – Sister Northcote was a beautiful reader and each week she held a sewing circle to which the ladies of the village were welcome. Here they sewed garments for Catholic Missions overseas, and Sister read to them as they sewed – Dickens, Thackeray, Austen etc – all the English classics. Sister read them as serials and by stopping at a suitable place, she left them all eager to 'come again next week' to find our what happened next. What a wonderful education these village people had from her.
Just a few years ago I (Marie Hutchins) was talking to an elderly lady of the village who had attended these classes. Remember, this was in the days long before ecumenism, when Catholics were considered to be a very strange lot and one denomination did not mix with another – they most certainly did not make clothes for each other's missions!
Sister Northcote lived to the age of 101 and was visited at Shaldon by two parishioners from Gunnislake on her 100th birthday. At this time she had poor eyesight so a parishioner visited her each day to read a newspaper and books for her – a just and fitting reward.
Bill Bransfield, a retired naval man, helped Fr Northcote in many ways. A large area of the site of St Joseph's was a garden where he grew fruit and vegetables. These were distributed by Father for the benefit of the poor of the district. Mr Bransfield's family are still in the area and visit St Joseph's.
Meanwhile Fr Northcote continued to walk the parish of Gunnislake and Callington to spread the Word. Many properties around St Joseph's (St Gabriel's, Maryland etc.) originally built by Fr Northcote were sold and the proceeds endowed Gunnislake parish. It was a sad day when Fr Northcote left.
After him several Diocesan priests came to the parish, the best remembered being Fr Biggs, parish priest during the Second World War. A very worried man with little money but a great sense of fun. He too walked the parish and occasionally used the infrequent bus service to Callington and beyond. Each Sunday he travelled by taxi to Callington to celebrate Mass, and since he could not afford to pay for the taxi himself, each of the five families who attended were asked to contribute 6p to cover the cost – two shillings and six pence a week (12 ½ pence in today's money).
Fr Biggs shared the little he had with Polish and Italian soldiers who were stationed at Yelverton airfield during the War– hot cocoa as they played cards together at the presbytery each week – who worried about language?
The sound of the Polish National Anthem, a hymn to Our Lady, nearly raised the roof after Mass each Sunday. In tribute to their comrades, many who fell at the battle for Monte Casino in Italy; the soldiers carved an altar as their memorial.
This altar, together with a memorial plaque, was transferred to Tavistock church when St. Joseph's closed. When the parish priest was taken ill one Sunday morning, the Missionaries of St Francis de Sales (who ministered to Tavistock parish) were asked to serve also Gunnislake and Callington.
At that time there were three Missionaries in Tavistock, and from then on the two villages were known as 'the country'. Amongst the St Francis de Sales priests were Fr. Nobes (RIP), Fr Daley, Fr Joseph Thevenet, Fr Kerns (RIP) and Fr Blackford.
Of these Fr Daley served us for over 16 years; he was a dedicated parish priest who for many years came out to St Joseph's for daily Mass. The holes in the soles of his shoes were revealed when kneeling. He trudged through the snow when the parish car broke down, which it did quite often. His great love was the annual catechism camp where he would enjoy the children's company to the full. He was transferred to Wiltshire and found it hard to leave the parish after so many years.
During the time of Fr Blackford, the present church of St Joseph's was built on the orchard ground at the back of the site of the old church. St Joseph's Workers (a group of women and men) was formed in 1967 and who had two aims. The first was to help Catholics in the wide flung parish to get to know each other, and the second to help their priest in any way they could. A third aim was then proposed and accepted; to raise money for a new church. After 10 years of hard work they raised £4,000 and the Bishop agreed to donate a further £8,000; so the search began for a new and affordable structure.
As the new church was being built it was learned that a Mrs Triman of Tavistock had left money for a new St. Joseph's, so the original design was enhanced to make it more permanent. In 1977 the first Mass was celebrated at the church on the Feast of the Assumption, and the church was later blessed by Bishop Restieux.
In 1981 the Missionaries of St Francis de Sales withdrew their priests from the parish and we were served for eight years by Fr Michael Craig-McFeely (RIP) and Fr Aloysius, both of Buckfast Abbey. During their time an addition was added to the church at Callington which afterwards was detached from the parish of Tavistock and Gunnislake. Bishop Christopher Budd twice visited St Joseph's and on the second occasion performed a ceremony which made everyone happy – Jo Hall was presented with a special Papal Blessing in acknowledgement of the many years she has been a catechist at Gunnislake and Callington; a role she still performs.
Fr Aloysius was later transferred to Okehampton and Fr Michael was left alone to minister to Tavistock, Gunnislake and Carmelite Convent in Tavistock. In 1989 Fr Michael was transferred to Southway (Plymouth) and soon after this he was, sad to say, found dead one Sunday morning just before Mass.
In 1986 Commander Palastre RN Retd, a Gunnislake parishioner, put forward ideas to restore the condemned building of the old schoolroom and bungalow; and under his guidance and leadership this was done by him and some parishioners. With much thrift and generosity the new church room was fully equipped to meet the needs of the Catholic community; and opened 2nd July 1985. Since then it has been used for coffee mornings, brunches, Barbecues, jumble sales and Parish Suppers; and has proved of great benefit to the church.
In the autumn of 1989 Fr Jack Pack became parish priest of Tavistock and Gunnislake. Since his arrival Gunnislake has continued its activities, spiritual and social. The 'country' has indeed been well blessed with dedicated priests throughout its history. It is hoped that St Joseph's will continue for many years and if the spirit built up since its inception prevails, deepens and grows, it will indeed be a holy and happy community; striving to follow the two commandments given by Christ:
Love God and love your neighbour for his sake
Sequel to the article by Marie Hutchins which in March 1992 appeared in the Parish Journal for the parish of Tavistock and Gunnislake
In 1994 Fr Jack Pack left the parish for Nazareth House in Plymouth. Before he departed he was pressed by the parishioners to recommend Marie for the award of a Diocesan medal in recognition of her outstanding services to the church at Gunnislake. The medal was given to Marie at a ceremony held at the Cathedral in Plymouth in late 1994 and is now displayed in St Joseph's church.
Marie was very well known in the area having spent some time as deputy head teacher at Harrowbarrow School. Unfortunately Marie died in 1995 after several years of failing health. Her later years were spent in encouraging other parishioners to take over some of her many responsibilities which occupied much of her time. Her funeral was attended by many of her friends and typically she had arranged a splendid lunch for them at the Cross House Hotel at Metherell.
Fr Pack was succeeded as Parish Priest by Fr Terence Clune, under whose guidance a Parish Finance Committee was set up and undertook the duties previously carried out by the Parish Council which had been disbanded. Representatives from both Gunnislake and Tavistock Churches served on this new Committee.
Fr Clune was followed by Fr John Bodley Scott who only stayed with us for a few months and was never officially appointed as our Parish Priest. Next came Fr Gabriel Arnold from Buckfast Abbey and during his time much work was carried out the church and Presbytery at Tavistock. Fr Gabriel left us in 2001 to become the Parish Priest for Buckfast and South Brent and was succeeded by Fr Sunny Paul.
In his time the old Parish Hall at Gunnislake was found to be in a very poor state state and the Parish Supper in 2001 was to be the last one which could be held there. The condition of the building was so bad that it was decided not to spend any more money on it but to seek Diocesan approval for a new Hall to be built. After much effort and the splendid support given by Fr Sunny Paul, a new hall was constructed and which was officially opened by Bishop Christopher Budd in July 2002.
The original estimate for the cost of the new building was £59,000 but eventually the total cost was £71,000; even though major items such as curtains, blinds, carpeting and floor tiles being provided through the generosity of the parishioners. Further, the interior decoration of the Hall was carried out by parishioners in order to save costs.
We were all very sorry to lose Fr Sunny Paul who went to Yeovil (Diocese of Bath) as their Parish Priest. Our next Priest was Fr Denis O'Gorman who was responsible for both Tavistock and Gunnislake churches until October 2006 when Tavistock separated from Gunnislake and set up their own Finance Committee. Gunnislake became a Mission Church under the care of Fr David Gassor.
Over the period 2002-2006 Health, Safety and Disabilities issues caused the Gunnislake Parish Finance Committee much worry especially as the future of both Tavistock and Gunnislake Churches was under some doubt. Attendance at St Joseph's fell during the winter of 2006/2007 when Mass was held at 6:00 pm instead of during the morning to which we had become accustomed. At Mass on Sunday 4th February Fr Gassor issued a letter from the Bishop to all parishioners at St Joseph's Church advising Sunday 8th April (Easter Sunday) would be the last one held there, and the Church would be closed from that date.
Now we have to decide where to attend Mass. Callington is a very small Church with limited parking for cars. Tavistock Church may have to be closed in the near future due to the state of the building and the expense of keeping it in a fit state. Fr Gassor we understand is likely to become the Parish Priest for Launceston, Bude and Callington.
So after 80 years of devoted effort the parishioners of Gunnislake are very naturally most upset that St Joseph's Church which has served a widely spread country community so well is to be no more. The valuable site which is occupied by the church building (constructed only 30 years ago) the Hall (built less than five years ago) and the Bungalow (the original Presbytery) is generally expected to be sold to developers.
The view from 2019
All was not lost. Yes, the church and community buildings closed and parishioners had to make the difficult choice between Tavistock and Callington parishes. Many came to belong to the church of Our Lady of the Assumption and St Mary Magdalen in Tavistock.
The fear that the Tavistock church building was in poor condition was not correct; as confirmed in 2008 after a comprehensive survey by a team of structural engineers. Much work did have to be done to repair gutters, down pipes and underground drains, and the parish raised the £70,000 necessary to complete the work; and a further £15,000 was raised to complete a ramp to facilitate entry to the church. The church now is waterproof and warm, supporting a congregation of some 100 parishioners who attend Mass each Sunday, people from both Gunnislake and Tavistock coming together.
Yes, the land and buildings at Gunnislake were sold. With tireless efforts Monica Philips persuaded Bishop Christopher to “ring-fence” the resulting funds for the future use of Tavistock Parish; which he confirmed in a letter dated 2008.
The Tavistock parish never had a Meeting Hall, but once the church was proved to be a sound building with a very active congregation, it was time for this next step. The church is a Grade II* Listed building, which imposes many restrictions on what could be done. Consultations had to be held with English Heritage, the Historic Churches Commission and the Diocese.
These steps were completed and with much work by parishioners, starting at the time of Fr Dennis O'Gorman and then through the time of Fr John Greatbatch, plans were drawn up and agreed; Fr John taking a very active role. The decision was taken to build the new facilities inside the church, at the west end. Work started in 2017 and was completed in July 2019.
The “ring fenced money” from the sale of the church and building of St Joseph's came home and paid for all the new facilities; these being dedicated to St Joseph to maintain the contact with the original church; founded by Fr Northcote in 1927.