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St Maries Church, Rugby

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History of St Marie's Church

The story of St. Marie's church is very much the story of its benefactor, Captain John Hubert Washington Hibbert.

In the early nineteenth century, there were no Catholic churches in Rugby or Coventry. Catholics in Rugby had to walk at least nine miles to Mass at St. Anne's Church, in the village of Wappenbury. Alternatively they had a twelve mile walk to Bosworth Hall to attend Mass in the private chapel of the nearest Catholic noble, Lord Clifford. Thomas Smallwood, the lock-keeper on the Oxford Canal at Hillmorton, also provided a meeting place and was sometimes able to arrange for a priest, often from Lord Clifford's estate, to celebrate Mass in the lock cottage. Even so, everyone had to face a long walk.

Lady Julia Mary Magdalen Talbot, a Catholic, married a local landowner, Captain Hibbert. The family often gave lifts to Mass to some of the Rugby group, usually a Mr. and Mrs. O'Flaherty and their nephew David McGawley. Later Captain Hibbert, though not himself a Catholic, arranged for a priest, Father John Nickolds, to be permanently at the little chapel at the Hibbert's home, Bilton Grange, about two miles from the centre of Rugby. All local Catholics were invited to attend Mass there.

There were soon far too many to fit in and one of the stalwarts of the community, Mrs. O'Flaherty, who lived in Chapel Street, offered a room in her home where Father Nickolds could celebrate Mass.

The Chapel Street mission grew and a larger house in Chapel Street was rented. Even the new house did not provide adequate space. Once again, Captain Hibbert's generosity provided an answer. He bought land in Dunchurch Road, including the site of the Royal Oak Inn which stood where the church now stands. (The Inn was rebuilt on the opposite side of Dunchurch Road.) He commissioned August Welby Pugin, a brilliant but eccentric architect of the Gothic Revival, famous for his designs for the interior of the Houses of Parliament, to design a church.

The first tower, nave and chancel now form part of the modern church and the original glass can be seen in the east window of what is now the Hibbert chapel. Another surviving feature of the original church is the reredos beneath this east window together with the two angels.

For a time, they were rented to parishioners, but now have all been sold. Next the Hibbert's founded a boys school, a girls school and a convent with four Sisters of Providence (the Rosminians associated order of Nuns) to teach the girls.
The continued growth of the congregation led the building of the desired extension to St.Maries. Funds came from the friends of the Institute but mainly from Captain Hibbert. The plans were drawn by Pugin's son, Edward Welby Pugin, who preserved and extended his father's original design. The new nave was joined to the existing church: the original chancel became the Hibbert chapel and the original nave became the south aisle. The new church was opened on the 21st June 1864.

Over the years after Captain Hibbert's death, changes were made to the interior of the church. These included two new organs, the latest bought from Radcliffe College in 1962, and a new high altar and reredos of Caen stone, consecrated in 1898. The altar and reredos commemorate the Golden Jubilee of the opening of the first church in 1847. In 1900 the Lady altar, also of Caen stone, with a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes as it's centre piece, was erected and in the following year dedicated to the Sacred Heart.

Both altars were gifts of families in memory of deceased relatives. Statues of St. Joseph and St. Philomena were bought in 1901 together with a statue of Our Lady (now in Bishop Wulstan School). In 1904 the roofs of the chancel and Hibbert chapel were richly decorated. The work in the Hibbert chapel was by Captain Hibbert's eldest son (who also had the spire repaired). The carved choir stalls, costing £348 were installed in the same year and the four panels depicting portraits of saints were completed in 1908. After the First World War, a wooden memorial altar was installed in a chapel at the rear of the south aisle.

The next few years saw changes to the interior of the church - a stone pulpit (removed a few years ago because it was becoming unsafe), the Stations of the Cross carved on stone panels, and a gallery for the organ and choir. However the outer walls threatened to collapse because poor quality materials had been used by dishonest builders: buttresses were installed to make the walls safe.

In 1866, the Hibbert family left Rugby and sold Bilton Grange. Captain Hibbert was in poor health and needed specialist treatment only easily available in London. He planned one final gift to the congregation of St.Maries - a tower and spire, designed in the Gothic style by Bernard Whelan. Still the highest spire in the county at nearly 200 feet, it was completed in 1872. Eight bells, cast in the Whitechapel foundry and also the gift of Captain Hibbert, are still rung, not by ropes but as a carillon with levers operating hammers to strike the bells.

Sadly, Captain Hibbert was too ill to attend the opening ceremony when the bells were played for the first time, although he paid for a splendid lunch for 200 guests. Captain Hibbert died three years later. The body of the great benefactor of the Catholic community in Rugby rests with that of his wife in the family vault beneath the Hibbert chapel.

This "little gem of Gothic architecture" with its coach house for the Hibbert's' horses, carriage and groom - he was even provided with a fire on cold days - served the Catholics well, but in turn became too small. On feast days and at harvest time, the sermon was given from the large stone cross in the churchyard as there was not enough room for all who wanted to go into the church. Sometimes tickets were issued for admission on feast days, especially then non-Catholic townspeople came in large numbers to these services.

Before any further extension of St. Marie's took place, some very significant developments occurred. Captain Hibbert met and came to admire Father Luigi Gentili. Gentili was a member of the Institute of Charity (usually referred to as the Rosminians) sent as a missionary to England by Antonio Rosmini Serbati, the founder of the order.

Father Gentili and his companions carried out very successful Missions in the Midlands and often stayed with the Hibbert's. Probably Captain Hibbert's long discussions with Father Gentili on the Catholic Faith helped him to decide to become a Catholic. He was received into the Church on 16th July 1846. Captain Hibbert subsequently asked Bishop Ullathorne and Father Pagani, the English Provincial of the Rosminians if the Institute of Charity could take over St. Marie's. This was approved and two Rosminian priests and four lay brothers came to Rugby in 1849. The Institute of Charity serves St. Marie's to this day

Captain Hibbert then bought more land near the church to set up a College and Novitiate for the Order. Pugin designed these buildings and also planned a new, much larger church. The whole site now covered seven acres. Captain Hibbert also bought the seventeen cottages which is now Oak Street and later gave them to the Institute of Charity.

Since 1990, a comprehensive programme of money raising and hard work has taken place which has resulted in the complete restoration of the church. Future generations will inherit a building and a creative tradition worthy of those original founders and supporters of St.Maries.