St. Helen's Catholic Church - Ongar, Essex, England

The last assignment of Father Thomas Byles, before he left for America on the Titanic, was St. Helen's Catholic Church in Ongar, Essex, England.

In the middle of the ninteenth century, following the restoration of the English hierarchy, many new churches were built all over England, including the little village of Chipping Ongar. Before this time, Catholics were forced to worship in barns or the private homes of Catholics, such as the home of the Wright family of Kelvedon Hall. Thomas Reynolds, a man who worshipped regularly at Kelvedon Hall, was a furniture broker and leader of a group desirous to have a church built in Chipping Ongar.

There were several attempts to have priests come to Ongar for the celebration of the sacraments, and Father Kyne of Brentwood wrote in 1859, "I have made a beginning in Chipping Ongar." Lord Petre and Countess Tasker provided financial assistance to Father Kyne in order to rend a house for the celebration of Mass. Two years later, however, he wrote, "I wish there could be some beginning made in Chipping Ongar."

The railway came to Ongar in 1865, which appears to have provided the necessary means to establish a mission. The Italian Servite friars began hearing confessions and celebrating Mass every Sunday in a barn behind the King's Head. Priests from Barnet began saying Mass there in 1867. It was known as the Mission of St. Mary and St. Joseph.

In 1869 there were plans for a permanent building. Countess Helen Tasker of Middleton Hall, Brentwood and the 12th Lord Petre were the main benefactors. The Church was consecrated by Archbishop Manning on April 21, 1870, the year of Father Thomas Byles' birth. The church was dedicated to St. Helen, the patroness of the countess. The first parish priest was Father Henry James Pare.

Father Byles was assigned to St. Helen's in 1905. He was known as a learned man, a good preacher, and a caring pastor to his people. He also taught many of the Ongar boys how to box. He used a large shed behind the church for their lessons. It was from St. Helen's that Father Byles left for his journey abroad. The the people of St. Helen's were deeply distressed when they learned of the death of their beloved priest.

A door in memory of Father Byles was installed at St. Helen's by his brothers. Also in the church, a photograph and stained glass window were placed to commemorate the heroic deeds of Father Byles. The window dedicated to him shows St. Patrick, the Good Shepherd, and St. Thomas Aquinas.

Source - "Aspects of the History of Ongar." The Ongar Millennium History Group (1999): 30-33.

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