The chapel of St John the Evangelist was founded by Father Dowling who was Mission Rector at St Anne’s and was opened in 1896 by Cardinal Vaughan. The first Mission Rector was Father Askew who was succeeded by Father Bunce in 1904. He was, as many people recall, a gentle, “saintly” man of mild disposition, and of latter years, frail. Yet he managed to get things done (some people say he sounded positively sarcastic when appealing for money from the pulpit).
St John’s School
It fell to his lot to build the first Parish School at St. John’s. The leadership of Archbishop Ilsley encouraged the building of schools, originally to protect Catholic children from the Poor Law institutions, but later to counteract the secularist influence of State Education Bills.
Surrounding himself with a vigorous committee of lay people, Father Bunce had, by March 1906 purchased the site and paid for it, and he had £790 in hand in 1910 to commence building, against an estimate for the total cost of £1,500. According to the Catholic Times, St. John’s was the only Mission in Birmingham still to be without a school. Fr. Bunce and his committee organised a “Grand Eastern Scenic Bazaar” in the Balsall Heath Institute, which raised £200. “The large hall was fitted up and decorated to resemble an oriental city, the work being done by three well-known artists, members of St. John’s congregation.”
The Provincial Directory records that Fr. Bunce opened the new school on September 3rd 1911, “… the site and the buildings of which have cost about £4,000 .” The school was an “Elementary Mixed” school of 214 pupils, and the first Head was a Miss Arnold, by all accounts a Lancashire lass of strict style.
The style of the Church and of the worship there, together with some impression of the congregation can be seen from the Diocesan Almanac of 1905 /1906.
“The Church consists of nave and one aisle, the Sacred Heart Chapel. The other aisle, which will be the Lady Chapel, has yet to be completed. The high altar is rich in mosaics and marbles of various kinds and the altars of the Sacred Heart and Our Lady have some very good work in alabaster.”
August 14th 1904 “The Confraternity of the Children of Mary was canonically erected in St. John’s Balsall Heath. A good number were received into the Sodality on the occasion and a beautiful and impressive procession took place. In preparation, a new Lady Altar has been erected and Our Lady’s statue adorned with a rich canopy and corona.
November 1905 “ The new organ at St. John’s Balsall Heath opened. The gallery had been enlarged and beautified. A rich and artistic Holy Water font was also given by one of the congregation. The font is of Grecian Marble inlaid with Brazilian Onyx and is of octagonal shape. The Church has been newly lighted with two coronas of pendant incandescent lights. During the year the congregation have presented to the Church a solid silver ciborium and the Children of Mary have given a silver Lavabo.”
Growth of the Congregation
Of the scale of Parish congregations we have some impression from the number of Masses provided ( the figure of about 200 to 250 per Mass seems a rough and ready guide). Population figures quoted in the Diocesan Directory are more often based on the number of Catholic Families deemed to live in the area for the purposes of levying a capitation fee for Schools, which each Parish has to pay. The first population figure listed for Balsall Heath parish was in 1924, where it is given as 860. In 1904, two Masses were being said on Sundays, and by 1913, to this was added “Holy Communion” – it will be remembered that in those days, where a priest could only say two Masses and there were no evening services, the Holy Communion Service was often added early in the morning as a substitute. Confession times stretched over three hours each Saturday. The next population note is in 1945 when the number of parishioners was listed as 1,300. The number shows a steady growth to about 4,800, the peak in 1965, when there were five day Masses and one evening Mass being said in the Church The official statistic of Mass attendance at St. John’s, was however put at 2,100 in 1965. In a similar way, the School population, with a dip in the 1940s (perhaps due to evacuation of the city during the War) continued to rise from 214 in 1911 to 549 in 1967.
In 1929, Father Bunce was succeeded by Father T. McCarthy, who could hardly have been a greater contrast in terms of personality. He is remembered vividly by many parishioners, of whom some feel that he was unjustifiably “martyred” for his progressive ideas, and some feel that he was motivated by self-glorification. His death-notice in the Diocesan Directory is unusually long, and expresses a similar difficulty. It suggests that he was a man gifted with great energy and showmanship, but whose efforts were frequently frustrated by those in authority over him (no less than those under authority below him) often for his own good.
When Father McCarthy died in 1956 he was succeeded by Fr. Clement Burrett, who worked in the parish for five years, and was then succeeded by Fr. Tuite in 1961. It was Father Tuite who finished the “Lady Altar” and south aisle of the Church removing the huge rectangular pillars which often shut children out from the Mass and getting rid of much of the detail from the Church interior, including the statues. He had the Presbytery re-built in its present form. The death-notice speaks of a man much loved by his fellow clergy, great-hearted and energetic, who had accepted with obedience a transfer to Balsall Heath, from a parish in Willenhall which he had just built and where he had been very happy. To him is attributed the purchase of a site for a Church and School for the formation of a new Parish, St. Martin de Porres.
A new Parish
In 1966 iSt Martin’s was created as a Parish in its own right and Father John Higgins was its first and only Parish Priest. Funds were raised to build a “Social and Welfare Centre” to serve the needs of the, by then, very mixed and socially needy inner city area. The Centre was to provide facilities apart from serving the social needs of the parish generally, for clinics, clubs for the aged and handicapped, and to provide a social venue for single men living away from home, mainly of Irish origin, in the flats of the older houses in the area. The centre was to serve as a Church on Sundays and for other liturgical weekday needs and the eventual Church building would be a voluntary donation by parishioners.
By the time a large enough sum of money had been raised for a start on the building of the Church, Diocesan authorities had decided that the decline in numbers in the St. John and the St. Martin de Porres areas meant that a new Church building would be a difficult investment to justify. Mass attendance at St. John’s had declined to 500 in 1977, and just over 700 at St. Martin’s ( from a high point of 1,100. ) Statistics of Baptisms and Weddings are deceptive, because St. Martin’s was not an attractive building for photographs and Baptisms were performed in a style suiting the informality of the parish, with a pudding basin. This did not always please the sentimental. The Parish in general was given two weeks notice of the Diocesan intention to amalgamate the two Parishes, and base the new combined operation on the Church at St. John.
Amalgamation of St John’s and St Martin’s Parishes.
After the amalgamation of St. John the Evangelist with St. Martin de Porres, Father Higgins- the parish priest of the conjoined churches, very soon began to introduce some of the measures he had explored at St. Martin’s, in the form of elected Parish Council and Entertainments Committee as well as inter-church relations, Choir, Readers, Our Lady’s Society, S.V.P., Third World groups, a “Liturgy Group” and numerous others. Pastoral care was supplemented by three Parish Sisters, who did house visiting,. Father Anthony Geerdes also joined the Parish as assistant priest, a Mill Hill Missionary of Dutch origin, he retired from work on the North West Frontier of India, and still does duty as the Diocese Asian Chaplain, using his fluent knowledge of oriental languages.
It was in 1981 that Father Higgins left the Parish. Fr. Anthony Holtham took brief charge of the Parish until the Holy Ghost Fathers undertook its development, first under Father Thomas Meagher, then under Fathers Hugh Davoren, Gerard Egan, Edward Holmes and Joseph Carroll.
St John’s School
By the early 1970’s pressure on the site led the parish to build another school, St Monica’s, in Chantry Road. St John’s became the infant school and children then transferred to St Monica’s for their Junior school years. When housing clearance caused a population fall it was decided to close the St. John’s site and the entire school moved to St Monica’s which was renamed Ss. John & Monica. We also still have in the parish the St Martin de Porres school in Moseley, the last structure left of the St Martin de Porres parish.
The early school buildings on the site immediately to the rear of the church were demolished. The later added hall and classrooms were retained and used by the parish until the development and growth of Anawim when the classrooms were let to them and turned into offices, with the Parish retaining the old school hall
The Anawim project is an independent charity founded upon the Catholic ethos of its two founding partners, Father Hudson’s Society and Our Lady of Charity. Anawimseeks to support women who are vulnerable due to poverty, homelessness, abuse, rape, addictions, and may be drawn into prostitution and/or offending as a consequence. It recognises prostitution as exploitation of women. It aims to: provide effective support to women who may be experiencing sexual exploitation, domestic violence, and/or are at risk of homelessness or entering the criminal justice system; be a welcoming contact for women coming into the Dolphin Centre from the local community; and engage with women out in the community who are not engaging with services, understanding their needs and offering support.