The Travelling Mission was a Mass providing mobile ministry of the diocese of Northampton which operated from 1948 to 1975, the year before the diocese of East Anglia was formed out of Northampton’s eastern counties.
The diocese had been established for over 90 years but, being a largely rural diocese, its parish churches and mass centres in the countryside were few and far between, especially in East Anglia, and many Catholics living in rural villages and small towns found it very difficult to get to where Sunday Mass was being said. This could involve a journey of many miles and become even more difficult in the wintertime.
The idea of a Travelling Mission had first been mooted in late 1945, in an article which appeared in the 1946 Yearbook. It is not clear who wrote the article, but Bishop Parker refers to it favourably in his preface to the 1946 Northampton Diocese Directory. The notion was inspired by a similar and well-established venture in the Archdiocese of Southwark, which had been operating since the mid-1920s. The author commented that Southwark’s “rural extent ... has conditions not very much different from those ... in the seven counties which comprise the Diocese of Northampton ... the largest in England in extent, but with the smallest estimated Catholic population”.
Three years later in the 1949 yearbook, the editor reported “a Travelling Mission for the Diocese is now an accomplished fact… His Lordship the Bishop launched the scheme in July of 1948”. An impressive list of rural locations visited in the latter half of 1948 bears witness to the energy of the first Missioner, Father (later Canon) Anthony Hulme, who was then aged 40, having been ordained in 1939 and served at Northampton Cathedral during the war, and being sent off to the English College at Rome for further studies in 1946. When he began his travels, the Mission was based at Ely, and made use of an ordinary car, without an attached trailer-Chapel, which was “as much an advantage as not, as it means that local Catholics and others rally round more in providing a place for Mass, so that they take a more personal interest in what is going forward. A variety of places have been used for Mass: a Corn Hall, a room that used to be a chapel of sorts, a studio, a hut, a tea-room, a room over a restaurant, a Cinema, the well of a vast stairway,… Great great variety of rooms in private houses, farmhouses, cottages, council houses. A room in an Anglican school, a Nissen hut, in a hostel.” It was claimed that in 15 places the Holy Mass had been said for the first time since the Reformation
The Missioner was kept busy with a great deal of correspondence between trips, liaising with local hosts, the local parish priest, preparing and posting out a fleet of letters to all the Catholics in a district whose addresses were known, following up requests for reception into the Church, baptism of children, convalidation of marriages, etc.
Initially, the financing of the Travelling Mission came directly from the Bishop’s Poor Mission Fund, supplemented by a grant from the Guild of Our Lady of Ransom.
Fr. Hulme continued in this role until 1959 when he was sent as parish priest to St Joseph’s, Bedford, where he ministered for 35 years until retirement in 1984. In the 1956 yearbook he had reported “though the travelling Mission, started in 1948, is now largely a matter of routine, new centres are being founded all the time.” One of the tiny places visited in 1955 had been Milton Keynes!
By this stage the Mission was also including a Travelling Crib for its Christmas Campaign. It had moved its base to a large residential property owned by the diocese at Fox Den in Burnham, near Slough. A report in the summer 1959 edition of the Diocesan Magazine makes it clear that by that stage it was using a Trailer Chapel, specifically a Wilson-Mather Mobile Church.
In 1959, Fr. Hulme was given an assistant, Fr. Robert McCormick, who had been ordained only three years previously and had been serving at Peterborough. When Fr. Hulme went off to panic parish ministry, Fr. McCormick took over and served as the Travelling Mission for another 17 years.
Within a short time, as reported in the spring 1961 Diocesan Magazine, Fr. McCormick had managed to get hold of a secondhand single-decker bus and was in the process of converting the interior of this to serve as a mobile chapel, with a permanent altar, “stained-glass” windows, a harmonium, stations of the cross, and a collapsible canvas porch. Inevitably, he appealed for funds to help with the cost of this, and was amazed to receive a donation from Zanzibar! Fr McCormick had a set of colour slides that he used in presentations to raise awareness of the work of the Travelling Mission, but sadly the whereabouts of these are now unknown. By 1970 he was reporting that he was frequently able to celebrate Mass in a local Anglican Church, although there were occasional difficulties with traditional Anglican vicars who objected to his use of his portable altar for saying Mass facing the people. If he was sure of getting the use of a fixed venue, he would make his journeys by Land Rover, which he found to be the only vehicle suitable for fetching outlying Catholics from their farms and cottages, and pulling other vehicles out of the snow!
But for organised week-long missions the bus would be parked in a village and used as a base to deliver catechism for local children, and as a preaching venue for a visiting priest from one of the religious orders, just like a parish mission. Fr. McCormick found it valuable to park the bus, with permission, at County/agricultural shows where it attracted much interest. As one old man from Ipswich commented, after seeing the bus arriving at its destination, “I’ve often gone past the church, but it’s the first time the church has ever gone past me!”
In 1965, in one of the Travelling Mission newsletters which he had begun to publish when possible, Fr. McCormick was enthusing about the benefits of being able to say the Mass in English, facing the people, as a result of the second Vatican Council.
Bishop Grant closed down the Travelling Mission in August 1975 in view of the pending division of the diocese in June 1976. Fr. McCormick, sent to be the parish priest in Diss, Norfolk, ruefully commented “I can see the day when, in order to keep the presence of the church alive in the community, there will have to be another form of mobile approach”. Has this been achieved, in a way he could not foresee, by the Internet age? Or, as more and more small churches are closed because of the shortage of priests, is there still room in the 21st century for some form of mobile physical presence of the Mass, by means of a caravan, motorhome or large tent?