Sunday, 25 September 2011


During the dark days of persecution, many, many Catholics remained faithful to the old faith. Up and down the country Catholics of every class risked fines, imprisonment and even death to attend Mass and receive the Sacraments administered by intrepid priests. Amid all this bravery and faithfulness to the Catholic Faith, nowhere was more staunch than Lancashire and Monmouthshire.

David Lewis was a Monmouthshire man, born in Abergavenny in 1616. David was the son of a Catholic mother and a Protestant father and was brought up in the Established Church by his father. As a young man David converted to Catholicism and, after the death of his parents in 1638, he went to Rome to study for the priesthood. Several years after ordination, Fr Lewis entered the Jesuit Novitiate. In 1648 Fr David Lewis, now a professed Jesuit, returned to Wales and the beleaguered Catholics of his homeland. For more than 30 years this selfless priest laboured in the border areas of Monmouthshire and Herefordshire. He ministered to Catholics all over this part of the country but he frequently stayed in the home of Thomas Gunter of Cross Street, Abergavenny. Thomas Gunter was another of the courageous Catholics determined to remain faithful, whatever the cost. He had a secret chapel in the attic of his home and Fr David Lewis and Fr Philip Evans, also a Jesuit, regularly celebrated holy Mass there.

Although both priests were martyred for the faith in 1679 (they were canonised in 1970) the good people of the area somehow remained steadfast in the faith. Attesting to this loyalty, many objects have survived from this distressing period of history. Chief among these treasures must be the Abergavenny Vestments!

The Church of Our Lady and St Michael, Abergavenny, is in possession of a rare and stunning collection of medieval vestments, worn by the priests who ministered to the people of Abergavenny, and kept safe through the years of persecution and beyond. Today these vestments are valued and protected but are displayed to the public occasionally and sometimes worn on very special occasions.

On 17th September 2011, we had the very great privilege of viewing the medieval vestments. They were displayed in the church that day and the parish priest, Dom Thomas Regan, O S B, was on hand to greet visitors and explain the history and function of the vestments. Fr Regan is extremely knowledgeable regarding Catholic history and his exuberant descriptions of the vestments were peppered with interesting and amazing snippets of information.

Perhaps the most beautiful and most valuable vestment on display was the red chasuble made at the Court of King Henry VII in 1498. It was given as a gift to Abergavenny Church by Henry’s wife, Elizabeth of York. My personal favourite though was the unusual brown chasuble. Father said that this was made about 1500 and is believed to have been made locally. A white chasuble (circa 1505), thought to have its origins in Crickhowell, and a gold chasuble (1521) were also on show.

Completing the display was a beautiful cope. The cope itself is modern but the embroidery is original and from the time of Henry VII. The embroidery was recovered from an ancient cope that had not stood the test of time.

While these vestments form a very important part of our Catholic history, they are also an important part of the history of Monmouthshire in general and Abergavenny in particular. We are indebted to the Catholics who have safeguarded them through the centuries. We also owe a debt of gratitude to the parishioners of Our Lady and St Michael and to Dom Thomas Regan for the continued preservation and protection of these cherished relics.

Sunday, 11 September 2011


The first recorded execution took place at Tyburn field, near the present day Marble Arch, in 1196. In 1571 the Tyburn Tree replaced the original gallows. The Tree was a horizontal wooden triangle supported on three legs. It was designed thus to accommodate multiple hangings at the same time. Although it was done only once, 24 prisoners could be executed simultaneously. The first victim of the Tyburn Tree was Dr John Story, a Catholic who refused to recognise Queen Elizabeth I as head of the church. Thousands had been executed at Tyburn before John Austin, a highwayman, was hanged there in November 1783. That was the last time the Tyburn Tree was used.

Between 1535 and 1681, almost 400 Catholics were executed at Tyburn. The last Catholic Tyburn Martyr was St Oliver Plunkett, executed in July 1681. The Vatican has officially recognised 105 of these as Martyrs and many of them have been canonised.

At the beginning of the last century the Benedictine Adorers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus set up home at Tyburn Convent, just yards from the site of the old gallows. The Sisters pray night and day before the exposed Blessed Sacrament. In recognition of the men and women who gave their lives for the faith, the Sisters maintain the Martyrs’ Shrine. Here are preserved relics of some of the martyrs, and a replica of the three cornered gallows, the Tyburn Tree, forms part of the altar.

Last month Cwmbran based Friends of Saint David Lewis visited Tyburn Convent. At 8 o’clock in the morning our group of 42 pilgrims left Cwmbran and headed up the motorway for London. Several hours later our genial coach driver, Terry from Tryline Travel, deposited us near Tyburn Convent. By now it was almost lunch time so, of course, we set off in search of food! There are restaurants aplenty in that area, Marble Arch, so pretty soon we were all happily catering to the inner man. That taken care of, we made our way down the road to Tyburn Convent.

Our tour was scheduled for 2 o’clock so we had some time to spare. This gave us the welcome opportunity to spend time in the chapel where the Blessed Sacrament is exposed night and day. What a great privilege!

Just before 2 o’clock, a smiling Mother Lioba arrived to escort us to the Martyrs’ Shrine in the crypt. Our parish priest had accompanied us on our pilgrimage and, as he vested for Holy Mass, Mother welcomed the group and briefly outlined the history of the Convent. Then, wearing red vestments, Father celebrated the Mass of the Martyrs. We were privileged to attend Holy Mass where, in days gone by, priests had died for celebrating Mass and for being Catholic priests. Father brought this home to us in his very apt homily.

When Mass was concluded, Mother Lioba recounted the story of the many Catholic martyrs who had been executed at Tyburn for their faith. Although our patron, St David Lewis, did not suffer at Tyburn – he was martyred at Usk – Welshmen, including St John Roberts and Blessed Philip Powell, were among the victims of Tyburn. Mother Lioba held us spellbound with her animated accounts of the lives and deaths of the martyrs. Mother’s knowledge of the martyrs was extensive, her enthusiasm palpable, and her devotion clear to all.

After Mother Lioba’s talk, there was time to wander around the crypt at leisure and to view the many treasured relics housed there. Mother was on hand to answer any questions or just to chat.

Our visit to Tyburn Convent was not over yet. We were directed to an adjoining room where pretty young Novices served refreshments to the pilgrims. Alas, it was time to leave. Mother Lioba, still smiling, saw us off with a handshake and a “God bless you”. Then it was back down the M4 to Wales.

It had been a memorable day and a happy yet humbled and thoughtful group arrived back in Cwmbran. All marvelled at the courage and faith of those holy men and women who had died for their faith. The experience certainly gave us food for thought and, hopefully, a greater appreciation of our Catholic faith and of the freedom we have to practise it. Remember, there are still countries in which Christians are dying for their faith.

Father, in your mysterious providence, your Church is called to share in the sufferings of Christ, your Son. Give the spirit of endurance and love to those who are persecuted for their faith in You. May they always be true and faithful witnesses to your promise of eternal life. This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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