One God, One Family, One Community
St. George’s Catholic Parish, Taunton - from the beginning to 150th celebrations in 2010
St. George’s 19th Century Church, with its splendid Tower is in the tradition of great Churches in Taunton. From Saxon beginnings, and before the mid-16th Century Reformation, there were three fine RC Churches in the Town. There was a thriving Priory of Augustinian Canons, with 26 Clergy at its peak; their Church of St. Peter and St. Paul became defunct in 1539 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Also, there were two other great Churches dedicated to St. James and to St. Mary Magdalen, both of which are Anglican today, each with splendid Towers, which along with that of St. George’s dominate the skyline of Taunton.
Today we have a thriving and multi-cultural RC Parish with two Churches, playing a full civic and ecumenical role in the Town. It was a painful and hazardous journey from the 16th Century Reformation to the 21st Century during which huge dangers were to be overcome, and great sacrifices, loyalty and financial support were to be required of Parishioners, Clergy and Convents.
After the Reformation, Roman Catholicism sank to a low ebb in Somerset. Nearby Glastonbury Abbey, one of the largest and wealthiest Benedictine Abbeys in England, was suppressed in 1539 and Richard Whiting, its Abbot suffered vicious Martyrdom. He was hanged, drawn and quartered on Glastonbury Tor, bringing terrible fear to Somerset Catholics. Strict Laws punished those who would not attend the remaining Churches, which were now part of the new Church of England, with King Henry VIII as its Head.
In 1688, Pope Innocent XI established four Vicariates in England, one of which was The Western District (today’s Dioceses of Clifton and Plymouth, plus the whole of Wales). Some alleviation for RCs came with the Catholic Relief Acts of 1778 and 1791 but it was not until after 1791 that Catholic Chapels became legal.
In 1787, just prior to that Act there is written evidence of Fr George Baldwin being appointed as Mission Rector in Taunton. Fr. Baldwin was not allowed to wear Clerical dress in public, nor could he minister to his flock outside the makeshift Registered Chapel, which was set up in a house in Canon Street, not far from the ruins of the Old Priory. Taunton had the status of a Mission and the Priest lived in adversity in a hostile atmosphere; he was much loved by his flock and received welcome support from a Franciscan Convent which was established in 1808. In 1818, Fr. Baldwin died, having bravely re-established the Faith in the area, but the Catholics in Taunton still had no permanent Church.
Fr Samuel Fisher OSF succeeded as Rector and quickly raised funds to build a permanent Chapel in The Crescent - the building remains today, as a Masonic Hall, presenting a classical exterior, matching well the Georgian terrace. By 1822 there were thought to be 120 Catholics in the Town, and on 3rd July of that year, the Chapel which had a sumptuous interior, rich in marble and mahogany, and could seat 200 was opened. It was a huge step forward for the congregation. An opening, joyful High Mass with professional soloists made a powerful statement of Catholic pride and determination to be an important and expanding presence in the Town. The Chapel won plaudits for being a valuable architectural addition to Taunton, although its deliberately patriotic dedication to St.George no doubt upset some, including perhaps the congregation of St.George’s Anglican Church in Wilton, on the outskirts of Taunton, and not a mile away.