Bishop David Oakley shared the story of Fr John Priestly Warmoll during his homily at the Chrism Mass on Thursday 6th April.
“It is always encouraging for me to come across accounts of good priests. During a recent pastoral visitation to Bedford, Canon Seamus introduced me to a little book about the first priest there in modern times. He was Fr John Priestley Warmoll and later became the Provost of our Cathedral Chapter.
Ordained priest in Rome on Pentecost Day 1863, Fr John returned to Northampton. He was appointed to the Cathedral, to find his bearings in the priestly life and ministry. These were very early days in the story of our diocesan family. Across the seven counties of the Diocese at that time, there were very few churches besides the Cathedral. Just 34 churches and chapels and 4 convents. The Diocese was served by 21 diocesan and 5 religious priests.
Just a few months into priesthood, Bishop Amherst sent Fr Warmoll to see if there was any possibility of establishing a mission in the County Town of Bedford. It stirs my heart to reflect on the next part of this story. ‘After darkness had fallen Christmas Eve, Thursday 24th December 1863, Fr Warmoll arrived alone and unnoticed in Bedford, ‘when other people were going to visit their friends, or join the social circle where they were loved. He had come to fulfil the patient expectations of a handful of faithful Catholics, little more than a dozen out of a total population of about 14,000, and to steady the flickering flame of faith that, incredibly they had lovingly preserved.’
Our model missionary priest crossed the town to find the Tandy family. At midnight, at dawn and later in the morning of Christmas Day, Fr Warmoll celebrated three Masses in the front parlour of their little home. The congregation totalled 14. On that very day, John Warmoll wrote his first begging letter to The Tablet Weekly Register. Soon he was able to rent an upstairs accommodation where two bedrooms were knocked into one to form a chapel, and a third tiny room served as his bedroom. The following September there were over 100 attending Mass. John Warmoll never forgot the humble origins of his first days in Bedford on that Christmas Day, placing the Mission under the patronage of the Holy Child and St Joseph.
Twelve months later, he had raised the princely sum of £620. This was enough to purchase land and to begin building. The church we have today was built in many stages as this illustrious parish priest used every trick in the book to get things done. Always conscious of the need to think in a missionary way, John Warmoll accompanied the building of a church with the start of a school. Canon Warmoll, as he became, was irrepressible in his work and hope, in his enthusiasm for the Church’s mission.
And he was certainly not inward-looking, restricting himself to a narrow understanding of priestly ministry. He loved people of all faiths and none. He joined a variety of societies, the Natural History Society and Field Club, the Bedford Literary and Scientific Institute and General Library. The list of his interests is extensive. It was written in the Bedford Bee, ‘His home is a sort of museum wherein all manner of living creatures and creeping things find board and lodging in return for affording their tender keeper entertainment and instruction.’”