THE CHURCH OF ST. FRANCIS, MAIDSTONE 1880-1980
FROM MISSION TO PARISH - A
7. The growth of the parish, 1920 - 1970
this period the parish developed very quickly from a small congregation
with its overcrowded 19th century church and school into a large community
with improved or entirely new buildings. But first the parish suffered the loss of the presbytery built only twenty-four years earlier. One Saturday in June, 1926, the priests' housekeeper awoke to find the ground floor of the house enveloped in flames. The alarm was raised, and the Maidstone fire brigade summoned. After one hour's work the fire was brought under control but the damage was extensive and the house was virtually gutted. The parish priest, Father Fowell, paid tribute to the firemen: "they were wonderfully quick in assembling on their bicycles after I gave the alarm". Fortunately, the fire was prevented from spreading to the adjacent church.
The clergy were faced with the problem of finding a home quickly. As a temporary measure, a house called Claremont in Foley Street was purchased and at the same time plans were made to renovate Grove House extensively to make it habitable again as the priests' residence. The Sisters had given up Grove House c1920 and for a short period it had been used as a hostel for young Catholics. During the restoration in 1928 a set of life-size oil paintings were uncovered on the walls and ceiling of the hall, depicting allegorical scenes from ancient mythology, including the Judgement of Paris. The quality of the paintings was thought to be fairly high and Father Scott invited Mr. Hardy, an expert from the Victoria and Albert Museum, to examine them. Mr. Hardy dated the paintings as c1750 and, although historically interesting, he gave his opinion that they were of no real artistic value. He believed that they were probably the work of a journeyman artist at the time when Grove House was built and had been covered over for at least a century. He advised that they should be restored but Father Scott, perhaps deciding that he could not live with the subject matter of the pictures, instructed that they should be covered up again with paper and the walls distempered. In 1929 the work on Grove House was completed and the clergy took up residence.
During the 1920's and 1930's the size of the parish grew dramatically. In the visitation report of 1926 the Catholic population was recorded as 800, but by 1929 it had climbed to 1,300 and by 1932 it had reached 1,500. In recognition of this the parish was given a second curate in 1932 and the clergy also acquired a motor car to enable them to cover the widening geographical area of responsibility. At this date the new chapel of St. Thomas More at West Malling had been added to the list of mass centres. As the parish grew in numbers the accommodation at the junior school became increasingly inadequate. The school which the younger Pugin had designed in 1863 for an average of 50 children could scarcely be expected to continue to meet the needs of a modern educational system. By January, 1934, a new wing of four classrooms and a woodwork room had been built at a cost of almost £7,000 at the back of the original school which was then available as a parish hall and assembly room.
1940's the outlying districts included Detling, Harrietsham and Yalding
and in 1947 the population was estimated at 2,400. Just as the children outgrew the school, so too the families outgrew the church which was uncomfortably crowded on Sundays. Plans were made to enlarge the building at the west and east sides and the design included a new porch at the north end. The architect was Mr. W. Poltock of Loose, who was on the staff of the Rochester School of Art. The work began in early January, 1954, and by the end of the year it was almost complete. The extension had cost £24,000 and increased to 416 the number of sittings which could be provided.
Part of Mr. Poltock's design was the idea of a representation of St. Francis for the new porch and he invited his colleague at Rochester, Miss Edwards, to be responsible for this. Miss Edwards was principally an embroideress and she decided to use leather as her material, worked in a mosaic of pieces stitched together with silk and decorated with pure gold thread and precious stones. The finished picture was so well received that she was asked to produce the series of the Stations of the Cross in the same style. This project was spread over several years, each station taking an average of six months to complete.
In 1957 a new organ was installed by Messrs. F. H. Brown & Sons of Canterury. The carved stone pulpit had been presented by Bernard Reeves of Dean Farm, East Farleigh, in the late 1920's when he discovered it in a mason's yard, having been designed for another church and then discarded.
In 1958 further school accommodation was acquired by Canon Simmons at Vinters Park where temporary buildings were erected to house the senior children. It became clear that a division of the parish would have to take place based on three units: St. Francis and the Parkwood and Oakwood areas. By 1963 it was agreed that Parkwood should have its own junior school and this was opened in 1966 dedicated to the Holy Family.
Three years later a parish was established at Parkwood and its church was begun in 1970. Similarly, the need for a Catholic secondary school was well proven and the site chosen at Oakwood would provide the nucleus of a new parish in the future: St. Simon Stock secondary school was opened in 1966.
In 1970 the spire of St. Francis' church, the one distinctive feature of the late Victorian building to remain, was dismantled because the stonework was crumbling. To replace it would have involved considerable expense and so a flat roof was put in its place.
The church of St. Francis as it stands today is by no means architecturally perfect. The mixture of old and new in its design is a reflection of the way in which the building was constantly having to be adapted to meet the needs of a developing community. Throughout the 120 years from mission to parish the Catholics of Maidstone have been very fortunate in their clergy, being well served by men of dedication and seemingly tireless energy. As we celebrate the centenary of the present church it is fitting that we remember also all the missionaries, priests and bishops whose combined efforts first began the Catholic community in Maidstone and then encouraged it to flourish.