Fr. Cornelius Coles became the missioner and was responsible for the building of St. Peter’s
1st January 1841
A subscription list was opened. Fr. Cornelius Coles had to appeal to the wealthy Catholics in England by way of subscription list to obtain funds. Among donors was a famous Irish patriot Daniel O’ Connell.
One month after opening the list the Board of Ordnance (forerunner of the Ministry of Defence) were prepared to make over a piece of land in New Road.
24th September 1841
The Catholic paper at the time called ‘The Orthodox Journal’ relates the
following ‘ The erection of this sacred edifice will soon commence. The
church will be worthy of its designer Mr. Pugin. The Catholic population at
Woolwich numbers 3000 and the present chapel will not admit more than 400.
On Sunday evening, the second of next month a meeting will be held at the
‘Duchess of Wellington’, Green’s End, and a collection made.’ Mr. O’ Dwyer
ran the meeting and he was a frequent donor of funds.
26th October 1842
The foundation stone was laid by Dr. Griffiths, the Bishop of the London District
26th October 1843
An opening ceremony took place on Thursday, performed by a retired Bishop
The building contract for St. Peter’s church was for the nave and the aisles.
The sacristy and the presbytery was completed. But, there were not enough
funds for the tower and the clerestory. The tower abutments can be seen over the locked side entrance to the church.
Augustus Welby Pugin was the best known architect at the time and was well
known as the mainstay of Victorian Gothic Revival.
Fr. Coles was established as the first Apostolic Rector (Parish Priest)
Negotiations were opened to obtain the property to the North of the church which was owned by a public house known as the ‘Gun Tavern’.
The ‘Gun Tavern’ was moved to a new site and plans were drawn for the new building by Mr. Pugin’s son, Edward Welby Pugin.
Fr. Coles died and was succeeded by Fr. Jeremiah Cotter who became the next Parish Priest.
About the same time, the needs of the military required a totally separate army chaplain.
A lengthy visitation report compiled by Fr. Coles reports details about the state of the Parish at that time. There were 4000 Catholics in the town and the mass timings were 7, 8, 9.30 and 11 am. 9.30 am mass was attended by the soldiers and this mass was taken by the Army Chaplain.Fr. Cotter inherited some money and obtained the land immediately to the North of the presbytery and made the land over to the diocese. He proceeded to build the present presbytery which was completed in 1870.
Education Act of 1870 – It became necessary to provide for the teaching of infants. Infant school was built at the back of existing school (now the small hall).
Fr. Cotter was sent a priest called Fr. Seraphim Fieu of Belgian origin.
Fr. Cotter found the local organisation known as ‘League of the Cross’.
School Sisters of Notre Dame first arrived in Woolwich.
Cardinal Manning of Westminster lectured in Woolwich on temperance and met with a big response.
Fr. Fieu appointed administrator in November as Fr. Cotter’s health was beginning to fail.
Fr. Fieu became Rector on resignation of Fr. Cotter
Fr. Cotter died.
The Woolwich Catholic Club was started.
Fr. Fieu improved St. Peter’s to a considerable extent. The Chancel and the St. Joseph’s Chapel were built on to the church thereby giving far more room inside.
The Government made a regular grant to the school and so fee paying was ended. An old set of rules indicates that fees for Juniors were three pence a week and for infants one penny a week.
Fr. Fieu installed a reredos at the cost of £105 and Altar Rails were put in designed by the Belgian firm of Jans. (they were taken down in 1971, but a small section of them can still be seen in St. Joseph’s Church in Herbert Road, where it is used as a surround for the lecturn).
Thrones for the statues of St. Patrick and the Sacred Heart were put in place and the sounding board over the pulpit was installed designed in Belgian by Jans. The sounding board is now the impressive Testa hanging over the Altar at St. Joseph’s, Herbert Road.
An infant’s class was built next to the existing one.
Fr. Fieu as Parish Priest started up the Catholic Truth Society and St. Vincent de Paul Society and while still a curate had started the A.P.F. fund.
Fr. Fieu was about to embark on building the tower when he suddenly died in February 1893 at the age of 49. A letter in Southwark archives suggests he died of a fever brought on by the bad drainage of the old presbytery which Fr. Coles used to complain of as being very damp.
He was succeeded by Fr. Joseph Reeks whose foremost task was to move the graves from the small graveyard behind the church inorder to extend the school playground. A few graves, however, were left behind St. Joseph’s Altar.
A diocesan return suggests that the average Mass attendance was 1400 including the Military. There were 210 Baptisms, a figure that was maintained at that level until quite recently.
The Stations of the Cross were installed. They were formerly at St. George’s Cathedral.
Fr. Reeks put up a votive candle stand in front of Our Lady’s Statue.
Fr. Reeks was a first-class musician and wrote several hymns. One of this was ‘Leader now on earth no longer’, the hymn to St. George, which was his composition.
He encouraged the choir and built up a strong musical tradition.
The choirmaster was Mr. J. Mortimer Dudman, and the principals of the choir were Messrs. Hawthorne and Keefe and Mesdames Farrell and Wilkins.
Fr. Reeks encouraged the ‘League of the Cross’ and died at the age of 51 and in buried in Woolwich Cemetery in a grave which he now shares with Canon Monk
In Whit Sunday (White Sunday), at the High Mass at 11 am the parishioners read that the choir rendered Beethoven’s Mass in C with orchestral accompaniment.
1900-1939 can be called the Golden Age of St. Peter’s
. Fr. Reeks was succeeded by Fr. Arthur Doubleday who was the pioneer of the St. Peter’s Parish Magazine which featured articles and stories and a small amount of Parish News. He had to face a debt on the school of £500 and a debt on Plumstead of £5000.
The army decided the time had come for the chaplaincy to be reduced to an ‘officiating chaplaincy’. That is to say, the work required would be done by priests on a part time basis. Fr. Doubleday became an officiating chaplain. But the work among the Servicemen was attended to by his curates. He was allocated two curates to replace full-time chaplain and henceforward until quite recently there were usually five priests at St. Peter’s.
The Mass attendance had built up rapidly under Fr. Reeks and the return for 1903 gives a total Mass attendance at St. Peter’s of 2,365. This figure was maintained except for the period of First World War right up to 1939. In the years after the Second World War the highest was around 1,800.
Fr. Doubleday was elected to the River Ward in the Borough Council Election.
Mr. Dudman resigned as organist replaced by Mr. T. Keeffe.
Woolwich was to lose Fr. Doubleday. The Bishop had asked him to take charge of St. John’s Seminary, Wonersh.
Fr. Doubleday became Monsignor Doubleday and resigned from Parish and he was succeeded by Fr. James Connell who did not enjoy good health and resigned in 1914 to live at Brighton.
The next Parish Priest was Fr. Augustine O’ Leary who resided over St. Peter’s until he retired in 1934.
During the War, attendances at St. Peter’s were reduced. Woolwich was well known because of the munitions factory and the employment of women workers while men were out fighting for their country.
Fr. O’ Leary was appointed as full military chaplain with a rank of captain as temporary appointment.
Mgr. Doubleday became first Bishop of the new Diocese of Brentwood until his death in 1955.
Fr. O’ Leary was reappointed as honorary chaplain 4th class with the rank of captain in recognition of his services to the military during the war.
Talk of building new school.
The Parish built up very quickly after the war and attendances and confraternities were soon continuing at their old rate
When Fr. O’ Leary died his funeral was held at St Peter’s and the writer of his obituary in Parish Magazine said of him ‘Those who met Fr. Leary in the town will remember that whether he was riding his motor-cycle as in his earlier years, or hurrying along the streets, his composed placid face would break into a cherubic smile, and the passer-by would be greeted with a kindly word or by a wave of his lemon gloves which he invariable carried.’
Fr. O’ Leary was succeeded by Fr. Canon Monk who was the longest serving Parish Priests of Woolwich.
The Annual Feast Day collection was devoted to a fund for a new High Altar. A Church cannot be consecrated unless there is a fully stone altar and at St. Peter’s the altar had a decorated wooden base. Fr. Monk hoped to raise £1000 for the permanent Altar and to have the Church consecrated in 1943, exactly 100 years after its opening ceremony.
The Lady Altar was completely restored at the cost of £165 14s
During the Second World War, Mass attendance fell down rapidly to 1000 on an average Sunday.
The usual round of activities continued, but on a reduced scale, regular missions were held, major activity lacking was Midnight Mass. This had to be cancelled for the duration of the war.
Fr. Monk still had hopes for the consecration of the St. Peter’s Church when the building would be 100 years old and he arranged with local craftsmen to improve the setting of the shrine of St. Theresa of Lisieux statue donated by Fr. Nevatt, one time curate at Woolwich.
Craftsmen were employed to provide a stone Altar and also to install a new reredos to replace the older reredos which was too small for a large Church. This is a quite elaborate 14th Century Gothic design and can be seen today.
The Archbishop came down for a special High Mass attended by many of the local clergy.
The Sacred Heart Shrine was rebuilt.
October 26th 1944
The consecration ceremony of St. Peter’s Church, Woolwich started at 9.30 am lasting for three and quarter hours. Archbishop Amigo performed the ceremony assisted by his auxiliary bishop Brown and 25 priests. Only 25 laity attended because in those days the ceremony of consecration entailed removing all the benches from the Church to enable the letters of Greek alphabet to be inscribed in small piles of ashes placed in the shape of a Cross over the floor of the Nave.