Douai Abbey is a Benedictine Abbey at Woolhampton, near Thatcham, in the English county of Berkshire, situated within the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portsmouth. Monks from the monastery of St. Edmund's, in Douai, France, came to Woolhampton in 1903 when the community left France as a result of anti-clerical legislation. The abbey church is a grade II listed building, and the gatehouse, hall and three blocks of buildings are grade II listed.
After the Reformation
In the century after the Reformation, Catholicism was forced underground by punitive legislation, and owed its survival to a number of fiercely independent and proud Catholic families who maintained chaplains and private chapels in their houses. Our area of Berkshire was covered with such centres during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Blounts lived at Mapledurham, the Perkins at Ufton, the Englefields at Englefield and Whiteknights, the Yates at Tidmarsh, the Hydes at Hyde End, and the Eystons at Hendred. Slowly over the course of two centuries members of these old Catholic families, called 'recusants' because they refused to give up the Old Religion, died out or moved away, and so, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, there were very few still left in their family homes.
Near Douai, the Eyston family is still found today at East Hendred and Mapledurham. At Woolhampton, the Catholic Wollascot family lived throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the manor house, which is now incorporated into Elstree School, next to the Anglican parish church of St. Peter. Through a careful strategy of intermarriage among other Catholic families, the Wollascots extended their estate to include Brimpton and Shinfield. Many of the older houses belonging to the family had priest holes hidden in false chimney-pieces or in the thickness of the walls which concealed the family's chaplain from the priest-hunters. Ufton Court, across the valley from Woolhampton, has preserved its hides, one with the original ladder which allowed the priest to escape through the house and into the garden. The last Wollascot daughter married the Irish Earl of Fingall and moved with her husband to Killeen Castle in Ireland in 1786. She made provision, however, for her chaplain to remain at Woolhampton, and he continued to live in 'Woolhampton Lodge' which lay on the site of the present old school tower.
By the early nineteenth century, the chaplain's successor had begun a small school, and his pastoral responsibility covered an enormous area, mostly to the west of Woolhampton. Catholic congregations in Reading and Hendred at this time were served by priests, but there were no Catholic priests between Woolhampton and Marlborough.
Early 20th Century
In 1903, the secular priests at St. Mary's church and college, Woolhampton, were succeeded by English Benedictine monks from Douai in northern France, who had left France on account of the Association Laws, and who retained at Woolhampton the name 'Douai Abbey'. By this time, Newbury had grown into a separate parish and Thatcham was soon to do so. There were plenty of temporary mass centres around Woolhampton in the first decade of the twentieth century, but most have left few records. Between 1920 and 1927, for instance, Abbot Edmund Kelly went each Sunday to celebrate Mass and to act as chaplain to the Walmesley family at Inglewood House, Kintbury. The Walmesleys had transported themselves and their actual chapel, stone by stone, from near Wigan to Kintbury. At Burghfield in 1915, we read of Father Sylvester Mooney offering Mass for some Canadian Catholics who were engaged in felling pine trees for war supplies. There was a similar tale of the acorn taking root and growing at Pangbourne, where close by at Buckhold Grange, Mass was said in 1915 by Douai monks for Belgian refugees. The Pangbourne mission moved eventually to Mrs Manning's house at Weir Pool, and then into the Pangbourne College boathouse. The first Douai monk to supply at Pangbourne was Father John Murty. During the Second World War, Fathers Oswald Dorman and Edward Fairhead celebrated Mass for the hundreds of Irish who came to work in the local munitions factories at Burghfield and Grazeley Green. Meanwhile, Father Aloysius Bloor, the parish priest, took charge of Pangbourne.
After World War II
After the Second World War, Mass was celebrated at Burghfield in the W.R.N.S. Hostel which later became H.M.S. Dauntless, and then at the old Bland School on the Reading Road. The 1950s saw a great expansion of the Catholic population in England and Wales, and the Douai parish began to build more permanent chapels. By 1960, there were six chapels served from Douai.
First Permanent Churches
The first permanent church built after St. Mary's, Woolhampton, was that of Our Lady and St. Bernadette whose foundation stone was laid on a very wet Sunday in December 1957. (Fr Peter Bowe was an young altar server on the day.) Its architect was Lewis Treevers, appointed by Father Oswald Dorman, and its dedication celebrated the centenary of the apparitions of Our Lady to St. Bernadette in Lourdes in 1858.
Lewis Treevers went on to design St. Michael's, Tadley, which was then also served by Douai and was opened in 1960. At Tadley, Mass had been celebrated in the hall of Chiver's Hostel, but a more permanent church was built to serve the large increase of the congregation following the establishment of Aldermaston A.W.R.E.
The next year, 1961, St. Joseph's Church Hall, Clay Hill, Burghfield, was blessed. This incorporated an old army prefab on land purchased by Father Oswald Dorman in the late 1950s.
In Theale, Mass had been celebrated during the 1950s in the Lamb Hotel, and then in the Great Western Railway Hut near the station. Bradfield's chapel of St. Antony of Padua was in these years to be found in a small wooden hut, known affectionately to the small congregation as 'the basilica'. It was taken back by Bradfield College in the 1970s and the congregation dispersed.
Reforms of Vatican II
The reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s encouraged a further spate of church building. St. Luke's, Theale, was opened in 1969, Bishop Worlock suggesting the evangelist as its patron. But population expansion grew on the east of the M4 corridor, and St. Luke's congregation remained fairly static.
At Burghfield in 1973, it was decided to build a new church, dedicated to St. Oswald to commemorate the great labours of Father Oswald Dorman. Designed by Lance Wright of Pangbourne, this church was opened in 1976.
In the mother church of St. Mary, Woolhampton, in 1977, a restoration was carried out by the firm of J. J. Frame, and a new organ installed. By this time, the building was less used by pupils of Douai School and began to revert to its original use as the parish church of Woolhampton, although it was overshadowed by the vast abbey church of Our Lady and St. Edmund which was completed in 1993 to the design of Michael Blee and which in turn attracted its own congregation.
The Rt. Rev. Abbot Geoffrey Scott, O.S.B.