St Mary, Axminster

Lyme Road, Axminster, Devon, EX13 5BE

There was a period of some two hundred and five years, from the accession of Elizabeth 1 in 1558, during which, so far as a we know, Mass was never celebrated in Axminster.  But all that changed in 1763 when John Knight settled at Hilary House.

The Knights were land agents to the family of Lord Clifford of Chudleigh and lived at Cannington in Somerset.  Cannington manor had been given to the first Lord Clifford by Charles II.  John Knight probably moved to Axminster because he was also agent to Lord Petre, who owned the Axminster lands.

He converted a room in his new home for use as a chapel, and Mass was celebrated there, by a succession of priests, for nearly seventy years.

But by the mid 1820s, the need for a larger place of worship was becoming apparent, and the congregation began to make plans to build a small chapel on Lyme Road ‘near the eastern turnpike gate’.  The work was entrusted to a local builder called George Bragg.

After a number of setbacks the new chapel was opened by Bishop Baines, Vicar Apostolic for the Western District, on 15 August, 1831.

The Emancipation Act of 1829 had removed almost all the disabilities affecting Catholics, and by the time the hierarchy was restored in 1850 the little chapel in Axminster could no longer accommodate all those who wished to worship there.

So in 1854 Henry Knight commissioned a London architect of  distinction, William Wardell, to prepare plans for a new and larger church to be built on the site of the existing chapel.  The new church was to be of local stone in the gothic style.  And there was to be additional land for a presbytery, a priest’s garden, a family burial ground and a school.

But things did not go entirely according to plan.  Henry Knight died in 1858.  And William Wardell emigrated to Australia for the sake of his health.

However, all was not lost.  William Wardell had finished his plans for the church in 1855.  And after considerable delay the building was completed by Henry Knight’s eldest son, also Henry, under the supervision of another architect, George Goldie.  In ‘The Book of the Axe’ (1875) George Pulman describes the new church as ‘handsomely fitted up… the altar and its appendages of a costly character’ and refers to a ’ fine-toned organ’.  The east and west windows and the window on the north side of the chancel are described as ‘of finest stained glass’.  The seating capacity was reckoned to be 100 and the building was opened on Ascension Day, 29 May 1862. 

The priest-in-charge, Fr. John Toohey, had moved into the new presbytery on 8 December 1861, and was to die there thirty-seven years later.

Anyone approaching St. Mary’s today will find that the church and priest’s house have not changed much in nearly 150 years.  They will see a modest but well-proportioned group of buildings constructed in local stone, the church having red stone dressings and striking tracery in the large east window.  On entering St. Mary’s, the first things the visitor is likely to notice are the windows.  The gothic tracery was clearly inspired by the decorated style, which had its finest flowering at Exeter Cathedral.

But it is the stained glass which really catches the eye.  The eight windows form a remarkable collection in very different styles dating from 1862 to 1952. 

The east window, the window on the north side of the sanctuary and the round west window all appear to be contemporary with the church and to date from 1862. 

The fine east window was given by Sarah Anne Haggerston, daughter of the Henry Knight who completed the church, in memory of her husband.  Sarah herself is seen in the lower part of the window, kneeling in prayer, while St. Anne commends her to the protection of our Lady.  The central lancets portray the Annunciation.  Our Lady and the Archangel Gabriel are flanked by Ss. Peter and Paul. And incorporated  in the window are the coats of arms of Pope Pius IX and Bishop William Vaughan of Plymouth. 

The window on the north side of the sanctuary depicts our Lady of Sorrows. 

The west window represents the Last Judgement.

The fine nave windows, two on the north and three on the south, reveal a fascinating variety of styles and all commemorate members of the Knight and Langran families.

James Alexander Knight ( †1881)

Henry Knight ( †1894)

William Henry Barns  Knight ( †1923)

This window dates from 1938 and is by Paul Woodroffe.

Henry Knight ( †1944)

William ( †1943) and Emily ( †1952) Langran.

This window, dating from 1952, uses fused glass and was designed by Father Charles Norris of Buckfast Abbey.

Another prominent  feature of the church is the fine series of Stations of the Cross erected in1930 by Emily Mary Frances Langran in memory of  her mother Mary Knight and her sister Mary Keating.

Also noteworthy is the elegant  modern font in local Beer stone.  It was installed in 2008, together with the holy water stoop in the porch.  Both contribute much to the appearance of the church and were funded with the help of a legacy from Aidan Charlesworth, the last member of the founding family to live in the parish.    

Perhaps less visible but certainly no less impressive are the fine vestments made for St. Mary’s by another member of the founding family, Julia Frances Knight.  The gold chasuble, known as the ‘Easter Egg’, is a good example dating from 1864. 

All can see the attractive altar frontals made for the church in recent years by Victoria Norman.

The interior of the church is enlivened by statuary.  To the north of the chancel arch is the Lady Altar, erected in memory of Richard Ingham and his family, and above it stands a statue of the Madonna and Child. To the south of the chancel arch is a statue of our Lord, given by Mary Loveridge in the nineteenth century.

Outside the church, much of what was established in the early 1860s remains, some of it little altered.  Happily, the priest’s house continues to be occupied and its pleasant garden appreciated. 

The cemetery contains a number of memorials to members of the Knight family and others, including several parish priests.  In historical terms, it must be one of the most interesting burial grounds in the diocese. 

The school, also part of the original project in the 1860s, has grown rapidly and does an excellent job of providing catholic education for upwards of 140 children from a wide range of backgrounds.  Today it benefits from modern buildings and facilities.

As we look back on a long and fascinating history, our hope and our prayer must be that we and our successors will maintain and develop the catholic tradition established in Axminster by the Knight family nearly 250 years ago.