From 3000 years B.C to today
HISTORY OF THE PARISH OF HOLY FAMILY AND ST JOHN THE APOSTLE
Although the parish of Holy Family and St John’s may be relatively new its territory embraces the most ancient parts of the town, including the first traces of human occupation in what is now Luton. About 3,000 years B.C. nomadic people decided to settle beside the springs of the River Lea. Here they built their encampment in and around a great earthwork. It is called Waulud’s Bank and what little of it is still to be seen above ground today curves from Marsh Farm towards Sundon Park Road. The earliest name for the settlement was Lygetun. Iron Age people later occupied the area from around 100 B.C. and artefacts, including coins dating from A.D. 15-40, have been unearthed at Leagrave. By the time of the Romans, during the 2nd century A.D., the people living beside the marsh at Leagrave seem to have tired of their damp abode and moved across the Lea and along the Icknield Way. In what today is Bramingham Road was found the remains of a substantial Roman house.
St Cedd (d.664) the Lindisfarne trained monk who became bishop of the East Saxons, helped evangelise Bedfordshire. By about A.D. 600 the Anglo-Saxons had become Christians. It is believed that their first small wooden church was built at Biscot. It was not until the Danish occupation in the 10th century that the present town centre came into being and the first stone church was built. When the Domesday Book was compiled in 1086 under William the Conqueror the church at Luton owned about 600 acres of land. By the 12th century St Albans Abbey owned not only the church but also most of the land in Luton. The abbey supplied two priests to serve the town and also laid down that an annual pilgrimage to St Albans shrine was an obligation for Luton residents. A new parish church, St Mary’s, was built during the 14th century. And so matters continued more or less unchanged until the religious upheavals of the 16th century. When St Albans Abbey was suppressed in 1539 by Henry VIII St Mary’s church and all the abbey lands in Luton came into the possession of the Crown.
Until the 19th century there is little evidence of any significant Catholic presence in Luton. A Catholic mission had been started in 1845 but was abandoned after two years. When the Diocese of Northampton was established in 1850, with William Wareing as its first bishop, the population of Luton was 10,600. The diocese covered seven counties from Buckinghamshire in the west to the coast of Norfolk and Suffolk in the east. (This remained its territory until the creation of a separate Diocese of East Anglia in 1976.) In 1881 Luton had just 160 Catholics who came under Bedford. In 1884 the first resident priest, Father J.O’Connor, celebrated Mass in his house until, in the same year, a corrugated iron church was erected in Castle Street: the first Catholic Church in Luton since the Reformation. It was replaced in 1910 by the permanent church of Our Lady. St Joseph’s parish, Limbury came into being in 1937 and by 1939 there was a temporary church of St Joseph in Gardenia Avenue. In 1946 St Margaret of Scotland, Farley Hill, was established and in the same year a mission was begun at Stopsley, leading to setting up a parish in 1948 and culminating in the opening of Sacred Heart church in 1950. In the 1950’s and 60’s the Catholic population of Luton showed a marked increase.
With the expansion of the Catholic community new churches were required. 1962 saw the building of a church in Leagrave High Street dedicated to the newly canonized St Martin de Porres . Holy Ghost church was built at Beech Hill in 1964. Sundon Park was incorporated into Luton when it became a County Borough in 1964. The Catholics in the area worshipped in a local school. In 1965, through the good offices of a parishioner, Councillor Mr James Cussens, a former granary on Sundon Park Road was purchased and architect T.E.Wilson of Leicester was asked to convert it into a church, with a parish hall and living accommodation for the priest. The new church, dedicated to St John the Evangelist, opened in 1966 and was solemnly blessed by Bishop Leo Parker on 1 November. The first parish priest was Father Brian Godden. In 1971 Mr Cussens and his wife were Mayor and Mayoress of Luton and a civic service was held at St John’s to bless their year of office. By that year the parish was being called St John the Apostle.
From 1974 until 1978 the church was served by the SMA Fathers. They were followed by Father V. MacRory 1978-83 and Father Tom Kenny 1983-1991. In 1991 the church, celebrating its Silver Jubilee, was consecrated. Father Kenny was succeeded by Father (later Canon) Denis McSweeney 1991-96 and from 1996 to September 2011 by Father Mark Floody.
For some years the Catholics of Marsh Farm worshipped on Sunday’s at the Mass Centre in Waulud’s Junior School. In 1971 Bishop Charles Grant celebrated Mass there and confirmed a number of parishioners as well as holding a meeting with the Marsh Farm Parish Committee. In 1975 the parishioners of St John’s petitioned Bishop Grant for a separate church to serve Marsh Farm. At the time the Anglicans were building Holy Cross church and the possibility of sharing the new church with them was discussed but that idea was abandoned in 1976 and the bishop agreed to establish an independent parish. He commissioned Father Bernard Hughes to build up a new parish community. Eventually a site for a new church, to be dedicated to The Holy Family, was found off Bramingham Road and in 1982 Bishop Francis Thomas laid the foundation stone which had been blessed by Pope John Paul II on his visit to England earlier that year. The new church opened in 1983. Father Hughes served the parish until 2001 when it celebrated its Silver Jubilee. In that same year St John’s was clustered with Holy Family and the following year the two parishes were merged with Father Mark as parish priest serving the two churches.
The Catholics of Barton-le-Clay used various halls for worship until the opportunity arose to buy a wooden building from a local golf club. In 1961 parishioners re-assembled it on a piece of land donated by a local non-Catholic businessman. The wooden building was used for ten years with the Assumptionist Fathers from Hitchin serving the community. The number of Catholics in Barton steadily increased and the priests were anxious to have a more permanent structure but each time land became available it was either too expensive or permission could not be given to build a church on it. The situation became urgent when the old hut began to let in rain. In 1971 it was decided to erect a new building, which again could only be temporary, and work commenced on a concrete structure. To keep the costs down the parishioners themselves undertook much of the work, including painting inside and out. In August 1972 Bishop Charles Grant blessed and opened the new church, St Matthew’s. The responsibility for celebrating Sunday Mass at the church eventually fell to Father Mark Floody at St John’s and the arrangement continued until St Matthew’s had to be closed in 2003 principally because it was no longer practicable for one priest to care for three churches. The community of St Matthew’s were welcomed into Holy Family and St John’s parish family.
Both St John’s and Holy Family churches have undergone re-ordering and refurbishment in the last decade providing them with the facilities required to serve a confident, forward-looking, highly active parish, led by Father Tony Brennan from September 2011 until September 2019.
Our current parish priest is Fr Andrew Richardson.