St Anthony's Catholic Church
Fakenham, Norfolk

by Nick Paquay

St Anthony's Church from the front lawns circa 1909. (G T Lamont)


For most of this century, St Anthony's Church has served the Catholic population of Fakenham and the surrounding villages. Originally Dereham, Wells and Walsingham fell within its boundaries before getting their own churches. The parish still covers approximately 250 square miles.

Over the years the make-up of the congregation has changed. Initially the numbers were very small - the members of three large families, I have been told. World War II brought a vast influx of servicemen, mainly American, to the area, and names in the Baptismal and Marriage registers reflect this.

The original church was tiny, .but in the 1940s the present chancel was added on - its lack of woodwork reflecting the austerity of the post-war years. Nowadays the congregation consists largely of people who have retired from the big cities to Norfolk, though a handful of the original families still remain.

Each generation has made its own contribution to the life of the parish. This booklet pays tribute to those who went before us, and I would like to pay my own tribute to those still keeping the flame alive today.

C. Cook, Parish Priest, June 1999

Mass first celebrated in a room on Holt Road. Then in a room over a confectioners shop in Norwich Street before moving to a hall which was occupied later by the Plymouth Brethren (White Horse Street). The next move was to a room over a boot-makers shop in Tunn Street. Father Gray was known as a sole repairer of these premises.

The Bishop of Northampton sent to Fakenham, Father Gray to establish a parish. The district was very big and included Walsingham, Wells and Dereham. At the time there were few Catholics. Father Gray came from a wealthy family, whose private income could be used to help establish the parish. Father Gray first lived in Wensum House at Hempton and was given permission by the Bishop to say mass in the house which was built in 1745 near Back Street. At one time a stained glass window could be seen in the house from Back Street, which was the confessional. After 1909, when the church was constructed, the agricultural workers union used Wensum House. George Edwards (later Sir George) founded the union in 1906 and came to live at Wensum House. Father Gray became a friend of George Edwards and took an active part in helping the union until 1926.

Plot purchased at Fakenham for the construction of a parish church. The land laying between Butchers Hill, Hayes Lane and Wells Road.

The house was built much larger than the church as the intentions were to make the church larger at a later date. Father Gray met with much opposition during his mission to create a permanent church at Fakenham. It has even been said that he was thrown into the local river (the Wensum) to deter him from his mission. Indeed a local newspaper, when reporting the ceremony of the dedication of St Anthony's during May 1909,mentioned local antipathy. It is thought that around 200 people attended the ceremony, which consisted official dignitaries, robed monks, nuns, canons and reverends. A fine luncheon was served in the corn hall, which later became the local cinema. High Mass was celebrated in the presence of the Lord Bishop of Northampton, Or Keating. It is said in the report that the church was built on a pleasant spot commanding an expansive view over and beyond Hempton Common. As mentioned earlier, the Church lands stretched down to Hayes Lane in 1909. The hall now occupied by the Freemasons being known as St Anthony's Parish Hall. During the stay of Father Gray, the hall was used as a boxing venue to raise funds for the parish. In the early years, there was a croquet lawn at the front of the Church and sunken gardens at the Hayes Lane end. Now occupied by two houses, one built only a few years ago and named Presbytery Garden. Father Gray had grand plans for the Church. The present sacristy was to be a waiting room for visitors to the Presbytery. Father Gray had three live-in servants and a live-in gardener by the name of Meek. Their quarters were reached by a rear staircase, which has since been blocked up. Most parishioners to the Parish are relatively newcomers. One family, which can be traced back to the early days and supported Father Gray during his early mission, is the English family, a name that continues within the parish today. St Anthony's mission complete, Father Gray moved to Slough and his connections with Fakenham ended. Father Gray occasionally returned to Fakenham as Canon Gray, to lay to rest parishioners that he had known during his stay in the town.

The Altar Front. (Mrs J Pilch)

The congregation swelled rapidly and artificially during the Second World War with so many airmen stationed around the area. This included Americans, Dutch, Polish and Irish, to name but a few. The Irish helped to build the airfield runways. There are records of large crowds unable to get into midnight mass. Several of these war time visitors married into the local community. Names such as Kiszka, Gawlinski and Van Damme can be traced through the church records. Various plans were suggested for extending the Church. Shortly after the war, around 1947, the present sanctuary and front half were built. The original church had the wooden beams and wooden block flooring with the altar' framed' by three ornate glass stained windows.

Teresa English presenting a bouquet to Lady Pryce-Jones at a Church Garden Fete in 1959. (Mrs J Pilch)

The 'modern' extension was built with a tiled floor and metal roof girders. At the rear of the church can be seen three glass stained windows, each with a coat of arms. The windows are as old as the church and the shields represent the arms of the Pope, and the Bishop of Northampton. The third shield is a mystery and perhaps further study will reveal its origin. At one time, an old pedal organ below these windows was played during mass and a single bell above was rung to call the faithful to church. Older parishioners may recall a Mr Jimmy Carroll, carrying out bell ringing during the late 1950s. In more recent years a small part of the front lawn has been lost to car parking but St Anthony's remain as ever a very picturesque church set within beautiful grounds.

Children about to receive their first communion. November 1st 1955. (Mrs J Piltch)

It is very apt that the tiny Catholic Church of Fakenham is dedicated to St Anthony of Padua. St Anthony was born in Portugal but began his Holy life within the Augustinian Order in 1221 at the age of 26. These friars originally came from St Francis of Assise, a city of the Duchy of Spoleto in Italy. They are sometimes known as grey friars and dressed as poor Italian shepherds. They believed in chastity, obedience and poverty.

First Communion: Fr Barker and the Nuns who instructed the Catechetics.  November 1st 1955. (MrsJ Pilch)

St Anthony is often known as the 'Hammer of the Heretics', due to his teaching. He is typically depicted with a book and the infant child Jesus, to whom he miraculously appeared, and is commonly referred to as the 'Finder of Lost Articles'.

Communion. Fr Maddon with Peter Hogan in the late 1980s.

St Anthony died at the age of 36. Pope Pius XII made him a Doctor of the Church in 1946. The village of Little Walsingham, 5 miles north of Fakenham, was represented by a group of the Franciscan Order from 1347 to 1538. The Priory ruins are quite extensive and lie off the Fakenham Road, some 200 yards west of the Church.

The Church from the front lawns in 1980.

Fakenham Parish Priests

1905 - 1933 Father H Gray (later Canon Gray)
1933 - 1937 Father Sammonds

1937 - 1944 Father Arthur T Brewer 

1944 - 1949 Father Gerard Roberts (later Canon Roberts)
1949 - 1959 Father William Barker
1959 - 1975 Father Francis Hacon
1975 - 1984 Father Hugh Capper
1984 - 1991 Father Patrick Maddon
1991 – 2004 Father Christopher Cook

2004 - 2007 Father Michael Rear

2007 - 2016 Father Tony Webb

2016 - 2020 Father Dick Healey


2020 - Present Rev Andrew Neate