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History of Portsmouth Diocese

By a Papal Brief dated 19th May 1882, Pope Leo Xlll created the Diocese of Portsmouth. It was formed out of the western portion of the Diocese of Southwark as constituted at the re-establishment of the hierarchy in 1850. It comprised the counties of Hampshire, Berkshire, the Isle of Wight and the Channel Islands. It was thus almost co-terminus with the limits of the Old Catholic See of Winchester. The obvious place for the Cathedral and Curia of the new Diocese was Winchester. But the Ecclesiastical Titles Act forbade a Catholic Diocese of an Anglican See. It would then appear that the original idea was to fix the See at Southampton, with St. Joseph's Church in Bugle Street as the Pro-Cathedral. But a large parish church had begun in the centre of Portsmouth, so it was decided to make it the future Cathedral of the Diocese. In 1882 the Diocese had about 49 priests and 55 Missions, as parishes were then called. The new diocese was small at its beginning, but it was a sign that two centuries of Penal Laws had not destroyed the Old Religion.

The Catholic faith survived in the main through the help of the Old Catholic landed families who with great secrecy enabled the Sacrifice of the Mass to continue as well as providing at great cost to their lives protection to the priests by hiding them secretly. It was not without this great persecution and great suffering that the Faith remained alive and as the years past and the Penal Laws were not applied with their old severity it became possible, with care, for the Mass to be celebrated.

In 1730 Richard Challoner (later ordained Bishop in 1741) arrived in England from Douai and set to work in what was then called the London District, of which the county of Hampshire formed part, celebrating Mass in Embassy Chapels where Mass could be said publicly, as all worship had to be in secret preferably in ale houses and cockpits where the presence of a crowd would not arouse too much suspicion.

The Relief Act of 1791 gave Catholics new hope, but it was not until 1829 (Civil Emancipation) when it became possible to celebrate Mass publicly in England under sanction of the law and Catholic chapels could exist legally, if licensed and provided that they had neither steeples nor bells!

The 'birth' of the Diocese of Portsmouth, if it can be described as such, came about because the Diocese of Southwark had become too large for one Bishop, extending as it did from London to Bournemouth and from the outskirts of Oxford to Dover and including the Channel Islands. And so in 1882 the counties of Hampshire, Berkshire, the Isle of Wight and the Channel Islands were cut off from Southwark and made into a new diocese, and in that same year Dr. John Vertue (1882-1900) was appointed the first Bishop of the new Diocese of Portsmouth. He was consecrated by Cardinal Manning on 25th July 1882 and on 10th August of that year opened the Cathedral at Portsmouth. When the new Bishop took possession of his See, there were 55 public chapels and 49 priests in the diocese.

Since then the church has enjoyed sustained periods of growth going from strength to strength under the tender care and watchful eyes of six bishops: John Cahill, 1900-1910; William Cotter (who came from Cloyne in Co. Cork), 1910-1940; John Henry King (who was given the personal title of Archbishop in 1954), 1941-1965; Derek Worlock (Translated to Liverpool as Archbishop 7th February 1976), 1965-1976; Anthony Emery, 1976-1988; and now from 1988 the Diocese is in the loving and skilful guiding hands of Bishop Crispian Hollis.

In Catholic understanding, tradition in faith and doctrine is what has been received from the Apostles, passed down, accepted and developed from generation to generation until today. The faith in this part of England, kept alive by the blood of the martyrs and the courage of the persecuted, has flowered afresh during the past 120 years. Constantly building on the traditions of their forefathers, each generation receives and passes on these traditions of faith and Catholic life as the future unfurls in the annals of the Diocese of Portsmouth.


With thanks to Deacon Peter Lattey (RIP) for most of the information on these pages.

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