In 2008 the Convent and Church of Virgo Fidelis, an impressive building and a dominant landmark on Central Hill, celebrated its one hundred and sixtieth anniversary. It was built and established by an Order of French nuns who brought back the Catholic faith to this very English corner of England where no Mass had been said since the Reformation. In 1842 local parishioners were able to attend Mass for the first time in a local Temperance Hall as the nearest Catholic Church was where the new Saint George’s Cathedral in Lambeth now stands.
The founder of the Order called the Congregation of Our Lady of Fidelity was Henriette De Forestier d’Osseville, born in 1803 into an aristocratic family, her father being a Count, and she spent her early years in Rouen. As a child she had always expressed a deep devotion to the Virgin Mary and her faith was tested and confirmed when her younger sister was miraculously cured following a death-threatening illness. Subsequently, following her sister’s recovery, she and her father visited the ancient Marian Shrine of La Delivrande in Normandy to give thanks, her father declaring: ‘I shall only die happy if a pious work is to remain at La Deliverande and as a perpetual living ex-voto in gratitude for what I owe to God.’ This act of faith was to become a reality as, with her father’s support, Henrietta founded the Congregation of Our Lady of Fidelity at La Deliverande and became Sister Saint Mary. Her Congregation was established in 1831 when she was only twenty-eight years old, sincerely believing that Our Lady had called to her promising that: ‘as the Faithful Virgin she would be faithful to their house and endeavour.’ Consequently, Henrietta’s future life was devoted to the service and care of orphaned and underprivileged children. She would, through her unquestionable faith, her hard work and despite many obstacles be responsible for the building and establishment of the Virgo Fidelis Convent, its church, orphanage and the schools established on the site.
The disastrous potato famine in Ireland had created a large number of desperate orphans who needed care and schooling and Cardinal Wiseman requested the help of the Community of La Deliverande. Consequently, Mother Saint Mary set sail from France with eighteen Sisters bound for England in September 1848 with the intention to establish an orphanage and school in Upper Norwood. The Sisters were accompanied to England by their Chaplain Father Michael Vesque who, in later years, was appointed to the Bishopric of Dominica in the West Indies.
In 1857 the then Old Park Hotel, an historic house dating back to 1558, was purchased and renamed St. Mary’s Lodge by the Order. It was here that the convent and orphanage was to be established. We can assume that the cost of the purchase had been funded in part by her father the Count D’Osseville. The house had been originally occupied from 1775 by Mary Nesbitt the young mistress of the aristocrat John Hervey who was the Vice Admiral of His Majesty’s ships on the Mediterranean. He had discovered the delightful country house when riding in the area. The house was situated in a sheltered position against a background of woods with the nearby Effra river. He was also able to purchase from the Archbishop of Canterbury several surrounding acres covered with woods, pasture and garden bounded by a ring fence. It was indeed fortuitous that a small band of French nuns, embarking on the care of poverty-stricken children, should ultimately inherit such a delightful house and grounds in which they could carry on their work.
Ultimately the nuns and children must have outgrown the old house and plans were made to build the Virgo Fidelis Convent and the adjacent Church we know today. In 1871 the Church was opened with great pomp and ceremony as a memorial to Bishop Thomas Grant who had fully supported the work of the orphanage. He and his friend Bishop Vesque are indeed buried in the Convent Cemetery. The architect of the Church was a Mr. Goldie and the final cost amounted to £7,000. It is interesting to know now, when passing the Convent, that five thousand orphans have lived and spent their formative years on that historic site under the care of such a dedicated sisterhood. After the Second World War the intake of orphans was stopped and replaced by a fee-paying secondary school. Unusually, in 1952 the building included a small state-financed non-fee paying (voluntary-aided) school called Our Lady’s School. Ultimately, and because of its small size, the Sisters had no alternative but to eventually accept the closure of Our Lady’s School by the Croydon Council under a re-organisation scheme. However the main building now houses a larger modern state-funded non-fee paying secondary school for Catholic girls under the leadership of the present headmistress Sister Bernadette. An ambitious building programme has recently been undertaken to expand the School further and improve educational facilities. Today, sad to say, there are few nuns where once there were a hundred.
Unfortunately many of the original features of the interior of the Church were stripped away during a period of modernisation a few decades ago. Older members of the congregation who worshipped in the Church during the sixties may well remember the many gracious nuns dressed in black habits with beautiful white head-dresses entering the Church in procession at morning Mass and seating themselves around the Church in their individual seats that flanked the Church walls. One was a little in awe at their serene presence and my grown-up children still have vivid memories of those gracious days. Sadly, the wooden carved banquettes, the magnificent marble altar and its surrounding wooden panelling were also removed. Fortunately, the four stained-glass windows depicting scenes from the life of Our Lady survive and the crowning glory of the Church is a statue of the Virgin Mary which arrived from Munich in 1878, a gift donated by the orphans and visible on the main altar. The statue was crowned in May of that year amidst great festivities, an event that had not happened in England since the Reformation. Today, on special religious festivals, the statue of our Lady is again adorned with her crown.
In the Sixties St. Mary’s Lodge had become a popular preparatory school under the watchful eye of the Headmistress Sister Dorothea. The fees were £25 a term! She was a small lady, kind but firm, who had joined the school as a pupil in 1919, studied music and entered the Convent as a Postulant in 1928. She remained at the Convent until her death in April 2004. She was able to recall the time when the Convent had been partly self-sufficient, growing its own food with a farm with fifteen cows, a bull, 300 hens and an orchard with beehives. A donkey and a goat were also to be found. Sister Dorothea had taught music and played the piano and organ and claimed that the Willis organ in the Church was one of the best. Famous visitors came to the Church for concerts and it once played host to the then two Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret: another famous visitor was Sir Edward Elgar. She remembered the time when nuns were only allowed to leave the ground in pairs. Students and children witnessed the burning of the Crystal Palace and she recalled the war damage inflicted on the Church and Convent during the air raids when the School was to be evacuated on several occasions.
Today, what has the Church and Convent to offer? The Church leased to the parish is vibrant and well-attended with a multi-racial congregation and many flourishing organisations within the Church. It houses the Virgo Fidelis voluntary-aided secondary school in the main building and the private preparatory school is still housed in the old St. Mary’s Lodge. In keeping with its Founder’s original ethos and tradition the St. Mary’s Family Centre was opened in 1992 by the Rt. Hon. The Lord Weatherill of Croydon who had been a popular and respected Speaker in the House of Commons. The Centre, run as a voluntary organisation, is situated within the grounds of the Convent and is open five days a week., The aim of the Centre is to cater for the needs of the parents and children of the community and surrounding Boroughs and it offers a range of services for family support presided over by a team of qualified professional workers. The social work team can provide support for up to twenty-five families a year. Sister Bernadette, headmistress of the senior school, works tirelessly in organising fund-raising events to make the Centre a tangible reality as well as a much-needed amenity. She and her workers may well be inspired by the creed of the Foundress, Mother Saint Mary: ‘Once you have inspired young people to desire what is good, you will have achieved’.
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