A Mass is to be said at St John’s Abbey Gatehouse in Colchester at 11am on 24th June. This will be a poignant event – it will be the first Catholic Mass on the site to mark the feast day of the abbey’s patron saint in 480 years. The Gatehouse is all that remains of the Benedictine Abbey of St John, once the fourth largest in the country, but doomed to be suppressed by Henry VIII.
Founded in 1095 by Eudo Dapifer, William the Conqueror’s High Steward and Constable of Colchester Castle, the abbey made a major contribution to the development of medieval Colchester and became a wealthy and privileged house, despite losing part of its buildings to fire in 1133.
In the late 14th and early 15th centuries, perhaps as a result of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the abbey strengthened its defences and the gatehouse was added as part of this revamping around 1400. St John’s was one of a handful of abbeys that refused to surrender to Henry VIII’s Commissioners during the Dissolution, succumbing only after the execution outside its walls of its abbot, Thomas Beche.
St John’s Abbey Gatehouse is in the care of English Heritage and managed by Colchester Borough Council. Local history group Colchester Catholic Heritage Trust has been instrumental in the process of fundraising and gaining permissions necessary for its use. Jennie Guthrie-Stevens, a member of the group, has done copious research and brought to light many details about the site and its last abbot.
The first Mass since the death of Abbot Beche was celebrated in the building on the anniversary of his death on 1st December 2012 and a plaque recording his death has since been unveiled at the site. Abbot Beche was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1895.
In 2015, the Rt Revd Alan Williams sm, RC Bishop of Brentwood, and the Bishop of Colchester, the Rt Revd Roger Morris, attended an event to mark the 900th anniversary of the dedication of the Abbey, together with local dignitaries. The Mass in the Gatehouse on the feast of St John the Baptist will be said by Mgr Chris Brooks, parish priest at St James the Less and St Helen, Colchester.
Says Jennie: “The upper room in the Gatehouse is reached by a twisting staircase and handrail. For those who can’t use the stairs there will be prayers said downstairs under the archway and communion will be offered as well. The archway has four corbels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) which were retrieved from the site of the original Abbey and placed there in 1840. The frontage of the Gatehouse still features Our Lady’s lilies ( a limestone design in the flint on the frontage) and the plinth with the Agnus Dei is clearly visible. We feel very privileged to be able to have this service and all are welcome to join us to celebrate this day.”