Last week Cardinal Vincent Nichols preached at a Mass in Brentwood Cathedral celebrating the centenary of the diocese. It was on March 22, 1917, that the Diocese of Essex was established when Pope Benedict XV, at the request of Cardinal Francis Bourne, separated the county from the Archdiocese of Westminster.
Four months later, on July 20, the Diocese of Brentwood – comprising not only Essex, but also parts of east London – was officially erected. It forms part of the Province of Westminster and is the only diocese to have been created from an area formerly belonging to the archdiocese itself.
In 1917 many people (including most of the English bishops) considered the establishment of a new diocese inopportune, not least because the nation was plunged into “the war to end all wars”. Indeed, World War I still had a year to run.
Nevertheless, Mgr Bernard Ward, the first Bishop of Brentwood, who was also a distinguished seminary rector and ecclesiastical historian, informed Cardinal Bourne that he thought his new territory could indeed be “worked up into a good diocese”.
Ward was a railway enthusiast and he pressed for Brentwood to be named as the permanent episcopal see because of its good transport links. Both Chelmsford and Ilford had been suggested, but the new bishop knew that from Brentwood, which is one station London-ward from Shenfield junction, he could reach most of his diocese.
When on parish visitations, he frequently arrived at the local station on the footplate of the locomotive, having been allowed to drive it; and when writing circulars to his clergy, he gave them the times of the most convenient trains by which they might reach a particular event. On Maundy Thursday he even arranged for the Holy Oils to be delivered by train to outlying parishes where the priest had been unable to travel to the cathedral.
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