The History of St Etheldreda’s


The Church’s Beginnings in Ely

By the middle of the nineteenth century the town of Ely had approximately 600 families and there were some 30-40 Catholics living in the district but no resident priest. At that time there was a single missionary rector based in Cambridge, Canon Thomas Quinlivan.  The London to Norwich railway line opened in July 1845 and made it easier for Canon Quinlivan to travel to Ely to say occasional masses in a private house in the town.

The Parish is Created

The parish of St. Etheldreda began as a distinct and separate mission in 1890 when Fr John Francis Freeland was sent to Ely where he opened the first place of worship by partitioning his lodging room to create a tiny chapel. In 1891 the population of Ely numbered 8,017 and the first Roman Catholic congregation just 16 worshippers. With numbers rising, Fr Freeland purchased ground and opened a small corrugated iron chapel in 1892 on part of the site upon which the later St. Etheldreda’s church would be built.

The original iron church still exists at Thorney Toll as it was used as a chapel until about 1973, dedicated to St. Patrick. It was then sold and used as a garage.

When the parish church opened in 1892 the services offered were as follows:

  • Sunday Mass at 8:30am and 11am
  • Catechism 3pm & Rosary, Instruction & Benediction 6:30pm
  • Daily Mass 8am, Holidays of Obligation, Mass 9 a.m.

The parish grew gradually, numbering about 100 by the early 1930s.  In the period around and after the Second World War, there were up to 300,000 Italian and German Prisoners of War based in the fens, a number of whom were based at a camp in Ely and worshipped at St. Etheldreda’s.

The current church was opened on 17 October 1903, on the feast of the translation of St. Etheldreda’s relics. However due to a lack of finances at the time of opening, the church was not consecrated until 22 May 1987.

The Style and Architecture of the Church

The architect of the church was Mr Simon Croot of Brampton and the builders were Messrs Howard of Huntingdon.  The church was built for a cost of £2,600 with the Presbytery costing a further £900.

The parish church was dedicated to St. Etheldreda because she is so closely associated with and is patron saint of the city of Ely.

The church is built in Decorated Gothic style, with a separate elevated sanctuary and two aisles. It contains a number of stained glass windows which depict: St Peter, St Pius X, St Margaret Clitheroe, St John Houghton, St Francis, St John the Evangelist, The Good Shepherd and Jesus as Priest

The original organ was built by the Positive Organ Company.

The original stained glass was supplied by Messrs Jones & Willis of London and Birmingham.  The main window behind the Altar depicts St. Wilfrid, Our Lady and St. Etheldreda (see below). The window is a replica of a similar window to be found in York Minster.

Parish Priests Incumbent at St Etheldreda’s

Parish Priest Date at St Etheldreda’s
Rev. John Francis Freeland 1890-1906, died 7 Dec 1940
Rev. Henry Long 1906-1908, died 16 April 1936
Rev. George Frederick Stokes 1908-1928, died 2 Jun 1928
Rev. Henry George Hughes 1928-1933, died 29 Nov 1943
Rev. Constantine Ketterer 1933-1940, died 18 Dec 1940
Rev. Christopher McGregor 1941-1943, died 20 Jun 1943
Rev. Charles Alexander Grant 1943-1945, died 24 Apr 1989
Rev. Albert E Whyatt 1945-1946, died 21 Mar 1991
Mgr. James Bernard Marshall 1946-1946, died 31 Dec 1946
Rev. Guy Pritchard 1947-1970, died 3 Jan 1983
Rev. Brendan Peters 1970-1980, died 29 May 1991
Rev. Gerard Quigley 1980-1980
Canon Paul Taylor 1980-1993, died 27 Aug 2002
Rt. Rev. Mgr. Michael Cassidy 1994-1995
Rev. Laurie Locke 1995-1999
Rev. Anthony Shryane 1999- 

St Etheldreda

At the heart of St. Etheldreda’s cult was the fact that her body was found to be incorrupt, remaining whole and lifelike in the grave, rather than decomposing. This was recorded initially by St. Bede in Bk 4, ch 19 of the History of the English Church thus helping her cult to become established and well known from an early date.

During the medieval period the Abbeys or Cathedral churches of Durham, Glastonbury, Salisbury, Thetford, Waltham and York all claimed to have relics, or small parts of the body of St. Etheldreda.  It cannot now be confirmed whether these were authentic relics or not, but the nineteenth-century discovery of a relic, recorded below, supports the idea that relics of St. Etheldreda may well have been distributed more widely than from the main shrine.

Besides the principle relic of the body of St. Etheldreda, the cult of St. Etheldreda seems to have also involved the distribution of lace necklaces and other objects which were claimed to have been associated with St. Etheldreda. Records of the visitation of Dr Layton and Dr Leigh in 1536 make reference to cloths for women with sore throats and sore breasts, a comb of St. Etheldreda for women with headaches and a ring of St. Etheldreda for women seeking relief when ‘lying-in’ in childbirth.

At The Reformation, in the sixteenth century, the shrine of St. Etheldreda was destroyed and the cult ended. Fragments of the shrine are thought to have survived in various locations around the town of Ely. Painted panels with scenes from the Saint’s life were found being used as a cupboard door in an Ely house in the 1780s. There is also a small eighth-century carved frieze found in a barn wall at St. John’s Farm near Ely, which is thought to come from the shrine. Parts of the canopy of Bishop Hotham’s tomb, within the Cathedral of Ely, have also been claimed as parts of the shrine. The fact that so little of the original shrine survives is probably due to the fact that Prior Robert Wells and the 23 monks who signed the deed of surrender on 18 Nov 1539 seem to have been largely sympathetic to the ideas of the Reformation and so many of them took positions in the new church or drew pensions from the crown.

The exact date of the destruction of the medieval shrine cannot be pinpointed with accuracy, but it probably took place following Thomas Goodrich’s instruction to the clergy of Ely diocese on 21 October 1541, commanding that “all images, relicks, table monuments of miracles and shrines” should be demolished and obliterated. Reference to the actual destruction of the shrine was made by Dr. John Caius (later to found Caius college in Cambridge) as he records his surprise at finding that it was built out of stone, not marble, as might have been expected. Nevertheless, official records show that some 361 ounces of gold and 5040 ounces of gold and white plate were taken from the shrine into the royal treasury.

The modern relic of Saint Etheldreda, consisting of her left hand, was found preserved in a separate reliquary, hidden in a priest’s hiding hole in a house in Sussex in about 1811. It was presented to the Duke of Norfolk and passed down to the community of Dominican Sisters at Stone. The hand was found on an engraved silver plate on which was written ‘Manus Sanctae Etheldredae DCLXXIII.’ The plate itself was of a tenth-century style, suggesting that the hand had been separated from the rest of St. Etheldreda’s body at around the time of the tenth century.  It was reported in 1876 that when the hand was found it was “perfectly entire and quite white (but) exposure to the air has now changed it to a dark brown and the skin has cracked and disappeared in several places”.

The Shrine and Relics of St Etheldreda (2012)

A small part of the hand of St. Etheldreda was returned to the parish in 1950, given from St Etheldreda’s Church in Ely Place, London where it had been honoured. But the main relic had remained with the Dominican sisters at Stone and they donated it to the parish in June 1953, where it has remained ever since.

The modern day shrine is a relatively simple construction, displaying St. Etheldreda’s hand in a glass reliquary. Until the late 1960s there was a small altar dedicated to St. Etheldreda, immediately in front of where the relics are displayed, but the liturgical changes which followed the Second Vatican Council led to the altar being removed, to be replaced by the parish font in 1975, which was moved from the back of the church where it had previously been.

Modern Pilgrims continue to visit the shrine of St. Etheldreda at the small Roman Catholic church, often combining it with a visit toEly Cathedral, where the medieval shrine was located before the Reformation.

adapted from the relevant Wikipedia entries, with thanks