Parish History

With the re-establishment of a Catholic Hierarchy in England in 1850, an ambitious building plan was initiated throughout the country. In Derby this began with the building of Saint Mary’s church to a design of Augustus Pugin ( Out of St Mary’s parish a new chapel was founded in 1909 in Alvaston. From 1909 until 1918 it was served by St Mary’s until its first parish priest, Fr John Keogh, was appointed just after the 1st World War.

Priests and Parish:

The first mission was opened in Alvaston on Hollis Street in April 1909. Mr John Doherty, whose brother was Mayor of Derby at that time, gifted the land (1906) for the Chapel. A small carved wooden credence table, dedicated to John Doherty’s memory, is still part of the patronage of the church at Alvaston. Between 1909 and 1917 the mission was served from Saint Mary’s, Derby, and from 1917-1918 from the Cathedral in Nottingham. However, in 1918 it appears that the Rev. John Keogh (died 15th March 1940) was appointed to Alvaston as Parish Priest; a post he held until 1921. From 1921 until 1922 Leo Frederick Bermingham (died 31stOctober 1947) was the vicarious. From 1922 until 1937 Alvaston was again served from Saint Mary’s, this was in no small measure due to the lack of funds to sustain a resident priest; indeed, from 1924 to 1925 the chapel was closed, and only reopened for Midnight Mass in 1925. A number of priests names appear in the registers for this period: John Butler; Patrick Maloney; James O’Connor; Claude E. Bostock (died in 1956); Thomas Loretto du Manoir (Curate at St. Mary’s 1931-1932); Michael Patrick Butler (Curate at St. Mary’s 1932-1933); William Henry McDonald (ordained 15th August 1933, Curate at St. Mary’s 1933-1937), who in December 1936 baptised a certain Brian Dazeley, who was much later to be ordained for the parish in 1961; Michael Tarpey (Curate at St. Mary’s 1934-1936) and Bartholomew Dempsey (Curate at St. Mary’s 1936-1937).

In 1937 it was considered opportune to place a resident priest in Alvaston again, and the Rev. John C. Dowd was appointed as Parish Priest. Father Dowd had been ordained on 20th May 1934 and served Alvaston during the difficult years of the Second World War when again money was tight. He served until 1942 ( – Father Dowd was subsequently Parish Priest of Our Lady of Sorrows in Bamford, which is now in the Diocese of Hallam, in 1963 he was moved to Sacred Heart parish in Skegness, and in the following year as Parish Priest to All Saints at Hassop where he remained until 1967 when he took early retirement due to ill health, and died in 1973).

In 1942, Father Christopher McKeown (ordained June 12th 1938) was appointed Parish Priest and took up residence in the old presbytery, number 1166 London Road which had been purchased some years before. Father McKeown was born in County Longford on 22nd October 1912. He studied for the priesthood at Saint Patrick’s in Carlow, and was ordained there on 12th June 1938. Prior to his appointment to English Martyrs’ he was a curate at Saint Patrick’s in Nottingham.

After a lengthy building project, the new church of ‘The English Martyrs’ was opened with the celebration of Midnight Mass 1952; all without the new organ which was still awaiting the completion of the gallery. The old harmonium was pressed into service, played by Eileen Card and pumped by Albert Card, sonorously accompanied by the choir. Masses returned to the old church until the building was completed. During the building work the builders were paid weekly as the money came into the parish in the collection.

In January 1953 the parish acquired Greenhill House on Alvaston Street at the corner of Green Lane from Lawrence Ridgeway (Nurseryman) to provide schoolrooms for the parish. In the same year Canon McKeown persuaded the Sisters of Mercy to establish themselves there, and thus the Convent was opened. The Covent was extended with schoolrooms being added in 1959, and 1963. In 1969 Bishop Ellis made Father McKeown an Honorary Canon. In 1973 Father McKeown moved into the present presbytery, number 16 Hollis Street.

In 1975, the Rev. Christopher Turner (died in 2003), was appointed as Curate to English Martyrs, and assisted until 1979 when he was succeeded by the Rev. Christopher Fisher (died in 2000). Father Fisher’s time at English Martyrs was short-lived, and in the autumn of 1980 the Rev. Michael Stewart replaced him. The following year Father Stewart (died 1982) was removed to take up the post of Bishop’s secretary, and a new Curate arrived at English Martyrs; the Rev. Philip J. Baker. Father Baker had been ordained on 30th June 1979.

Canon Christopher McKeown died on 23rd May 1982 after forty years as the Parish Priest of English Martyrs. He was buried on Thursday 27th May. For about a month Father Hugh T. Doherty, looked after the parish until the arrival of a new Parish Priest Father Thomas McMahon (ordained 20th November 1955).

In October 2000 the Chapel of Ease at Chellaston dedicated to Saint Ralph Sherwin was incorporated into the parish. The people of Chellaston had until 1971 worshiped in Chellaston Old Hall on Maple Drive, but in that year a new Chapel of Ease was opened on Swarkestone Road. The responsibility for Chellaston was with Saint George’s, Normanton until 1977 when the parish of Holy Spirit Sinfin was created which included Chellaston within its boundaries. When the parish of Sinfin was suppressed Saint Ralph Sherwin at Chellaston was allocated to English Martyrs.

Father McMahon served English Martyrs until his retirement to Ireland in 2001 when Father Stephen Lennon succeeded him. Father Lennon was born in Northern Ireland, being ordained on 8th June 1968. During his time at English Martyrs he had the old church hall demolished and a new one built in its place, which opened in 2005, and made some alterations to the external and internal aspect of the church. He died at Saint Mary’s Nursing Home in Ednaston on 23rd August 2006 after a long illness. On 17thSeptember 2006 Father Mark Brentnall was appointed as Parish Priest of English Martyrs. Father Brentnall was ordained on 15thJuly 1997 at Saint Barnabas Cathedral. He served briefly at St Alban’s in Chaddesden in Derby in 1997 until being transfered to St Barnabas Cathedral at Nottingham. In addition to his responsibilities at the Cathedral Father Brentnall was appointed as RC Chaplain to Nottingham Trent University in 1999. From 2001 until 2006 Father Brentnall was undertaking further studies in Rome.

In June 2010 Father Victor Dakwan from the Diocese of Ogoja joined English Martyrs’ to assist Father Brentnall, after his appointment as Chaplain to Derby University. Father Dakwan was transfered to St Barnabas Cathedral in June 2012.


English Martyrs Church:

Built in 1952, replacing an earlier and much smaller church which operated on the same site from 1909. The present building was constructed in 1952 by a local company Ford & Weston, to a design of the Manchester based firm of Architects, Reynolds and Scott. The style of the design was described at the time as ‘modern Romanesque’, and originally included a tower to the right of the main entrance; subsequently abandoned due to cost. Ford and Weston were not new comers to church building; Richard Weston had worked on St Osmund’s Anglican church further along London Road and Thomas Weston had directed the building of the Sacred Heart Monastery. Ford and Weston were particularly proud of English Martyrs’. The foundation stone for the new church was laid by Bishop Ellis on 16th March 1952 and was officially opened and consecrated by him, a year later, on Sunday 10thMay 1953. In 1986 after consultation with T.H. Thorpe Associates (Architects and Surveyors) a plan was drawn up to close off the tower space. Although this was considered prudent at the time to save on heating costs the loss of the tower space has diminished the original concept of Reynolds and Scott for an increased sense of space.

The name of the church ‘English Martyrs’ was originally reflected in the choice of Saint John Fisher and Saint Thomas More as the principal saints of the church. Each Saint is represented three times in the church; two stained glass rose windows (north and south transepts) bearing the initials, iconography and dates of the saints; two mosaic roundels on the sanctuary floor bearing initials and iconography; two statues carved in wood approximately four feet high flanking the sanctuary looking into the nave.

The sanctuary is largely covered with mosaic. An Italian family did the laying of this toward the end of the construction period in 1952. There are three roundels on the high sanctuary; left (facing east), Saint Thomas More, initials and iconography; centre, the silver and gold keys of Saint Peter and the Holy See; right, Saint John Fisher, initials and iconography.

The crucifix on the apse wall was imported from Italy and is a representation of Christ as King and High Priest.

The original High Altar was moved forward during the re-ordering of the church following the Second Vatican Council. Sadly the original sanctuary rails and pulpit were removed during a later re-ordering of the church in the 1980′s. The present sanctuary rails are new.

Artwork – Saints and Symbols:


Saint John Fisher and Saint Thomas More are the principal patrons of the church. Both are represented by statues which flank the sanctuary and iconography in two large rose windows above the north and south transepts and in mosaic on the sanctuary floor.

Sacred Heart – This statue forms the focus of the Sacred Heart Chapel. The painted wooden statue dates from the 1940′s. There are also statues of Saint George the Martyr, Patron Saint of England, and Saint Edmund, King and Martyr of East Anglia. Flanking the entrance to the chapel is a statue of Saint Patrick, Patron Saint of Ireland.

Our Lady of Fatima – This statue forms the centre piece of the Lady Chapel. It was restored in 2006. In 2007 statues of Saint Joachim and Saint Anne were added to the chapel. These are mounted on wooden plinths decorated with roundels of woods of the Holy Land; Cedar, Myrtle, Yew and Olive.

Just before the entrance to the chapel are statues to Saint Joseph with the child Jesus, and Saint Anthony of PaduaSaint Edward, King and Martyr – mounted overlooking the nave.


Mural (see Heritage page):

In 2008 a mural for the apse wall was commissioned from local artist Lesly Holliday. The mural contains life-size figures of the Catholic Saints martyred for their faith between 1535 and 1679. Although there were numerous martyrs from this period, perhaps as many as 300, forty were chosen to be canonized on 25th October 1970 by His Holiness, Pope Paul VI.

Pulpit and panelling: The oak panelling to the sanctuary was commissioned in 2009 from Gregory Kildear – a local artisan. The oak pulpit replaced a stone one which had been removed in the 1980′s. The four front panels of the pulpit are decorated with the Four Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; beautifully painted by Lesly Holliday.


Saint Ralph Sherwin Chapel of Ease at Chellaston:

Chellaston as a Catholic community began in 1946 when Fr John Dowd at Melbourne and Fr Simon Nolan at St George’s in Normanton decided that Mass should be said at Chellaston. The first Mass was celebrated in the old Station House then occupied by Mr and Mrs Ward. The congregation was about 20. Mass provision then moved to the Rose & Crown  and subsequently the Club room of the New Inn, now known as the Corner Pin. The room was above the old garages; an altar came from Melbourne Hall and the community paid for the internal decorations. In 1966, Mass provision was moved to the Golden Hour Club on Maple Drive. Father Joseph Wakefield purchased the present site of Saint Ralph Sherwin Church in 1965 fo the sum of £2,750. Father Roger Mahar, the Parish Priest of St George’s began a development project for the site in 1967 which came to fruition in 1970 with the building of the St Ralph Sherwin Centre; a dual purpose building. The total cost was £12,750; and work started on 17th August 1970 and was completed by 18th December. The Architect for the building was Mr D.J Montague and the builders were R Blood and Co. Ltd. On Wednesday 27th January 1971 the building was blessed and officially opened by the Rt Reverend Edward Ellis, DD, PhD, Bishop of Nottingham.

Looking to the future:

As part of the parish’s centenary celebrations in 2009 it was announced that a new church with provision for social and cultural activities would be built to replace the old one. This is still a work in progress.