Brief History of the Locality
St. Mary’s Dunstable,
Canon Tony Brennan
Prehistoric burial mounds and earthworks on the chalk hills around Dunstable bear witness to its importance since earliest times. The town sits in a gap through the Chiltern Hills on the site of a small Roman settlement called Durocobrivis, which was established at crossroads formed by the Roman Watling Street and the prehistoric Icknield Way.
The site was abandoned in Saxon times but it was here that Henry I founded an Augustinian priory in 1131, built a palace and established a new market town. Dunstable became a place of considerable importance, hosting regular royal visits and jousting tournaments. It was at the priory in the 16th century, that the annulment of Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine of Aragon was pronounced, followed by the dissolution of the priory itself soon afterwards. Part of the original priory church, with its fine Norman nave and magnificent west front, survives as the town's C of E parish church.
Dunstable picked itself up from the ruins of the Reformation and again became a busy town with the advent of stagecoach travel. Several coaching inns remain from this prosperous period, which itself declined with the coming of the railway age and the consequent shift of the straw-plait and hat making industries from Dunstable to Luton with its main line railway station.
Once again Dunstable rode out its misfortunes and, at the turn of the century, began to welcome new industries including printing and engineering and, most notably, the motor trade. Today, many companies with household names have premises on the town's modern industrial estates.
St. Mary’s Parish
Brief history of the three Churches
In 1927 there were about 60 practising Catholics in Dunstable and a committee was formed to petition the Bishop of Northampton to have Mass said there. At that time Dunstable was in the care of Father O’Connor of Luton and the majority of the Dunstable Catholics had to take a train at 8:06 am on Sunday mornings to attend Mass.
The Bishop gave the green light for a Mass centre to be opened and he invited Spanish Vincentians who had a house in Potters Bar to take charge of the venture. The first Mass centre was a house in Regent Street which lasted for a few months until the present property in West Street was purchased (it had been a rectory) in November 1927. Two of the rooms of the old rectory were converted into an oratory, which served the Dunstable Catholics until 1936 when the “Old Church”, which is now part of the Parish Centre, was opened.
In 1957 the Spanish Vincentians handed over the parish to their confreres of the Irish Province and Maurice Regis O’Neill C.M. was appointed Parish Priest. Dunstable was developing as a centre for employment, particularly in the motor industry and, the 1936 building was not big enough to accommodate the growing number of Catholics. In 1961 work was begun on the site of the present Church. The foundation stone was laid on 29th April 1962 and St. Mary’s Church formally blessed and opened by Bishop Leo T. Parker, Bishop of Northampton on 15th March 1964. The local newspaper of the following week described the event,which was attended by representatives of the civic and ecclesiastical life of the area as “a great day despite the snow”.
The Church cost £100,000. On the day it was blessed £60,000 had already been raised by the parishioners. In another newspaper report the cost of the Church was put at £85,000. Perhaps the additional £15,000 was the cost of the presbytery.The building is 100 feet in diameter and 40 feet high; there is a slender spire on the roof 35 feet high.The capacity of the building is 850 seated although the report of the opening said the 1,200 people were packed into it for the occasion.
St. Vincent’s Church
The second church of the parish St. Vincent’s is situated in Houghton Regis . The village was expanded greatly in the 1960’s as part of the London over-spill and has since continued to grow as a centre of population. Amongst Catholics there is a strong sense of community. This is due to the natural camaraderie of the first inhabitants who came from close-knit London communities such as the East End and Paddington. The first resident priests and their associates, the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, further developed this spirit. Another factor was the rudimentary Mass centres that preceded the purpose built church, school and social centre of the late 1970’s. St. Vincent's closed in March 2020 during the Pandemic and did not reopen. The building was handed over to the adjoining St. Vincent's School in July 2022. The social centre remains open.
St. Elizabeth’s Church
The third church in the parish was St. Elizabeth’s Toddington. This was a community of about 60 regular Mass goers. The little chapel is a converted stable, part of a property bequeathed to the parish by a wealthy convert, by the name of Miss Elizabeth Hopwood. There was tangible sense of ownership in this village community and a great loyalty to their little church. The last Mass was celebrated in September 2019 . The Church was later sold.
The parish was transferred from the Vincentian's to the Diocese of Northampton by Fr Eamon Devlin CM in September 2019, and Fr Tony Brennan was appointed parish priest by Bishop Peter Doyl.