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A brief historical outline
Updated by Geoff Breeze
The Witterings (East and West) have a place in history inasmuch as it has been suggested that the Roman invasion of 54 BC had a “landing party” at East Head prior to venturing up the now Chichester Harbour to settle a community on the present day site of the City of Chichester. So it may be claimed that Chichester was originally a suburb of the settlement of East head but unfortunately it is not possible to substantiate that claim.
The Christianisation of this part of Sussex took place early in the third century, with the later erection of more substantial buildings; churches were erected in Saxon times in both East and West Wittering.
The Catholic doctrines were taught until the Reformation in the 16th Century. Precisely what transpired in the years between the Reformation and the early part of this century, as far as Catholicism in Sussex was concerned is not documented
St Peter's is by no means an old building, having been erected as recently as 1938, but surviving details of its life are scant: no facts have come to light in the parish records of Chichester or Selsey and Bishop's House has little information prior to the formation of the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton in 1965. Such information that survives is based on the memories of early parishioners and on research of old newspapers in the West Sussex Archives Office.
In 1913 proposals were made to use the site for a railway terminal. The Directors of the Hundred of Manhood and Selsey Tramway decided to seek powers under the Light Railways Act, 1896, to build a branch from Hunston to east Wittering, via Birdham, Shipton Green and West Wittering. The Company Engineer, Col. H.F.Stephens, estimated the cost of the sevenmile length of line to be £45,626, 19s.4d. A further proposal was made for the line to have a spur leading to Itchenor, where a 200ft long pier was to be built into the Harbour. Neither of the proposals went ahead: World War I started, and the scheme was abandoned.
Between the two World Wars there was a marked increase in the permanent and seasonal populations in the Witterings, Bracklesham Bay, Itchenor and Birdham. The building of "a church hall" (now the current church) in 1938 indicates that there were sufficient Catholic residents to warrant a more permanent building as a Mass Centre.
The first Mass was said at St Peter's on Easter Day 1939. That sounds like a good start but the auguries weren't happy: the day was also April Fools' Day and rumours of war were rife. The Chichester Observer noted the inaugural Mass was about to take place and, the following week, simply reported that it had!
At some point between 1939 and the early 1960’s, the porch was added to provide additional protection against the local weather conditions. No information is available as to when this work was carried out. All that is known is that the existing external doors of the porch were originally located in the position of the current interior glass doors. The stained glass window at the rear of the Sanctuary includes glass from Chartes, the same source as that used in St Richard’s Church in Chichester. The window was installed in 1963 when St Richard’s church was being rebuilt on its present site. Prior to that time the window consisted of plain glass.
The list of priests who have had responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the parishioners has been culled from long memories. Father Maxwell, Father Campbell-Price, Father Thornton and Canon Cox are the men who are well remembered, but we must also remember the valuable contribution made by the Norbertine Fathers who have a long history of providing supply priests from their Priory in Storrington. They still do so when required and of course they are very welcome and their services very much appreciated.
In 1965 responsibility for the Parish was transferred from Chichester to Selsey. Twenty years later the Parish Committee of St Peter's successfully petitioned the Bishop to grant full Parish status to the Witterings. The building of the presbytery bungalow commenced in 1981 and Fr. Gerald Thornton was appointed in 1983 as Priest in Charge. On his death he left a legacy to St Peter’s that has greatly assisted in ensuring its financial security. The Pascal Candlestick was purchased in his memory.
Father John Stone was appointed as the first Parish Priest in October 1986. He was succeeded by Father Patrick McMahon in 1990 and by Canon Peter Giffin in 1991. During Canon Giffin's time the vestibule of the church was enlarged to incorporate a toilet, especially valued by the young and old, and the repository, patronised by practically everybody. The new toilet replaced the original one, which for some unexplained reason was located in the confessional. Canon Giffin also had the splendid crucifix suspended above the chancel; he had hoped to install new Stations of the Cross but he died before this could be done. Happily, the Stations now in place commemorate his memory.
It is interesting to note that the statue of St Theresa of Lisieaux, which is situated in the rear corner of the church, came originally from the Carmelite Convent in Hunston. When the convent closed, many of the Carmelites transferred to Sclerder Abbey in Looe, Cornwall and the statue went with them. Canon Giffin spent many happy holidays at Sclerder and following his death the Carmelites eventually decided that it was fitting for the statue to return to Sussex to be housed in Canon Giffin’s favourite church and home in the Witterings.
Canon Giffin’s successor was Fr. Patrick Leddy who spent three happy years at the church until retiring due to ill health in 2001.
Following Fr. Leddy’s retirement, the church was served from the priory at Storrington with the priests operating on a rota basis with a reduction in the number of Masses. The priests proved to very popular and were always made welcome at St Peter’s. But the shortage of priests meant that they also had to cover other churches in the diocese and it was obvious that the situation could not continue for very long. The same shortage or priests also made it impossible to apoint a permanent priest in the Witterings and so history turned full circle in 2002 when the Wittering became part of the Chichester parish with St Richard's once again sending priests to celebrate Mass at St Peter's.
In 2006, the Sanctuary was refurbished with the addition of a new marble altar and other matching furnishings replacing the original wooden ones. Although the church has been in constant use since 1938, it was not consecrated until 2006 when the Bishop of the Arundel and Brighton Diocese, Bishop Kieran Conry dedicated the church at a special Mass on 13th June 2006.
Geoff Breeze June 2006