The records of the Jesuit priests, then based at the College of St Francis Xavier, near Hereford, suggest that in 1632 the Jesuits celebrated Mass in Bath from time to time as they made the circuit of the district. In 1685 a Benedictine priest, Dom Anselm Williams, was sent from the Jesuit College to Cambrai to establish a mission in the city of Bath. However, little seems to have been recorded of his progress.
By the end of the 17th century the Benedictines were established in running a large inn or lodging house called the “Bell Tree House”, situated at the corner of Beau Street and Bilbury Lane. It provided a base for missionary activities and its rooms included a chapel. In that year Dom Bernard Quyneo carried out some repairs and alterations to the ‘Bell Tree House’ which apparently served as a chapel and presbytery.
After fund-raising begun by Fr Brewer in 1777, land was bought between Lower Borough Walls and St James Parade for a church and a presbytery to be built. By 1780 the church was completed. Shortly before the church was to have been opened it and the presbytery were burned, on 8 June 1780, in an outbreak of the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots. The Bell Tree House chapel continued to be used for worship. (In passing it may be observed that there are no documents dating from before 1781-82 in the Clifton Diocesan Archives as the earlier ones were destroyed in these riots.)
With the compensation paid by the City of Bath, Fr Michael Pembridge – Fr Brewer’s successor – bought another house, 12 St James Parade, with a garden at the rear connecting with Corn Street. In the garden he built a church which opened in 1786 and was entered from Corn Street. The building is now used as the Mission Theatre. This church proved to be too small and in 1805 Fr Ainsworth bought the former Theatre Royal, in Old Orchard Street and converted it into a chapel. The congregation worshipped here until 1863 when the building of the present St John’s church was completed.
The site was bought from Earl Manvers; the foundation stone was laid in 1861. The Church building of St John’s was completed and consecrated in 1863. The spire of 202 feet which is half the height of Salisbury Cathedral, the highest spire in England – this was not finished until 1867. It contains a bell inscribed with the words ‘Long live Pius IX Pope and King’.
There is a letter in the Archives of the Venerable English College in Rome, written by Bishop Clifford to Mgr Talbot, the Pope’s secretary at the Vatican, on October 10th 1863 describing the opening of the new church of St John:
“This has been a glorious week in Bath . . . and the impression made in the city is great notwithstanding the great efforts made by the parsons and the evangelical alliance to counteract it. The town was placarded all over with abusive placards – all in vain – the respectable people were with us. After High Mass there was a grand luncheon in the Assembly Rooms – upwards of 300 people. The only drawback there has been to this happy event is the illness of Cardinal Wiseman. Still there is no doubt that religion is making steady progress in this part of England.”
Here follows the parish priests of St Johns:
- Monsignor Hackett
- Monsignor Hookway
- Monsignor Kelly
- Monsignor Mitchell
- Father Michael Davis
- Father Tom Gunning
- Canon David Ryan
- Canon Christopher Whitehead