Church Story


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A traveller entering Dorchester from the west faces a pleasant prospect. From the top of the long straight street which traverses the town the vista embraces a 15th Century church tower, a steeple standing close beside it, the Town Hall clock turret between them and in the far distance trees and green fields to complete the picture.


The tower rises from the ancient church of St Peter, the spire from the church of All Saints. Nearby stands a third church bearing the title of the Holy Trinity, a Gothic revival edifice just over a hundred years old but with its origins reaching far back into history. It is probable that Christian worship has been offered on the site for nine centuries, for Dorchester was an important town in Anglo-Saxon England and traces its descent back to the days of Roman Britain. Its three ancient parishes of Holy Trinity, St Peter and All Saints are all of pre-medieval origin. Holy Trinity is named in the 11th Century Domesday Book which was compiled following the Norman conquest in the 11th Century. Carved upon wooden panelling at the west end of the church is a list of clergy who have served it since the year 1302.

There has been a succession of buildings on the site, the present one having been completed in 1876 to the design of Benjamin Ferrey, an eminent architect who also designed the present church of All Saints and the Town Hall. The churches and the Town Hall, together with the County Museum, form a distinctive and harmonious ensemble in the heart of Dorchester.


A fresh chapter in the history of Holy Trinity opened in 1976 when it passed out of the hands of the church of England and became the Roman Catholic parish church of the town. Closed as redundant two years earlier, it was out of use when the local Catholics, who were in pressing need of more accommodation than they had in their own church of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs and St Michael, made an approach to the Anglican authorities. Begun locally, the inquiries were carried through to the diocese of Salisbury and the Church Commissioners. Eventually, after all the necessary procedures had been gone through, Her Majesty the Queen in Privy Council initialled the document authorising the transfer. The terms were framed by the Anglicans in most generous form and at every level they gave encouragement and co-operation. In May 1976 the new owners took possession. They retained the historic dedication of the Holy Trinity and added the title of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs as secondary patron in memory of their old church.

alter panel

A substantial stone edifice, Holy Trinity has a broad nave, flanked by aisles on the north and south, the latter terminating in a Lady Chapel. A lofty and beautiful reredos of carved and gilded woodwork is the dominant feature of the interior at the east end. Carved at Oberammergau, it was installed in the church in 1897. Its glowing colouring in blue, red and gold enriches the sanctuary in an impressive manner. Depicted in the centre panel is the Crucifixion, with buildings in the background representing the city of Jerusalem. On the left is a panel showing the appearance of Christ to Mary Magdalene in the garden – Our Lord holding the flag as the symbol of his triumph over death. In the right hand panel is the appearance of the risen Lord at Emmaus as he reveals his identity in the breaking of bread.


Figures of St Peter and St Paul stand on either side of the reredos, Peter bearing the keys of the Kingdom and Paul the sword of his martyrdom and the scroll of his Epistles. A line of saints runs below the panels for their full span. They include St Augustine of Canterbury wearing the pallium; St Aldhelm, first Bishop of Sherborne, carrying his pastoral staff; St Osmond of Salisbury displaying a volume of the Sarum liturgical use, Ritus Sancti Osmundi; St Edward, King of England; St Alban, the first Christian martyr of our country; and St George, England’s patron saint.

Free standing in front of the reredos is an altar of onyx marble which used to be in the church of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs. An organ and a sacristy are located to the north of the chancel and immediately adjacent to the hall. Pulpit and font stand opposite each other on either side of the entrance to the sanctuary and beside the font is the Paschal candle which is solemnly blessed each year at the Easter vigil service to symbolise the risen Lord. Stations of the Cross brought from the old church line the walls. The lectern from which the Scriptures are read came from the Anglicans. There is some good stained glass by Kempe in the south aisle.


The restoration of the building when it was acquired for Roman Catholic use was carried out by an impressive united effort. Many people came forward with loans and gifts to effect the purchase or laboured long hours at cleaning and redecorating the interior. Architect for the restoration scheme was Mr A. Jaggard of John Stark and Partners, Dorchester. The building alterations were carried out by Dorchester Building Guild.

On the evening of 28th May, 1976, a large congregation assembled in the restored church and Mass was celebrated by Father M. Joseph O’Brien, the parish priest whose vision and leadership had inspired the whole enterprise. On 8th October the Bishop of Plymouth, the Rt Rev. Cyril Restieaux, came to Dorchester to celebrate a votive Mass of the Holy Trinity in thanksgiving. This was a significant ecumenical occasion for a number of Church of England clergy attended the service together with clergy of other denominations. The Anglican Bishop of Ramsbury, who represented the Bishop of Salisbury, occupied a seat in the sanctuary and delivered a moving address on the theme of Christian unity. In the congregation were the Lord Lieutenant of Dorset, Sir Joseph Weld and Lady Weld, with the Mayor of Dorchester.


An unusual story attaches to the old church of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs. It stood originally at Wareham, 17 miles away, having been built there in 1890 for a small monastery of the Congregation of the Passion. The monastic foundation did not prosper and in 1906 the community left Dorset. Their church at Wareham was moved stone by stone to Dorchester. As it was dismantled its stones were numbered and then carried by horse and cart to be assembled again in the country town in High West Street under the title of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs and St Michael. The title commemorates three priests and four laymen who were martyred at Dorchester in the 16th – 17th Centuries. Each of the priests had in turn been chaplain to the Catholic family of Arundell at Chideock Castle in West Dorset. Living at the Castle, they had travelled the country, ministering to scattered groups of their co-religionists in secret because of the penal laws.

First to die, in 1587, was Father Thomas Pilchard, a native of Battle in Sussex, and he was followed by a layman, William Pike, who lived at Moordown in the east of the county. In July 1594 one priest and three laymen suffered the same fate after being arrested when a raid was made upon Chideock Castle. They were Father Barry Cornelius, Thomas Bosgrave (a nephew of Sir Thomas Arundell) and two servants, John Carey and Patrick Salmon. A native of Bodmin in Cornwall, John Cornelius had studied at Oxford and been ordained in Rome. Nearly half a century later Father Hugh Green died at Dorchester after being arrested at Lyme Regis. The death sentences were carried out at the gallows which then stood on the south-east side of the town. In the village of Chideock the Roman Catholic church next to the Manor is now the shrine of the Dorset martyrs. It was built in 1870-72 by Charles Weld, the Welds having acquired the Manor from the Arundells in 1802.

For almost 70 years the church, which had been brought stone by stone from Wareham, served the parish in Dorchester. On Ascension Day 1976 Mass was celebrated under its roof for the last time before the transfer to Holy Trinity took place. Later it passed into the ownership of an antiquarian bookseller.


In the 17th Century Holy Trinity and St Peter’s had an eminent rector in the person of the Rev. John White. An influential Puritan divine, he organised a party of Dorset emigrants who sailed to America in 1630 and took part in the founding of the State of Massachussetts. The town of Dorchester, Massachussetts, perpetuates their memory. John White’s tomb is beneath the south porch of St Peter’s church and an old house in nearby Colliton Street is identified as having been his residence. In the Middle Ages the Franciscan friars minor had a friary in Dorchester. It would seem to have been one of the earliest Franciscan foundations to be made in England.


Holy Trinity is one of the most beautiful churches of the diocese of Plymouth to which it now belongs, a distinctive feature of the county town of Dorset and by reason of its venerable history a constant source of inspiration for those who worship there.


The Story of Holy Trinity Church: Bridging The Centuries was written by James Pellow, published by Holy Trinity Parish, Dorchester, and printed by Wm. Pitfield & Co.