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Canon Robert Christall
St Josephs First Parish Priest 1926 - 1953

Canon Robert Christall

Canon William Clements, who served as Assistant Priest from 1953 to 1956, here gives some reflections on Canon Robert Christall, St Joseph's first Parish Priest

When Bishop John Butt, (fourth Bishop of Southwark) set about the establishment of a Diocesan Seminary in 1889, he began by renting a house called Henfield House at Henfield in Sussex. Father Francis (later Cardinal) Bourne, then aged only 28, was appointed as first Rector, with only three students. Robert Christall, aged 16, was among another dozen or so who soon joined them to begin his studies for the priesthood.

Conditions were primitive by modern standards; in winter the students sometimes had to break the ice to wash themselves in the morning. Meanwhile, the building of St John's Seminary, at Wonersh, near Guildford, had begun, and Rector and students moved there in September 1891. Robert Christall continued his studies there, and was appointed Dean (i.e. head student) in his last year before ordination on 18 July 1897. His first appointment was to St Joseph's, Brighton (1897-1899). He then served as Assistant Priest at St Raphael's, Kingston (1899-1902); Shoreham (1902-1913)and Walworth (1913-1915). In 1915 he was appointed Rector of the small and very poor parish of Slindon in Sussex, where he served for nearly eight years.

In August 1923 he was appointed Parish Priest of Epsom, where he served the people faithfully for nearly thirty-three years. He was responsible for encouraging the Picpus Sisters (Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary) to establish their Independent Convent School for Girls in Dorking Road, and the Primary School at Clock House. He also built the first extension to the church.

Father Christall was appointed Dean of the Dorking Deanery in 1926, and continued in that office until his death. He was appointed an Honorary Canon of the Southwark Diocese on 5 March 1938. He was a great lover of France, and in his earlier years travelled there by motor-cycle, often visiting Lourdes.

I first met Canon Christall in the summer of 1952, when he happened to travel in the same compartment of a French train on our way to Lourdes as part of the annual Diocesan Pilgrimage. I was then a subdeacon, due to be ordained the following year. We got on well together, and I learned later that the Canon, then aged 78, had asked for me as a second Assistant Priest, as Father Richard Hickeywas fully occupied as chaplain of five mental hospitals, and he himself was beginning to feel his age. I arrived in Epsom in June 1953 as a newly-ordained priest. The presbytery consisted of two workers' cottages knocked into one, and now had to accommodate three priests, a housekeeper (Miss Iris Phelps) and, as resident maid, a patient on licence from one of the mental hospitals. I had one room, with a large double bed taking up most of the space, a small rickety table, one chair, a moth-eaten carpet and no bookcases, and I was very happy. I was given the whole parish to visit on my bicycle, and I was appointed chaplain to the Epsom District Hospital, the Cottage Hospital, the Legion of Mary and the 14th Epsom Scout Troop. I was also priest- in-charge of the semi-public oratory in the home of Lady Russell of Killowen at Lane End, Walton- on-the-Hill. As well as one Mass at Epsom, I said two Masses there, after cycling 5½ miles each way from Epsom. The Canon was surprised, and not altogether pleased, when I bought my first car, a 25 year old Austin Seven, for £44.

The Canon was always kind and courteous, even when, as sometimes happened, I needed reproof or criticism. He kept a good table, with beer for dinner every day, and wine on special occasions. On Derby Day, for many years, he kept 'open house', and priests from far and wide were welcome to a splendid buffet lunch before going to the races.

There was a joke among the clergy that Canon Christall and Father Frederick Rhead, parish priest of Sutton, divided most of Surrey between them, arguing over their own boundary and refusing to acknowledge any more recently established parishes. Soon after my arrival in Epsom, Canon Christall drove me in his car to the Tadworth Court Children's Hospital, took me round the wards and introduced me to the nurses as the new chaplain. They seemed somewhat surprised. He told me to visit regularly, and to take Holy Communion to any Catholic patients. Some weeks later, on one of my visits, I bumped into Father Brendan Burke, the newly-appointed Assistant Priest at Banstead, who informed me that he was the RC chaplain. When I told the Canon this, he growled, and said no more. He certainly listened rather lightly to decrees from on high. When the Diocesan Development Fund was introduced, he insisted on calling it 'The Bishop's Tax" and marked one of the offertory boxes at the back of the church to this effect. The Bishop was not at all pleased when he saw it.

In those days, at a Bishop's Visitation, the parish priest would read out, in the Bishop's name, the granting of an Indulgence of so many days to all present. The Canon forgot (or affected to forget!) the bishop's name, not once but twice, as the Indulgence was read out in Latin and English. As the Canon was rather deaf, the MC, Mr Herbert Rowntree, had to shout, first 'Cyrillus' and then 'Cyril'. The Bishop enjoyed the joke.

At lunch, in winter time, the Canon would keep his biretta on the table and, if the housekeeper left the door open, would put it on. This once prompted her to shout, "Do you expect me to come through the . . . keyhole!". If her tirade went on too long, he would, with a little twinkle in his eye, switch his hearing-aid off.

Eventually illness undermined his strength, and cancer was diagnosed. After some months of devoted nursing by Miss Phelps, he was taken by ambulance to St Anthony's Hospital, Cheam. As he was carried from the presbytery on a stretcher, his last words to me were, "Keep the faith. Father". He died in Derby Week, on 4 June 1956.

For his Requiem Mass, celebrated by Bishop Cowderoy, the Mayor and most of the Town Council were present, as well as over a hundred priests, so there was little room in the church for the people, and none for the children from the two Catholic schools. For this reason, and much to the indignation of some of the clergy, I organised a procession from the church up the hill to the cemetery, where Monsignor Clement Constable officiated at the interment. A couple of buses were laid on to bring the clergy back for refreshments.

Canon Robert Christall was born on 5 March 1874 and died on 4 June 1956. May he rest in peace. When I became Administrator of St George's Cathedral in 1970, my five Assistant Priests remarked on how often, and with what affection, I spoke of my 'Epsom days'.

Canon William Clements, 2001

Fr John McCormack served as Assistant Priest from 1953 to 1956. Here he adds his own reflections on Canon Robert Christall

Canon Christall aged 82 was the Parish Priest and Father Bill Clements the senior curate. The Parish House consisted of two old farm-hand cottages knocked into one house. The older people of the parish told me that the famous music hall star Marie Lloyd lived in the one of the cottages. She had married a farm-hand but left him and became famous on the stage.

The Canon in his younger days was a very active man. The Parish was very poor and to pay the bills he grew early rhubarb which he sold to the hotels. He also drove a motorcycle and sidecar and if he stopped to speak to a parishioner you would more than likely find a pig in the sidecar that he was taking to market.

He had a very devoted housekeeper, Miss Phelps, who kept 13 cats. When I moved to the parish the Canon was a sick man, suffering from cancer in one of his legs, so he was no longer very active. Miss Phelps in her devotion to the Canon used to sleep on a mattress placed across the Canon's bedroom door. So Fr Bill and myself often had to step over her to speak to the Canon.

The church originally was very small in red brick, but the Canon built one third of the new church which was completed by his successor. During the war four cottages facing the church were bombed and the Canon bought the site for the future priests' house. He also bought an old barn next to the church which later became the parish hall.

When the Canon died we thought he only had one relation, a niece, who regularly visited him. To our surprise seven old men appeared related in some way to the Canon. They were a very greedy lot as one told me he had come to get what he could from the Canon's worldly goods. One took his old bike and they would have taken all the old furniture but it belonged to the Diocese. They all wanted the Canon's old car until the AA valued it at £30.

Under Father John Chatterton the church was completed, the new house and hall built.

Father John McCormack, 2001