Re-discovering our foundations …

by Fr. Michael Doyle

In these present times we may be forgiven for forgetting our past and being concerned about our future.  However, a recent discovery at St. Mary’s church in Newport reminds us that there is “nothing new under the sun”.  When one of the steps behind the high altar recently gave way, we were surprised to discover an 8-10 foot drop underneath the church.  As we took hold of a torch to ‘shine light on the subject’ it became evident that under our feet was a passageway with arches.  Looking back on the history of the church to find out more about our discovery, we found that under the sanctuary lay Fr. John Bernadine Davison O.S.F. who succumbed to the typhus fever epidemic affecting the city in 1842 – a reminder in our present day that there is “nothing new under the sun”!

If, as suggested by a recent BBC headline “Studying history is the ultimate passport to the future”, how can we not delve further into the second layer of St. Mary’s church?  Following a recent visit by an architect who specialises in historic buildings it seems there are grounds for both excitement and further investigations. Having ventured ‘into the crypt’ the initial report suggests that throughout the length of the building there are a series of chambers.  From one vantage point the architect could see a series of archways passing under the north aisle and measured the distance as 16 meters in length.  Immediately under the Sanctuary, the burial point of Fr. Davison, there is a chamber 5.75 meters in length with evidence of more archways branching in the direction of the side aisles.  We are unable to venture further at this time as rubble covers our access points. But it has been noted that some of the more immediate archways are obviously designed as doorways with evidence of lintel supports.

The question now remains: is this structure part of the build of St. Mary’s, or did it exist before the church was built?  The present St. Mary’s church is the second church on the site to carry the dedication, the first being constructed in 1812.  With the surge of immigrants from Ireland, the original church had to be replaced so the present church was commissioned in 1837 and opened in 1840. Could what lay underneath the present be the first St. Mary’s church? Or perhaps we have discovered Newport’s own scavi given its Roman foundations.  The imagination could run wild at this point!  What we do know is that there is a lot of excitement about this find both in the parish and in the professionals who have visited the site thus far.

We may not see much at this present time, but we must look to the past to inform our future so further investigations will take place.  Be assured we will share our journey of discovery as work progresses.  In our research we also discovered that a memorial plaque in the Lady Chapel commemorates the burial place of Mr. Joseph Beaumont who helped facilitate the building of the present church in 1839.  This means that we have now discovered at least two people who have had a significant impact on the Church and her presence in Newport in the past 200 years; how many more lie in “The Fields Beneath” to quote the evocative title of Gillian Tindall’s seminal book?  We add them to our history along with saints such as St. David Lewis and Ss. Julius and Aaron to re-discover our foundations both physically and spiritually helping to firm up the foundations of the Church in Newport for many more years to come.