When the Reformation took its full effect on England in the 16th century, the parish church of St John the Baptist in the centre of Yeovil was closed down and the furniture and decoration sold or covered up. The system of fines and punishments worked as intended, and within a few generations Yeovil had become Protestant.

A list of recusants compiled between 1592 and 1606 gives the names of just 7 people (five of them named Hawker) living in or near Yeovil. By 1887 there were six Catholic families in Yeovil. From time to time they had unsuccessfully petitioned Bishop Clifford to send them a priest, and if they wished to hear Mass or receive the Sacraments they had to travel to Marnhull, Wincanton, or Sherborne over in Dorset, which is of course in a different diocese.

During April 1887 the newly-appointed editor of the Western Chronicle came to live in the town. His name was Charles Gatty, and he was a convert to the Catholic faith who became a prominent Catholic spokesman in the political life of the time. Before long he had persuaded the Bishop to make it possible for Mass to be heard once more in the town; the Carmelite Fathers of Wincanton agreed to take on this task. This took place in Charles Gatty’s own drawing room at 137 Hendford Hill, which needed nearly six months to be transformed into a chapel.

The first Mass to be celebrated in Yeovil in the 350 years since the Reformation thus took place on Sunday, 13 November 1887 and was attended by a congregation of 16 people, 12 from Yeovil and the other 4 specially invited from the church in Sherborne. The celebrant was Fr Badger from the Carmelite mission at Wincanton, and the server was Edmund Talbot, later to become Viscount Adair of Derwent. By a great stroke of God’s timing, the Gospel for the day contained the parables of the mustard-seed and of the leaven, and the Bishop expressed in his address the hope “that the little seed planted that day would grow, in due time, into a large tree, and that the leaven of Divine Grace would gradually, in God’s own way, transform and sanctify that place.”

So great was the initial interest that within a year the expanding congregation had outgrown Mr Gatty’s drawing room, and 14 people had been converted to the Catholic faith. Mr Gatty solved this new problem by renting the Chantry, close to St John’s church in the middle of Yeovil. This pre-Reformation chapel had been converted into a school-house in 1573, and had then been moved from its original site close to the tower of St John’s to its current position in around 1854; in 1888 it ceased to be used as a school, and was left unused. Charles Gatty was given permission to rent the Chantry from 24 June of that year, and the Bishop of Clifton celebrated Mass there at 8.30am, on the feast of St John the Baptist: “The chapel and the altar had been decorated with exquisite flowers. In front of Our Lady’s statue was burning a small terracotta lamp found amongst Roman remains in the island of Cyprus, probably from an early Christian shrine, and not later in date than the second or third century. Behind this stood a small vase of dried flowers which had grown in the cave on the island of Patmos, fixed by tradition as the prison in which St John wrote the Book of the Apocalypse.”

This momentous event for the Catholic parish of Yeovil created quite a stir in the town. There was great interest in the Mass, with people being unable to attend because the chapel was too crowded. Most of these people were not Catholic, but in the first year that the Chantry was being used, another 12 people joined the Church. There was also, however, opposition, and on the first anniversary of the opening of the Chantry a “great and bitter” anti-Catholic demonstration took place at the Town Hall. This led to an increase of religious animosity, and the Carmelite Fathers were subjected to a great deal of unpleasantness; “the rough element considered itself encouraged and started breaking the windows of the Chantry”. After a year of debate through the local newspaper, Charles Gatty compiled a pamphlet in which he “explained what the Church really is and what she teaches; he answered some objections and concluded by appealing to the common sense and spirit of fair play of his fellow townsmen”; the fact that this pamphlet was some 50 pages long may have lessened its immediate effect on some readers! This was forcefully answered by his main opponents, but they then refused to take part in an open debate to be chaired by the Mayor, and after a while the hostility died down, helped by the tolerant attitude of influential local people.

Charles Gatty was born in 1851, the son of the Rev Dr Alfred Gatty, Vicar of Ecclesfield, and sub-Dean of York; his mother was the daughter of Nelson’s chaplain on the Victory. He was educated at Charterhouse and became a convert to Catholicism, a decision showing great faith and conviction, given his background. For 12 years he was Curator of the Liverpool Museum, and for two years private secretary to John, Lord Bute. In 1892, he stood as Home Rule candidate for West Dorset and 2 years later, in 1894, he was appointed 2nd Secretary to the Chief Ministerial Whip. “Mr Gatty was a very delightful example of the many cultured Englishmen who, since the Oxford Movement, have found their spiritual home as converts to Catholicism. He was the instrument chose by God to bring back the Catholic Faith in Yeovil; his name will always be held by the parish in grateful remembrance”. He died in London on 8 June 1928, aged 76, and was buried at Eccleston, near Chester.

In 1891 the head of the Carmelite Fathers told his members who had served the Mission in Yeovil that they had to return to their community and resume the normal life of their order. Fr Badger had been praying about this, as he did not want to leave his small but blossoming flock without a pastor so soon after being re-established , and he was inspired to mention the matter to his friend Fr Scoles, then serving the parish in Bridgwater. Fr Scoles in turn was led to offer himself to the Bishop for the fledgling parish in Yeovil, and the Bishop agreed thankfully. On 26 September 1891, “the little Yeovil Mission bade farewell to its first Pastor and welcomed its new Shepherd.” It was Fr Scoles, later Canon, who was to consolidate the initial growth of the Mission parish in Yeovil, and provide it with the premises, inspiration and leadership that enabled it to begin its development to what we know and love today.

Quotations taken from: “The Catholic Church of the Holy Ghost, Yeovil” (1928)by Fr Joseph Antonioz, MSFS, BA