A short history by Christopher Bell
The first record we have of regular Masses in Westerham appears in the 1920 Notices Book of the Church of St. Thomas of Canterbury, Sevenoaks, whose priests had been allocated responsibility for Westerham. Mass was said in a variety of local venues over the years, including the former Crown Hotel by the then existing railway station, the Men’s Club on Fullers Hill, a private home, and, latterly, a room provided by a Miss Wilson close to her home at Pitt’s Cottage. The only alternatives for Westerham Catholics would have been to travel to Oxted, where there had been a church since 1914, or to Biggin Hill where one had been opened in 1925.
The present Church of St. John the Baptist, Westerham, was opened in 1955. The site had actually been acquired and preliminary plans drawn up in the 1930s, but financial problems and the outbreak of the Second World War had left the project in abeyance. The Kent County Council finally agreed a licence for the building in October 1952. Loans were raised from the Diocese and generous benefactions made by Father Maurice Castelli , who had been appointed Priest-in- Charge in 1949.The Foundation Stone, which was laid and blessed by Bishop Cyril Cowderoy on 24th April 1954, can still be seen to the right of the main door with its dedication to St. John the Baptist in Latin. Work continued at a commendable speed and Bishop Cowderoy finally opened and blessed the Church on 3rd July 1955. It had been designed by Mr. J Hicks of St. Leonards and built by Lt. Col. T Costelloe. The three stained glass windows were interesting in that they had come from the chapel of Ore Place, a former Jesuit House near Hastings. The marble had come from quarries in Italy and Connemara owned by J Whitehead and Sons Ltd, the family company of Mr. Cecil Whitehead, a parishioner.
Further work was necessary in the early 1970s to re-order the Sanctuary following the Second Vatican Council. The High Altar was removed, together with one level of steps, and a forward altar built so that the priest could face the congregation. A church cannot be consecrated until all debt on the building has been cleared so the Rite of Dedication and Consecration, undertaken by Archbishop Michael Bowen, did not take place until July 1984.The existing Stations of the Cross were the work of the late Michael Leigh, A.R.C.A., whose many works around the country include a mosaic in St. George’s Chapel in Westminster Cathedral. The statue of St. John the Baptist on the outside wall near the north-east corner of the church was commissioned by Mgr. Michael Connolly and made by Mother Concordia Scott, OSB, of Minster Abbey, in 1995. The ceramic plaque of our Lady and the Christ Child with St. John the Baptist, built into the wall between the church and the presbytery, was also commissioned and was the work of the sculptor Otto Maciag of Monmouth, Gwent. To celebrate the Jubilee Year of 2,000, a Jubilee Yew Tree was planted outside the church on Whit Sunday that year by Baron Nolan of Brasted, an eminent parishioner. On 3rd July 2005, the parish celebrated the Church’s 50th Anniversary, the Celebrant at the Golden Jubilee Mass being Archbishop Kevin McDonald. Father Maurice Castelli retired in 1966 and died in 1969. However, the parish community remains forever grateful to him because, in addition to his very generous financial contribution to the original building of the church, he left in his Will a considerable sum of money to the Diocese, the interest on which helps to maintain the parish. It is therefore fitting that his grave and memorial stone beside the church act as a permanent reminder to later generations of his great benevolence.
His successors have been Fr. William Hogg (1966-67), Fr. Henry Dodd (1967-76), Mgr. Dennis Wall (1976-81), Canon Charles Tritschler (1981-88), Fr. Ernest Becher (1988-93), Mgr. Michael Connolly (1993-2001), Fr. James B Hurley (2001-11) and Fr. Ivan Aquilina (2011- ).