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Sacred Heart and modern Catholic Exeter

The chapel at the Mint served as the mission church in Exeter until the establishment and construction of the Sacred Heart parish church. The Mint served its purpose well, but it was increasingly run down, and the congregation was outgrowing the small chapel. The decision to move from the Mint was made by Dr Oliver's successor, Fr James Eccles SJ, who began raising funds for the new church and for the construction of a school and for a new church to be built.


However, the Jesuits were soon to leave the Mint, and it was granted to the Diocese of Plymouth in 1877. The restoration of the hierarchy across England and Wales in 1850 meant that there were diocesan structures to provide for the needs of the faithful, and the Jesuits were to concentrate their resources in parishes in other parts of the country. A new diocesan priest was appointed to Exeter (Fr George Hobson), and he was left with the mammoth task to begin the work to find a site and to build a new church for Exeter.

The Origins of Sacred Heart

In many ways, the beginning of the Sacred Heart church is a typical example of the revival of Catholicism in England and Wales, albeit at a slightly later time to some other parts of the country. The nineteenth century is seen by historians of the Catholic Church in England as a highpoint after the persecution of the Reformation. In Exeter, the emergence of a strong community and the erection of a large and beautiful church out of a small and marginal community based in a run-down chapel is a good example of the Catholic revival that occurred across the country.

In Devon, the Catholic population has always been smaller than other parts of the country. The West of England had never seen the large numbers of French Catholics who fled the upheaval of the revolutions, nor had it seen an influx of immigrants from Ireland at the time of the famine. Despite only an estimated 1% of the population of Devon practicing the Catholic faith at the time, it was soon necessary for the congregation to leave the chapel at the Mint. 


Preparations for the building of a permanent church began with Fr George Hobson, and fundraising efforts and large donations from the local gentry allowed the process to formally begin in the 1870s. The site for the building of a new church was purchased in 1873. The chosen site was that of the old Bear Inn and wagoner's yard, and the neighbouring Georgian townhouse would be remodelled as the presbytery. The tenants were given until 1881 to leave, and the construction of the church could begin thereafter. The building would be dependent on benefactors, and this was evident in the extension of the original plans as more donations were given than originally anticipated.

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An early photograph of Sacred Heart

Charles Edwin Ware and Leonard Stokes were chosen as the joint architects. The early projects were overseen by Bishop Vaughan of Plymouth, who laid and blessed the foundation stone in 1883. Construction continued in waves, with subscription money and donations allowing the main body of the building to be completed in 1884, although the tower would only be completed in 1926, and the original proposed spire never constructed. A large bell, dedicated to St Boniface, was cast in Dublin in1884, and placed in the original tower, before being rehung in the completed tower. 

Upon the completion of the church in 1884, it was solemnly opened in the presence of bishops, archbishops, and a great number of clergy and religious - an occasion so special for the city, that it was remarked upon extensively in the press, who were seemingly impressed at the great number of clergy who gathered for the event. 

Sacred Heart in the twentieth century

​The outlook of the church continued to be missionary in nature, and the early priests of the church were supported by missions from the Capuchins and Redemptorists. These communities left their mark on the church - the Capuchins led to a considerable number of people receiving the sacraments, and a large crucifix was provided for the parish after the Redemptorist missions. As the congregation grew, the church became more parochial as we understand the term in the present day, with the emphasis away from the missionary church of Dr Oliver towards a parish church serving the needs of a faithful congregation. The church had responsibility over matters of education, overseeing the St Nicholas School located at the Mint and later on Matford Road (and later still in its latest location on the other side of the city). ​

Sacred Heart also had considerable outreach - the congregation organised regular processions and public displays of the faith, including Good Friday processions where a statue of Christ carrying the Cross was paraded through the city. Before ecumenism was even a real and encouraged phenomenon, Sacred Heart had healthy relationships with the cathedral community and the Baptist church on South Street, which were strengthened during the Second World War. 

​A notable episode in the history of Sacred Heart came in the Second World War, when bombing raids came to Exeter. In 1942, as part of a series of raids on places of

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Fr Thomas Barney leading a Good Friday procession through Exeter city centre c.1935

heritage value, the German Luftwaffe carried out bombing raids on the city. South Street was badly affected, but Sacred Heart, the presbytery, and the Baptist church next door survived, primarily due to the bravery of the Sacred Heart priests. The curates were positioned on the roof of the presbytery, and threw buckets of sand onto the incendiary bombs that fell on the buildings, allowing the buildings to survive the bombing raid. 


A growing population and urban sprawl necessitated the construction of new churches and parishes in Exeter, including Holy Cross, in Topsham and Blessed Sacrament in Heavitree. Blessed Sacrament serves Heavitree, and areas in the east of Exeter, and Topsham is now served from Sacred Heart. These parishes emerged in the 1930s as part of the demographic changes in Exeter, in which there were new urban estates in the Heavitree and Pinhoe areas of Exeter. A growing Catholic population also necessitated the building of these churches, and also helped finance the emergence of the new parishes.


As well as this, two now closed churches were constructed, including St Thomas and St Bernadette in Whipton. It was originally intended that these churches would serve as chapels-of-ease for the new housing estates and suburbs of Exeter as the city continued to grow out of its central nucleus. The Catholic population grew, and it was believed at the time that it would continue to grow. St Thomas was served by Sacred Heart, and was the pet project of Fr Barney, and St Bernadette was served from Blessed Sacrament, Heavitree. The congregations were never as large as imagined, and the slowed growth of the Catholic population and other pressures meant that the two smaller churches were closed. St Thomas' church was converted into housing, and St Bernadette's was demolished. 

The 1960s until the present day

After Vatican II, a re-ordering process began. Many of the original interiors were retained, including the later rails, and the altars left untouched. A temporary wooden altar was installed, which is due to be replaced in the coming years, alongside the wooden lectern that was erected as a temporary measure. The parish continues to grow, and the emphasis has once again become one of renewal and mission. ​

The community of Sacred Heart continues to be a thriving one. The congregation is made up of people of all ages, and the diversity in the parish is best seen in its annual International Mass. Numerous parish groups serve the liturgy (music, servers, readers), provide outreach to the local community (SVP, Legion of Mary), and enrich the life of the parishioners (Arts Group). The church garden is a welcome area of greenery in the city. Its position on a busy road in Exeter means Sacred Heart continues to be a visible presence in the city, continuing to proclaim the Good News to all people, and bringing Christ to the centre of a busy and vibrant modern city. 


A photograph of the International Mass held in 2024 - a sign of the modern Sacred Heart

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