Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 27, 2006
Saint executed in Reformation times
Byzantine fieldstone church is the national shrine to St. Cuthbert
St. Cuthbert Mayne – November 30
- WCR photo by Ted Fitzgerald
The processional banner from the shrine of St. Cuthbert Mayne is said to bear a true physical likeness to the saint.
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
Knowing something of the hilltop town's history, some visitors may feel uncomfortable and ill at ease standing beside the cold, weathered stone walls of the ruined castle at Launceston.
Nearby, on Nov. 30, 1577, Cuthbert Mayne, for the crime of being a Catholic priest, suffered the horrific punishment reserved for common criminals on the town square gallows as the ultimate test of his faith.
Today, the martyr is remembered in the local church that has become the national shrine of St. Cuthbert Mayne.
Those who find themselves on foot in the ancient Cornish town and who desire to learn more of this early Reformation-era saint can easily visit his shrine by following St. Thomas Road downhill to cross the Kensey River then up St. Stephen's Hill.
Sited on St. Cuthbert Close, the fieldstone church has a low profile, is surrounded by trees and surprisingly, is of Byzantine design, facing west away from the road and accented by a low dome above the sanctuary.
It opened in 1911 to replace a nearby 1886 mission and was dedicated to the English Martyrs. Consecrated in 1935 to Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More, it then became the Church of St. Cuthbert 35 years later.
Visitors should try for a tour with knowledgeable, enthusiastic pastor Father David Gassor. He can share in detail the story of the church patron, how he was born in nearby Devon, received orders in the Anglican Church and occupied important positions at Oxford until, encouraged by Catholic friends, he left England to become a Catholic priest in France.
In 1576, he returned to practise his ministry in secret in Cornwall until exposed while employed as a household steward.
He languished in the dungeon of Launceston Castle while false witnesses were sought and despite lack of evidence at his trial, he was executed anyway "as a terror to the papists."
Father Cuthbert was canonized in 1970 by Pope Paul VI and is honoured as the protomartyr of seminary priests.
Flanking the main altar in St. Cuthbert's Church are stained glass windows portraying Sts. Fisher and More. The main focus of attention however, other than during the celebration of Mass, is the small, north-side chapel-shrine established in 1921 that contains a reliquary and statue of St. Cuthbert. A processional banner kept here is said to bear a true likeness of the saint.
Of interest too is the semi-circular baptistery, positioned at the nave's west end where a main entrance might be expected. The font there is decorated with Celtic motifs and near it is a 14th century stone candle holder still used during Christmas time celebrations.
The first pilgrimage to the shrine was in 1921 and currently they are held in June every three years. In addition to his duties here, Father Gassor is also responsible for two other churches and three area hospitals, all parts of the Plymouth Diocese.
On leaving the shrine, he will point out significant markers in the crowded graveyard, descendants of St. Thomas More and relatives of St. Cuthbert for example.
En route back to downtown Launceston, travellers can view the remains of a vast Augustinian abbey complex that was destroyed by Henry VIII. Only the chapel remains, its name changed from St. Thomas Becket to St. Thomas the Apostle by royal edict, as an active Anglican parish.
Opposite the church, the old prior's footbridge still provides access across the Kensey.
Back at the castle, travellers will note that finally, after more than 400 years, a small plaque on the crumbling walls acknowledges saintly Cuthbert Mayne's heavenly "birthday" here.