Harvington Class was the star this particular week (20 Oct 2016) at St Benedict’s School in Atherstone. This time it was the way, with their teacher, that they prepared for and led the School Mass on Thursday. They were outstanding! After the Mass, I was invited in to bless their classroom with Holy Water from Lourdes. The children giggled with delight as I, accidently(??), got more water on them (and me) than on the classroom.
Although the Mass was celebrating the feast of St Luke, and the gospel reading spoke of Jesus sending out disciples who were to say ‘Peace to this house’ (so that their peace would descend upon that house), I did choose to speak about Harvington Hall. The link with the gospel was that Harvington Hall was very much a place where God’s peace descended and is now a holy place and a place of pilgrimage. But why? Fortunately, this time the children did not speculate that it was because I had lived there! They did know much more about it. They knew principally that priests had stayed there and more importantly that priests had hidden there.
We then had quite a long discussion during the Mass about Harvington Hall. They didn’t know that the building had it’s origin in the 1300’s. However, the important period of it’s history was during the 16th and 17th centuries. It was during this time that the owner – Dame Mary Yates – permitted her house to be a place where Catholics could gather for the celebration of Mass. There are, in fact two chapels in the house – one quite small, the other larger. The larger one was used when a number of Catholics came together, the other – in the attic – was used, if there was a priest staying at the house during the week, for smaller, perhaps family, gatherings. The first significant thing is that Dame Mary was really risking her property and her life by letting her house be used for Mass. It was a treasonable offence. The children had lots of questions about why it was against the law to celebrate Mass at that time, and why priests and others were put to death. They were great questions but I had to say that we would try to answer them at another time.
We eventually came to the matter of the hiding holes at Harvington. We talked about the game of hide and seek (I wonder if the game originated from this time? – perhaps not, but interesting!). All the children were familiar with the game and told me that if they were caught, they were ‘out’. I told them that at Harvington it was a bit like the game, but if the priests, who were hiding, were caught, the consequences were far more serious – they were executed in a rather barbaric way! The children were really surprised. The amazing thing is that, although there are 7 hiding holes at Harvington, no-one was ever found or caught there. The holes were never discovered – because they were so ingeniously constructed. One, for example, was located below one of the steps of a heavy oak staircase in the house. One boy actually knew about this! Another hole was behind an oak beam in the wall. The person who was responsible for constructing all of these hiding holes at Harvington, and in several other houses around the country, was St Nicholas Owen. He was eventually executed himself and later canonised as a martyr. Another saint to be martyred, who often stayed and hid at Harvington, but was caught elsewhere, was St John Wall.
In spite of all of the hostility and violence against Catholics at that time, Harvington remained a house of peace and of safety.
After Mass, I went to bless the Harvington classroom – asking God that the classroom would also be such a place. We also asked God’s blessing on the homes and houses of all the children. We had an interesting discussion about where we could put a couple of hiding holes in the classroom. The children suggested one in the ceiling. I suggested one, but some of the children doubted whether I would actually fit into it – must continue the diet!
May God’s peace be upon all our homes.
By Mgr Paul Watson,
St Benedict’s School, Atherstone