Catholicism in the Woodchester area began when William Leigh purchased Spring Park for Lord Ducie and demolished the existing building and starting a new gothic mansion in Woodchester Park. He was a converted Roman Catholic and sought to establish a Catholic community in the area. The Church at Woodchester was opened in 1849. Originally Leigh had asked the Passionists to serve at the church, but they decided to move on in 1850. The Church was then taken over by the Dominicans. The monastery was added in 1853. This was demolished in 1970.
The architecture of the church follows the Victorian enthusiasm for the Gothic style that William Leigh pursued with extraordinary passion. Hansom’s design was strongly reminiscent of A.W. Pugin’s masterpieces of that period.
Indeed Pugin had produced some initial drawings and plans for a church on the site before the commission passed to Hansom. The church cost £9,000 to construct – doubtless Pugin’s grand scheme would have cost Leigh even more.
The church, which is dedicated to the Annunciation, is internally 115½ft long and 36½ ft broad and consists of choir, nave and aisles. On the south side of the choir lies the chapel of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste where William Leigh’s widow erected as his memorial a splendid recumbent effigy in alabaster, vested in the robes of a Knight of St. Gregory. On the north side stands the tower, with a passage underneath from the sacristy to the church. The choir is furnished with oak stalls, once thought to be of pre-Reformation date.Separating the choir from the nave is a finely carved rood-screen of stone surmounted by a great crucifix and statues of Our Lady and St John. The lower portion of the screen contains sculptured demi-angels holding shields bearing the emblems of the Passion. On the chancel arch is a large painting of the Last Judgement painted by Henry Doyle, the uncle of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A stone screen also separates the Martyrs’ chapel from the south aisle.
Originally, the chancel was sumptuously decorated in gold and rich colours reaching from floor to ceiling. The decoration of the walls has not survived to the present day, but the panelled roof of the choir still carries its original decoration of religious symbols, including a mnemonic for the Latin words of the Litany of the Blessed Virgin. At the west end of the south aisle is the screened-off Baptistery with a richly carved font bearing the emblems of the Evangelists, and these same emblems in bold relief are likewise carved on four sides of the hexagonal pulpit in the north aisle.
The original painted windows at the east and west ends of the church survive, along with two windows on the south side, which also date from William Leigh’s time. These predominantly portray the patron saints of Leigh’s family and friends.
The east window contains painted glass representing Our Lady in the central light with the Angel Gabriel and St. Thomas of Canterbury to her left, and St. Elizabeth and St. George to her right. Two windows in the South aisle came from the Box Parish and were designed by E.R Payne, a well know arts and crafts artist who also lived in Box.
In the five upper subordinate lights are five groups with the Annunciation in the centre, the Adoration of the Magi to the left and the Presentation to the right, above on the left the Assumption and on the right Our Lady’s Coronation. The east window in the Martyrs’ Chapel has St. Theresa on the left, St. Aloysius in the centre and St. Agnes, virgin and martyr, on the right. In the south window of this same chapel are figures of St. Augustine and St. Monica. The west window in the nave has four lights with figures, reading from left to right, of St. Gregory the Great, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Bernard and St. Francis of Sales. The west window in the Baptistery is of three lights, containing representations of St. Michael on the left, St. John the Baptist in the centre and St. Joseph on the right, whilst the west window in the north aisle depicts St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Theodoret, martyr. In the first or most eastern window of the south aisle are figures of St. Louis of France and St. Barbara, and it is dedicated to the memory of the Marquis de Lys and of Barbara, his widow, who died in this parish on September 10, 1859.
Although the Passionists had done much to awaken a local interest in Catholicism, their calling as an essentially missionary order turned out to be incompatible with William Leigh’s ambition, and it was left to the Dominican order to realise that vision. The Dominicans built the monastery shortly after their arrival in October 1850. It housed the noviciate of the Dominican order in England for more than 100 years; they only left in the 1960s when the buildings became too expensive to maintain. The monastery was demolished in 1970 leaving a small contingent of Dominicans to look after the parish. This they did until 1985 when the parish transferred to the pastoral care of the Diocese of Clifton whilst retaining links with its Dominican past.
The presence of this center of Catholic learning attracted a number of prominent Catholic men of letters to the area. Henry William Wilberforce was perhaps the most celebrated of these. Henry was the son of William Wilberforce, the anti-slavery campaigner, and started out as a Church of England clergyman. He resigned to follow the Catholic faith in 1850, becoming proprietor and editor of The Catholic Standard. Henry was a close friend of John Henry Newman (now The Blessed John Henry Newman), later to become Cardinal Newman, who came to preach at his funeral. John Moore Capes was another member of this literary set; some years before, he had founded a literary journal that he called “The Rambler”. It's controversial views led to its eventual closure in the early 1860s. Matthew Bridges, the hymnologist who wrote “Crown Him With Many Crowns”, was also an early parishioner.
On 10th October 1849 the church was consecrated by Bishop Hendren. The first public Mass in the newly consecrated church was a grand affair: the admission to the building was only by ticket and so great was the demand that several hundred people reportedly had to be refused entry. If some of those present were there out of curiosity, it was still an important stage in the growth of Catholicism in the area.