Norfolk has been an extremely strong area for Catholics because of the Shrine of Walsingham and many churches and priories had been built in the area. The persecution of the Catholic faith severely diminished our numbers and the remnant, suffering also the loss of many medieval churches, gathered secretly in people’s houses such as Oxburgh Hall and other large Catholic houses for the Mass. The Act of Emancipation in 1829 ended many of these troubles.
At the turn of the last century a North Walsham draper, Frank Loads, became interested in the Catholic faith. He went under instruction to the parish priest at Cromer and was received into the Catholic Church. One can imagine the upset this caused even in those days but he was a man of great determination and conviction. Frank Loads was hopeful that Mass would be celebrated in North Walsham and provided the use of the drawing room over his draper’s shop (now Barnardo’s) for this purpose. The priest from Cromer came each month to provide for the needs of the small Catholic community living in North Walsham and the surrounding villages.
In 1904 North Walsham was declared a “mission” by the Catholic bishop of Northampton as a direct result of Frank Loads’ conversion in that same year. In 1912 Frank and his wife made a pilgrimage to Rome and were able to have an audience with Pope Pius X (now St Pius X). He asked the Pope for permission to build a small chapel in North Walsham. The Pope agreed to this proposal amd Frank returned with great determination, bringing back to North Walsham an icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, which had been blessed by Pope Pius X.
Frank soon set about changing the loft of his garage behind the shop into a Gothic-style chapel which could accommodate about 35 people for Mass. A charabanc was provided to go through the villages collecting Catholics for Mass on a Sunday. By 1926 North Walsham had its first resident Catholic priest since the Reformation, Fr William Arrowsmith, who was a convert Anglican priest.
The mission grew and by 1929 plans were made for the construction of a proper church building. Two years later, at a cost of £750, Frank purchased a site of three quarters of an acre adjacent to his own property, and in 1933 he commissioned the Calvary (the crucified Christ) at a cost of £75.
In 1934 Frank donated the land to the diocese of Northampton and on 30 November of that year the bishop, Rt Revd Laurence Youens, laid the cornerstone for the new building. By 4 April 1935 the building was completed and a solemn Mass of Blessing was celebrated by Fr Snowden, the priest-in-charge of the mission. The Catholic population continued to grow and by 1960 the bishop constituted North Walsham as a parish in its own right. The church was solemnly consecrated by Bishop Alan Clark, the first bishop of the new Diocese of East Anglia, on the Feast of the Sacred Heart in 1990, thus bringing to conclusion the great dream of Frank Loads.
The parish is dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and the Sacred Heart statue is a constant reminder that the love of Christ comes from his wounded heart and that his love is withheld from no one.
There are two chapels in the church, one dedicated to Our Blessed Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the other to St Nicholas, for the original pre-Reformation church (the parish church) was dedicated to these two saints. In the Lady Chapel one can see the icon brought back from Rome, and near it is the statue of Our Lady as Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, a special title bestowed on her, for she learned to love people with something of the same love that Christ had. The most famous church dedicated to Our Lady of the Sacred Heart is in the Piazza Navona in Rome.
In the porch is a statue of St Joseph, carved from a single piece of wood by a German prisoner of war which he gave in thanksgiving to the parish after his liberation at the end of the second World War.
Within the altar lie the relics (bones) of many saints: St Gregory the Great, St Augustine of Canterbury, St Edward king and martyr, St Francis of Assissi, St Bernard, St Gemma, St Alphonsus and St Jean-Marie Baptiste Vianney.
The fourteen Stations of the Cross tell the story of the first Good Friday and are used as a Catholic devotion. The twelve brass crosses and candleholders are called consecration crosses. They remind us that the church is built on the faith of the twelve apostles, and that we are to be the light of the world.
The architectural style is art deco, in the fashion of the early 1930s. The church may have few outstanding features, but one grasps instantly that it is a place of prayer where the community gathers to celebrate Mass. The parish hall was built in 1999. 2004 saw the addition of the choir loft. The sanctuary was reconfigured in 2004, and the font repositioned in 2008.