John Baptist Cahill


Second Bishop of Portsmouth


John Baptist Cahill was born on 2nd September, 1841; the son of Thomas and Joanne Cahill. He had two older brothers, Thomas and Edward, who also became priests. He went to Old Hall Seminary and was ordained on 4th Oct. 1864 at Bermondsey by Bishop Grant of Southwark. His first appointment was to Portsea before going to Ryde as curate in 1866. Two years later he succeeded Fr. Stephen Philips as Rector. He is remembered as a man of great stature, rendering powerful sermons to his congregations. He liked the ritual and full ceremonial of Catholic worship. The calendar at the time records that there were frequent litanies, processions, exposition, novenas and missions; everything connected with Catholic devotion. At St Mary's he introduced the "Children of Mary" and the "Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament". He was responsible for many additions to St. Mary's including the Sacred Heart and Lady Chapels and most of the stained glass. He also extended the north aisle and added a new porch and made alterations to the exterior, adding Portland stone dressing and stone plaques on the west wall. He is reputed to have climbed the scaffolding to the steeple in 1880 to bless and set the new weather vane in position.


Fr. Cahill frequently recalled the sacrifices made by the English martyrs and recusant families and stressed that we were their spiritual descendants, who must strive to keep the Faith with its rites and ceremonies that go back in an unbroken succession to the time of the Apostles and universal in England for a thousand years until the Protestant Revolt. It was the unquenchable and all-prevailing love of the Truth for which the English martyrs so readily gave their lives. "Catholic truths", he reminded the faithful, "are not only enshrined in the traditional liturgy and the Sacrifice of the Holy Mass, but also in the design of the traditional Catholic sanctuary and the furnishings that adorn it. In this respect we owe a great deal of gratitude to our noble foundress, who has provided us with this House of God to uphold the ancient Catholic traditions, which is the key to maintaining and promoting the Catholic Faith. We pray that England shall one day return to the One True Faith that was once hers."


He impressed parishioners at Ryde with his manners, correctness and his love of the Gothic style in architecture and worship. He was an eloquent preacher delivering clear, succinct and powerful sermons. His priestly presence commanded immediate respect. He had a confident manner for a young priest; always acting and speaking with authority. Fr. Cahill planned every event at the church in great detail, often including diagrams showing the order of processions and the number and position of the candles for Benediction and Exposition. In Victorian churches (and most churches until Vatican II) the exposition throne was situated above the tabernacle with six large brass candlesticks (the big six) positioned on either side. The priest ascended steps behind the altar to place to monstrance in the ornately carved canopy over the throne. No candles and flowers were permitted on the altar itself. There were usually two rows of shelves at the rear for this purpose. "Quarant' Ore" witnessed the Blessed Sacrament exposed in the magnificent, ornate "Pugin" monstrance (still occasionally used) and illuminated by seventy two candles, placed in perfect geometrical position on either side of the altar, adorned with flowers of every colour. Some parishoners still remember the beautiful illuminated altar cards painted with gold and crimson and the Mass vestments in vivid colours embroidered with illustrations of the Mass or crucifixion on the back of the chasuable; all gifts of wealthy Victorian benefactors. Tragically, most of these were thrown out after Vatican II.


Fr. Cahill records that the Dominican mission concluded with a packed church and the congregation renewing their baptismal vows and singing the responses to the Litany of the Saints. The service also included the Act of Consecration to the Sacred Heart, announcement of a papal blessing and Solemn Benediction. Both the Countess and Fr. Cahill liked full ceremony and solemnity whenever appropriate. He shared the Countess's views concerning ritual especially in church music. At St. Mary's Gregorian chant was the norm as it emphasised the Church's connection with the past and illustrated our monastic heritage in the worship of Almighty God. Litanies, Exposition, Processions, Indulgences for prayers and devotions, and the recitation of the rosary are frequently mentioned in the old notice books. Most anniversaries (however insignificant) and feast days were celebrated with due solemnity.


In 1869 he arranged one of the first outdoor Marion processions in England since pre-Reformation days. The Town Commissioners in Ryde decided that it should bea silent procession around the streets adjacent to St. Mary's. So the congregation recited the rosary privately giving full voice to the Salve Regina as they re-entered the church. In 1882 he was appointed Vicar General of the new Portsmouth Diocese and in 1883 he persuaded the Sisters of the Convent of Mercy at Abingdon to open a boarding school in the new Convent on the north side of St. Mary's; now occupied by the Presentation Sisters. In 1887 he was created a Domestic Prelate and in 1892 Protonotary Apostolic. He was ordained Titular Bishop of Thagara by Bishop Bourne in May 1900 and translated to Portsmouth in August to succeed Bishop Vertue. To mark this occasion two of the eldest members of the parish, Lt. Col. Hamilton and Mrs Randolph, presented him with an Episcopal ring, gold cross and chain, a mitre and a Roman missal on behalf of the congregation of St. Mary's. Such was his love of Ryde that he frequently returned to his "old parish". The Island undoubtedly had a special place in his heart. He welcomed the Benedictine community to their (temporary) abbey at Appledurcombe in the south of the Island (before they moved to Quarr) and it was here that he blessed the Holy Oils each year instead of the cathedral at the invitation of his great friend, the Abbot, Dom Paul Delatte. He was delighted when the community purchased the Abbey ruins at Quarr in 1907 as yet another religious community would reside in his beloved Ryde. It was in Ryde where he spent 37 years of his priesthood that he was buried in the local cemetery between his two brother-priests when he died on 2nd Aug. 1910; his coffin having been brought back to the Island by special paddle steamer after his funeral at Portsmouth, accompanied by the clergy and cathedral choir who sang psalms and litanies on the journey to Ryde. The people of Ryde lined the streets in their handreds as the coffin was carried up Union Street and the High Street. The mournful toll of the bell rang from the church as the funeral courtege passed his beloved St. Mary's. This was the largest Catholic procession to be witnessed on the Island. Many people followed the courtege on foot into Hill St and to the cemetery in West St. Most of the shops en route closed while the courtege passed by; a remarkable sign of respect for a Roman priest in Edwardian England. The clergy chanted the "De Profundis" and the "Miserere" at the committal proceedings, as the coffin was lowered into the grave.


In his ten years as Bishop he built 13 churches and saw the inauguration of Benedictine communities at Quarr, Farnborough and Douai. In fact he was particularly generous to the Abbot and community from Douai in France who were expelled in 1903 under the anti clerical laws and offered them some old school buildings at Woolhampton, near Reading. The Holy See decreed that the historic name "Douai Abbey" should be retained. Within ten years a new monastery, school block and church had been built.


There is a large brass plaque in his memory on the west wall of Portsmouth Cathedral. He was succeeded, as he wished, by his auxillary Mgr. William Cotter who had previously succeeded him as both curate and Rector at Ryde.


2010 marks the centenary of Bishop Cahill's death. His Lordship Bishop Hollis of Portsmouth will come to St. Mary's on Sat. 11th September at 11:00am to offer Mass for his predecessor. This will be followed by prayers at Bishop Cahill's grave at Ryde cemetery.


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