From 1907 the Capuchin Fathers provided spiritual care from a Mass centre for Catholics living in East Oxford, dedicated to St Francis of Assisi, at their house in Crescent Road. The first baptismal register entry is for 26th May 1907. Many of these entries record the baptism of adults from the Church of England. The parish was officially established in 1910.
In 1920 the Capuchins acquired a new property on Iffley Road and the house in Crescent Road was bought by the Salesians (SDB), who established a student house for philosophical studies for the priesthood and a base for the young Salesians who were studying at Oxford University. Throughout the 1930’s the house was also a noviciate for young men who wished to join the Salesians as priest or brothers.
During the war years the boys from the Salesian College, Battersea were welcomed as evacuees to Cowley and in 1945 the Salesian College, Cowley, which was to run until 1970, was established.
The Parish of St Francis of Assisi was well cared for by its first Salesian Parish Priest, Fr Peter McConville SDB and then by his successor Fr Thomas McKenna SDB, spanning 55 years between them both. The thriving car factory in Cowley during those years brought many workers from Ireland and the parish expanded rapidly. The building of St Dominic’s hall in the 1950’s ensured that there was a social meeting space for the community and the funds raised through the parish socials helped build a new parish church.
The idea of a new church had first been raised as far back as 1926. The foundation stone for the new church was blessed on 9th September 1961 and the church was officially opened and dedicated, with the consecration of the high altar, on 14th June 1962 by Bishop Humphrey Bright. The new parish was dedicated to Our Lady Help of Christians, the title by which St John Bosco honoured the Mother of God and patroness of the Salesians of Don Bosco.
The church was consecrated on 24th May 1967, when the debt was paid off. This was a tremendous tribute to the generosity of the people of the parish and the business acumen of Fr McKenna! The Salesians also had pastoral responsibility for Catholics living in Littlemore and for the newly developed Blackbird Leys estate. In time both these areas were established as parishes in their own right.
The Salesian Sisters arrived in Cowley in 1924 based at Elmthorpe Convent. In 1932 they opened an elementary school. Our Lady’s School on Oxford Road has since been expanded with new buildings and, with the local re-organisation of education, it returned to its Primary School status. July 1999 saw the retirement of the last two Salesian teaching sisters teaching in the school and the appointment of a lay head. The school, however, preserves a strong Salesian ethos and spirituality, which is nourished by its connection with the parish and the sisters and the active involvement of a good number of Salesian Cooperators and Past Pupils. Elmthorpe Convent now provides nursing care for elderly sisters.
The Salesians sold the house in Crescent Road to Oxford Council in 1986. For a number of years, the house had served as the Provincial House for the Salesians of Don Bosco in the UK. Around this time, the presbytery at 59 Hollow Way, which had been acquired by Fr McKenna in 1958, was enlarged and modernised to accommodate the parish clergy left to serve the parish.
The closure of St Dominic’s Club was a painful moment for many in the community, who remembered fondly the place it had in drawing the parish together. In the summer of 2002 St Dominic’s Hall was also closed, as it had become structurally unsafe for public use. The eventual sale of the building and land and the generosity of the parishioners enabled the development in 2010 of the Don Bosco Centre a marvellous new facility connected to the church comprising Day Chapel, Hall, Meeting Rooms and Offices.
With the departure of the Salesians of Don Bosco in 2020 and the transfer to the care of the Archdiocese, a new chapter has opened in our history. May we be led into ever great communion by the Lord, who came so that “all may have life and have it to the full” (Jn 10:10).