A reredos is an ornamental screen covering the wall behind an altar. It is thought that the “Friarage Reredos” was made in about 1695 for John Mayes who was the owner of The Friarage at the time. The central design of all three pine panels is the IHS monogram – the first three letters of the name Jesus in Greek (ΙΗΣ) – with a cross above the centre and three nails of the crucifixion below.
Continuing the persecution of Catholics under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, penal laws imposed fines and imprisonment on Catholics found practising their faith. There are indications that they somehow managed anyway, and that they were shown respect and support is clear from the fact that non-Catholics of the district actually bought land once in Catholic ownership as a means of ensuring that Catholics might continue to have some use of it.
It’s possible that the few Catholics of the Yarm district may have benefitted by the ministry of the priests of Egton. Certainly the priest stationed there from early in the 18th century nominally had responsibility for all Catholics between Scarborough, Stockton and Wycliffe. Indeed in 1735 it was reported that: “There is a reputed Popish priest who constantly resides at Mr Maye’s house where great numbers of Papists assemble every Sunday, and there Mass is understood to be performed”. It is thought that these “illegal” Masses were celebrated in a chapel in the attic of The Friarage and the reredos was the backdrop to the altar. Mass continued to be celebrated there until 1795.
It is suggested that the three panels were stored in the loft of the house by a member of the Meynell family when they took over ownership of the house, but were then forgotten about until they were discovered by chance when Messrs Head Wrightson and Co Ltd purchased the property. There is no record of why what followed happened, but the panels were given to a Mr John Wardell who gave one of the small panels to our parish church, and the central panel and the other smaller panel to the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle.
Sometime after I came to the parish it occurred to me that it might be interesting to see what the other two panels looked like and so I contacted the museum to ask whether they were still on display and was informed that they had been in storage since the 1990s, were probably no longer required by the museum, and would I be interested in their being donated to the parish and possibly put on display here along with the panel we already had. I said we would indeed be interested.
There then followed quite a considerable time without any further word and then Covid had struck we were all in lockdown. I finally got a reply to my emails and arranged a private visit to the closed museum in order to see the panels – but was informed that while I could see the larger central panel, they didn’t know where the smaller panel was! I made the visit anyway half-expecting that I might be able to bring the panels back with me, however I hadn’t realised how large the central panel was and that it wouldn’t fit in my car. In any case they still hadn’t located the missing panel and also their Trustees would have to give their approval to the panels being donated to the parish – so obviously I was coming home empty-handed.
Despite my efforts to keep the ball rolling, unbelievably eighteen months passed and we were no further forward. Finally a few months ago I received an email informing me that they had finally located the missing panel and that the donation of the two panels would be on the agenda of their November Trustees’ meeting. I was then told that the meeting had been postponed but that the matter would be on the December agenda. Finally, last week, I was informed that permission had been given. I immediately arranged to collect the panels before they changed their minds!
My plan now is to get in touch with the producers of the television programme The Repair Shop to see if their expert restorers would be interested in carrying out the cleaning and minor repair work that the panels require, or there is the option of contacting a local restorer that the museum uses.
In the meantime I have placed the central panel in front of the altar as you can see. It is exactly the same size – almost as if it had been made for it – but, of course, it will now be in front of the altar rather than behind it. And I plan to mount the two side panels on the wall on either side of the rear altar just above where they are standing on tables at the moment. Hopefully they will complement the beautiful design of that altar. The diocese’s Historic Churches Committee will have to give their approval to those plans, but I hope they will receive both their approval and yours.
In the meantime the reredos is once again witness to the celebration of Mass some two-hundred-and-twenty-seven years since it the last occasion, and, as a celebration of the Catholic history of Yarm, what better time than Christmas for that to happen.