The history of St. Paul’s Church starts with a bequest by Countess de Font which was used to purchase land from Johnson’s Nursery for £450.
Work started on the building of the church on 1st June 1867.
The church was designed by Edward W. Pugin, son of the famous architect, Augustus Welby Pugin, and overseen by the then Parish Priest, Father James Laws.
Despite not being fully completed (the apse on the eastern side was not finished) the church was opened on 15th May 1868.
Completion was in 1873 but it was not until 25th September 1897 when the church debt had been cleared, that the church was consecrated by Bishop Bourne.
St. Paul’s today, is almost as it was when it was originally built. The altar area which was at the back of the sanctuary, has been brought forward so that the congregation can participate in the Sacrifice of the Mass to comply with VaticanII. The bell of St. Paul’s is now silent.
The Fire at St. Paul’s – 23rd October 1987.
Friday 23rd October started out as a cloudy day. Just around 1.40 in the afternoon the very unusual phenomenon of a waterspout could be seen a mile or so off the Eastern arm of the Harbour. This remained a visable feature as it slowly travelled down the Channel for the next 30 minutes or so. Anyone watching this, who might have momentarily turned around, would have noticed a massive column of smoke rising from the town and drifting south westwards across the valley. Disaster had struck Dover again, and this time in a very personal way indeed for the Catholic Community.
The word spread quickly, that St. Paul’s Church was on fire and the entire roof was ablaze from end to end. At one stage it was thought that the Bell Tower would collapse and the building become a total ruin.
Firefighters came from all over Kent to fight the blaze. Maison Dieu Roan and Pencester were closed to traffic, water from the River Dour was pumped to the site of the fire.
Most Catholics in the town that afternoon, and those of us who have been associated with St. Paul’s most of our lives experienced indescribable emotions and feelings of great sadness, that we hope we will never have to experience again.
Parishioners left their places of employment and homes and rushed to the site to see how they could help.
Clergy and Ministers of every Christian denomination in the area offered the hospitality af their churches and halls so that our parish worship could continue uninterrupted
The fire was a deliberate act of arson. David Fitzgerald, aged 24, ‘of no fixed abode’ (originally from Dublin) had arrived in Dover around 1pm that day. It transpired, that he asked someone for directions to the nearest Catholic Church. After setting fire to the church, he travelled to Canterbury, where he robbed St. Thomas’s Catholic Church there. He was apprehended by the Police a few days later.
The case was brought to court on Friday 27th May 1988, where he was handed : four life sentences for setting fire to four churches, and two years imprisonment for the robbery at St. Thomas’s Church, Canterbury. The only fire he pleaded guilty to starting was that of St. Pauls. Apparently held a ‘grudge’ against the Catholic Church.
The fire was started in the disused confessional at the east end of the church, where some empty paint tins and dust covers were temporarily stored. It spread rapidly upwards to the roof, along the roof to the west end and completely destroyed the organ. So intense was the heat, that even the organ pipes completely melted.
The brilliant work of the firefighters, who put their own lives at risk to save the church, ensured that the walls, Bell Tower and stained glass windows were preserved intact. The Rose window at the west end suffered some damage, and needed to be replaced due to the subsequent brittle state of the glass, and one of the Rose windows at the east end was destroyed. The ‘St. Paul’ window at the east end also needed to be rebuilt. The intense heat stripped the paint from the upper part of the walls exposing the fleur-de-lils pattern which was part of the decoration scheme many years earlier.
Of David Fitzgerald, the then Parish Priest, Fr. David Maher wrote: “We are proud and grateful that the vigilance of our parishioners helped to apprehend the culprit. Apart from wanton destruction, this young man caused anguish and heartbreak to many people. Let us pray that God will enter his heart and bring him peace. Pray also for his family”
The work to restore St. Paul’s started on 1st June 1988 and on Friday 28th October 1988 the Solemn Mass to mark the re-opening was concelebrated. The Principle Celebrant was Archbishop Bowen.
Most of the information regarding the fire at St. Paul’s was obtained from the book: Dover’s Catholic Faith by Robert A. Mackenzie.