Catholic Church of the Divine Infant of Prague, Syston
                     

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     Leicestershire's dedication to the Divine Infant of Prague by Helen Harwood

The Divine Infant of Prague is perhaps an unusual dedication for a small rural church in England. But why such a dedication? Syston in Leicestershire is a long way from Prague and there appears no obvious connection with the Czech Republic’s capital city. The story though is a strange one. One of hard work, faith and an amazing coincidence.

It was in 1611 that German Lutherans first began to build the church of Panna Maria Vitezna, the home of the Infant of Prague statue. Nine years later the church was given to the Carmelite nuns after the Catholic Hapsburg Emperor Ferdinand II won the battle of the White Mountain.

Prazke Jezulatke – the Czech name for the statue of the Divine Infant – was donated to the sisters in 1628 by the Spanish bride of an important  Prague family. Situated about half way along the nave of the church on the right hand side is an altar and above that, a glass case houses the small wax statue of the Divine Infant framed in silver and gold. And according to the liturgical season the sisters change the tiny robes to the appropriate colour.

Back in Leicestershire it was as early as 1899 that Father Hendricks first opened a Mass centre in Syston. Father Hendricks had served in several missions and wherever he went he set up a shrine to the Divine Infant of Prague. Not surprisingly, his mass centre had this name.

This though was short lived, for after only 12 months he left for Melton Mowbray, some 10 miles distant. The Mass centre did remain open but only for a further year. With hindsight it would have been interesting to have asked him why the Divine Infant had been so special. Had he perhaps been to Prague as some point as a missionary? It was to be 21 years later that Fr Keating, a Rosminian, began to say Mass one Sunday a month in Syston.

In 1939 the Rosminians from nearby Ratcliffe College began to say Mass regularly in the village Assembly Rooms. The arrangement continued until 1943 when Syston was served by the then new church of St Theresa’s at neighbouring Birstall. During the early years of the Second World War, many priests came to say Mass in the Assembly Rooms. However, Father Horgan is credited with building the churches at both Syston and Birstall and indeed many of Syston’s older parishioners contributed to the building of St Theresa’s.Father Horgan was by all accounts a skilled fundraiser and he wrote many letters to far flung parishes and convents in an attempt to obtain the money needed for both buildings.

 


 

Throughout the war years the Assembly Rooms were used for dances which were attended in part by the American servicemen stationed at nearby East Goscote. The Italian POWs too came from the camp close to Thurmaston village for Mass, although it was unlikely that the latter were able to offer much in the way of financial contributions.

Coincidentally, Father Horgan also had a great personal devotion to the Divine Infant of Prague. And interestingly, he did not appear to have known Father Hendricks’ previous dedication of the earlier Mass centre since he never mentioned it to any of the parishioners at that time.

In the 1940’s a disastrous fire gutted the Assembly Rooms and during the cleaning up afterwards a broken statue of the Divine Infant of Prague was found amongst the debris.

Fr Horgan was so amazed at this discovery in a secular building that he took it as a sign and decided that this would be the dedication of the new Syston Church: The Divine Infant of Prague.

Much of the material used for the building of the church seems to have been reclaimed from local bomb sites. Today such recycling would be commended but the motives then were more financial.

Later Fr Horgan went to America on one of his many fund raising trips and it seems that whilst there he bought the Stations of the Cross with money given to him by the parishioners. He returned to Syston for the official opening and blessing of the church on the 28th of November 1949 by Bishop Ellis of Nottingham. The Rosminians continued to look after the Parish until Father David Forde was installed as parish priest in 1964 and Syston became an independent parish, separate from nearby Birstall, Rothley and Sileby.

Moreover, in 1964 the Catholic population of the parish was recorded as being just 500. The church in later years has been extended and refurbished with the addition of two stained glass windows, new altar furniture and a new statue of the Divine Infant for the entrance porch.

Today the parish’s Catholic population is 750, still small, but the church is a tribute to the Divine Infant and all those who worked to make it a reality.

The Divine Infant of Prague is widely venerated throughout the world and in Britain at least, a practice seems to have evolved of placing a coin beneath the Divine Infant’s statue to ensure the prosperity of the devotees.

 

 

Copyright Divine Infant of Prague 2007