With the development of rail links throughout the country, expansion of the ports and the subsequent increase in population a more established Mission began to flourish within the local area. In 1865 this took the form of the Italian Servite Friars travelling to Epping by train from Chelsea every week. In Epping they would hear Confessions until 10.00pm and then rise early to celebrate Mass on Sunday. They would then travel to Ongar to hear Confessions and celebrate Mass in the barn behind the Kings Head Public House before returning to London.
The Church was named St. Helen in memory of the Countess Helen Tasker of Middleton Hall, Brentwood who, with the 12th Lord Petre were the main benefactors of the Church. In 1869 the Church was consecrated by Archbishop Manning and was included in the Archdiocese of Westminster.
The first Parish Priest appointed was the Reverend Henry James Pare whose duties included serving the Epping and Ongar Workhouses and in 1887 saying Mass once a month at Saffron Walden, Epping and Great Dunmow. In 1906 Father Thomas Byles was appointed to St. Helen’s as a Missionary Priest. He later became the highly esteemed ‘Hero of the Titanic’ Due to growth in the population and number of Churches, Rome gave permission in July 1917 for the formation of the new Diocese of Brentwood. To this day St. Helen’s is served by a resident Parish Priest whose duties also includes serving St. Margaret’s Church, Doddinghurst.
In 1906 Father Byles was appointed a Diocesan Missionary priest of St. Helen’s, Ongar. He was known to be a learned man, a good Preacher and caring person by his parishioners. Ongar boys wishing to learn boxing were taught by Father Byles in a shed behind the barn.
In 1912, Father Byles was invited to assist at his brother’s marriage in New York and had booked his ill-fated passage on the Titanic leaving Southampton on Easter Wednesday with his parents and several brother and sisters.
When tragedy struck the Titanic Father Byles was active in getting women and children into the lifeboats. Other passengers became excited and Father Byles calmed them by giving Absolution and Blessings. He then began recitation of the Rosary, regardless of creed and the responses were loud and strong. A sailor pleaded several times with Father Byles to board a lifeboat but he refused. As the last boat left a passenger said she could distinctly hear the voices of the priest and the responses to the prayers. Then came the singing of “Nearer My God To Thee”.
The beautiful stained glass window in memory of Father Byles HERO of the TITANIC depicts St. Patrick, The Good Shepherd and St. Thomas Aquinas.