Frances Elizabeth Ellis (1846-1930) was a most generous benefactress of the Catholic Church in England. Her considerable fortune was almost entirely spent in helping to establish schools, hospitals, orphanages and other good works in many counties of England; and in financing the erection of small churches in Southwark and Westminster.
She was a convert. She was born into a wealthy family at Brighton in 1846 and raised as an Anglican. She was left a considerable fortune by her father, and devoted much of her adult life to caring for her blind mother and infirm sister, who joined the Catholic Church with her.
Oral tradition has it that she made her first acquaintance with the Church through a gentleman who passed her house in Ramsgate every morning in all weathers on his way to the Abbey for early Mass. He was Mr Leahy, the father of a little girl who later was to become Sister Francis Elizabeth F.C. and to tell the story of Miss Ellis’s early life in the church. Mr Leahy explained the church and its beliefs to her and so began Miss Ellis’s interest in the Church in whose service she spent her life and her wealth. Mr Leahy was also able to introduce Miss Ellis to prominent clergymen in the diocese and she soon employed him as her trusted agent in all her transactions.
Her method was to identify areas that needed churches, then work with the clergy and the local people to build up a community, and finally buy sites with her own money. She also contributed towards the construction costs and made her own choice of architect. She favoured a Romanesque style, but was not insistent; the result, because of a lack of money for ornamentation, was often a bare and austere building. But she made sure there was money enough for a presbytery to be built or converted.
She was responsible for the construction of twenty-two churches in South London alone, and quite a number in the rest of the diocese, of which Saint Ethelbert’s is a delightful and interesting example. The archdiocese of Southwark has good reason to be eternally grateful to Miss Ellis. She died in 1930 at a home run by the Daughters of the Cross at Hayle in Cornwall, another building she had paid for.
Requiescat in pace