St Augustine's Catholic Church

Churches and Chapels by Atticus (Contents)

St. Augustine’s Catholic Church, Preston, is of a retiring disposition; it occupies a very southern position; is neither in the town nor out of it; and unlike many sacred edifices is more than 50 yards from either a public-house or a beershop. Clean-looking dwellings immediately confront it; green fields take up the background; an air of quietude, half pastoral, half genteel, pervades it; but this ecclesiastical rose has its thorn. Only in its proximate surroundings is the place semi-rural and select. As the circle widens – townwards at any rate – you soon get into a region of murky houses, ragged children, running beer jugs, poverty; and as you move onwards, in certain directions, the plot thickens, until you get into the very lairs of ignorance, depravity, and misery. St. Augustine’s “district” is a very large one; it embraces 8,000 or 9,000 persons, and their characters, like their faces, are of every colour and size. Much honest industry, much straight-forwardness and every day kindness, much that smells of gin, and rascality, and heathenism may be seen in the district. There is plenty of room for all kinds of reformers in the locality; and if any man can do any good in it, whatever may be his creed or theory, let him do it. The priests in connection with St. Augustine’s Catholic Church are doing their share in this matter, and it is about them, their church, and their congregation that we have now a few words to say.

The church we name is not a very old one. It was formally projected in 1836; the first stone of it was laid on the 13th of November, 1838; and it was opened on the 30th of July, 1840, by Dr. Briggs, afterwards first bishop of the Catholic diocese of Beverley. It has a plain yet rather stately exterior. Nothing fanciful, nor tinselled, nor masonically smart characterises it. Four large stone pillars, flanked with walls of the same material surmounted with brick, a flight of steps, a portico, a broad gable with massive coping, and a central ornament at the angle, are all which the facade presents. The doors are lateral, and are left open from morning till night three hundred and sixty-five days every year.

The interior of the church is spacious, wonderfully clean, and decorated at the high altar end in most tasteful style. We have not inquired whether charity begins at home or not in this place; perhaps it does not; but it is certain that painting does; for all the fine colouring, with its many formed classical devices, at the sanctuary was executed by one of the members of the congregation. The principal altar is a very fine one, and a fair amount of pious pleasure may be derived from looking at a tremendous pastoral candlestick which stands on one side. It is, when charged with a full-sized candle, perhaps five feet ten high, and it has a very patriarchal and decorous appearance – looks grave and authoritative, and seems to think itself a very important affair. And it has a perfect right to its opinion. We should like to see it in a procession, with Zaccheus, the sacristian, carrying it. Three fine paintings, which however seem to have lost their colour somewhat, are placed in the particular part of the church we are now at. The central one represents the “Adoration of the Magi,” and was painted and given by Mr. H. Taylor Bulmer, who formerly resided in Preston. The second picture to the left is a representation of “Christ’s agony in the Garden;” and the third on the opposite side is “Christ carrying the Cross.” In front of the altar there is the usual lamp with a crimson spirit flame, burning day and night, and reminding one of the old vestal light, watched by Roman virgins, who were whipped in the dark by a wrathful pontifex if they ever let it go out.

At the northern end of the church there is a large gallery, with one of the neatest artistic designs in front of it we ever saw. The side walls are surmounted with a chaste frieze, and running towards the base are “stations” and statues of saints. A small altar within a screen, surmounted with statuary, is placed on each side of the sanctuary, and not far from one of them there is a bright painting which looks well at a distance, but nothing extra two yards off. It represents Christ preaching out of a boat to some Galileans, amongst whom may be seen the Rev. Canon Walker. If the painting is correct, the worthy canon has deteriorated none by age, for he seems to look just as like himself now as he did eighteen hundred years since, and to be not a morsel fonder of spectacles and good snuff now than he was then. His insertion, however, into this picture, was a whim of the artist, whose cosmopolitan theory led him to believe that one man is, as a rule, quite as good as another, and that paintings are always appreciated best when they refer to people whom you know.

There are three of those very terrible places called confessionals at St. Augustine’s, and one day not so long since we visited all of them. It is enough for an ordinary sinner to patronise one confessional in a week, or a month, or a quarter of a year, and then go home and try to behave himself. But we went to three in one forenoon with a priest, afterwards had the courage to get into the very centre of a neighbouring building wherein were two and twenty nuns, and then reciprocated compliments with an amiable young lady called the “Mother Superior.” Terrible places to enter, and most unworldly people to visit, we fancy some of our Protestant friends will say; but we saw nothing very agonising or dreadful – not even in the confessionals. Like other folk we had heard grim tales about, such places – about trap doors, whips, manacles, and all sorts of cruel oddities; but in the confessionals visited we beheld nothing of any of them. Number one is a very small apartment, perhaps two yards square, with a seat and a couple of sacred pictures in it. In front there is an aperture filled in with a slender grating and backed by a curtain which can be removed at pleasure by the priest who officiates behind. On one side of the grating there is a small space like a letter-box slip, and through this communications in writing, of various dimensions, are handed. Everything is plain and simple where the penitent is located; and the apartment behind, occupied by the priest who hears confession, is equally simple. There is no weird paraphernalia, no mysterious contrivances, no bolts, bars, pullies, or strings for either working miracles, or making the hair of sinners stand on end. Number two confessional is similarly arranged and equally plain. We examined this rather more minutely than the other, and whilst we could find nothing dreadful in the penitents’ apartment, we fancied, on entering the priest’s side, that, we had met with something belonging the realm of confessional torture as depicted by the Hogans, Murphys, and Maria Monk showmen, and which the officials had forgot to put by in some of their secret drawers. It was hung upon a nail, had a semi-circular, half viperish look, and was cupped at each end as if intended for some curious business of incision or absorption. We were relieved on getting nearer it and on being informed that it was merely an ear trumpet through which questions have to be put to deaf penitents who now and then turn up for general unravelment and absolution. The two confessionals described are contiguous to a passage at the rear of the church; the third we are now coming to is near one of the subsidiary altars, nod looks specifically snug. It is a particularly small confessional, and a very stout penitent would find it as difficult to get into it as to reveal all his sins afterwards. There is nothing either harrowing or cabalistic in the place; and you can see nothing but two forms, a screen, and a crucifix.

There are many services at St. Augustine’s. On Monday mornings at a quarter past seven, and again at half-past eight, mass is said; on Tuesdays and Thursdays there is benediction at half-past seven; on Fridays and Saturdays and on the eve of holidays there is confession; on Sundays there is mass at half-past seven, half-past eight, half-past nine, and at 11, when regular service takes place; on Sunday afternoons, at three, the children are instructed, and at half-past six in the evening there are vespers, a sermon, and benediction. The church has a capacity for about 1,000 persons, without crushing. The average number hearing mass on a Sunday is 3,290. On four consecutive Sundays recently – from February 14 to March 14 – upwards of 13,100 heard mass within the walls of the church.

The congregation is almost entirely made up of working people. A few middle class and wealthy persons attend the place – some sitting in the gallery, and others at the higher end of the church – but the general body consists of toiling every-day folk. The poorest section, including the Irish – who, in every Catholic Church, do a great stroke of business on a Sunday with holy water, beads and crucifixes – are located in the rear. It is a source of sacred pleasure to quietly watch some of these poor yet curious beings. They are all amazingly in earnest while the fit is on them; they bow, and kneel, and make hand motions with a dexterity which nothing but long years of practice could ensure; and they drive on with their prayers in a style which, whatever may be the character of its sincerity, has certainly the merit of fastness. How to get through the greatest number of words in the shortest possible time may be a problem which they are trying, to solve. The great bulk of the congregation are calm and unostentatious, evincing a quiet demeanour in conjunction with a determined devotion.

There are several very excellent sleepers in the multitude of worshippers; but they are mainly at the entrance end where they are least seen. We happened to be at the church the other Sunday morning and in ten minutes after the sermon had been commenced about 16 persons, all within a moderate space, were fast asleep. Their number increased slowly till the conclusion. Several appeared to be struggling very severely against the Morphean deity dining the whole service; a few might be seen at intervals rescuing themselves from his grasp – getting upon the very edge of a snooze, starting suddenly with a shake and waking up, dropping down their heads to a certain point of calmness and then retracing their steps to consciousness.

There are five men at St. Augustine’s called collectors – parties who show strangers, &c., their seats, and look after the pennies which attendants have to pay on taking them. Not one of these collectors has officiated less than 11 years; three of them have been at the work for 27; and what is still better they discharge their duties, as the sacristan once told us, “free gracious.” That is a philanthropic wrinkle for chapel keepers and other compounders of business and piety which we commend to special notice.

The singers at St. Augustine’s are of more than ordinary merit. Two or three of them have most excellent voices; and the conjoint efforts of the body are in many respects capital. Their reading is accurate, their time good, and their melody frequently constitutes a treat which would do a power of good to those who hear the vocalisation of many ordinary psalm-singers whose great object through life is to kill old tunes and inflict grevious bodily harm upon new ones. There is a very good organ at St. Augustine’s, and it is blown well and played well.

Usually there are three priests at the mission; but on our visit there were only two – the Rev. Canon Walker, and the Rev. J. Hawkesworth; and if you had to travel from the lowest point in Cornwall to the farthest house in Caithness you wouldn’t find two more kindly men. We Protestants talk volubly about the grim, grinding character of priests, about their tyrannous influence, and their sinister sacerdotalism; but there is a good deal of extra colouring matter in the picture. Whatever their religion may be, and however much we may differ from it, this at least we have always found amongst priests – excellent education, amazing devotion to duty, gentlemanly behaviour, and in social life much geniality. They have studied all subjects; they know something about everything; their profession necessarily makes them acquainted with each phase and feeling of life.

The Rev. Canon Walker is a good type of a thoroughly English priest and of a genuine Lancashire man. He is unassuming, obliging in manner, careful in his duties, fonder of a good pinch of snuff than of warring about creeds, much more in love with a quiet chat than of platform violence, and would far sooner offer you a glass of wine, and ask you to take another when you had done it, than fight with you about piety. He is a man of peace, of homely, disposition, of kindly thought, unobtrusive in style, sincere in action, with nothing bombastic in his nature, and nothing self-righteous in his speech. His sermons are neither profound nor simple – they are made up of fair medium material; and are discharged rapidly. There is no effort at rhetorical flourish in his style; a simple lifting of the right hand, with an easy swaying motion, is all the “action” you perceive. Canon Walker speaks with a rapidity seldom noticed. Average talkers can get through about 120 words in a minute; Canon Walker can manage 200 nicely, and show no signs of being out of breath.

The Rev. Mr. Hawkesworth – a bright-eyed, rubicund-featured gentleman, with a slight disposition to corporeal rotundity – is the second priest. He is a sharp, kindly-humoured gentleman, and does not appear to have suffered in either mind or body by a four years residence in Rome. Mr. Hawkesworth is a practical priest, a good singer, and a hard worker. He resides with Canon Walker in a spacious house adjoining St. Augustine’s. No unusual sounds have ever been heard to proceed from the residence, and it may fairly be inferred that they dwell together to harmony. The house is substantially furnished. The library within it is not very large, but what it lacks in bulk is made up for by variety. Its contents range from the Clockmaker of Sam Slick to the Imitation of Thomas a Kempis, from Little Dorrit to the Greek Lexicon. Not far from St. Augustine’s Church there is a convent. It is the old Lark-hill mansion transmuted, and is one of the most pleasantly situated houses in this locality. In front of it you have flowers of delicious hues, shrubs of every kind, grassy undulations, rare old shady trees, a small artificial lake, a fountain – shall we go on piling up the agony of beauty until we reach a Claude Melnotte altitude? It is unnecessary; all we need add is this – that the grounds are a lovely picture, delightfully formed, and most snugly set.

The convent is a large, clean, airy establishment. The entrance hall is handsome; some of the apartments are choicely furnished, the walls being decorated with pictures, &c., made by either the nuns or their pupils. The convent includes apartments for the reception of visitors, a small chapel, with deeply-toned light, and exquisitely arranged; dining rooms, sitting rooms, two or three school rooms, lavatories, sculleries, dormitories, and a gigantic kitchen, reminding one of olden houses wherein were vast open fire-places, massive spits, and every apparatus for making meat palatable and life enjoyable. The 22 nuns before referred to live at this convent. They belong to the order of “Faithful Companions;” they lead quiet, industrious lives – have no Saurin-Starr difficulties, and appear to be contented. At the convent there are 33 pupils – some from a distance, others belonging the town. They are taught every accomplishment; look very healthy; and, when we saw them, seemed not only comfortable but merry.

Near the convent there is a commodious girls’ and infants’ school connected with St. Augustine’s, the general average attendance being about 240. In Vauxhall-road there is another large, excellently built school belonging to the same Church, and set apart for boys. The attendance is not very numerous. At both there is room for many more scholars, and if religious bigotry did not operate in some quarters, and prevent Catholic children going to those schools recognising the principles of their own faith, the attendance at each would be much better than it is. Taking the district in its entirety, it is industriously worked by the Catholics. They deserve praise for their energy. Their object is to push on Catholicism and improve the secular position of the inhabitants, and they do this with a zeal most praiseworthy. This finishes our Augustinian mission.