St Mary's and St Joseph's Catholic Chapels

Churches and Chapels by Atticus (Contents)

In this combination the past and the present are linked. Into their history the elements of a vast change enter. One is allied with “saintly days,” followed by a reactive energy, vigorous and crushing; the other is amalgamated with an epoch of broadest thought and keenest iconoclasm; both are now enjoying a toleration giving them peace, and affording them ample room for the fullest progress. Unless it be our Parish Church, which was originally a Catholic place of worship, no religious building in Preston possesses historic associations so far-reaching as St. Mary’s. It is the oldest Catholic chapel in Preston. Directly, it is associated with a period of fierce persecution. Relatively, it touches those old times when religious houses, with their quaintly-trimmed orders, were in their halcyon days. After the dissolution, caused by Henry VIII, it was a dangerous thing to profess Catholicism, and in Preston, as in other places, those believing in it had to conduct their services privately, and in out-of-the-way places.

In Ribbleton-lane there is an old barn, still standing, wherein mass used to be said at night-time. People living in the neighbourhood fancied for a considerable period that this place was haunted; they could see a light in it periodically; they couldn’t account for it; and they concluded that some headless woman or wandering gnome was holding a grim revel in it. But the fact was, a small band of Catholics debarred from open worship, and forced to secrete themselves during the hours of devotion, were gathered there. When the storm of persecution had subsided a little, Catholics in various parts of the country gradually, though quietly, got their worship into towns; and, ultimately, we find that in Preston a small thatched building – situated in Chapel-yard, off Friargate – was opened for the use of Catholics. This was in 1605. The yard, no doubt, took its name from the chapel, which was dedicated to St. Mary. There was wisdom in the selection of this spot, and appropriateness, too – it was secluded, near the heart of the town, and very close to the old thoroughfare whose very name was redolent of Catholicity. Friargate is a word which conveys its own meaning. An old writer calls it a “fayre, long, and spacious street;” and adds, “upon that side of the town was formerly a large and sumptuous building belonging to the Fryers Minors or Gray Fryers, but now [1682] only reserved for the reforming of vagabonds, sturdy beggars, and petty larcenary thieves, and other people wanting good behaviour; it is now the country prison . . . and it is cal’d the House of Correction.”

This building was approached by Friargate, and was erected for the benefit of begging friars, under the patronage of Edward, Earl of Lancaster, son of Henry III. The first occupants of it came from Coventry, “to sow,” as we are, told by an ancient document, “the seeds of the divine word, amongst the people residing in the villa of Preston, in Agmounderness, in Lancashire.” Primarily it was a very fine edifice, was built in the best style of Gothic architecture, and had accommodation for upwards of 500 monks. Upon its site now stands the foundry of Mr. Stevenson, adjoining Lower Pitt-street. The Catholics of Preston satisfied themselves with the small building in Chapel-yard until 1761, when a new place of worship, dedicated to St. Mary, was erected upon part of the site of the convent of Grey Friars. Towards this chapel the Duke of Norfolk gave a handsome sum, and presented, for the altar, a curious painting of the Lord’s Supper. But this building did not enjoy a very prosperous career, for in 1768, during a great election riot, it was pulled down by an infuriated mob, all the Catholic registers in it were burned, and the priest – the Rev. Patrick Barnewell – only saved his life by beating a rapid retreat at the rear, and crossing the Ribble at an old ford below Frenchwood. Another chapel was subsequently raised, upon the present site of St. Mary’s, on the west side of Friargate, but when St. Wilfrid’s was opened, in 1793, it was closed for religious purposes and transmuted into a cotton warehouse. The following priests were at St. Mary’s from its opening in 1761 until its close in 1793:- Revs. Patrick Barnewell, Joseph Smith, John Jenison, Nicholas Sewall, Joseph Dunn, and Richard Morgan. The two last named gentleman lived together in a cottage, on the left side of the entrance to the chapel, behind which they had a fine room commanding a beautiful view of the Ribble, Penwortham, &c., for at that time all was open, on the western side of Friargate, down to the river. Whittle, speaking of Father Dunn, says he was “the father of the Catholic school, the House of Recovery, and the Gasworks,” and adds, with a plaintive bathos, that “on the very day he left this sublunary world he rose, as was his custom, very early, and in the course of his rambles exchanged a sovereign for sixpences, for distribution amongst the indigent.”

In 1815 the chapel was restored; but not long afterwards its roof fell in. Nobody however was hurt, just because nobody was in the building at the time. The work of reparation followed, and the chapel was deemed sufficient till 1856, when it was entirely rebuilt and enlarged. As it was then fashioned so it remains. It is a chapel of ease for St. Wilfrid’s, and is attended to a very large extent by Irish people. The situation of it is lofty; it stands upon higher ground than any other place of worship in the town; but it is so hemmed in with houses, &c., that you can scarcely see it, and if you could get a full view of it nothing very beautiful would be observed about the exterior. The locality in which this chapel is placed is crowded, dark-looking, and pretty ungodly. All kinds of sinister-looking alleys, narrow yards, dirty courts, and smoky back streets surround it; much drinking is done in each; and a chorus of noise from lounging men in their shirt sleeves, draggle-tailed women without bonnets, and weird little youngsters, given up entirely to dirt, treacle, and rags, is constantly kept up in them. The chapel has a quaint, narrow, awkward entrance. You pass a gateway, then mount a step, then go on a yard or two and encounter four steps, then breathe a little, then get into a somewhat sombre lobby two and a half yards wide, and inconveniently steep, next cross a little stone gutter, and finally reach a cimmerian square, surrounded by high walls, cracked house ends, and other objects similarly interesting.

The front of the chapel is cold-looking and devoid of ornament. Upon the roof there is a square perforated belfry, containing one bell. It was put up a few years ago, and before it got into use there was considerable newspaper discussion as to the inconvenience it would cause in the morning, for having to be rung at the unearthly hour of six it was calculated that much balmy quietude would be missed through it. Some people can stand much sleep after six, and on their account early bell-ringing was dreaded. But the inhabitants have got used to the resonant metal, and those who have time sleep on very excellently during its most active periods. The chapel has a broad, lofty, and imposing interior; but it is rather gloomy, and requires a little extra light, which would add materially to the general effect. There is considerable decorative skill displayed in the edifice; but the work looks opaque and needs brightening up. The sanctuary end is rich and solemn, has a finely-elaborate and sacred tone, and combines in its construction elegance and power.

At the rear and rising above the altar there is a large and somewhat imposing picture, representing the taking down of our Saviour from the cross. It was painted by Mr. C. G. Hill, after a picture of Carracci’s, in Stonyhurst College, and was originally placed in St. Wilfrid’s church. St. Mary’s will accommodate about 1,000 persons. All the pews have open sides, and there are none of a private character in any part of the church. The poorest can have the best places at any time, if they will pay for them, and the richest can sit in the worst if they are inclined to be economical. Large congregations attend this chapel, and the bulk, as already intimated, are of the Milesian order. At the rear, where many of the poor choose to sit, some of the truest specimens of the “finest pisantry,” some of the choicest and most aromatic Hibernians we have seen, are located. The old swallow-tailed Donnybrook Fair coat, the cutty knee-breeches, the short pipe in the waistcoat pocket, the open shirt collar, the ancient family cloak with its broad shoulder lapelle, the thick dun-coloured shawl in which many a young Patrick has been huddled up, are all visible. The elderly women have a peculiar fondness for large bonnets, decorated in front with huge borders running all round the face like frilled night-caps.

The whole of the worshippers at the lower end seem a pre-eminently devotional lot. How they are at home we can’t tell; but from the moment they enter the chapel and touch the holy water stoops, which somehow persist in retaining a good thick dark sediment at the bottom, to the time they walk out, the utmost earnestness prevails amongst them. Some of the poorer and more elderly persons who sit near the door are marvellous hands at dipping, sacred manipulation, and pious prostration. Like the Islams, they go down on all fours at certain periods, and seem to relish the business, which, after all, must be tiring, remarkably well. Considering its general character, the congregation is very orderly, and we believe of a generous turn of mind. The chapel is cleanly kept by an amiable old Catholic, who may, if there is anything in a name, be related to the Grey Friars who formerly perambulated the street he lives in; and there is an air of freedom and homeliness about it which we have not noticed at several places of worship. Around its walls are pictures of saints. They make up a fine family group, and seem to have gathered from every Catholic place of worship in the town to do honour to the edifice.

There are sundry masses every Sunday in the chapel, that which is the shortest – held at half-past nine in the morning – being, as usual, best patronised. The scholars connected with St. Wilfrid’s attend the chapel every Sunday. Each Wednesday evening a service is also held in the chapel, and it is most excellently attended, although some who visit it put in a rather late appearance. When we were in the chapel, one Wednesday evening, ten persons came five minutes before the service was over, and one slipped round the door side and made a descent upon the holy water forty-five seconds before the business terminated. Of course it is better late than never, only not much bliss follows late attendance, and hardly a toothful of ecstacy can be obtained in three-quarters of a minute. The singing is of an average kind, the choir being constituted of the school children; whilst the organ, which used to be in some place at Accrington, is only rather shaky and debilitated.

During the past ten years the Rev. Thomas Brindle, of St. Wilfrid’s, has been the officiating priest at St. Mary’s. Father Brindle is a Fylde man, is about 45 years of age, and is a thoroughly healthy subject. He is at least 72 inches high, is well built, powerful, straight as a die, good looking, keeps his teeth clean, and attends most regularly to his clerical duties. He is unassuming in manner, blithe in company, earnest in the pulpit. His gesticulation is decisive, his lungs are good, and his vestments fit him well. Not a more stately, yet homely looking, honest-faced priest have we seen for many a day. There is nothing sinister nor subtle in his visage; the sad ferocity glancing out of some men’s eyes is not seen in his. We have not yet confessed our sins to him, but we fancy he will be a kindly soul when behind the curtain, – would sooner order boiled than hard peas to be put into one’s shoes by way of penance, would far rather recommend a fast on salmon than a feast on bacon, and would generally prefer a soft woollen to a hard horse hair shirt in the moments of general mortification. Father Brindle! – Give us your hand, and may you long retain a kindly regard for boiled peas, soft shirts, and salmon. They are amongst the very best things out if rightly used, and we shouldn’t care about agonising the flesh with them three times a week.

St. Joseph’s Catholic Church stands on the eastern side of Preston, and is surrounded by a rapidly-developing population. The district has a South Staffordshire look – is full of children, little groceries, public-houses and beershops, brick kilns, smoke, smudge, clanging hammers, puddle-holes, dogs, cats, vagrant street hens, unmade roads, and general bewilderment. When the new gasometer, which looks like the skeleton of some vast colosseum, is finished here, an additional balminess will be given to the immediate atmosphere, which may be very good for children in the hooping-cough, but anything except pleasant for those who have passed through that lively ordeal. In 1860, a Catholic school was erected in Rigby-street, Ribbleton-lane. Directly afterwards divine service was held in the building, which in its religious character was devoted to St. Joseph. But either the walls of the edifice were too weak, or the roof of it too strong, for symptoms of “giving way” soon set in, and the place had to be pulled down. In 1866, having been rebuilt and enlarged, it was re-opened. In the meantime, religious services and scholastic training being essential, and it being considered too far to go to St. Ignatius’s and St. Augustine’s, which were the places patronised prior to the opening of St. Joseph’s mission, another school, with accommodation in it for divine worship, was erected on a plot of land immediately adjoining.

Nearly one half of the money required for this building, which was opened in 1864, was given by Protestants. At the northern end of it, there is a closed-off gallery, used as a school for boys. The remainder of the building is used for chapel purposes. The exterior of the edifice is neat and substantial; the interior – that part used for worship – is clean, spacious, and light. At the southern end there is a small but pretty altar, and around the building are hung what in Catholic phraseology are termed “the stations.” There is not much ornament, and only a small amount of paint, in the place. The chapel will hold 560 persons; it is well attended; and the congregations would be larger if there were more accommodation. Masses are said here, and services held, on the plan pursued at other chapels of the same denomination. The half-past nine o’clock mass on a Sunday morning is a treat; for at it you can see a greater gathering of juvenile bazouks than at any other place in the town.

Some of the roughest-headed lads in all creation are amongst them; their hair seems to have been allowed to have its own way from infancy, and it refuses to be dictated to now. The congregation is a very poor one, and this will be at once apparent when we state that the general income of the place, the entire proceeds of it, do not exceed £100 a year. Nearly every one attending the chapel is a factory worker, and the present depressed state of the cotton trade has consequently a special and a very crushing bearing upon the mission. A new church is badly wanted here; in no part of the town is a large place of worship so much required; but nothing can be done in the matter until the times mend. A plot of land has been secured for a church on the western side of the present improvised chapel, and close to the house occupied by the priests in charge of the mission; but until money can be found, or subscribed, or borrowed without interest, it will have to remain as at present. The first priest at St. Joseph’s was the Rev. R. Taylor; then came the Rev. R. Kennedy; next the Rev. W. H. Bradshaw, who was succeeded by the Revs. J. Walmsley and J. Parkinson – the priests now at the place. Father Walmsley, the superior, who originally came from Brindle, is a placid, studious-looking, even-tempered gentleman. He is slender, but wirey; is inclined to be tall, and has got on some distance with the work. He is thoughtful, but there is much sly humour in him; he is cautious but free when aired a little. He knows more than many would give him credit for; whilst naturally reticent and cool he is by no means dull; he is shrewd and far-seeing but calm and unassuming; and though evenly balanced in disposition be would manifest a crushing temper if roughly pulled by the ears. His first mission was at the Church of the English Martyrs in this town; then he went to Wigan, and after staying there for a time he landed at St. Joseph’s.

Father Parkinson is a native of the Fylde, and he has got much of the warm healthy blood of that district in his veins. He has a smart, gentlemanly figure; has a sharp, beaming, rubicund face; has buoyant spirits, and likes a good stiff tale; is full of life, and has an eye in his head as sharp as a hawk’s; has a hot temper – a rather dignified irascible disposition; believes in sarcasm, in keen cutting hits; can scold beautifully; knows what he is about; has a “young-man-from-the-country-but-you-don’t-get-over-me” look; is a hard worker, a careful thinker, and considers that this world as well as the next ought to be enjoyed. He began his clerical career at Lancaster in 1864; attended the asylum whilst at that town; afterwards had charge of a workhouse at Liverpool; is now Catholic chaplain of Preston House of Correction, and fills up his spare time by labouring in St. Joseph’s district. Either the House of Correction or the poor mission he is stationed at agrees with him, for he has a sparkling countenance, and seems to be thriving at a genial pace. Both Father Walmsley and Father Parkinson have been in Spain; they were, in fact, educated there. Both labour hard and mutually; consoling each other in hours of trial, tickling one another in moments of ecstacy, and making matters generally agreeable.

The schools attached to St. Joseph’s are in a good condition. They are well attended, are a great boon to the district, and reflect credit upon those who conduct them. All the district wants is a new church, and when one gets built we shall all be better off, for a brighter day with full work and full wages will then have dawned.