St Walburge's Catholic Church

Churches and Chapels by Atticus (Contents)

This is a church in charge of the Jesuits, and by them and it we are reminded of what may fairly be termed the great leg question. The order of Jesuits, as we lately remarked, was originated by a damaged leg; and St. Walburge’s church, Preston, owes its existence to the cure of one. Excellent, O legs! Tradition hath it that once upon a time – about 1160 years ago – a certain West Saxon King had a daughter born unto him, whose name was Walburge; that she went into Germany with two of her brothers, became abbess of a convent there, did marvellous things, was a wonder in her way, couldn’t be bitten by dogs – they, used to snatch half a yard off and then run, that she died on the 25th February, 778, that her relics were transferred, on the 12th October following, to Eichstadt, at which place a convent was built to her memory, that the said relics were put into a bronze shrine, which was placed upon a table of marble, in the convent chapel; that every year since then, between the 12th of October and the 25th of February, the marble upon which the shrine is placed has “perspired” a liquid which is collected below in a vase of silver; and that this liquid, which is called “St. Walburge’s oil,” will cure, by its application, all manner of physical ailments.

This is the end of our first lesson concerning St. Walburge and the wonderful oil. The second lesson runneth thus:- About five and twenty years ago there lived, as housemaid at St. Wilfrid’s presbytery, in this town, one Alice Holderness. She was a comely woman and pious; but she fell one day on some steps leading to the presbytery, hurt one of her legs – broke the knee cap of it, we believe – and had to be carried straight to bed. Medical aid was obtained; but the injured knee was obstinate, wouldn’t be mended, and when physic and hope alike had been abandoned, so far as the leg of Alice was concerned, the Rev. Father Norris, who, in conjunction with the Rev. Father Weston, was at that time stationed at St. Wilfrid’s, was struck with a somewhat bright thought as to the potency of St. Walburge’s oil. A little of that oil was procured, and this is what a sister of the injured woman says, in a letter which we have seen on the subject, viz.: – That Father Norris dipped a pen into the oil and dropped a morsel of it upon her knee, whereupon “the bones immediately snapped together and she was perfectly cured, having no longer the slightest weakness in the broken limb.” This is a strange tale, which people can either believe or disbelieve at their own pleasure. All Protestants – ourselves included – will necessarily be dubious; and if any polemical lecturer should happen to see the story he will go wild with delight, and consider that there is material enough in it for at least six good declamatory and paying discourses. Well, whether correct or false, the priests at St. Wilfrid’s believed in the “miraculous cure,” and decided forthwith to agitate for a church in honour of St. Walburge.

That church is the one we now see on Maudlands – a vast and magnificent pile, larger in its proportions than any other Preston place of worship, and with a spire which can only be equalled for altitude by two others in the whole country. What a potent architectural charm was secreted in that mystic oil with which Father Norris touched the knee of Alice! In the “Walpurgis dance of globule and oblate spheroid,” there may be something wonderful, but through this drop of oil from the Walpurgian shrine an obstreperous knee snapped up into compact health instantly, and then a large church, ornamental to Preston and creditable to the entire Catholic population, arose. There used to be a hospital, dedicated to Mary Magdalen, either actually upon or very near the site occupied by St. Walburge’s Church; but that building disappeared long ago, and no one can tell the exact character of it. Prior to, and until the completion of, the erection of St. Walburge’s Church, schools intended for it, and built mainly at the expense of the late Mr. W. Talbot, were raised on some adjoining land. Service in accordance with the Catholic ritual was held therein until the completion of the Church. Father Weston was the leading spirit in the construction of St. Walburge’s, and to him – although well assisted by Father Williams – may be attributed the main honour of its development into reality.

Father Cobb, of St. Wilfrid’s, laid the foundation stone of St. Walburge’s Church, on Whit-Monday, 1850; and on the 3rd of August, 1854, the building was opened, the ceremony being of a very grand and imposing description. The spire of the church was not completed until 1887. The entire cost of the place has been about £15,000. St. Walburge’s is built in the early decorated Gothic style of architecture, and it is beyond all controversy, a splendid looking building. At the eastern end there is a remarkably fine seven-light stained glass window. This is flanked by a couple of two-light windows; and the general effect is most imposing. The central window is 35 feet high. At the western end there is a beautifully-coloured circular window, 22 feet in diameter, which was given by Miss Roper; and beneath it there are small coloured lights, put in by Father Weston out of money left him by Miss Green. Nearly all the side windows in the church are coloured, and four of them are of the “presentation” stamp. The most prominent thing about the church is the spire, which, as well as the tower, is built of limestone, and surmounted by a cross, the distance from its apex to the ground being about 301 feet. We saw the weather vane fixed upon this spire, and how the man who did the job managed to keep his head from spinning right round, and then right off, was at the time an exciting mystery to us which we have not yet been able to properly solve. A little before the actual completion of the spire, we had a chance of ascending it, but we remained below. The man in charge wanted half-a-crown for the trip; and as we fancied that something like £5 ought to be given to us for undertaking a journey so perilous, it was mutually decided that we should keep down. Why, it would be a sort of agony to ascend the spire under the most favourable circumstances; and as one might only tumble down if ascension were achieved, the safest plan is to keep down altogether.

We have often philosophised on the question of punishment, and, locally speaking, we have come to this conclusion, that agony would be sufficiently piled in any case of crime, if the delinquent were just hoisted to the top of St. Walburge’s spire and left there. From the summit of the tower, which is quite as high as safe-sided human beings need desire to get, there is a magnificent view: Preston lurches beneath like a hazy amphitheatre of houses and chimneys; to the east you have Pendle, Longridge, and the dark hills of Bowland; northwards, in the far distance, the undulating Lake hills; westward, the fertile Fylde, flanked by the Ribble, winding its way like a silver thread to the ocean; and southwards Rivington Pyke and Hoghton’s wooded summit with a dim valley to the left thereof, in which Blackburn works and dreams out its vigorous existence. The general scenery from the tower is panoramic and charming. The view from the spire head must be immense and exquisite, but few people of this generation, unless a very safe plan of ascension is found out, will be able to enjoy it.

In the tower there is a large bell, weighing 31 cwt.; and it can make a very considerable sound, drowning all the smaller ringing arrangements in the neighbourhood. Some time, but not yet, there will probably be a peal of twelve bells in the tower, for it has accommodation for that number. Internally the church is very high and spacious; is decorated artistically in many places; and a sense of mingled solemnity and immensity comes over you on entering it. The roof is a tremendous affair; it is open, and supported by eleven huge Gothic-fashioned principals, each of which cost £100, and it is panelled above with stained timber. But we don’t care very much for the roof. No doubt it is fine; but the whole of the wood work seems too, heavy and much too dark. There is a cimmerian massiveness about it; and on a dull day it looks quite bewildering. If it were stained in a lighter colour its proportions would come out better, and much of that gigantic gloom which now shadows it would be removed. There are canopied stands for two and twenty statues towards the base of the principals; but the whole of them, except about five, are empty. Saints, &c., will be looked after for these stands when money is more abundant, and when more essential work has been executed. What seems to be proximately wanted in the church is a good sanctuary – something in keeping with the general design of the building and really worthy of the place. It is intended, we believe, to have a magnificent sanctuary; but a proper design for one can’t be exactly hit on; when it is, the past liberality of the congregation is a sufficient guarantee that the needful article – money – will be soon forthcoming.

Notwithstanding the greatness of the church, it will not seat as many as some smaller places of worship. This is accounted for through its having no galleries. There is a small elevation in the shape of a gallery at the western end, which is seldom used; but the sides of the church are open, the windows running along them rendering this necessary. The church will comfortably seat about 1,000 persons; 1,700 have been seen in it; but there had to be much crushing, and all the aisles, &c., had to be filled with standing people to admit such a number. The seats are all well made and all open. On a Sunday masses are said at eight, nine, ten, and eleven, and there is an afternoon service at three. The aggregate average attendance on a Sunday is about 3,000. There are three confessionals in the church, towards the south-eastern-corner; they stand out like small square boxes, and although made for everybody seem specially adapted for thin and Cassius-like people. Falstaff’s theory was – more flesh more frailty. If this be so, then, there are either very few “great” sinners at St. Walburge’s or the large ones confess somewhere else.

The worshippers at this church are, in nine cases out of ten, working people. The better class of people sit at the higher end of the central benches; and if one had never seen them there no difficulty would be experienced in finding out their seats. You may always ascertain the character of worshippers by what they sit upon. Working-class people rest upon bare boards; middle-class individuals develop the cushion scheme to a moderate pitch; the upper species push it towards consummation-like ease, and therefore are the owners of good cushions. Very few cushions can be seen in St. Walburge’s; those noticeable are at the higher end; and the logical inference, therefore, is that not many superb people attend the place, and that those who do go sit just in the quarter mentioned. At the doors of this church, as at those of other Catholic places of worship in the town, you may see men standing with boxes, asking for alms. These are brothers of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. The object of this society is to visit and relieve the sick and the poor. The brothers are excellent auxiliaries of the clergy; and, further, do the work of the mendicity societies, like those now being established in London, by examing applications for relief, and so disappointing impostors.

The conference of St. Vincent attached to St. Walburge’s Church numbers 16 active members, who collected and distributed in food and clothing during last year £112. The brothers are deserving of all praise for spending their evenings in visiting the sick and distressed, in courts and alleys, after their day’s work. The singers at this church occupy a small balcony on the south side. They are a pretty musical body – got through their business ever so creditably; but they are rather short of that which most choirs are deficient in – tenor power. They would be heard far better if placed at the western end but a good deal of expense would have to be incurred in making orchestral arrangements for them there; so that for some time, at least, they will have to be content with their grated and curtained musical hoist on the southern side, singing right out as hard as they can at the pulpit, which exactly faces them, and at the preacher, if they like, when he gets into it. The organ, which is placed above the singers, and would crush them into irrecoverable atoms if it fell, is a fine instrument; but it is pushed too far into the wall, into the tower which backs it, and if there are any holes above, much of its music must necessarily escape up the steeple. The organ is played with taste and precision. The members of the choir sing gratuitously.

Since the opening of St. Walburge’s there have been twelve different priests at it. Three are in charge of it now. Father Weston was the first priest, and, as already stated, was the mainspring of the church. He died on the 14th of November, 1867, and to his memory a stained glass window will by and bye be fixed in the church. This window is in Preston now; we have seen it – it is a most beautiful piece of workmanship; and as soon as the requisite money is “resubscribed,” the original contributions having, through unfortunate financial circumstances, been more than half sacrificed, it will be fixed. Father Henry, late rector of Stonyhurst College, was for some time at St. Walburge’s, and during his stay the work begun by Father Weston, and pushed on considerably by successive priests, was elaborated and finished.

The three priests now at St. Walburge’s are Fathers J. Johnson (principal), Payne, and Papall. Father Johnson, who has been at the church about fourteen months, is a spare, long-headed, warm-hearted, unostentatious man. He is between 50 and 60 years of age; has a practical, weather-beaten, shrewd look; would be bad to “take in;” has much latent force; is a kindly, fatherly preacher; is dry in humour till drawn out, and then can be very genial; is a sharp man, mentally and executively; has been provincial of the Jesuits and rector of Stonyhurst College; knows what’s what, and knows that he knows it; is determined, but can be melted down; seems cold and sly, but has a kind spirit and an honest tongue in his bead; and is the right man for his position.

Father Payne has been at St. Walburge’s about four years. He has passed 40 summers in single blessedness, and says he intends to “last it out.” His preaching is serious and earnest in style. His eloquence may not be so captivating as that of some men; but it comes up freely, and involves utterances of import. Father Payne has not much action, but he has a good voice; he lifts his arms slowly and regularly, leans forward somewhat, occasionally seizes both his hands and shakes them a little; but beyond this there is not much motion observable in him. He has a keen, discreet sense of things, and, like the rest of his order, can see a long way. In private life – that is to say when he is out of the pulpit and off general duty – he is an affable, clear, merry, brisk-talking little gentleman, fond of a good joke, a blithe chat, and a hearty laugh. He is a pleasant Payne when in company, and if you knew him you would say so. The last Daniel who cometh up to judgment is Father Papall – the very embodiment of vivaciousness, linguistic activity, and dignity in a nut shell. Dark-haired, sharp-eyed, spectacled; diminutive, warm-blooded, he is about the most animated priest we know of. He has English and Italian blood in his veins, and that vascular mixture works him up beautifully.

No man could stand such an amalgam without being determined, volatile, practical, and at times dreamy; and you have all these qualities developed in Father Papall. He is 40 years of age, and has seen more foreign life than many priests. He has been in Italy, where he resided for years, in Holland, Belgium, Germany, France, America, &c.; and he has been at St. Walburge’s in this town, for 14 months. He is all animation when conversing with you; and in the pulpit he talks from head to foot – stirs all over, fights much with his sleeves, moves his arms, and hands, and fingers as if under some hot spell of galvanism, and fairly gets his “four feet” into the general subject, and revels with a delicious activity in it at intervals. He is an earnest preacher, has good intellectual constructiveness, and if he had not to battle so much with our English idioms and curious modes of pronunciation he would be a very potent speaker, and a racy homilist. He has a sweeping powerful voice; you could almost hear him if you were asleep, and this fact may account for the peculiarly contented movements of several parties we observed recently at the church whilst Father Papall was preaching. At least 20 near us went to sleep in about five minutes after he began talking, slept very well during the whole sermon, and at its conclusion woke up very refreshed, made brisk crosses, listened awhile to the succeeding music, &c., and then walked out quite cool and cheerful.

Most excellent schools are situated near and on the northern side of the church. The average daily attendance of boys is 200; that of the girls 260; that of the infants, 350. The boys seem well trained; the girls, who are in charge of nuns – called “Companions of the Holy Child Jesus” – are likewise industriously cared for; and the infants are a show in themselves. We saw these 350 babies, for many of them are nothing more, the other day, and the manner in which they conducted themselves was simply surprising. The utmost order prevailed amongst them, and how this was brought about we could not tell. One little pleasant-looking nun had charge of the whole confraternity, and she could say them at a word – make them as mute as mice with the mere lifting of her finger, and turn them into all sorts of merry moods by a similar motion, in a second. If this little nun could by some means convey her secret of managing children to about nineteen-twentieths of the mothers of the kingdom, who find it a dreadful business to regulate one or two, saying nothing of 350, babes and sucklings, she would confer a lasting benefit upon the householders of Britain. Night and Sunday schools – the latter being attended by about 700 boys and girls – are held in the same buildings. There are five nuns at St. Walburge’s; they live in a convent hard by; and like the rest of their class they work hard every day, and sacrifice much of their own pleasure for the sake of that of other people – a thing which the generality of us have yet to take first lessons in.