St Wilfrids Catholic Church

Churches and Chapels by Atticus (Contents)

It was at one time of the day a rather dangerous sort of thing for a man, or a woman, or a medium-sized infant, living in this highly-favoured land of ours, to show any special liking for Roman Catholicism. But the days of religious bruising have perished; and Catholics are now, in the main, considered to be human as well as other people, and to have a right to live, and put their Sunday clothes on, and go to their own places of worship like the rest of mortals. No doubt there are a few distempered adherents of the “immortal William” school who would like to see Catholics driven into a corner, banished, or squeezed into nothing; probably there are some of the highly sublimated “no surrender” gentlemen who would be considerably pleased if they could galvanise the old penal code and put a barrel able to play the air of “Boyne Water” into every street organ; but the great mass of men have learned to be tolerant, and have come to the conclusion that Catholics, civilly and religiously, are entitled to all the liberty which a free and enlightened constitution can confer – to all the privileges which fair-play and even-handed justice call give; and if these are not fully granted now, the day is coming when they will be possessed. Lancashire seems to be the great centre of Catholicism in England, and Preston appears to be its centre in Lancashire. This benign town of Preston, with its fervent galaxy of lecturing curates, and its noble army of high falutin’ incumbents, is the very fulcrum and lever of northern Romanism. If Catholics are wrong and on the way to perdition and blisters there are 33,000 of them here moving in that very awkward direction at the present. A number so large, whether right or wrong cannot he despised; a body so great, whether good or evil, will, by its sheer inherent force, persist in living, moving, and having, a fair share of being. You can’t evaporate 33,000 of anything in a hurry; and you could no more put a nightcap upon the Catholics of Preston than you could blacken up the eye of the sun. That stout old Vatican gentleman who storms this fast world of ours periodically with his encyclicals, and who is known by the name of Pius IX., must, if he knows anything of England, know something of Preston; and if he knows anything of it he will have long since learned that wherever the faith over which he presides may be going down the hill, it is at least in Preston “as well as can be expected,” and likely, for a period longer than be will live, to bloom and flourish.

Our text is – St. Wilfrid’s Catholic Church, Preston. This place of worship is situated in a somewhat sanctified place – Chapel-street; but as about half of that locality is taken up with lawyers’ offices, and the centre of it by a police station, we fancy that this world, rather than the next, will occupy the bulk of its attention. It is to be hoped that St. Wilfrid’s, which stands on the opposite side, will act as a healthy counterpoise – will, at any rate, maintain its own against such formidable odds. The building in Chapel-street, dedicated to the old Angle-Saxon bishop – St. Wilfrid – who was a combative sort of soul, fond of argumentatively knocking down obstreperous kings and ecclesiastics and breaking up the strongholds of paganism – was opened seventy-six years ago. It signifies little how it looked then. Today it has a large appearance. There is nothing worth either laughing or crying about so far as its exterior goes. It doesn’t look like a church; it resembles not a chapel; and it seems too big for a house. There is no effort at architectural elaboration in its outer arrangements. It is plain, strong, large; and like big feet or leathern shirts has evidently been made more for use than ornament. But this style of phraseology only refers to the extrinsic part. Inside, the church has a vast, ornate, and magnificent appearance. No place of worship in Preston is so finely decorated, so skilfully painted, so artistically got up. In the world of business there is nothing like leather; in the arena of religion there seems to be nothing like paint. Every church in the country makes an effort to get deeply into the region of paint; they will have it upon either windows, walls, or ceilings. It is true that Dissenters do not dive profoundly into the coloured abyss; but weakness of funds combined with defective aesthetic cultivation may have something to do with their deficiency in this respect. Those who have had the management and support of St. Wilfrid’s in their hands, have studied the theory of colour to perfection, and whilst we may not theologically agree with some of its uses, one cannot but admire its general effect. Saints, angels, rings, squares, floriations, spiralizations, and everything which the brain or the brush of the most devoted painter could fairly devise are depicted in this church, and there is such an array of them that one wonders how anybody could ever have had the time or patience to finish the work. The high altar which occupies the southern end is, in its way, something very fine. A magnificent picture of the crucifixion occupies the back ground; flowers and candles, in numbers sufficient to appal the stoutest Evangelical and turn to blue ruin such men as the editor of the “Bulwark” are elevated in front; over all, as well as collaterally, there are inscriptions in Latin; designs in gold and azure and vermilion fill up the details; and on each side there is a confessional wherein all members, whether large or diminutive, whether dressed in corduroy or smoothest, blackest broad cloth, in silk or Surat cotton, must unravel the sins they have committed.

This confession must be a hard sort of job, we know, for some people; but we are not going to enter upon a discussion of its merits or demerits. Only this may be said, that if there was full confession at every place of worship in Preston the parsons would never get through their work. Every day, from an early hour in the morning until a late period of the evening, St. Wilfrid’s is open to worshippers; and you may see them, some with smiling faces, and some with very elongated ones, going to or coming from it constantly. Like Tennyson’s stream, they evince symptoms of constant movement and the only conclusion we can fairly come to is that the mass of them are singularly in earnest. There are not many Protestants – neither Church people, nor Dissenters, neither quiescent Quakers nor Revivalist dervishes – who would be inclined to go to their religious exercises before breakfast, and if they did, some of them, like the old woman who partook of Sacrament in Minnesota, would want to know what they were going to “get” for it. On Sundays, as on week days, the same business – laborious as it looks to outsiders – goes on. There are several services, and they are arranged for every class – for those who must attend early, for those who can’t, for those who won’t, and for those who stir when the afflatus is upon them. There are many, however, who are regular attendants, soon and late, and if precision and continuity will assist them in getting to heaven, they possess those auxiliaries in abundance. The congregation attending on a Sunday is a mixed one – rags and satins, moleskins and patent kids, are all duly represented; and it is quite a study to see their wearers put in an appearance. Directly after entrance reverential genuflections and holy-water dipping are indulged in. Some of the congregation do the business gracefully; others get through it like the very grandfather of awkwardness. The Irish, who often come first and sit last, are solemnly whimsical in their movements. The women dip fast and curtsy briskly; the men turn their hands in and out as if prehensile mysticism was a saving thing, and bow less rapidly but more angularly than the females; then you have the slender young lady who knows what deportment and reverence mean; who dips quietly, and makes a partial descent gracefully; the servant girl who goes through the preliminary somewhat roughly but very earnestly; the smart young fellow, who dips with his gloves on – a “rather lazy kind of thing,” as the cobbler remarked when he said his prayers in bed – and gives a sort of half and half nod, as if the whole bend were below his dignity; the business man, who goes into the water and the bowing in a matter-of-fact style, who gets through the ceremony soon but well, and moves on for the next comer; the youth, who touches the water in a come-and-go style, and makes a bow on a similar principle; the aged worshipper, who takes kindly but slowly to the hallowed liquid, and goes nearly upon his knees in the fulness of his reverence; and towards the last you have about six Sisters of Mercy, belonging St. Wilfrid’s convent, who pass through the formality in a calm, easy, finished manner, and then hurry along, some with veils down and others with veils up, to a side sitting they have.

There is no religious shoddy amongst these persons. They may look solemn, yet some of them have finely moulded features; they may dress strangely and gloomily, yet, if you converse with them, they will always give indications of serener spirits. Whether their profession be right or wrong, this is certain: they keep one of the best schools in the town, and they teach children manners – a thing which many parents can’t manage. They also make themselves useful in visiting; they have a certain respect for faith, but more for good works; and if other folk in Christendom held similar views on this point the good done would in the end be greater. All these Sisters of Mercy are accomplished – they are clever in the head, know how to play music, to paint, and to sew; can cook well if they like; and it’s a pity they are not married. But they are doing more good single than lots of women are accomplishing in the married state, and we had better let them alone. Its dangerous to either command or advise the gentler sex, and as everything finds its own level by having its own way they will, we suppose, in the end. One of the most noticeable features in connection with the services at St. Wilfrid’s is the music. It is proverbial that Catholics have good music. You won’t find any of the drawling, face-pulling, rubbishy melodies worked up to a point of agony in some places of worship countenanced in the Catholic Church. All is classical – all from the best masters. There is an enchantment in the music which binds you – makes you like it whether you will or not. At St. Wilfrid’s there is a choir which can’t be excelled by any provincial body of singers in the kingdom. The learned individual who blows the organ may say that the comparative perfection attained in the orchestra is through the very consummate manner in which he “raises the wind”; the gentleman who manipulates upon its keys may think he is the primum mobile in the matter; the soprano may fancy she is the life of the whole concern; the heavy bass or the chief tenor may respectively lay claim to the honour; but the fact is, its amongst the lot, so that there may be a general rubbing on the question of service, and a reciprocal scratching on the point of ability. There are several priests at St. Wilfrid’s; they are all Jesuits to the marrow; and the chief of them is the Rev. Father Cobb. Each of them is clever – far cleverer than many of the half-feathered curates and full-fledged incumbents who are constantly bringing railing accusations against them; and they work harder – get up sooner, go to bed later – than the whole of them. They jump at midnight if their services are required by either a wild Irishman in Canal-street or a gentleman of the first water in any of our mansions.

It is not a question of cloth but of souls with them. They are afraid of neither plague, pestilence, nor famine; they administer spiritual consolation under silken hangings, as well as upon straw lairs; in the fever stricken garret as well as in the gilded chamber. Neither the nature of a man’s position nor the character of his disease enters into their considerations. Duty is the star of their programme; action the object of their lives. They receive no salaries; their simple necessaries are alone provided for. Some of them perhaps get half-a-crown a month as pocket money; but that will neither kill nor cure a man. Sevenpence halfpenny per week is a big sum – isn’t it? – big enough for a Jesuit priest, but calculated to disturb the Christian balance of any other class of clergymen. If it isn’t, try them. In reference to the priests of St. Wilfrid’s, we shall only specially mention, and that briefly, the Rev. Father Cobb. No man in Preston cares less for fine clothes than he does. We once did see him with a new suit on; but neither before nor since that ever-memorable day, have we noticed him in anything more ethereal than a plain well-worn coat, waistcoat, and pair of trousers. He might have a finer exterior; but he cares not for this kind of bauble. He knows that trappings make neither the man nor the Christian, and that elaborate suits are often the synonym of elaborate foolery. He takes a pleasure in work; is happy inaction; and hates both clerical and secular indifference. Priests, he thinks, ought to do their duty, and men of the world ought to discharge theirs. In education, Father Cobb is far above the ordinary run of men. He has a great natural capacity, which has been well regulated by study; he is shrewd; has a strong intuitive sense; can’t be got over; won’t be beaten out of the field if you once get him into it; and is sure to either win or make you believe that he has. Like all strong Catholics he has much veneration – that “organ,” speaking in the vernacular of phrenology, is at the top of the head, and you never yet saw a thorough Catholic who did not manifest a good development of it; he is strong in ideality; has also a fine, vein of humour in him; can laugh, say jolly as well as serious things; and is a positively earnest and practical preacher. He speaks right out to his hearers; hits them hard in reference to both this world and the next; tells them “what to eat, drink, and avoid;” says that if they get drunk they must drop it off, that if they stuff and gormandise they will be a long while before reaching the kingdom of heaven; that they must avoid dishonesty, falsehood, impurity, and other delinquencies; and, furthermore, intimates that they won’t get to any of the saints they have a particular liking for by a round of simple religious formality – that they must be good, do good, and behave themselves decently, individually and collectively. We have never heard a more practical preacher: he will tell young women what sort of husbands to get, young men what kind of wives to choose, married folk how to conduct themselves, and old maids and bachelors how to reconcile themselves virtuously to their fate. There is no half-and-half ring in the metal he moulds: it comes out clear, sounds well, and goes right home. In delivery he is eloquent; in action rather brisk; and he weighs – one may as well come down from the sublime to the ridiculous – about thirteen stones. He is a jolly, hearty, earnest, devoted priest; is cogent in argument; homely in illustration; tireless in work; determined to do his duty; and, if we were a Catholic, we should be inclined to fight for him if any one stepped upon his toes, or said a foul word about him. Here endeth our “epistle to the Romans.”