The Catholic Church of St Mary Highfield Street Liverpool L3 6AA The first Catholic church in Liverpool since the Reformation was built in Edmund Street, on what was then a narrow path just outside the town, in the early eighteenth century. Exactly when the church opened is unclear, but some of it must have been completed by 1727, as Nicholas Blundell records, in his diary, see 256 people assembled in it to receive their palms at one of the Masses on Palm Sunday. This church was destroyed by an anti-Catholic mob in 1746, who were rioting following the defeat of the Jacobite Rebellion; 'On April 30th ... a mob of seaman, ship's carpenters and others came to burn the Catholic chapel in Edmund Street. The two Jesuit fathers and several of the principle members of the congregation came out to meet them and were treated with surprising respect' wrote Robert Stoner, an invaluable guide to the history of early Liverpool Catholicism. 'Quietly and without any violence the crowd opened a passageway for Father Bedingfeld to go to the alter, take the Blessed Sacrament from the tabernacle and solemnly carry it, through a lane formed by the crowd, across Edmund Street to the house of a friendly Presbyterian gentle named Howard, who opened his door to receive him ... Then the mob tore up the benches, made a bonfire of everything combustible in the chapel and priests' houses, and completely destroyed the chapel and four adjacent houses'. In May of 1746, the mob destroyed a private house which was suspected of housing a Catholic chapel. This was almost certainly the house of Mrs Elizabeth Greene, whose husband, Captain Francis Greene, had been the only Catholic from Liverpool, as far as is known, to have joined Prince Charles in the doomed Jacobite Rebellion of 1845. Undeterred, Mrs Greene rented a house in Dale Street and open a temporary chapel in the attic. 'Here on Sundays and holidays the faithful would gather while it was still dark, being admitted in small groups, by different entrances by the light of a candle, until the attic itself, the lodging-rooms and tea-rooms in the two storeys below and the staircases were all full,' says Stoner. 'Although the two houses on either side were owned by friendly Presbyterian families, no little bell was rung to announce the Consecrations or the Communion, but a silent signal was passed from group to group.' Perhaps fearing further rioting, the city Corporation refused permission to rebuild the chapel in Edmund Street, but permission was granted for a warehouse which could be used 'for any purpose'. The new St Mary's was built in a courtyard just to the south of the upper end of Edmund Street, almost on Bixteth Street. 'The new two- storey chapel of brick faced with stucco ... was designed with a view to defence as well as camouflage,' writes Stoner. 'The whole of the eastern side of the chapel was made to look exactly like a warehouse. Two large folding double doors were constructed, one above the other, which, if they had been opened, would have disclosed solid wall behind them. Above them was fixed a rope and pulley, capped against the rain, as is usual in Liverpool. And the large leaded windows only looked into the enclosed courtyard and gave sufficient light for Mass. The upper storey was the Chapel and was reached by a broad staircase on each side from within the lower storey of the building. The end portion, from which these staircases led, was bricked off from the rest of the ground floor, which was used for lumber as part of the disguise, and this end portion was also secured by strong double doors.' Despite these precautions, the Warehouse Chapel was discovered and attacked in 1759, but was so strongly built that the damage was quickly repaired. Liverpool's Catholic community grew in status and confidence at the end of the eighteenth century, building new chapels in Chorley Street (mainly for Irish seaman) in 1777 and St Peter's in Seel Street (as well as the chapel in Sir Thomas Buildings) in 1788. By 1845 it was felt necessary to build a church 'worthy of the rising importance of the town and the position of Catholics', and a new St Mary's Church, designed by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, was built in Edmund Street to replace the old Warehouse Chapel. It was described as 'magnificent' and 'a grand monument of architectural skill,' by the Catholic Almanac in 1900. In 1885, as the site was needed for the expansion of Liverpool Exchange railway station, the church was moved to Highfield Street piece by piece and reassembled, while the congregation worshipped in a temporary iron church on Pownall Square. Sadly, this Pugin church was lost in the Blitz, and the handsome replacement church, opened in 1953 and designed by Weightman & Bullen, has closed very recently, ending hundreds of years of Catholic worship at the site. The above description comes from 'The Churches of Liverpool' by David Lewis Published by The Bluecoat Press ISBN 1 872568 76 9 © 2001 David Lewis (This book also has many fine photographs of Liverpool churches) Reproduced with the permission of: Colin Wilkinson of The Bluecoat Press Bluecoat Chambers School Lane Liverpool L1 3BX ***** Extracts from Archdiocese of Liverpool Directories: Founded: December 2nd 1707 New church: Edmund Street in 1845 Removed to Highfield Street and reconsecrated July 7th 1885 Baptism Registers 1741 - 1895 (at Liverpool Record Office) Marriage Register 1741 - 1919 (at Liverpool Record Office) Destroyed by enemy action in 1941 Rebuilt in 1953 Parish closed 2000 Later registers held at St Anthony's, Scotland Road ***** The Church building was demolished in 2001. ***** Early registers have been deposited at the Liverpool Record Office Record Office ref.: 282 HIG Registers: Bap. 1741 - 1895 * Mat. 1837 - 1919 * Def. 1856 - 1883, 1889 - 1900, 1918 * ***** * ORIGINAL REGISTERS NOT AVAILABLE IF MICROFILM COPY ARE HELD BY THE RECORD OFFICE. MANY REGISTERS WERE MICROFILMED IN THE 1940'S AS A PRECAUTION AGAINST LOSS DUE TO ENEMY BOMBING. THE QUALITY OF SOME OF THESE COPIES IS NOT GREAT.
Last Updated May 2007
Copyright © 2007 Patrick Neill