Preston is today a city of some 120,000 inhabitants. It is situated on the north bank of the Ribble in Lancashire. It is relatively unique among English towns and cities in being dominated by Catholic rather than Anglican ecclesiastical buildings. In 2012, Cardinal Vincent Nichols noted: “The history of the Christian and Catholic faith is long and deep here in Preston.”
Catholicism hung on tenaciously after the Reformation in Preston and Lancashire, with many estates in the hands of “Papists”. The Preston Mission was served by the Society of Jesus from 1701. A large Catholic chapel was opened in Friargate in 1761 (demolished 1990). James Boswell visited it in 1777 and found it “so filled with seats that I wondered at so much indulgence by the Civil Magistrates”.
In 1776 Fr Dunn SJ arrived to lead the Jesuit mission in Preston, a role he was to fulfil for 51 years. In 1791 the Second Relief Act was passed. This inter alia legalised the building of public places of Catholic worship. He oversaw the construction of a new chapel in Fishergate, a simple nonconformist building. Its outer shell survives today and is most discernible at the east end. St Wilfrid’s church of 1793 was the largest church of its time in Britain. It was opened on 4 June that year (George III’s birthday) to the strains of Handel’s Messiah.
By 1877 the church seemed old-fashioned. Fr Jackson SJ told the congregation that a new church “in the Italian style” was needed. The architect chosen was Fr Ignatius Scoles SJ, the son of the architect JJ Scoles. Bishop O’Reilly of Liverpool presided at the opening of the building on 25 April 1880.
In 1890 the plain external walls of the building were adorned with decorative terracotta, stone and brick detail in exuberant Renaissance style under the direction of SJ Nicholl. The west end has a spirited tympanum of Christ in Majesty.
Inside, five pairs of giant Corinthian columns support the tunnel vault of the nave. The high altar in its apsidal sanctuary is of rich marble and mosaic, lit from above. There are four lustrous chapels. The alabaster altar rails survive. The Lady Altar is by Pugin and Pugin.
The church escaped significant post-Vatican II liturgical adaptation although the frieze round the apse stating “AT THE NAME OF JESUS LET EVERY KNEE BOW” has gone.
The Jesuits were responsible for two further churches in Preston. The first of these was St Ignatius, designed in 1833 by JJ Scoles and extended in 1858 by Joseph Hansom. It is essentially a neo-Perpendicular Gothic church. The mystical poet Francis Thompson (“I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled him down the Arches of the years” – “The Hound of Heaven”) was baptised here in 1859. Another poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ, was a curate here in the late 1880s.
The second church is that of St Walburge (a female English saint of royal birth born in 710 AD who with her uncle St Boniface helped evangelise the Germans) in the Maudland district of the city. It is an amazing building by Joseph Hansom, with the 309-foot spire the tallest of any parish church in England. The interior has 13 bays in the nave with a remarkable hammer beam roof with large timber carvings of saints on the beam ends. CJ Nicholl added an apsidal sanctuary in 1872. The church conforms to the Jesuit requirement of uninterrupted views of the pulpit and the altar. Pevsner wrote: “Nothing prepares you for the shock of the interior”. The Ecclesiologist at the time of the church’s construction was not flattering and talked of “this flaunting offspring of the unhappy nuptials of Oratorianism and true Christian ecclesiology”.
The Jesuits did not have a total monopoly of church building in Preston. St Augustine’s of Canterbury was built in 1838-40 to a design by FW Tuach after a rebellion of Liberal Catholics against the domination of the Jesuit mission. The style was Italian Renaissance. In 1984 part of the ceiling collapsed because of dry rot and all but the front portico and the flanking towers were demolished. St Thomas of Canterbury and the English Martyrs was built in 1863-7 by EW Pugin with its elaborate west front and sanctuary dado. In 1873-4, J O’Byrne built the redbrick Gothic St Joseph’s. Catholic church building continued into the 20th century with St Gregory the Great (1936 by WC Mangan) and St Anthony of Padua (1958-9 by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott).
The Jesuits in the late 20th century retreated from both St Ignatius and St Walburge, handing these substantial buildings over to the Diocese of Lancaster. They continued however to retain St Wilfrid.
The Diocese of Lancaster has behaved recently with a degree of good sense in dealing with the problem it had been landed with, not taking refuge in closure and attempted demolition, to which solution other dioceses might have been tempted.
The Institute of Christ the King was founded in 1990. An integral part of the Institute’s charism is the use of the traditional Latin liturgy of 1962 for Mass and other sacraments. In 2008 it was granted the status of pontifical right and has the right to incardinate priests and deacons. It is headquartered at Gricigliano in the archdiocese of Florence, Italy.
In 2011 Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury had entrusted the Church of Sts Peter, Paul and Philomena, New Brighton on the Wirral (“The Dome of Home”) to the Institute; it had previously been closed for three years. It is now fully open and undergoing restoration.
In 2014 Bishop Michael Campbell of Lancaster granted the Church of St Walburge’s, Preston to the Institute as a shrine for Eucharistic Devotion. Three years later, the same bishop also entrusted the Church of St Thomas of Canterbury and the English Martyrs to the Institute. Both churches are currently flourishing under the care of the three traditionalist priests of the Institute with a very full programme of Masses and other devotions.
A different but equally imaginative solution was arrived at for the Church of St Ignatius. In 2014 the church was closed but then offered by Bishop Michael Campbell to the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. The latter is based in Kerala, India and traces its origins to the evangelistic activity of St Thomas the Apostle in the first century. It is in full communion with Rome. The Church of St Ignatius is now the Cathedral of St Alphonsa (an Indian nun who died in 1946 and was canonised in 2008).
Preston’s wonderful historic churches in deprived areas of the city are a priority for repair with substantial funds required – eg £2 million for the roof of St Walburge’s. The National Lottery Heritage Fund sadly closed its dedicated Grants for Places of Worship programme in 2017. The congregations which support these churches are enthusiastic but lack resources. Some recent work has been carried out at St Ignatius with grant support, but more is needed. If ever there was a case for a coordinated approach to the restoration of a group of major historic churches, Preston should be first on the list.
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