150 years of Catholicism in Garstang

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SS Mary and Michael Roman Catholic Church and school in Garstang, celebrate their 150th anniversary this year. DR FRANCIS CARTER looks at the history of events leading to their foundation.

IN 1535 the population of England was around six million with Lancashire accounting for approximately 100,000 of this number.

The county, particularly its northern reaches, was wild, hostile and poorly accessible terrain.

The Catholic faith had been handed down over hundreds of years by the forebears of the majority possessors of that faith by the people of the time.

Nothing changed much, even when Henry VIII declared himself "Supreme head of the Church of England".

His subsequent dissolution of the monasteries, apart from causing consternation, did not really impinge upon the basic tenets of the traditional religion.

The passage of time and a succession of monarchs with more radical notions of how the faith in England should be managed soon resulted in anyone wishing to remain loyal to the Roman Catholic faith being seriously persecuted. The death penalty awaited those who engaged in conducting the Mass, teaching the Catholic faith, training for the priesthood or harbouring such priests.

Despite these strict measures, Catholicism in Lancashire survived.

In no small measure was this due to the presence of powerful and esteemed gentry. In our own Garstang area were the Brockholes of Claughton, Daltons of Thurnham, Plessingtons of Dimples, Greens of Bowerswood, Rigmaidens of Woodacre, Tyldesleys of Myerscough, Travers and Leybournes of Nateby, Butlers of Kirkland, to name but some.

These families accommodated priests, permitted the Mass to be celebrated in their homes and allowed the families of those whom they employed to attend Mass.

Some were victims of the draconian penalties imposed for their deeds though others seemed to have been more fortunate; partly the result of the wild geography of the region, making its activities remote from central government but probably, as one might expect, because the gentry were united as kindred spirits.

During the worst periods of persecution, many Lancashire martyrs were cruelly executed, simply for professing their faith.

However, it is true that religious tolerance did slowly develop, so that by the end of the 17th century the death penalty was only reluctantly imposed.

Our own parish of SS Mary and Michael is proud to have association with St John Plessington, born at Dimples Hall circa 1637. He was hanged at Chester in 1679, simply for being a Catholic priest. During the penal times colleges were set up in mainland Europe for the training of priests for England.

One such was the English College at Valladolid in Spain. It was here that St John Plessington trained, as also did a son of our parish, Fr Robert Horn, and a former parish priest, Fr Jerome Ainsworth.

Recusancy (the refusal to conform to the demand of the Church of England that you attend weekly service in the Church of England), is estimated to have included only 0.4% of the population in Lancashire. This, however, is believed to be only a tip of an iceberg: it was easier to conform officially but remain in heart a non-conformer.

By 1767, de facto religious tolerance had evolved to such a point that it was reported to the Bishop in Chester by the then vicar of Garstang that there were about 837 Catholics in his parish and that they felt a need for a church of their own; this was in advance of the Catholic Reform Act of 1778 which allowed the building of Catholic chapels, though restricted in design and use.

Bequests of two main benefactors, one of whom was grateful for his Lancashire education - probably at the "Dame School" at Fernyhalgh, founded by the legendary Alice Harrison, who for over 50 years ran a Catholic school at Shrine of Our Lady of Fernyhalgh - were available for the support of a Catholic Church in Garstang.

Since 1655 there had been a priest in Nether Wyresdale. Records available show that a "Garstang & Wyresdale Mission" has certainly existed form 1692. Now, Garstang was to get its own Catholic Church, soon to be followed by a school.

The Duke of Hamilton was willing to give land for the new church on the Bonds side of the Wyre bridge, on a lease of 999 years without rent or other encumbrance.

This offer seems to have been declined in favour of one from Mr Richard Horrobin who lived at what is now the Co-op Pharmacy building.

He offered to provide a site behind his house, free of rent but with the disadvantage of the lease, owned by the Walpole Keppel family, running out after 30 years.

The offer was taken up, though expiry of the lease resulted in the payment of a large rent.

The church and adjacent priest's house were built on the site of what people still refer to as "the Magistrates Court" in 1788.

Of particular local interest was the altar, which had classical pillars and pediments. Two of these now surround the entrances to two houses in Church Street, Garstang.

Starting with Rev. J Shuttleworth, there were eight parish priests prior to the arrival of Father Michael Hickey in 1825.

It was he who was responsible for the move to the new church in Bonds in 1858, having spent 33 years in the old church and with the prospect of spending a further 13 years in the new one.

It was Fr John Barrow in 1800 who opened the first school in his house in Back Lane (now Park Hill Rd).

This was followed by use of a one storey, rented building near the church in 1816.

Fr Hickey reorganized the teaching establishment of one man, added another storey to the school building and eventually, in 1846, had separate classes for boys and girls and employed a teacher for each.

There was apparently no denominational discrimination, non-Catholics attending as well as Catholics.

By 1856 a new school and new church had been decided upon. Fr Hickey's first school committee included such names as are familiar to us today: Holden, Carr, Swarbrick, Rossall, Turner, Ibison and Walmsley.

By 1856 or so, Fr Hickey was well aware of the need to build a larger church and a larger school. The question of how to accomplish it remained as yet unanswered.

* Next week Dr Carter continues his history of SS Mary and Michael and its on-going witness in Garstang and district.