History of Our Lady Immaculate
& St Joseph
By Rev Fr C Horan
Three important factors contributed to the erection of a Catholic church in Prescot – the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act (1829) which gave Catholic’s throughout the country increased opportunities of public profession of their faith, the famine of 1847 in Ireland with its resultant emigration, and the growth of industry in the neighbouring town of St Helens.
For over a century, the chapel of Our Lady Help of Christians, had served the Catholic population of Prescot, but in 1848, it was deemed necessary to build an elementary school in Prescot which would also serve as a Mass centre. The Yew Tree estate on the borders of Knowsley Park was purchased, but ultimately, the site was considered inconvenient for the church, and land was procured by the Rev. Fr. William Cotham, S.J. Plans were drawn by Joseph Hansom – architect of Preston, and half the cost, namely £2,500 was generously donated by the Hon. Mrs. Stapleton. The foundations of the church were dug and prepared by Irish emigrants and the stone was the gift of Bartholomew Bretherton from his quarries at Rainhill. While the church was under construction, Mass was offered every Sunday in the parish school at Yew Tree.
One peculiarity about the new church at Prescot, was that it was built north to south, instead of east as is customary; this being due to the insufficiency of the land on the westward side. A second unusual feature is that no foundation stone can be traced. The opening Mass for the church was recorded in the Liverpool Daily Post, dated October 22nd 1857, it read
"This new Catholic church was solemnly opened yesterday, by the Roman Catholic Bishop of Liverpool, Doctor Goss, assisted by a numerous body of clergy, principally from Liverpool. The edifice is of red sandstone, 125 feet in length by 45 in breadth, with a gallery at the entrance end, and will seat about 1,000 persons. The cost, we believe, is about £3 000; and, although the unremitting labours of the esteemed minister — the Rev. Father Cottam —
and some of the principal members, have succeeded in raising a considerable sum, made up for a great part by the pence of the poor, yet there is a large debt on the sacred edifice.
The altar is an elaborately carved piece of woodwork, and the panels are of glass mosaic, the ornaments being emblematic of Our Lady and St. Joseph. As a piece of ecclesiastical furniture, the altar is unique; and the lavish praise that was bestowed upon it, before and after the morning service, must be more gratifying Messrs. Barff and Beesley, of Colquitt-street, Liverpool, the manufacturers, than anything we could say in commendation of their handiwork.
The sermon in the morning was preached by the Rev. A J. Christie, M.A., late Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, from the 8th chapter of the first book of Kings. The sermon, which was listened to with deep attention, inculcated the necessity of charity and brotherly love, and pointed out that the church, being a place more than ordinarily favoured by God, was the place where the greatest happiness was to be found."
The oldest known photo of the church, showing the original Altar and sanctuary designed by Joseph Hansom.
During the first decade of the life of the church of Our Lady Immaculate, a succession of earnest priests served the growing Catholic population in Prescot. Father Joseph Walmsley erected the Lady Altar under the east window of the truncated transept. He was a priest of indomitable courage and zeal but unhappily contracted typhus fever in attending one of his flock and died in 1864. Father George Harper contracted the fever also in that year. They both repose in the same grave at Windleshaw, in St Helens.
The presbytery was built in 1864 at the cost of £1300 a further generous gift from the Hon. Mrs. Stapleton, who may be looked upon as the foundress of the Mission. The heating apparatus was installed in the church at the same time. In 1877 began the lengthy rectorship of Father Ralph Brindle. At that time, the general poverty of the mission due to unsatisfactory conditions in the mining industry made Father Brindle’s task a difficult one. He erected confraternities and did much to deepen the spiritual life of the people. He was not unmindful of their temporal necessities and was responsible for forming the local branch of the newly instituted Catholic Benefit and Thrift Society. He was assisted by Father Jones, a convert for Methodism, and one of the leading temperance advocates of Lancashire. As an antidote to the prevalent vices of drunkenness, he rented a temperance club for the men in the marketplace. In 1897, plans were drawn up by Mr. Webster of Rainhill for the erection of a hall that would supply social amenities for the men of the parish. Every family contributed a set sum per week to defray the cost and thus the Guild Hall came into existence. It was opened on the third day of January 1900 by the famous Father Bernard Vaughan. Meanwhile, Father Brindle had carried out various improvements to the church, notably its re-roofing in 1883, and the reconstruction of the organ in 1884. His twenty-six years of rectorship ended in 1902 and from that date to the outbreak of the first world war, Father Unsworth and Father Kenna took charge of the parish. In 1912, the confraternity of men was affiliated to the Catholic Young Men’s Society of Great Britain.
The church after the redecoration of 1922, showing the newly installed high altar.
Father Moran, who succeeded as Rector in 1922 installed the present high altar of Hopwood stone from a bequest of Dr Brindle. Father Francis Melling was appointed in 1927. He was an able administrator and was responsible for arranging the first outdoor procession of the Blessed Sacrament on the Sunday within the Octave of the Feast of Corpus Christi, a public expression of faith in which the parishioners join annually. The name of Father Toohey, an assistant priest at this time will long be remembered for his kindly and constant attention to the sick of Whiston Hospital. On the untimely death of Father Melling, Father Thompson succeeded, and he was in fact, the last of the Jesuit Rectors. For seventy-five years the Jesuit Fathers laboured zealously among the people of this parish, the fruit of their labours is abundantly evident.
In August 1932, the secular clergy took over the care of the parish. Father Denis O’Shea was appointed its first parish priest. His gentleness of character; his kindliness, his struggle against failing health; his obvious saintliness, endeared him to the people of Prescot. During his five years of office, he detected signs of dry rot in the aging building and took steps to stop its spread.
Father Hugh Fitzpatrick was appointed in January 1938 and served the parish during the difficult years of war. His work for the parishioners during the air raids, his provision for the homeless families of Liverpool and Bootle, are evidence of his pastoral care. By his efforts, the parish of St Luke’s, Whiston, was begun. He also found it necessary to employ what extemporary expedients the rigorous restrictions would allow, to arrest the evidence of decay in the building.
In 1944, the present parish priest, Father Horan was appointed, and in 1946, it became abundantly evident that the only possibility of saving the church fabric was the tracing of the dry rot to its source; the renewal of the floor; rebuilding of the east wall; refashioning of guttering and roof; and replacing the choir gallery. The work has now been completed after fifteen months, at a cost of over £11,000. The continued generosity of the people during the last ten years has made it possible to anticipate somewhat this heavy expenditure. The present debt will be in the region of £5,000. The architect, Mr. William Ellis and his son, have been pleased to give their services without charge throughout the period of reconstruction as a token of their affection for the old church in Prescot. May God reward them.
Above: the church after the renovations in 1948
The side altars have been presented by the parishioners to the memory of the dead of two wars. It would be ungenerous not to mention the efforts to date of the various confraternities, the teachers and school children, to raise the necessary funds to pay for the renovation.
Here ends Fr Horan’s account of the history of the parish. He was succeeded as parish priest by Fr (later Canon) Henry, who oversaw further renovations to the church and re-ordered the sanctuary, justified by an interpretation of Vatican II. In 1973 the church was finally consecrated, meaning the building was set apart specifically for the worship of God, nearly 120 years after it was built. On the death of Canon Henry, Fr Bernard Forshaw became parish priest, and remained here until his death in 1993. Fr Francis Frayne then became parish priest, though due to ill health he was forced to retire early in 1995. Despite his short tenure, he did tremendous work carrying out major remedial work on both the presbytery and the church.
Monsignor Dennick became parish in March of 1995, and completed the work begun by Fr Frayne. The works meant that the church was closed from March until June of that year, and Mass was celebrated in the Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin. The parish remembers fondly the kindness of our Anglican neighbours.
Above: The church after 1973