As the rained poured down, Catholics came to the new church to celebrate Solemn High Mass in the presence of Bishop Brown. In the evening, Vespers were chanted and Father William Cobb, of the Society of Jesus, preached the sermon. The life of the great Jesuit church had begun.


 

 

 

Much of the hard work which led to the building of the church was done by the Society of St Francis Xavier. This was a group of lay people, some of whom had been educated at Stoneyhurst, the Jesuit College. They were all fully aware of Liverpool's debt to the Jesuits who had battled for the faith in the dark days with courage and tenacity, having arrived in the city in the seventeenth century. In the early years of the nineteenth century, the population of Liverpool was growing at a considerable rate. In 1811, the number of people living in Liverpool had reached 100,000 and by 1831 this figure had risen to 205,572. In the opinion of the members of the Society of St Francis Xavier, Liverpool needed another Catholic church and, at their first meeting on January 21st 1840 at the Rose and Crown in Cheapside, they declared: "We, the undersigned, form ourselves into a provisional committee for the formation of a society with a view to erecting a Catholic church in a Liverpool to be presented to the president of Stoneyhurst College."

 

Thos Lightbound (1811-1895)

 

They certainly had no intention of letting the grass grow under their feet and, two weeks after the first meeting in the Rose and Crown, they met again to confirm that they had "secured a plot of land in Salisbury Street, situated about halfway between the chapels of St Anthony and St Nicholas, in a respectable part of the town and where a church would be desirable." Filled with zeal, as they were, the Society of St Francis Xavier were somewhat put out to learn that not all Liverpool Catholics shared their enthusiasm for a new church. St Anthony's parish felt that the proposed site for St Francis Xavier's was a little to close for comfort. Even the Jesuit hierarchy gave the plan a cool reception.

A copy of the original architect's drawing of SFX

Finally, good sense prevailed and permission was given for the erection of the church. Sixty year old Father West was appointed the first Rector of St Francis Xavier's and it was his responsibility to make sure that the building work was properly done. The job could not have been given to a better person. He came from a long line of devout Catholics and it was in his uncle's house in Dale Street the Catholics had secretly celebrated Mass after the original Jesuit chapel in Lumber Street had been destroyed by a mob in 1746.

The Jubilee Choir with Fr Jas. Hayes and Choirmaster Mr J. Hodson

 


 

On May 19th 1853, the choir was accompanied by a full orchestra and the church was full to capacity, with many people traveling long distances to hear them sing. It was at this time that the choir gained two new members: Kate Santley and her brother, Charles, who was to become one of Britain’s finest opera singers. He made his first appearance in London in 1857 and was a huge success at Convent Garden in the opera “Dinorah” in 1859. He later became Sir Charles Santley. An unknown parishioner wrote of that time: “I was back in spirit in Liverpool and in St Francis Xavier’s church as II remembered it in 1852. What took me there? A voice – one voice – which we then possessed and which numbered in its quite perfect quartet Charles Santley and his sister.”

 

The pulpit dedicated to the memory of Father West, the builder and original Clerk of Works of the Church.

The choir of St Francis Xavier’s was also paid and, to meet this expense, special sermons were preached and the choir sang on special fund raising nights. Church records tell us that one such occasion took place in May 1854: “The Annual Choir Day of the Church of St Francis Xavier will be on Sunday next when your liberal support will be solicited to defray the expenses of the choir. A sermon will be preached in the morning by Reverend Father Sumner and by the Reverend Father Grant in the evening. Haydn’s Grand Mass No 2 will be performed by the choir with full orchestra. Silver will be expected on admission to the nave and the tribune of the Lady Chapel.”

On October 26th 1851, His Lordship the right Reverent Doctor Conoz delivered his sermon in French! The pulpit, which stands in the church today and which is so widely admired for its beauty, was erected before 1856 and was occupied by all the great Catholic preachers of the day. It is made with stone from Caen in France. Appropriately, it is dedicated to the memory of Father West, the builder and original Clerk of Works of the church. It was paid for with money raised through collections begun by Father Richard Sumner, himself a great orator. The inscription on the pulpit reads: “Arguere, obsecra, increpa” meaning “Reprove, entreat, rebuke” and is taken from St Paul’s epistle to Timothy: “Preach the work, be instant in season, reprove, entreat, rebuke in all patience and doctrine.” Paul’s instructions have been carried out eloquently. By 1856 there were plenty if people at whom to preach at St Francis Xavier’s. The Catholic population of Liverpool continued to increase during the middle of the nineteenth century due mainly to the arrival of large numbers of Irish Catholics driven out of Ireland by the potato famine.


Thanks to Nathanial Caine, we have a reasonably accurate idea of the total number of parishioners who attended the various Masses each Sunday at St Francis Xavier’s in 1855. The figure was 2789; quite remarkable in view of the fact that the church had only been in existence for seven years. Caine’s figures for the other Catholic churches in Liverpool were: St Patrick’s 7632, St Anthony’s 7042, St Mary’s 5827, St Nicholas’ 3995, St Joseph’s 3726, St Peter’s 3048, St Augustine’s 2308, St Alban’s 1879, Holy Cross 1852, St Anne’s 1494, St Vincent’s 1481 and St Philip Neri’s 1003. With such numbers attending Catholic churches, it comes as no surprise to learn that St Francis Xavier’s was full to capacity for its first ever Midnight Mass on December 25th 1858. Admission was by ticket only and many parishioners were unable to get in.

 

The pulpit decorated with flowers at a flower festival
On Sunday, January 15th 1859, a meeting was held in the college Assembly Room after Mass to discuss the many complaints which had been received about the lack of heating in the church. On the following Sunday, the decision was announced that: “Each person holding a bench or seat or sitting in the church, shall contribute one quarter’s rent towards the expense of laying down the warming apparatus and, during the month of February, the admission fee to the aisles be threepence and, the nave, sixpence and that each of the clergy shall subscribe as much as the entire bench holders. It is hoped that no one will begrudge or seek to avoid the contribution required for the warming apparatus which will yield comfort to the poor as much as to the rich.”
Drawing of SFX in 1873

As has been stated, the High Altar was not ready for the opening of the church in December 1848, although a design for it existed thanks to Mr. Scoles, the church’s architect. It was not installed until the end of 1856 and was used for the first time at 10am on December 3rd, the feast of St Francis Xavier. A temporary altar had been in use for the previous eight years and we are fortunate to be able to read a description sent by an unknown parishioner from that period: “I remember a wooden altar which, with varnish and gutta-percha enrichments, was, to my youthful eye, something lovely."

The new altar which was paid for by the Withnell family, was, and is, breathtakingly beautiful. The central tabernacle is flanked on each side by a reredos containing two designs in high relief and statues of St Ignatius of Loyola and St Francis Xavier are crowned by pinnacles.”

 


 

The present baptismal font arrived in 1861 and was first used for a baptism on Easter Sunday of that year. In those days it stood in the Pieta recess under the old choir loft before being moved to the newly built Sodality Chapel in 1887. Now, in 1998, it is close to its original position, at the rear of the main church.
The period from 1859 to 1865 is largely hidden from us due to the lack of historical documents relating to the events at the time. It is, however, safe to assume that St Frances Xavier’s was growing in strength. We know that masses in the honour of the Sacred heart were numerous and that the Purgatorial Society, whose aim was to pray for the holy souls, was flourishing. We know too, that a young Men’s Society was formed in 1857 and a society for women in 1858.

The Church interior in 1873
The Mission Cross


One of the most outstanding features of St Francis Xavier’s church is the magnificent crucifix which hangs over the central aisle. According to a diary kept at the time, it arrived in the church during the second week in January 1866 when the weather was “very violent, wind, rain and hail. Mr. Early (from the makers) arrived. The cross and the accompanying figures were safety lodged in the church and the scaffolding commenced. January 10th: the Blessed Sacrament removed from the church after the 8.30 am Mass, as the experience of yesterday had shown that it could not respectfully be left there whilst the work proceeded.” The entry for January 11th makes interesting reading: “Erection of Rood continued. Men allowed beer twice a day during work” while the entry for January 13th might raise a wry smile: “Erection of Rood finished but not completed because not hung quite straight.”


The Stations of the Cross in St Francis Xavier’s are especially beautiful. They are made of Caen stone and were donated to the church by Miss Tasker although there is some doubt about the precise date of the donation. Many favour 1868 but Father Ryan notes that, by 1872, some fingers were missing from certain figures on the Stations and concludes that “so much damage in four years does not seem credible.” He suggests that 1858 might be a more accurate date for their installation. There is no doubt at all regarding the arrival of the church’s peal of bells; they were installed in 1870. Bishop Goss blessed the bells on July 24th before they were hung in the belfry. They were rung for the first time on 31st July, the feast of St Ignatius, and the Liverpool Mercury described how huge crowds filled Salisbury Street and Langsdale Street to hear the first strokes.
Not that the sound pleased everyone ….! The Reverent Vernon White was then minister of the Presbyterian Church on the corner of Salisbury Street and Islington. He was furious about the bells and said they could be heard inside his church during services. His threats of legal action were taken seriously at St Francis Xavier’s and the Rector, Father George Porter, defused the situation by changing the time of the evening service from 7 pm to 6.30 pm. The original bells lasted until 1915 and, once again, they were greeted by huge crowds in the streets surrounding the church. In 1872, Father George Porter left St Francis Xavier’s to become Bishop of Bombay and was succeeded as Rector by his brother, Thomas.

One of the Stations of the Cross

 


 

By the middle of the 1880's, the St Francis Xavier's choir had a huge reputation. They gave a series of weekly concerts which were always played to capacity audiences and the singing at the various Masses was judged to be sublime.

 


In June 1885, they gave the first British performance of Gounod’s ‘Messe Solennelle du Paque’ with fifty voices supported by a thirty piece orchestra. The local press was ecstatic: “The music was beautiful and the Mass was unanimously pronounced to be the finest musical effort produced, even at SFX. At both services, the ‘Ave Maria’ was rendered with thrilling effect by the talented soprano of the choir, Madame Laura Haworth. After the evening sermon there was a solemn procession of the children’s guilds, the girls being wreathed and in white veils and both boys and girls wearing the coloured sashes of their respective confraternities.” These were thrilling occasions at SFX and the rector, Father Murphy, was justly proud of his great choir. Yet, they went on from strength to strength. On May 22nd 1887, they performed Beethoven’s Mass in D, one of the most difficult ever composed. From the plaintive opening movement of the Kyrie to the striking movement of the Dona Nobis, they uncovered the beauties of Beethoven’s work. Such was the fame of SFX’s choir that the Xaverian of June 1888 contained the following unforgettable lines: “The choir is a credit to the church and draws hundreds of Protestants to hear the truths of our holy religion.”

 

Bona Mors Altar

 

Despite the fame of the choir, concern was expressed about the cost of its upkeep and, in 1890, to widespread dismay, it was replaced by a choir of unpaid volunteers under the direction of Mr. Hodson. To be fair to the new choir, however, although they failed, understandably, to reach the heights of their predecessors, they grew in stature and became a fine choir. As the fiftieth anniversary approached, work was undertaken to improve the exterior of the church. Four new notice boards were erected and the job of pointing the tower was completed while the Corporation helped by removing the cobblestones from Langsdale Street and replacing them with oblong sets.

St Joseph's Altar


During the year of 1898, the altars were cleaned and the church generally underwent a through renovation. The biggest job was the removal of the wall which separated the Sodality Chapel from the main body of the church. The Jubilee celebrations began with Solemn Benediction on December 3rd 1898. The church was full but there was no sermon as it was Saturday and the priests were attending their confessionals. Jubilee day had been postponed to the 11th at the request of the Bishop. It was a fine clear December day and the church looked beautiful. Father Nicholas Ryan describes it graphically: “The church had been tastefully decorated by a large number of willing skilful hands. The walls between the windows of the apse were covered with red velvet edged with gold bullion lace, the corbels of the three arches bearing shields, on each of which was one of the letters AMDG. But the High Altar was left in its pure beauty; except for six candles it bore little decoration. Above them rose three arches of candles and above them, three baskets of chrysanthemums joined by festoons of the same beautiful flowers. Similar baskets hung from the keystone of each of the fourteen nave arches and three others from the rooftop were also flanked by festoons, Just at 11 am, Bishop Mostyn of Menevia, the celebrant, entered the church vested for Mass, accompanied his assistants. Immediately, the strains of the Ecce Sacerdos called attention to the entrance of the Bishop if Liverpool, the Right Reverend Doctor Whiteside, with his attendant clergy. The High Mass began forthwith.”

Our Lady of St Francis Xavier's

The church thronged from altar rails and beyond to the porches; even the side chapels were full. Old and present parishioners gathered together to the Glory of Almighty God and St Francis Xavier. Father Bernard Vaughan preached a moving sermon and “brought tears to the eyes and quickened the pulse of every hearer and made us feel near and how dear our glorious patron was to us.” This memorable day was brought close with Vespers and a touching sermon from Monsignor Nugent. The Boys’ Guild and the Guild of St Agnes took part in the procession of the Blessed Sacrament, watched by a congregation which filled every nook and cranny of the vast building.


As the nineteenth century drew to a close, St Francis Xavier’s church was in a healthy condition. As always, the church provided a wide range of activities for its parishioners. There was the sisterhood of the Children of Mary, guilds for men, boys and girls, the Apostleship of Prayer, the third order of St Francis, the Living Rosary and the confraternities of the Immaculate Conception, Bona Mors, St Vincent de Paul and the Holy Family. These various organisations were far reaching in their influence on parishioners of all ages and they flourished.

 


 

It is worth recalling the events at St Francis Xavier's on the very last day of the nineteenth century. It was a day of great drama and excitement, underlining the importance of St Francis Xavier's in the lives of so many people at that time. A special Mass was being said at midnight and huge crowds arrived at the church. So vast was the crowd that the gates had to be closed an hour before the commencement of the Mass. As the clock struck twelve, Father Hayes began the Missa Cantata and the choir burst forth with the "Deus tibi laus et gloria" to carry St Francis Xavier's and its people into the twentieth century.

 

Those who ran SFX were well aware of the many moral dangers which faced their young parishioners and it was their intention to provide wholesome activities which would be useful, uplifting and stimulating. It was a wide and ambitious range of interests which they offered: musical evenings, lectures, cricket, football, swimming and drama. And, of course, all the various guilds organized their own trips and excursion. SFX’s reputation for performing ceremonies of religion with splendour and majesty was widespread over Merseyside. A church as grand and successful as SFX required a considerable amount of money to keep it so and, in this, the church was lucky to have such dedicated helpers. In 1890, the debt on the church was £6400 and £1800 on the Sodality Chapel; a combined total of £8200. By April 1900, this had been reduced to £4234. This was due entirely to outdoor collectors and subscribers.

The parishioners of SFX have traditionally loved the ‘Quarant Ore’, forty hours of devotions in church. In 1906, the High Altar looked particularly magnificent and this was due to the hard work and artistry of the sacristan, Brother Shaw. He became sacristan in 1892 and held the position for forty five years. He loved his vestments, his chalices and especially forty hours. Describing the 1906 display, a writer in the Xaverian said: “Looking up the centre aisle the first thing to catch the eye was the Heart, the centre of which was filled with red flowers, bordered with flowers of various tints. The picture of an artist, the continuation of the flowers and the wavy lines of rays of the candles from the heart to the foot of the throne were sublime.” The dedicated service that was willingly given to SFX by its sacristan, Brother Shaw, cannot be over estimated. He is remembered in a stained glass window above the choir loft steps.

St Francis Xavier's Church


It is fitting that, within the first two years if the new century, electric lights were installed in the church. When the lights were first switched on, the congregation were amused, although Father Hayes was not, as odd lights were going on and off during the service. The electricians were called back and told, in no uncertain manner, to sort the problem out. When all the lights were working properly the church was very brightly illuminated. This, however, only served to draw attention to the fact the roof and much of the stonework were in need of a thorough cleaning; this was done in 1905.

One of the many beautiful patterns on the vestments at SFX

The church clubs and guilds were well patronized and the Jesuits continued their efforts to improve the quality of parishioners’ social lives as well as caring for their spiritual needs. In relation to the latter, a letter written by an unknown hand in 1913 underlines the great fervour of the congregation at SFX.

The writer went on to express his astonishment that five hundred worshippers would attend Mass so early in the morning. He concluded his note by vowing to look into the teachings of the Catholic Church!

When the First World War started in 1914, it is not surprising that there were many volunteers from the SFX parish. In December of that year, a report in the Liverpool Daily Post stated: “In the current number of the Xaverian appears a list of the members of the parish SFX who are now serving in His Majesty’s services. The list compromises about 750 names which must be something of a record for one particular parish. As might be expected, the great majority of names are distinctly Irish and it is not surprising to find tat the unit with the biggest Xaverian membership is he 8 th Irish battalion of the King’s Liverpool regiment.”

 


 

The period leading up to 1914 had been a great one for SFX. The Jesuits and parishioners could look back with pride on almost seventy years during which the church had been of inestimable value to the Catholics of Liverpool. After the First World War, however, things were never quite the same. SFX was still an important and successful church but a slow decline was affecting many of the church’s activities. The Boy’s Guild provides a perfect illustration of one of the major effects of the changes brought about by the war. The guild had been a very valuable part of the church life since its founding by the Rector, Father George Porter, in 1867. It became even more successful as a result of Father Maher’s reorganization in the 70s and, ten years later, the Boy’s Guild had the great fortune to come under the leadership of Father Thomas. He was a priest with the great gift of being able to inspire the young. The boys loved him. The guild went from strength to strength and their jubilee feast in the college hall on November 17th 1892 was a great success “when 300 of the guild sat down at well filled tables.”

Architect's drawing of St Francis Xavier's College

The entrance to the Jesuit Community House

 

During the early years of the twentieth century the guild gave concerts at SFX and entertained all over Lancashire and Cheshire, raising money for charity. In April 1914, the Xaverian was able to announce that “the Boys’ Guild is steadily increasing both in the number of members and in the numbers of attendances at the meetings on Sunday and Wednesday.” The outbreak of war inevitably brought this success story to halt. The guild’s most influential officers left to join up and greater responsibility was placed on the boys and their parents. The guild, however, had suffered a serious blow from which it would never recover. When the war ended and some of the officers returned, they came home to a different world. The Xaverian of March 1921 commented sadly: “The good and conscientious parents see that their boys still remain active members of the guild but the director would like to bring home to the rest the gravity of recognizing their responsibilities towards their children.” The Guild, said Father Ryan in his centenary history, was dying “because the appreciation of things spiritual had lost the sensitiveness in the home.” The effects if the war, with its terrible casualties and social upheavals, were being felt within the parish as much as anywhere in the nation.

 

The years following the First World War were difficult years for Britain culminating in the General Strike of 1926. The depression and huge unemployment continued until the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 and had a considerable effect upon the fortunes of SFX and its people. The church had been built in the then fashionable district of Everton in 1848. It was attended mainly by people who had the dual advantages of money and education. In 1852, the congregation of SFX was sophisticated enough to be able to listen to, and understand, a sermon preached in French. During the next twenty years, however, the parish underwent drastic changes as great numbers of working class Irish Catholics flooded into Liverpool and settled. It is difficult, though, to establish just how Irish it made the parish. Houses, often of very poor quality, were built to accommodate this new population. One result of this was that, by 1924, that fashionable district of Everton had become a predominantly working class area. Not surprisingly then, it was the working class who bore the brunt of the hardships which the Depression brought in its wake.

The Jesuits at SFX were fully aware of the destructive effects of the bad housing and unemployment. In 1927, Father Magee opened a Women and Girls’ Club at 59 Shaw Street. It was felt that this kind of organisation was an effective way of supporting women, who were themselves, central to the well-being of the family, especially during times of economic hardship.

 


 


When Father Dukes became Rector in 1937, he continued these praiseworthy efforts to combat the social problems which beset the parish. He felt that the time was right to re-establish the Association of the Ladies of Charity which had last operated at SFX in 1878. Like the Brotherhood of St Vincent de Paul, it was an organisation devoted to giving practical help to those in need. In 1938, Father Dukes also set up a Catholic Advisory Bureau at SFX. The aim of this new body was “To advise and help people, free of charge, irrespective of creed, in the thousand and one difficulties of life.” These “difficulties of life” often left people feeling utterly confused and unable to cope and the bureau gave sympathetic hearing and, wherever possible, effective help. The following examples show just how effective the Catholic Advisory Bureau’s help could be. A young woman injured her hand in factory machinery and was offered £70 compensation. She was brought by her mother to talk to the Bureau of SFX and was put in touch with a local solicitor who happily took up her case. In just two weeks, he had obtained compensation on £720 for the injured girl. He gave her good advice on the investment of the money including a £50 investment in the factory where she had been injured. He also obtained a guarantee from the firm that her job would be kept open until she was fit enough to return to work.

Aerial shot of SFX Parish (Church is circled)
View from behind the Church after the May Blitz


Not all Father Duke’s attempts to tackle social problems of the parish me with such success. General indiscipline and lack of respect for authority had been on the increase since the end of the First World War and, in an effort to keep the children of the parish off the streets at night, he introduced a curfew. The Xaverian reacted enthusiastically with the following comments: “The schoolteachers will be delighted for a child that hasn’t sufficient sleep, has a dull brain. We priests will be delighted because we know what harm can come to both body and soul of a child that plays or loiters in the street of alley late at night. And we can well believe that even a policeman will pace his street with a jauntier and lightsome step when he hears the curfew ring.” At 8 pm each evening the church bell would ring and the children of the parish would file into church for prayers before going home to bed.

 

Initially it was very successful; on the first night no less that three thousand children packed themselves into SFX. The national press were on hand to record this remarkable scene and the news made headlines in the USA. It was a success, though, which was not to last. Less that a year after the first amazing night, the number of children present in church when the curfew bell rang had dwindled to ten.


 

The Second World War began on September 3rd 1939. It heralded a preiod of great drama for Saint Francis Xavier's which would cost the lives of many in the parish.

 

It was widely believed in Great Britain that German bombing of our cities would begin almost immediately and, in view of this, the evacuation of many SFX children began on September 3rd. Most of the children were sent to North Wales and, although some returned to their homes in Liverpool, we have in on Father Ryan’s authority that most of the children remained in North Wales for most of the war. The first bombs fell on Liverpool on August 17th 1940 in the area of Caryl Street and the overhead railway suffered some damage. SFX had its own record of the bombing thanks to Father Whittaker who kept a diary. He records that many bombs fell in the area without threatening SFX until September 18th when a time-bomb fell in Carver Street, although it did not explode and was later defused. Three days later, however, the church had a narrow escape when a bomb exploded in Salisbury Street. It smashed the windows above the Sodality Altar and the door leading from Salisbury Street to the Sodality Chapel was blown off. A large piece of stone crashed through the roof of the church on the Gospel side of the centre aisle. Extensive damage was done to the windows of the presbytery and college. This was the night when two members of the Guild of St Agnes, Sadie McDonough and Agnes Wilson, were killed. The view from Islington - Salisbury Street
They were the first of many to die. The air-raids on the city continued and more bombs landed around the church with terrible consequences. In the early hours of the morning of October 13th 1941, two bombs landed at the corner of Salisbury Street and Carver Street, very close to the college, shattering its windows. The bombs had hit two houses and fourteen people were killed. On December 21st, Salisbury Street was hit again but this time the Synagogue took the brunt of the attack with the College again losing many of its windows.
What the bombs started, the developers finished!


The worst air-raids on Liverpool took place during May 1941 in what became known as “The May Blitz” when thousands were killed and injured. There was a great destruction of property and 76,000 people were made homeless in Liverpool and Bootle. SFX parish suffered most on May 3rd in air-raids which began at 6:30 pm on Saturday evening and did not end until 5 am on Sunday morning. The whole area was extensively bombed with land-mines, high explosives and incendiary bombs and fifteen parishioners lost their lives. Following the May Blitz, there were a few air attacks on Liverpool and SFX was still standing though it had more than a few battle scars. The roof had been badly damaged and two of the stained glass windows behind the High Altar had been completely destroyed while others had been splintered. Windows all over the church had been blown out and the East end of the presbytery had been devastated.

 

During the raids, the Jesuit community had stood shoulder to shoulder with the parishioners and had won much praise. Indeed, throughout the whole of the war, services in the church were carried on as usual, as far as that was possible The church organisations continued to meet and various church premises were often kept open all night to give shelter and sleeping accommodation to those who were unable to return home because of the raids. When the war ended, one minute after midnight on May 8th 1945, SFX shared the joy and relief of the nation.


 

 


If those responsible for the welfare of SFX thought that the end of the Second World War would be followed by a period of calm and relaxation, they were in for a shock. The Rector received a letter informing him that a new hospital was to be built in the Shaw Street area. This went on to say: “This site included the land upon which is now erected St Francis Xavier’s Church.” The church, which had survived German Air-raids, was now under threat from British planners. Rumours were flying around the parish about the imminent destruction of SFX and the Rector spoke at all Masses on January 6th 1946 in an attempt to put parishioner in the picture. The rector said that, as Christians, they could hardly stand in the way of the erection of a hospital which would benefit the sick, “The charity of Christ urges us.” As a result, he had agreed to co-operate in negotiations to decide upon a new site for SFX. The parishioners were devastated at the thought of losing their beautiful old church and many prayers were offered that something would happen to prevent this coming about. And so it came to pass. A labour government was elected, the original plans were scrapped and a new hospital site was chosen. SFX was saved.

The church had escaped the demolition hammers but it could not avoid the consequences of the Second World War. On the evening of January 6th 1948, a heavy plaster panel crashed down on to the benches below. Fortunately, there were few people in the church at the time and no one was injured. It would have been very serious if the accident had happened during a busy Mass. And examination showed that the church roof had been lifted, probably by the blast from the land-mine explosion. In addition, the upper walls were out of alignment. So the main body of the church was not able to be used until months of extensive repairs had been carried out.

The view from Islington - Salisbury Street
Brother Mulligan and the Altar staff of the 1960's

 

In the period following the Second World War and into the 1950s, SFX continued to be a thriving and well attended church. Each Sunday there were Masses at 7 am, 8 am, 9am, 10 am and 11 am. Two masses took place simultaneously at 8 am. A school mass was held in the main church which was filled with children, while the nuns and teachers walked up down the aisles, and a Mass for adults was held in the Sodality Chapel. Confessions were on Saturday night, starting at 6 pm and finishing at 10 pm, with eight boxes in use. Billy Thistlewood, a sacristan of SFX recalls those days: “Saturday nights were very busy indeed and you’d have people rushing up from the shops in town to get confession. Every bench was full. We used to have monthly Xaverian magazine which used to cost a penny and, if you sold a dozen, you’d get a penny commission, I used to be in the porch with about twelve dozen and I’d sell all of them on Saturday night.”

 

All seven altars were in use: the Sacred Heart, the Main Altar, and the sodality, St Joseph’s, Bona Mors and the Domestic Altar. The Domestic Altar was above the sacristy and was for the use of the Jesuit community.

For much of its 150 years, SFX church has been blessed to have the service of dedicated altar boys and, in the period following the war, there were basically three teams giving a total of twenty one boys. It was an honour to be an altar boy. At the Sunday High Mass they wore red cassocks, Eton collars, red bows and white gloves. During the week, the church day began at 6:30am with the ringing of the Angelus and the first Mass was a 5 minutes to seven. All altars were full. There were further Masses at 7.30 am and 8 am which gave the college Fathers time to have breakfast before going into College. Attendance at Mass was still high. On the first four Sundays of Lent 1950, a combined total of 13,613 people attended Mass. By the standards of the 1990s, these figures are staggering; three and a half thousand at Mass each Sunday. Significantly, the 9 am Children’s Mass attracted an attendance of one thousand!


 


In the same year, SFX took part in a day of Catholic prayer and Protest on February 14th. Parishioners from churches all over Liverpool marched, first to Low Hill, then to a mass rally on a bombed site in church Street. The rain poured down but this did not discourage Catholics from turning out in large numbers. As the parishioner of SFX marched, four abreast, towards Church Street, their numbers stretched in an unbroken column from the bottom of Seymour Street all the way back to Low Hill.

The Sodalities continued to play and active part in the life of SFX throughout the 50s and there were regular weekly meetings of the Women’s Sodality, the Men’s sodality, the Regina Club, the Boys’ Guild, the St Cecilia’s Society and the guild of St Agnes. The Agnesians were particularly successful, even at the end of the 1950s, and their concert in April 1959 attracted a full house to the parish hall. The concert crowned wheat the Rector described as “A period a great activity.”

Archbishop Kelly with the Altar Staff for the opening Mass of the 150th Anniversary year, 1998.

The 1960's was a great era for the City of Liverpool. The staggering success of the Beatles echoed throughout the entire globe and Liverpool and Everton became giants in the world of football winning Championships and FA Cups.

For SFX, however, the decade was one of serious decline. Unquestionably, one of the most significant factors was the departure of the College to Woolton in 1961. One of the direct results of the move was a reduction in the number of Masses and priests and, although the sodalities continued to operate during this period, the number of members in them steadily declined. It was in this difficult decade of the 1960s that the parish was hit by a body blow: slum clearance and re-housing. The parish of SFX, once the largest in England had always been a powerful and close community, almost like a village. People knew each other; they had been at school together and were always ready to lend a helping hand in times of need. But, in the 1960s, this great family that belonged to SFX began to break up. Official housing communications dropped through thousands of letter boxes informing tenants they were to be re-housed in Kirkby, Huyton, Halewood, Gillmoss or some other distant location somewhere far away from their beloved SFX. Sad though many of these moves were to be for the parish, it must also be said that, like their missionary patron, these parishioners took their faith with them into new parishes across the city. SFX had done its work well.


 


The process proceeded with immense speed and, in 1968, it was announced that the numbers in the parish had dwindled to such an extent it was no longer possible for the church to support the Jesuit community. It would be wrong to give the impression that, during this very difficult period, all was doom and gloom at SFX. Although, as already stated, the numbers were in serious decline, many parishioners worked tirelessly on behalf of their beautiful old church. Lack of money was a serious problem. The parish had gone into debt in 1958 to build Strada Hall, named in honour of Sancta Maria de la Strada, to whom St Ignatius had had a great devotion. The original plans had been for the hall to be considerably extended but financial problems mean that these plans were never realised. Nevertheless, Strada Hall was a considerable asset to SFX during the 1960s. It was a good place for parishioners to meet and, even today, many people have fond memories of the annual pantomimes which were stages in the hall.

Despite the face that money was tight, during the 60's brave efforts were made to make the old church look brighter and more comfortable. The rector, Fr Taunton, had modern tiles put down the aisles, the church was painted and rewired and the Sodality Chapel was given new blue linoleum. It was at this time that the font was moved from the Sodality Chapel into its present position under the organ loft. This was a consequence of new thinking in the Church in relation to baptism which had previously been conducted in a low profile manner in a relatively secluded part of the church. Not it was felt that the font should be in a prominent position near the door to symbolise the entry into the life through baptism

Ladies outing in the 1950's
Junior Girl's School Prefects

New housing was being built in the parish as part of the planners’ new vision to replace old Victorian housing with bright new 60s apartments and high rise flats. The number of people moving into the new housing was much lower than the number who left the high rise flats soon became very unpopular with those who lived there. The close-knit family atmosphere of SFX parish was rapidly disappearing. And even bigger obstacles were looming ahead.

To be fair to those who had responsibility for SFX in the 1970s, they faced an almost impossible task. Catholic churches in many inner city areas throughout Britain were faced with the same difficulties which were being experienced in Liverpool: large churches with ever shrinking congregations. This was a new problem for the modern Catholic Church in this country which, up until this point, had known nothing but expansion and large congregations. In Manchester and Edinburgh, Catholic parishes had simply disappeared as parishioners moved away in large numbers to new housing in other districts. Clearly, SFX was in danger of suffering the same fate.

Archbishop Warlock was against the closing of churches, believing that this caused great anxiety and depression amongst those who still lived in the community and who now felt they were being abandoned by the Catholic Church. But large churches with tiny congregations are also in themselves very depressing and very costly too.

The numbers of both parishioners and Jesuits at SFX continued to decline. The church and presbytery were in need of repair and renovation. But there was no money available. A luckless priest, taking a bath in the antiquated presbytery bathroom was singularly displeased when part of the ceiling dropped onto his head. Shortly after this, the Jesuits abandoned the presbytery for the safer confines of the Friary in Fox Street.

 

 

Press Cuttings 1981

It is perhaps not surprising that rumours began to circulate in the parish that SFX was to be demolished. It was not secret that there were those in positions of influence who felt that this was the most sensible solution to what was now a very severe problem. It was not long before a set of plans, formulated by a housing association, was put on display at the back of the church. These plans outlined, in some detail, new proposals for SFX church. The Sodality Chapel was to be refurbished and would become the new centre of worship at SFX, the belfry would remain in place and sheltered accommodation for old people would be built, set in an attractive courtyard.

To make way for all this, the nave of SFX church would be torn down. The illustrious old church which had served Liverpool and its people for well over a century, and had survived Hitler’s bombs in the Second World War, was to be reduced to rubble by demolition hammers.

 


The public outcry which greeted this news was considerable and the issue was debated at great length in both local and national newspapers and on the radio. The housing association and their supporters felt that their plans were practical and would be of more value to the area that a large, almost empty church, however beautiful the church happened to be. As they rightly pointed out, other beautiful churches had been knocked down under similar circumstances.

The opposition to the housing association plans came, not surprisingly, from parishioners who were outraged that their beloved old church was under threat of demolition.

Public indignation is a powerful weapon, but on its own it doesn’t always win the day. It needs to be organised and directed by someone with determination and commitment. SFX was fortunate to have such a man. His name was Billy Thistlewood, a local man born in Kempston Street, just a short distance from the church. Billy had served SFX faithfully since 1927 when he became an altar boy at the age of 10, becoming the church sacristan in 1982.

 

Billy with the steadfast and hard working support of campaigners including David Alton, MP and the Friends of SFX group, organised a petition and they all worked tirelessly to get people to sign it. The proof of their success was the 8,000 signatures it contained when it was finally handed to the Lord Mayor at the Town Hall. However the battle was still far from over and the arguments continued to rage. Finally, a meeting of the Archbishop’s council was held at the Curial Offices in Brownlow Hill under the chairmanship of Bishop O’Connor. Both sides had the opportunity to put forward their proposals, and a decision was reached on the future of SFX. To the delight of these stalwart campaigners, the decision was made in favour and SFX was saved.

 

The High Altar and Sanctuary in SFX

 

The church was now the responsibility of the diocese, and it would be nice to report that the decision to save SFX was followed by a period of growth and re-establishment, but sadly this was not to be. The problems, confronting the local community still existed, and the numbers attending Mass were depressingly low. It was a period which called for hard work and loyalty from those who remained. The church staff was so reduced to just a single priest, and difficult though his task undoubtedly was, he was fortunate to be able to rely upon the help and encouragement of a small but devoted band of parishioners, a group who could see beyond the present difficulties to the day SFX would once again be a vibrant and thriving church.

These faithful parishioners have helped bring us through the trying times of the 1980s and the first half of the 90s to where we are today.


 

The Pleta Statue


1997 was a momentous year for SFX. There was a small but steady rise in the numbers attending Mass, and more than once throughout the year the old church was filled to overflowing, much like the great days of past. Eleven children made their First Holy Communion in June; the highest number for some years, and many proud family members filled the church. A week later SFX was full again as Father Peter Randall SJ celebrated his First Mass as priest.

In September the Marian Fiesta, organised by the Prayer Group and friends, was a great success and once again the church was full. It was a very special day which made a big impression on all who were there. The Marian Fiesta is now an annual event at SFX. In December the church resounded to the joyful singing of carols as a congregation of 1000 joined in Carols by Candlelight, yet another event which has become a regular on the SFX calendar.

The Prayer group met every Tuesday in the Sodality Chapel and as well as organising the Marian Fiesta, the group was also responsible for the Pilgrimages to Rome and San Giovanni. Forty people made the trip and were thrilled to be at the Papal Mass at which St Therese was made a Doctor of the Church. Further Pilgrimages were planned. An ecumenical course on Christianity and Social Issues was held at SFX in 1997 and this to was so successful it was to be repeated in future years.

The Church established strong links with the Whitechapel Project for the Homeless which was housed in the old select school building and the workers on the project regularly used the big back room of the Sacristy for their educational programme. Also several very successful parish and reunion dances were held in 1997 and 1998.

The Organ and loft
Statue of Our Lady of Francis Xavier

The Men’s Club, always a pillar of the Church, met in its basement premises in the old presbytery and actively involved itself in SFX life. A new social club was planned for the Hope complex when the presbytery was demolished.

The Pensioners’ club met every Tuesday afternoon. The Group had a successful year which includes a Christmas party and a trip to a pantomime. They were expecting to increase their numbers during 1998 by providing a special event every month.

Although the increase in the numbers attending Mass was modest, rather than dramatic, there was a great buzz of optimism about SFX in its 150th year. Indeed, the opening of the anniversary year was marked on 3rd December 1997 with a Solemn Mass celebrated by Archbishop Kelly. It was a marvellous occasion with the old church once again full to overflowing.


 

Fr Lane saying Sunday Mass

A Shrove Tuesday Carnival took place with pancake races took place in the streets outside the church and was a great success. Bands played and the Lord Mayor presented the prizes and, of course, pancakes were consumed in large numbers by young and old alike.

The Novena of SFX was held in March 1998 and nine speakers, all with SFX connections, spoke on the theme of “Oh My God! – Reflections on God in My Life.”

In April a group led by Father Lane went on a five day pilgrimage to the shrines of northern France which took them to Liseieux and Rue de Bac.

 

Yet another major event took place at SFX in May. The Flower Festival with the very appropriate title, “With Hope in Our Hearts.” A huge amount of work had gone into the preparations of this event which took place over four days starting on 15th May. Over sixty flower arrangers took part and visitors came from all over area. They were rewarded by a glorious sight as the church was transformed into a sea flowers. All the proceed from this very special festival went to the Roy Castle Appeal for Cancer research and our school Computer fund.

In the difficult years of the 1980s and 90s, while a small group of dedicated people fought to keep SFX alive, the church was rarely full; today such an event is commonplace. People are talking about SFX again and the church is seen to be making an effective contribution to the community.

 

St Joseph's Altar

And not just in Liverpool! In the autumn of 1997, a decision was taken by the 150th Anniversary Committee to raise the necessary funds to provide a water pump for the village of St Ignatius in Guyana. It was expected that it would take most of the anniversary year to raise the £1000 needed, but an SFX parishioner ran the New York marathon in November and, thanks to sponsorship from church members and Catholics throughout Merseyside, the money was raised in a matter of weeks. The pump was then installed in St Ignatius and by the end of the anniversary year enough money was raised at SFX to install a water pump in another village.

Sunday 8th November was a special Mass for deceased members of the SFX parish, followed by Forty Hours Devotion, something this church has been famous for since the days of Brother William Shaw SJ and his legendary “Quarant Ore” altar displays.

Liverpool’s St George’s Hall, which opened just six years after SFX, was the venue for the Anniversary Ball on November 28th when 600 people enjoyed themselves as they celebrated 150 years in the life of a great church.