Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception
The restoration of the Roman Catholic Hierarchy, in England, in September 1850 and the large influx of Irish Catholic labourers, employed on Birkenhead Docks, brought about the need for a new place of worship in Birkenhead.
Prior to 1850, the only Catholic Church in the town was St. Werburgh’s which had served the handful of Catholic residents since 1837. On 27 July 1851, James Brown was consecrated first Bishop of Shrewsbury.
The Earl of Shrewsbury offered to build a cathedral at Shrewsbury for the newly installed Bishop. Augustus Pugin was commissioned as architect. Unfortunately, in 1852, both the Earl and Pugin died. The new Earl engaged Edward, son of Augustus Pugin, to put his father’s plan into operation. It was then discovered that weak foundations would not support the planned cathedral at Shrewsbury. The young Earl was not to be outdone and proposed that the Diocesan cathedral be built in Birkenhead. Bishop Brown agreed and an appeal was made to Rome to change the diocesan side from Shrewsbury to Birkenhead. It was 16 June 1856 that the foundation stone of a new Catholic school was laid on the site of the proposed new Diocesan cathedral. Sadly the youthful Earl of Shrewsbury died in August 1856 and this was followed by Rome’s refusal to change the Diocesan name. Edward Pugin, who had been asked to plan the Birkenhead cathedral was now left to modify his plans and so a ‘plain’ church was envisaged for the Birkenhead site.
Father John Rogerson celebrated he first Mass in the newly established parish of Our Lady on 8 December 1857. It was exactly three years later, on 8 December 1860 that the foundation stone of Edward Pugin’s scaled down cathedral was laid by Bishop Brown.
The church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, to give its full title, was officially opened on 23 May 1862 when Bishop Brown sang Pontifical High Mass.
In 1879 Canon Edmund Knight was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Shrewsbury because of Bishop Brown’s poor state of health. Bishop Knight became the second Bishop of Shrewsbury and was consecrated at Our Lady’s Birkenhead on 25 July 1879. Cardinal Manning officiated at the ceremony, assisted by the Bishop’s of Salford and Nottingham. In September 1882 Bishop Knight took up residence in Birkenhead at Avondale House in Claughton. With the vast majority of his flock settled in the northern half of his diocese, Bishop Knight estimated that living in Birkenhead saved him thousands of miles of travelling every year.
In 1893 Bishop Knight was intent upon resigning his See on the grounds of ill health, but he was persuaded to accept the support of a Coadjutor Bishop and Monsignor John Carroll was consecrated on 28 October 1893 at Our Lady’s Birkenhead by Cardinal Vaughan. In January 1895 Bishop Carroll came to live in Birkenhead and in May that year he became the 3rd Bishop of Shrewsbury when Bishop Knight’s resignation was eventually accepted. Bishop Carroll’s reign and his sojourn in Birkenhead was to last but two more years, for in January 1895 he died and his Requiem Mass took place at Our Lady’s the Birkenhead ‘Cathedral’ as it was now being called.
Following the death of Bishop Carroll, Shrewsbury regained its status as the seat of Diocesan power and its Cathedral church became the centre for diocesan ceremony.
The most dramatic incident in the History
of Our Lady’s happened during the Second World War when, during an air raid on the night of 12 March 1941, the Church and its presbytery received a direct hit. Parish Priest Canon John Tallon, his housekeeper, Catherin Ryan, and housemaid, Kathleen Creehan, were killed. Many parishioners were also killed during the riad but Assistant Priests, Fathers Rigby and Coonan, survived as they were away from the Presbytery at the time.
The church was extensively damaged and it was to remain derelict for ten years, during which time services were held in the Parish Club in Park Road North which coincidentally had been a former Presbyterian Church.
Father Edmund Quinn was appointed Parish Priest within two weeks of the bombing disaster. He laboured with his parishioners for ten years to raise sufficient funds for the restoration of the Church.
A torchlight procession numbering two thousand and led by the Diocesan Bishop, John Murphy, culminated in the re-opening ceremony on 11 October 1951. The renowned cleric Monsignor Ronald Knox preached to a congregation which overflowed into the streets surrounding the church.
Alongside the refurbished church a new presbytery was erected. The date inscribed over the door indicates a 1952 opening, but it was 1957 before Canon Quinn took up residence.
Our Lady’s regained some of its historical prestige when Cardinal Hume presided there during Requiem Mass for the 8th Bishop of Shrewsbury. Bishop Eric Grasar, whose mortal remains were interred in a garden grave in Our Lady’s churchyard.
Our Lady’s again took centre stage when the Right Revd. Joseph Gray was installed as 9th Bishop of Shrewsbury on 7 October 1980. Throughout his reign, Bishop Gray lived in Birkenhead and celebrated Mass on major feastdays on a regular basis at his Birkenhead ‘Cathedral’. Indeed he celebrated his own Golden Jubilee as a priest there on 18 June 1993. Bishop Gray’s requiem also took place at Our Lady’s on 18 May 1999.
During the period when the north end of Birkenhead was heavily populated Our Lady’s parish was manned by as many as four priests. Today the present Father shepherds a greatly reduced flock who nevertheless remains just as faithful as their forbearers to their beloved ‘cathedral’.