1. Beginnings
  2. The people
  3. A pastoral plan
  4. Arrival of the Sisters of the Holy Family
  5. First Schools
  6. Building the Church: The Church of the Immaculate Virgin Mary
  7. Pastoral developments
  8. Orphanage
  9. Education
  10. House of prayer
  11. Impact of housing projects on the parish population
  12. The Church and its fabric through the years of the mission
  13. Oblate withdrawal and closure of the parish
  14. List of superiors

This mission was for many years at the very heart of the Oblate mission in Britain. As with the mission in Holy Cross Liverpool, it inspired the creation of a vibrant, faith-filled community that bore witness to Christ for over a hundred years and would eventually be dispersed by housing developments in the area.

The possibility of a permanent mission around Richmond Hill was drawn to the attention of Fr. Cooke by George Crawley. While serving as an Anglican minister in St. Saviour’s, Leeds, Crawley had been received into the Catholic Church along with other ministers and members of the congregation of St. Saviour’s. He and his companions had been drawn to the area by the urgent spiritual needs of the people. Now Crawley urged these needs on Fr. Cooke. No other religious order was working in Leeds. Fr. Cooke wrote to the Bishop of Beverley, Bishop Briggs. Representations were also made directly to the Bishop by some of the clerical converts of St. Saviour’s. The Bishop agreed to a cautious start being made towards the foundation of a mission on Richmond Hill in the centre of Leeds by the Oblates.

The Oblate community consisted in its first years of Fr. Cooke (1851), Fr. Lynch (1851-1858), Fr. Kirby (1852-1867, Fr. Gobert (1853-1900), Fr. Fox (1854), Fr. Arnoux (1855-56), and Fr. J. Gubbins (1856-1861). Bro. Vernet also served in the community for a period as a collector prior to 1858 when he was transferred to Glencree. When Fr. Cooke became Provincial in November 1851, the direction of the mission fell mainly to Fr. Francis Lynch until 1858 when Fr. Lynch was also appointed to Glencree and Fr. Pinet became superior.

The boundaries of the district confided to the Oblates are defined in a memorandum dated 3 February 1859 written by Fr. Cooke and signed by Bishop Briggs: “The Hull and Selby Railway, Marsh Lane to Trimble Bridge, East Street to Crownpoint Bridge, and the River Aire.” Many of the people lived on the slope below the church, which had been known for hundreds of years as ‘the Bank’.

The people
In his report to the Superior General in 1861 Fr. Cooke the Provincial describes Leeds as a manufacturing town of some 200,000 souls. Some 25,000 were Catholics, many of them immigrants from Ireland driven out by the famine in the 1840’s. They lived in crowded slums of back-to-back houses. Poverty was extreme. The Leeds Tercentenary Handbook 1926 states that “East Leeds got many of the labouring classes. Many Irish came from the ‘distressful’ country and a further influx came at the time of the Potato Famine. These gravitated to the Old Town east of Briggate, chiefly to the Bank and York Road areas, and were absorbed in the building and brick-making trades and as navvies in the new railway extensions. Burmantofts was given over to the artisan class.”

A pastoral plan
A pastoral plan was put into operation to attend immediately to the spiritual needs of the people through visitation and administration of the sacraments, to bring the people together in sodalities to encourage fidelity and spiritual growth, and at the same time attend to the speedy creation of catholic schools and a church. Sisters from France would be invited by Bishop de Mazenod to share in the mission.

A temporary church on a rented property was opened for public worship on 22 October 1851. For six years it was the centre of an intense missionary activity. To quote Fr. Dawson: “Fr. Cooke, in the twelfth chapter of his second volume, relates many striking and edifying stories of conversions wrought in the early days, when he and other Oblate Fathers were working in a very poor church and house, in a very poor quarter, at the foot of Richmond Hill in Leeds”.

Arrival of the Sisters of the Holy Family
The Sisters who came from France, and who would play a major role in the formation of the parish community, were in fact “four Sisters from Britain who belonged to the Oblate Sisters of Mary Immaculate of l’Osier. One was English; the others were Scottish. All had recently made their religious vows…” Based in France they received their mission from Bishop de Mazenod “to occupy themselves actively with the instruction of children and converts, in visiting the sick and generally in all the works of zeal and charity which are proper to their sex…to afford our missions in that country what help they can…” The four Sisters arrived on 14 February 1853. A convent had been prepared for their reception. They wore pale blue habits and stiff white guimpes and attracted much attention, sometimes unfriendly at first, but this soon changed. Their first work, along with visiting the poor and sick in their homes, was a night school for factory girls, which was opened in the basement of the convent. They also helped with the day school pupils in local schools. They collected money. In 1869 they agreed, for the sake of their mission, to amalgamate with the Holy Family of Bordeaux. It was the beginning of the extensive work of the Holy Family of Bordeaux in Britain.

First Schools

By the time of Fr. Cooke’s report to the Superior General after the 1861 Chapter, there had already been built on the Hill: a large boys’ school and a large girls’ school. There was also an Oblate community house, a convent, and the main part of a new church.

Building the Church: The Church of the Immaculate Virgin Mary
Prior to the Oblates’ arrival in 1851, there were already two churches in Leeds, one at each end of the town. A church was needed that would be amenable to the Catholics of the St. Mary’s district. The site for a new church on Richmond Hill was acquired by Fr. Cooke after delays caused by doubts as to the suitability of the site and by the difficulty of raising the money. On 24 May 1853 Bishop Briggs blessed the foundations of a new church that was to be of cathedral-like proportions. Early in 1857 the legal title to the site passed to the Oblate Trustees. The architect was Joseph A. Hanson of Preston and Edinburgh. The solemn dedication of the church on 29 July 1857 was a major event celebrated by the whole town. As well as Bishop Briggs and the Founder, two of the greatest of England’s Catholic churchmen of the 19thcentury took part in it: Wiseman and Manning. After a procession through crowded streets Solemn Pontifical Mass was sung by Bishop de Mazenod who was making a visit to Britain and Ireland with this event chiefly in mind. The sermon was preached by Cardinal Wiseman. Bishop Briggs presided at Vespers in the evening, and Dr Manning preached a sermon.

The church and other buildings now formed an imposing group on the summit of the hill, but the church remained incomplete. Oblate finances were severely strained. The cost of acquiring the site, of completing the building of the church sufficiently for its first opening by the Founder in 1857, of building the community house and parish schools was 400,000 francs (£8000) of which sum 62,500 francs (£1250) was still outstanding in 1865. Fr. Pinet took the advice of a bishop and turned to Blessed Benedict Joseph Labre for help. His prayers were answered and he was able to resume work on the church and complete it in less than three years, and a year after the completion of the works the debt was cleared. The opening on 13 September 1866 of the remaining parts of the church was as splendid an event as that of 1857. Sixty priests occupied the stalls. The celebrant now was Archbishop Manning of Westminster, who also preached. The Archbishop also presided at Vespers, when the sermon was preached by the Dominican superior from London.

Leeds, Mount Saint Mary Church (AD)

Pastoral developments

Pattern of parish life
A pattern of life to sustain the people in the hard conditions of their lives came gradually into existence. There was a regular programme of Masses, sodality meetings, and many paraliturgical devotions. By letter dated 4 March 1858 the Bishop consented to the erection of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Heart of Mary for the conversion of sinners in the Church. Devotions came to include evening devotions on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, the Quarant Ore devotion, four traditional processions: in January in honour of the Divine Infant, in February in honour of Our Lady of Lourdes, in September in honour of Our Lady, and in October in honour of Christ the King. In addition every third Sunday there was a procession in honour of the Blessed Sacrament. There were also May processions of Our Lady. As part of the celebrations to mark the proclamation of the dogma of the Assumption of Mary in 1950, there was a torchlight procession from Leeds Town Hall to Mount St Mary’s. The church and the square outside were filled to capacity for Benediction and Rosary. In May 1953 the Perpetual Novena in honour of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour was inaugurated by Fr. Nolan CSSR. The centenary of the solemn dedication of the church was celebrated on 14 July 1957 with the celebration of Pontifical High Mass by Dr. Heenan, then recently transferred from the See of Leeds to that of Liverpool. Archbishop Godfrey of Westminster preached the sermon. The Superior General was represented by Fr. Joseph Birch. There were great numbers of clergy, religious and civic dignitaries. There were frequent parish missions and Episcopal visitations. Many Oblates visited the parish and spoke with the people; several superiors general visited the parish.

In the Second World War masses were said as usual, though with cowled lights, and evening devotions were held earlier in the evening. Some of the traditional processions had to be cancelled, though ‘Corpus Christi’ and two May processions were held as usual. The boys’ club remained active.

There was much church sponsored social activity: the Whit sports for children, the C.Y.M.S., sales of work and fundraising. Much emphasis was placed on the boys’ club in the immediate post-war period. “We have stressed the value of clubs for the youth of today. In this connection we take the opportunity to quote the following from a recent number of the Catholic Times: ‘Catholic Youth Clubs in Leeds, of both sexes, have shown, that given the right leadership, the average adolescent can be wooed from the aimless pursuits, which usually beset them on leaving school, into paths of earnest endeavour and serious culture, and the dramatic art plays no inconspicuous part in the scheme. During Holy Week most of these clubs put on plays of a devotional character, Mgr. Hugh Benson’s The Upper Room being a favourite choice. This was successfully attempted by Mt St Mary’s Youth Clubs last year, and they have now followed it with a more ambitious performance of a popular play of the early Christian period, The Sign of the Cross.” The performance was over 3 nights and was very successful. In 1946 the youth clubs successfully put on St. Philomena, again over three nights.

In June 1967 Fr. Provincial and council approved of the building of a new Parish Social Centre.

With the Second Vatican Council the new liturgy in English was introduced to the people on 18 Oct 1964 and inaugurated on 11 April 1965 at all masses. In July 1971 came a new altar, lectern and credence table to allow Mass to be said facing the people. A penitential service with general absolution drew a full church on 9 March 1977. April 1978 saw the introduction of a parish council.

It was reported in 1978 that the Social Club was thriving and developing subsections: the Ladies Amateur Dramatic Society, a Lourdes Committee, a Senior Citizens Committee and a Gold Section.

The parish celebrated a number of ordinations. In September 1952 Bishop Heenan ordained an Oblate Gerald O’Hara, a native of Sheffield. In June 29, 1963 a parishioner John Wade was ordained priest in the church by Bishop Dwyer. In December 1980 Bernard Long, a former parishioner, was ordained for Westminster in London. He celebrated his first Mass in Mt St Mary’s. On 25 June 1983 John Moran, one of the Mount’s senior parishioners, was ordained by Cardinal Hume in Middlesex. He celebrated Mass next day in St. Mary’s.

In February 1986 the Bishop asked for the introduction of the chalice at Mass for the laity.

The original link between the parish and the Anglican parish of St. Saviour’s gave rise to a special ecumenical spirit in the parish. The parish participated fully in the new spirit of ecumenism set in motion by the Second Vatican Council, culminating in a Covenant Declaration to witness and work together signed on 30 November 1986 by the Bishop of Leeds Bishop Konstant, the Anglican Bishop David of Ripon, Kenneth Taylor (Methodist), Michael McGhee (OMI St. Mary’s), Nicholas Turner (All Saints), Judith Maizel (Newbourne Methodists), and Fr. William McGonagle (Oblate Provincial). It was to be implemented through an ecumenical council.

The Sisters opened an orphanage in 1863 which was eventually phased and closed in 1953 – more than 3000 children had passed through it. “The children cared for in the orphanage moved to smaller, family-type houses further out from the city, and the orphanage building was incorporated into the present St. Mary’s Catholic High School.”

Throughout the period of the mission the Sisters and the parish sustained a fully developed school system for all ages and both sexes, making frequent adaptations to meet new calls being made by the Education Authority as ideas on education changed. Their work in education is now continued in Mount St. Mary’s Catholic High School, with a present accommodation for up to 900 children aged 11-16, and Mt. St. Mary’s Primary School. The last Sister to serve in the primary school retired in 1980. The Sisters left the High School in 1999. The two schools celebrated 150 years of existence in 2003.

House of prayer
In 1982 the Sisters opened a House of Prayer in Spen Road.

Impact of housing projects on the parish population
Many years were to pass before the problem of the poor quality of housing in the area would be addressed seriously by the civic authorities. As in other places, when it was addressed, it was done in a way that was destructive of the community fabric that had been built up over many years. Between 1935 and 1950, the majority of the old streets of the parish were demolished and their residents rehoused elsewhere. Many of the parishioners were rehoused in the Osmondthorpe district of Leeds. Here Corpus Christi parish was established and entrusted to the Oblates in 1933. It is close to St. Mary’s and the Oblates from St Mary’s had been giving a helping hand there for some time. In a 1936 report we read: “The greater bulk of houses within the area have been condemned as unsuitable by the Leeds Municipal Authorities. Their inhabitants have been, or will be, provided with suitable accommodation in the growing suburbs of the town. So, a population that numbered 6000 has decreased within a comparatively short period to 3000. This figure will also diminish. The Father Superior of Mt St Mary’s has made repeated appeals to the responsible authorities to demolish the present abandoned hoses and forthwith erect suitable homes on their sites. As yet, the Council has not acted on the suggestion.” This had an effect on the provision of schools: “It is not a question of providing schools for the education of children. Today, Mt. St. Mary’s possesses a system of splendid schools. The question before the Fathers is how to find a sufficient number of pupils to fulfil the conditions required by the Educational Committee for the continuance of the various grades. This pertinent question is a sequel to the housing problem of the district.” (DMR, 1936 p.28)

The outbreak of the Second World War further impeded housing regeneration. In 1944 it was reported: “The City Corporation has drawn up plans for the re-housing of many of its citizens. These plans in great part affect the parish of St Mary’s… Just before the war hundred of houses on each side of the parish were demolished in accordance with the reconstruction plan. The parish was to receive or have built in return 900 flats in two blocks. The war cancelled all this, thus at present there are only 1100 in the parish.” (DMR, 1944, p.45 )

There were still hopes in 1945 that the community would be restored: “The housing scheme which we referred to in our last issue and which, it is hoped, will re-populate some derelict parts of the parish, will be commenced soon.” (DMR, 1945, p.24)

In 1956 the Provincial stressed the importance of pressing ‘to secure representation of Roman Catholics amongst the new tenants of the flats being built at present’. (House Council, May 1956) It was decided to try to induce former parishioners to return and take apartments in the Saxton Gardens Flats. The invitation to former parishioners met with little success. The Superior Fr. Glasheen wrote the Provincial: “There are many difficulties which may not help the return of our people to ‘the Bank’. The maximum family in these new flats must not exceed four children. The rents will be from thirty-five shillings for the biggest flat. Many of the folk whom we have asked to return have said they could not come back to the smoke of Leeds after enjoying the air of the outside Estates. They do not like high flats as a place to rear children. The space of time that has elapsed since leaving this district has changed the minds of the people and most of those to whom the promise was made have departed this life. As the flats become near completion we shall press the Corporation for the fulfilment of their promise.” (House Council, May 1956)

By 1979 the parish had dwindled to 700. “We have more children coming to school each day from some 40 parishes than we have parishioners”, reported the parish priest Fr. Michael Phelan Within a few more years the congregation was reduced to some 120 people.

The Church and its fabric through the years of the mission
The church served magnificently throughout the duration of the mission. The maintenance of such a large church however made constant demands on priests and people. Built chiefly of stone in the style of the early period of decorated Gothic, the church has a length of 165 feet, and the main body of the church a breadth of 60 feet with 12 columns. At the transepts the breadth is 100 feet. Its height is 85 feet. There are seven side chapels. There are twelve windows in the side aisles and above each is a lancet window. In each transept there is a rose window 16 feet in diameter. The sanctuary, designed by Edward Pugin, raised above the level of the nave, measures 50 feet by 30 feet, with ample liturgical space. It was described by Cardinal Heenan, then Bishop of Leeds, as the most beautiful sanctuary in England! A choir gallery covers the main entrance and contains the organ. Two massive western towers that were a part of the original plan were not built.

Exposed on the top of the hill, the Church was prone to incurring severe storm damage: notably in December 1894 and February 1962, necessitating major repairs.

Major renovations were also effected in the 1930’s, 1940’s, and 1950’s in preparation for the coming centenary of the church. Further major repairs and renovations took place in 1980-1981.

In 1953, while repairs were being carried out, the workings of an old coalmine were accidentally discovered beneath the church. The age of the mine was not ascertained. The deep shaft leading down to the mine, which was accessed through the sacristy, had been bricked up when the church was built. The discovery confirmed an old tradition that the church was built over a coalmine. The Leeds’ City Engineer’s Department had no record of the mine. The shaft was bricked up once again. Subsidence would lead to the closure of the Primary School in December 1982.

Oblate withdrawal and closure of the parish
The decline in the parish population and with it the virtual death of the Catholic parish community meant that the Oblate mission could not be sustained in its present form.

Over the same period too despite all the efforts made to maintain it the church building was gradually deteriorating. It was estimated that the church would need £1.5 million for continued upkeep. This expense could not be justified.

After consultations with the Bishop, and to the disappointment of the remnant of the people, the Oblates withdrew from the parish at the end of June 1989 and the responsibility for it was assumed by the diocese.

The Oblates worked with the Charity Commissioners to sell the property while retaining it in community use and respecting its status as a grade two (starred) listed building. It proved to be a difficult task. In August 1996 ownership was transferred to Sanctuary Housing Trust, for no financial gain.

List of superiors

  • 1851-56: Fr. Cooke
  • 1856-67: Fr. Pinet
  • 1867-75: Fr. Redmond
  • 1875-85: Fr. Pinet
  • 1885-88: Fr. J. O’Reilly
  • 1888-90: Fr. Coyle
  • 1890-04: Fr. Roche
  • 1904-08: Fr. E. Matthews
  • 1908-22: Fr. D. O’Ryan
  • 1922-25: Fr. J. Gorman
  • 1925-31: Fr. M. Butler
  • 1931-32: Fr. M. O’Ryan
  • 1932-36: Fr. T. Foley
  • 1936-42: Fr. McManus
  • 1942-48: Fr. Clavin
  • 1948-54: Fr. Clery
  • 1954-60: Fr. P. Glasheen
  • 1960-66: Fr. Sean Connellan
  • 1966-72: Fr. D’Arcy
  • 1972-75: Fr. L. Keogh
  • 1975-81: Fr. M. Phelan
  • 1981-87: Fr. Michael McGhee
  • 1987-88: Fr. Richard O’Donovan priest in charge
  • 1988-89: Fr. Patrick Mee priest in charge.

Michael Hughes, o.m.i.