1. The setting
  2. Catholic Schools
  3. Visits of the Founder
  4. The Typhus Epidemics
  5. A Church is built
  6. Dispersal of parish population
  7. The church is destroyed
  8. Visit of Mr. De Valera
  9. Post-War reconstruction
  10. There was a flourishing social club
  11. The Closing of Holy Cross Parish

The Oblate mission in Holy Cross in the archdiocese of Liverpool lasted 151 years. “Small in extent, yet great and glorious in tradition.” The tradition was forged in an often-tense relation with anti-Catholic elements in the city, and in friendly rivalry with the neighbouring Catholic parishes. It created a flock instilled with an intense local loyalty that was not lost as the people were dispersed by the upheavals of housing developments and war. Fr. Aubert saw a similarity between Holy Cross and one of the first Oblate missions: Le Calvaire in Marseilles.

The setting
The Founder wanted the Oblates in Britain to establish themselves in an independent mission in an urban setting. At first it seemed this setting would be in Manchester [see Daly] but the success of the Oblate mission there in 1849 induced the Apostolic Vicar of the Lancashire District Bishop George Brown to think of offering the mission of Holy Cross chapel in Liverpool to the Oblates. The Benedictines had a mission at St. Mary’s in the same part of the city but it was unable to cope with the new masses of Catholic population. Negotiations between the Ordinary and Fr. Aubert were successful and on 18 January 1850 the mission was officially placed in the care of the Oblates. Frs. Aubert, Noble, Charles Jolivet, Pierre Dutertre and Edward Bradshaw took up residence at 20 Queen Anne Street. The tradition in Holy Cross parish was that Father Noble was the first superior, probably because he took the leading pastoral role. The superior was in fact Fr. Aubert, and it was the Founder’s decision and that of Father Aubert that Father Aubert would be succeeded by Father Pierre Amisse who was brought from Canada for that purpose in December 1853. Father Amisse was recalled to France early in 1855 for health reasons and was succeeded by Fr. Jolivet.

This part of the city was a vast dockland slum, housing many thousands of Irish immigrants who had fled Ireland after the devastating potato famines of 1845 and 1847. Many had used Liverpool as a staging area to go to other lands, but thousands stayed in the area in the most squalid conditions. It was made up of dingy tenements, joined together in airless courts and polluted by open sewers and piles of rubbish. By the end of 1847 over 300,000 impoverished and fever-ridden immigrants from the Irish famine had settled in the Liverpool area. These immigrants formed the vast majority of the parishioners of the parish. It was estimated that the parish contained about 11,000 Catholics, though this number kept increasing with the arrival of every ship from Ireland.

Catholic Schools
Catholic children had been withdrawn from the city’s schools in 1841 because of proselytism. There was a desperate need for catholic schools: less than 8000 children were at school out of a Catholic population of up to 150,000. The Oblates decided that providing a school in their area of responsibility should take precedence over building a permanent church and presbytery. Fr. Noble instituted a fund-raising campaign and a newly built school on a church-owned site was opened on November 14, 1853, at Fontenoy Street. The ground floor held classrooms for the boys, the first floor for the girls and the second floor was to house a Guild Room. This set a standard that was followed by other parishes in the city. Great help in this school project, and in the establishment a Catholic Doctrine Society and a Temperance Society, was given to Fr. Noble by a Fr. Nugent of the Diocese. Various Reports of Government Inspectors from 1858 and through the 1860’s gave very favourable comments on the good influence the school was having on the pupils and the neighbourhood. As well as day classes, evening classes were held for adults, and were well attended.

The Compulsory Education Act of 1870 saw a great increase in the number of students at the school and the problem of accommodation became acute. There were also increasing demands to improve the building and its amenities. In April 1882, Fr. Laurence Roche, superior, leased a property in Hunter Street. The Boys’ School was moved to this new site, while the Girls and Infants remained at Fontenoy Street. Over the years various improvements were made to both schools. In 1936 a new school for infants and senior girls was opened in Addison Street. On 3 May 1941 Hunter Street school was destroyed during bombing raids and never reopened.

Visits of the Founder
The Founder visited Holy Cross parish mission during his two visits to Britain. In a letter to Father Tempier on his first visit in July 1850, he described the enthusiasm, respect and tenderness of the people as ‘a kind of marvel’, revealing ‘an admirable faith’ (Letter to Tempier, 10 July 1850, Oblate Writings I, vol. 3 page 61.)

On his second visit in July 1857 he again received a very warm welcome and expressed satisfaction at the progress that had been made, especially in the schools.

The canonization of St. Eugene was celebrated with great solemnity in the parish on 3 December 1995.

The Typhus Epidemics
The housing in the parish was arranged in blocks, called courts. Access to these was gained through a narrow passage with one communal water tap in the middle and one or two communal toilets at the end of each court. Each toilet served about twenty families. Many were often in disrepair; they were not connected to water or sewer pipes and often were not emptied regularly. Water was also scarce and private water companies felt they had the right to limit or deny water to people in poorer areas. Several families often occupied one apartment, sleeping on straw. The whole place was poorly lit and badly ventilated. The area was ripe for epidemics, and typhus and cholera struck frequently between 1830 and 1865.

On 8 February 1862, French Oblate Fr. Pierre Dutertre died of typhoid fever, caught while visiting the sick and anointing those dying of the same sickness. He was thirty-six years of age. Three thousand people attended his burial at Ford Cemetery, Liverpool. The following year Irish Oblate Fr. Robert Power caught typhoid while attending the sick and dying. He was sent over to+ St. Anne’s parish, Rock Ferry, across the Mersey to recuperate but died there on 7 August 1863. He was 26 years of age. He, too, was buried at Ford Cemetery, Liverpool. Typhus struck the Oblates at Holy Cross again in the 1880’s. Irish Oblate Fr. Daniel Madden caught the fever while attending the sick and died on 13 April 1883. He was 35 years of age. Again, over five thousand people attended his burial at Ford cemetery. Frs. Hilaire Lenoir and Laurent Roche also contracted typhus at Holy Cross but recovered.

A Church is built
In March 1849, shortly before the arrival of the Oblates, Mass had begun to be celebrated in a tenement at the junction of Standish Street and Great Crosshall Street by Fr. McDonnell of St. Anthony’s. Close by, there had stood from ancient times a cross in honour of St. Patrick. Its site had been marked by a water fountain since about 1775, dedicated to Hannah May Thom, a local person venerated for her works of charity. The tenement was a three-storey building. The ground floor was a rag and bone store, the second floor was a primitive school where some 200 children attended, and the top floor provided a place for Mass. The Oblates acquired the site for £5,000. As a site it was magnificent, a prominent position right in the heart of the city. It could not be foreseen that future developments would greatly disadvantage it. In the course of his visit in 1857 the Founder encouraged the Fathers to build a church as soon as possible. Fund-raising began in 1859. The architect Edward Welby Pugin was invited to draw up plans for a new church. A periodical, ‘The Lamp’ offered a lovely pen sketch of the proposed interior of the church and the following deion: “The church will be 150’ long and 60’ wide. Only the nave will be erected at this time. It will be divided into six bays, supported by black marble columns. The church will be lighted from a clerestory of enormous size, the windows occupying almost the whole of each compartment. “

The foundation stone of the church was laid on 13 June 1859, and blessed by Bishop Goss of Liverpool. Remarkably, the church was solemnly opened by Bishop Goss on 14 October 1860. The presbytery at Great Crosshall Street was built at the same time as the church and the Oblate community moved into it from Queen Anne Street at the end of 1859. The foundation stone of the sanctuary was laid on 27 August 1874 by Bishop O’Reilly of Liverpool. One year later, on 31 August 1875, Cardinal Manning, Archbishop of Westminster, solemnly opened the new choir and preached the homily. Later that evening, the Cardinal addressed a huge crowd at the school in Fontenoy Street, and congratulated the Oblates on first having built a school. The altar was finally completed on 26 November 1882. It was made of stone and marble, the green marble of Connemara, the red of Derbyshire, and white stone of Caen. In 1899 Holy Cross became the first church in Liverpool to install electric lights.

Dispersal of parish population
During the 1870’s large portions of the parish were taken over for public buildings and industrial concerns. The area of the city confided to the Oblates was now included within the confines of Hatton Garden, Dale Street, William Brown Street, Christian Street, Gerard Street, Addison Street, Midghall Street and Vauxhall Road. By 1880 the parish was reduced to 8000, including 1000 children attending the parochial school. The parochial confraternities continued to flourish, as did the Temperance Society established in 1851. The Young Men’s Society numbered more than 700 and other groups such as the Congregation of the Immaculate Conception and the Holy Family Confraternity contributed to maintaining a high standard of religious observance in the parish. By 1893 parishioners numbered 4500, with seven sodalities, and by 1898 the parish population was further reduced to 4000. Throughout this period the parish clergy argued for the regeneration of the area itself. In 1905 a regeneration of the Fontenoy Estate was completed. A further regeneration took place in the 1930’s in the Fontenoy Street – Addison Street area, due in no small part to the energetic intervention of Fr. O’Shea, anxious not to see a further dispersal of the population. Even so by 1938 the parish population had reduced to about 2500, of whom some 1880 attended Sunday Masses. In 1935 the population of the area was put at about 4000, of whom over ninety per cent were parishioners.

The church is destroyed
On 21 December 1940, Mass was celebrated in the beautiful church for the last time. The City of Liverpool had been subjected to constant air raids and on that night firebombs entered the roof. Though the Oblates and other helpers worked hard they could not save the church. Further air raids in 1941 destroyed much of the church interior as well as creating severe damage to houses all round the parish. In April of that year the City Surveyor declared the church structure to be dangerous and it was demolished. The high altar was lowered, piece by piece, into the hall beneath and the altar rails and marbles on the main walls stored away, as were the organ and pulpit. For a while Mass was said for the parish in the presbytery library. The bombing became so serious that many people fled from the city and sought refuge in the suburbs. Severe damage was done in the parish and many lives were lost. In these circumstances the presbytery library was found to be adequate as a temporary chapel. Before long the people began to flock back again. They crowded the corridors and staircase and overflowed into the street. In July 1941 Holy Cross Temporary Church was opened on the ground floor of the old school at Fontenoy Street.

Visit of Mr. De Valera
The De Mazenod Record notes that on 8 October 1948 ‘Mr Eamonn de Valera honoured the community by a visit before his anti-partition drive in England. The Tricolour flew from the presbytery to welcome the great Irish leader. When he and Mr Aiken arrived, they received a great welcome from a group of parishioners who had gathered around the presbytery. The dinner was attended by the Catholic Aldermen and Councillors and by Fathers from Norris Green and Rock Ferry. Mr. De Valera spoke of the great Irishmen who in the past had visited Holy Cross: they included Parnell, Liam Mellows, Arthur Griffith and Archbishop Mannix. Mr De Valera and Mr Aiken attended the 10 o’clock Mass in Holy Cross the following Sunday.

Post-War reconstruction
Although some compensation was available from the State to rebuild the church, it was debated whether it would be a wise decision to rebuild. The terrible destruction caused by bombing of the city during World War II had led to a further decline in population. The proposal to build a Mersey Tunnel bringing great highways through the heart of the parish threatened more decline. The parishioners would not be denied their church, however, and the foundation stone for a new church on the old site was laid and blessed by Archbishop Richard Downey of Liverpool on 10 July 1949 as a part of the centenary celebrations of the parish. In the difficult economical climate, it took almost five years to complete the church but it was finally opened by Archbishop Godfrey on 27 June 1954. It was designed by Mr. Purcell, a great-nephew of Edward Pugin who had built the first church. A Golden Book was opened to commemorate benefactors.

First Holy Cross Church

New Holy Cross Church

In the face of great difficulties Father Mee succeeded in replacing the Addison Street School with new premises, which were blessed by Archbishop Beck in February 1972. It was now known as Holy Cross and St. Mary’s Primary School. It also housed the Marybone Youth and Community Association.

At the invitation of Fr. Anthony Carroll, the Holy Family Sisters established a mission in the parish. They took up residence at 27 Adlington House on 14 May 1973. Their ministry involved bereavement groups, victim support groups, visiting the sick and elderly, nursing, teaching. The Sisters’ ministry grew and encompassed every age group: the elderly, young families, the youth and the younger children. They brought professional skills as teachers and nurses, as well as their charism: to value human life in all its aspects and to build up the human family as well as the family of the Church.

Fr. Joseph Ryan, who served in the parish from 1955-1985, directed the operation of MAMI in Britain from Holy Cross in these years.

There was a flourishing social club
From the autumn of 1985 the presbytery housed the Province’s prenovitiate in England under the direction of Fr. Edward McSherry. He was succeeded in 1987 by Fr. Frank Murray, who yielded to Fr. Malachy Sheehan the local superior in 1988. Finally Fr. William Fitzpatrick held the office during the period he was local superior (1993-1994).

The parish celebrated its 150th anniversary on 25 March 1999. The Golden Book of 1949 was expanded to recognize the event. Solemn Mass of Thanksgiving was celebrated by Archbishop Patrick Kelly.

The Closing of Holy Cross Parish
By 1993 the number of persons attending Sunday Mass had dwindled to 100. The Sisters left the parish in 1998. Large expenditures were becoming necessary to refurbish the church and presbytery. In 1994 it was reported that a financial deficit of £15,000 per annum was being incurred by the parish. Furthermore there were to be found within easy walking distance of Holy Cross the churches of St. Mary, St. Brigid, St. Alban, Our Lady, St. Sylvester, St. Gerard, Mary Immaculate and St. Anthony. The diocese undertook a rationalization of its commitments. Holy Cross was officially closed down by the Archdiocese of Liverpool on September 16th. 2001. St. Mary’s, St. Brigid’s, St. Alban’s and St. Gerard’s were also closed. The last parish priest, Fr. Christopher Dunne, skilfully negotiated the Oblate exit, which aroused deep emotions. He stayed on in the presbytery until both church and presbytery were sold. Thanks to the powerful advocacy of Fr. Malachy Sheehan and his parishioners with the Archdiocese, the parish schools remained to serve the neighbourhood.

Green Apple Urban Developments bought the site and demolished both church and presbytery. The same company paid for the re-location of the beautiful Calvary and Pieta from the Church. These are now located near the spot where the church stood, with the original sandstone cross from the church, part of the stained glass windows and the foundation stone, and with two time capsules containing artefacts from the church. The marble and stone altars, the carved wooden reredos, the carved wooden stations and the oak panelling and doors went to Liverpool Catholic Cathedral, as did some of the statues, a tabernacle and other items. Other items from the church went to Oblate parishes in Norris Green, Liverpool, Rock Ferry, Amlwch in Wales and St. Anne’s, Birmingham. The Hannah May Thom Fountain was transferred by Fr. Conor Murphy to the precinct of De Mazenod Court in the neighbourhood.

The parish was served by 29 Oblate superiors and parish priests: Frs. Aubert (1850-1853), Amisse (1853-1855), Jolivet (1855-67), Lenoir (1867-1873), M. Gaughran (1873-1876), Roche (1876-1883 and 1887-1890), O’Dwyer (1883-1887), Coyle (1890 -1895), McSherry (1896-1904), Byrne (1904 -1908), O’Reilly (1908-1911), Scannell (1911-1921), O’Brien (1921-1924), O’Ryan (1924-1930), O’Donnell (1930-1933), O’Shea (1933-1939), Doyle (1939-1944), Murphy (1944-1950), Donovan (1950-1956), Brannigan (1956-1962), J. Byrne (1962-1966), Mee (1966-1971), Carroll (1971-1976), J. Hartford (1976-1979), J. Daly (1979-1982), Conor Murphy (1982 -1988), M. Sheehan (1988-1993), W. Fitzpatrick (1993-1994) and C. Dunne (1994-2001).

There were also almost 100 full or part time assistants. Those still living at the time of writing speak of happy years there and of the warmth of its people, their generosity and good humour, in the midst of a constant struggle against poverty and poor living conditions. Two parishioners became Oblate priests: Frs. Gaffney and Terry Murray.

Richard Haslam
and Michael Hughes, o.m.i.