When I was at university, one of my hall-of-residence associates was studying science in preparation for training to be a Jesuit at the English College in Rome.
From knowing him, I’ve always regarded the Jesuits as the border collies of the Catholic clergy – astute, focused, determined, committed and effective. Adherents vow to devote their lives Ad Majorem Dei Gloria – to the greater glory of God.
The Society of Jesus built the first post-Reformation Catholic chapel in Liverpool in 1736. It lasted two years before it was destroyed by a mob, and was promptly rebuilt, disguised as a warehouse. Their work in Liverpool ceased after the suppression of the Society by Pope Clement XIV in 1773, and their chapel was passed to the Benedictines in 1783.
The Jesuits returned to Liverpool in the 1840s at the invitation of a group of eight Catholic businessmen who financed the building of the church dedicated to St Francis Xavier, co-founder of the Jesuit order, on Salisbury Street, Everton.
The foundation stone was laid in 1842. By the time the church was completed in 1848 Liverpool was experiencing a huge influx of poor Irish people fleeing the Great Famine. The thousand-seat capacity of the original church became inadequate and a secondary worship-space, the Sodality Chapel, was opened in 1888. (A sodality is a lay religious brotherhood.)
The 1848 church, designed by Joseph John Scoles (1798-1863) is stone built, with separate roofs for the nave and aisles and a polygonal apse, and an impressive tower and spire at the south-west corner. The spire was always intended, but only added in 1883. The high altar, reredos and pulpit, and the Sacred Heart altar of 1852-53, were designed by Scoles’ pupil, Samuel Joseph Nicholl (1826-1905).
Most of the original glass by Hardman & Powell was blown out in the Blitz, but an almost complete set of fragments of a window depicting St Ignatius was found in a box and restored in 2015.
The Sodality Chapel was designed by the Liverpool-born architect Edward Kirby (1838-1920), a pupil of the Gothic Revival architect Edward Welby Pugin (1834-1875). It’s smaller but more elaborate than the main church, with a polygonal apse and an ambulatory behind the altar. Its stained glass is by Burlison & Grylls.
In the 1930s St Francis Xavier was the largest Catholic parish in England serving a population of 13,000. It continued to flourish, despite damage to the building in the Liverpool Blitz, until the clearance of the surrounding streets emptied its congregation.
The Archdiocese proposed to demolish the nave in the early 1980s, until a national outcry led to a compromise: the Archdiocese agreed to maintain the Sodality Chapel while the parish took responsibility for the nave. As a result, a glass screen was erected in the arcade between the two, and for years the nave remained unrestored.
On the pretext of celebrating the 150th anniversary of the parish in 1997, an impressive campaign enabled the restoration of the nave from 2000 onwards, and in 2001 the Archdiocese amalgamated two neighbouring parishes, and the Sodality Chapel was renamed the Chapel of St Mary of the Angels and St Joseph.
In 2007, the three-hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the first Catholic priest in Liverpool, Father William Gillibrand SJ, a shrine was dedicated to St Mary Del Quay, commemorating the very first Christian chapel in Liverpool, founded in 1207.
The St Francis Xavier College moved into the adjacent presbytery in 1845 and then into a new building alongside by 1857. This in turn proved too small, and a purpose-built replacement by Henry Clutton (1819-1893) opened in 1877. The corresponding sandstone “poor schools” designed by Joseph Spencer were started in 1853 and extended by the same architect in 1857. The College moved to Woolton in 1961. The Salisbury Street buildings and their surroundings became derelict until they were taken over by the ecumenical Liverpool Hope University and opened as its Creative Campus in 1999.
The rescheduled ‘Unexpected Liverpool (June 6th-10th 2022)’ tour includes a guided tour of St Francis Xavier Church. For further details please click here.