Parish of St Wilfrid, Widnes

Our History

History of The Parish of St Wilfrid, Widnes

The formation of the parish of St Wilfrid in 2015 was a significant landmark in the history of Catholicism in Widnes. Our Catholic heritage goes back a long way.

Catholicism in the area can be traced back to the monastery in Runcorn in 1133 and we still have the remains of the monastery at Norton which dates from 1140.

In Widnes, the chapel of Farnworth, dedicated to St Wilfrid and part of the Parish of Prescot, dating back to the twelfth century was built to meet the needs of Catholics in this area until the Reformation. Even after this a priest at Farnworth was reported to the Anglican Bishop for “Shriving and for suffering candells to be burned in ye chappell upon Candelmass Daye according to the old suspicious customs”. After this time, however, Catholics were forbidden to attend Mass under pain of penalty. The Reformation under Henry VIII came after 400 years of people practising Catholicism in this area.

After the Reformation, Mass could only be heard in secret, in private houses. Tradition says that such Masses were held at Peel House and Appleton Hall. It is known that St Edmund Arrowsmith often said Mass in the area prior to his martyrdom in 1628. It is believed he celebrated Mass at the residence of the Hawarden family in Appleton. In addition, Lower House (probably situated where the Albion pub now stands) was also used for the celebration of Mass in secret over these years.

Against all odds the Catholic faith survived in Widnes in secret until 1748 when the Mission at Appleton was established by Fr Marmaduke Wilson. Persecution of Catholics came to an end, although it was still illegal to celebrate Mass in public, or to open a public chapel. Hence Mass was held celebrated with fear until 1760 when Appleton Terrance, then renamed St Bede’s Terrace, was opened as a chapel and presbytery. At this time the Appleton Mission and parish covered the whole of Widnes, as St Wilfrid’s does today. It also included Cuerdly, parts of Penketh and Bold and Hale.

In 1778 The Relief Act allowed Mass to be said in public and in 1791, after many years of suffering, Catholics were allowed to open chapels. Fr Marmaduke Wilson died in 1822 just 7 years before the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. This allowed the growth of the Catholic faith in this country and his successor Fr Gillow thought it time to open a church, which was St Bede’s Church, on the 22nd September 1847 at the cost of £3,000. By 1855 Mass was also being said at the Stapleton House, which many remember as Ditton Hall.

What also occurred at this time was the advent of the industrial revolution and the town of Widnes grew very quickly with many Catholic families coming into the town from Ireland, Poland and Lithuania. By 1865 a new parish was established to cater for these Catholics with St Marie’s being opened on Lugsdale Rd in Newtown.

The increased growth of the town meant that Ditton Hall could not cater for the numbers moving into the town. At the same time the exiled Jesuits came to Widnes from Germany and established the magnificent St Michael’s Church in 1879. In the heart of the industrial area of the town St Patrick’s a beautiful gothic church was founded in Dock Street in West Bank in 1887. Therefore, at the height of the industrial revolution there were 4 Catholic churches serving the whole Catholic community in Widnes. This established the Catholic churches serving Widnes for nearly half a century.

Then in 1952 St John Fisher church was opened. This was followed by a mass expansion of churches in the town with Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, St Pius and St Raphael all being opened in the space of 12 months. Archbishop Heenan commented that he had never opened so many churches in so short a period as he had done in Widnes.

Finally, a joint venture with the Anglican Church saw the parish of church of St Basil opened in 1968. Hence 130 years after the opening of St Bede’s church Widnes, vastly expanded during the industrial revolution and beyond, was served by 8 parishes plus the chapel at Nazareth House. 

The maintenance of so many churches in a relatively small town could not be sustained forever. The population of Widnes itself was shifting. The once thriving areas of West Bank and Newtown saw the slum clearance of houses in the 1960s which resulted in much reduced congregations. The number of priests being ordained each year also dropped. After initially sharing a priest with St Marie’s, and after many years of uncertainty, what would have been unthinkable 50 years previously, happened with the closure of St Patrick’s on the feast day of Christ the King in 1997. Less than 10 years later St Marie’s church, which had been sharing a priest with John Fisher parish, was also closed. St Marie’s parish, however, continued to worship in the “new church” a much smaller building (former classroom) opposite the old church. Clustering of parishes was tried with St Bede’s and Pius X and St Raphael’s and then then later St Basil’s in an attempt to maintain the church communities in Widnes.

It became clear, however, that what was needed was radical transformation – a re-founding - of the Pastoral Area of Widnes that would prepare the town for a new and challenging reality. After many years of discussion and conversation in which all parishioners were invited to participate, the decision was taken by Archbishop McMahon in 2015 to close all the parishes in the town and establish one new parish which was to be called the Parish of St Wilfrid. This new parish, founded on the 1st Sunday of Lent 2015, was centred on the four churches of St Basil’s, St Bede’s, St Michael’s and St John Fisher. This new dynamic approach to the changing environment that the Church found itself in led to the closure of the churches of St Marie, St Raphael, St Pius X and Our Lady of Perpetual Succour.

Despite all the heartache, such transformation of the Catholic community in Widnes has witnessed the coming together of parishioners from all across the town into one family. It is certain that the Parish of St Wilfrid is thriving and more fit for purpose and ready to face the challenges of the next 50 years. What lies ahead is unknown. What is known is that with faith, hope and guided by the Holy Spirit the Catholic community in Widnes will continue to build God’s kingdom here on earth.




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