Churches and religious bodies: Roman Catholicism

A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 2, the City of Chester: Culture, Buildings, Institutions. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2005.

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J S Barrow. J D Herson. A H Lawes. P J Riden. M V J Seaborne, 'Churches and religious bodies: Roman Catholicism', in A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 2, the City of Chester: Culture, Buildings, Institutions, (London, 2005) pp. 162-165. British History Online [accessed 27 May 2024].

J S Barrow. J D Herson. A H Lawes. P J Riden. M V J Seaborne. "Churches and religious bodies: Roman Catholicism", in A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 2, the City of Chester: Culture, Buildings, Institutions, (London, 2005) 162-165. British History Online, accessed May 27, 2024,

Barrow, J S. Herson, J D. Lawes, A H. Riden, P J. Seaborne, M V J. "Churches and religious bodies: Roman Catholicism", A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 2, the City of Chester: Culture, Buildings, Institutions, (London, 2005). 162-165. British History Online. Web. 27 May 2024,


The clergy and nearly all lay people in Chester conformed with the Elizabethan religious settlement, and recusancy remained numerically weak and socially insignificant throughout Elizabeth's reign. (fn. 1) The handful of J.P.s and aldermen whose loyalty was suspected by the authorities in 1564 never became open recusants, and the only prominent citizens against whom proceedings were taken in the 1570s and later were a merchant, two lawyers, and several members of the Aldersey family. Of them only the lawyer Ralph Worsley proved obdurate. The searching enquiries made in 1592 revealed only forty actual or suspected recusants in the city. Recusancy was mainly confined to a few artisan families under the leadership of the Catholic gentry of west Cheshire, notably the Masseys of Waverton. The priests who served them probably lodged in gentry houses in the countryside. Ironically the main centre of Catholic activity in the city in the late 16th century was the castle, where recusants from elsewhere in Cheshire were gaoled in the 1580s and 1590s. The keepers of the castle gaol were lax and corrupt: some prisoners had liberty to walk about the city, priests were able to slip in to say mass, and one keeper's son became a convert.

Chester's importance in the history of recusancy was rather as a place frequented by Catholics travelling to Ireland. In 1594–5, for example, three groups of youths from other parts of the country were captured as they were trying to make their way abroad for a Catholic education, and presumably many others before and afterwards passed through the city without being apprehended. The town was also close to the strongly recusant districts of north-east Wales, which included the pilgrimage centre of Holywell (Flints.). There was, nevertheless, enough of a recusant community resident in Chester by the 1590s to provide safe houses for those en route for Ireland and to arrange for a prisoner who escaped from Northgate gaol to get clean away.

The features of Roman Catholicism in Chester established in the 16th century remained the norm until the early 19th. (fn. 2) It was the religion of a small, tightly knit group of families, mainly small tradespeople but including representatives of all classes except the governing élite, with wider leadership and refuges for priests provided by the Catholic country gentry. From 1622 the city was mainly served by Jesuit priests of the northern district. One active in 1654, Robert Grosvenor, was related to the Grosvenors of Eaton Hall, but the main gentry support came from the Fitzherberts of Swynnerton Hall (Staffs.), who had a house in Northgate ward. The number of Catholics, probably always under-recorded, rose only slowly. Sixteen were listed in the early 17th century; probably 15 in 1678; 104, including women and children, in 1705–6; and 130 individuals in perhaps 81 households in 1767. (fn. 3) The last figure accords well with the 138 sittings apparently provided at the chapel opened in 1799. (fn. 4) The continuing presence of even such small numbers was in part due to immigration; in 1767 perhaps a quarter of the Catholic families bore surnames of Irish, Scots, Welsh, or (in one case) French origin. (fn. 5)

Until the 1750s there was no permanently resident priest in Chester, masses being said either by a gentleman's chaplain, typically from Hooton Hall in Wirral or the Fitzherberts' house. From 1758, however, an almost continuous series of settled priests can be traced. Until 1838 they were normally, perhaps always, Lancastrians trained in the English seminary at Douai (Nord) or its successors, Crook Hall (in Brancepeth, co. Dur.) and Ushaw College (in Lanchester, co. Dur.). A permanent chapel was probably in use from the 1750s and by 1789 services were held in an upper room in Foregate Street. In 1799 the congregation built and registered a chapel near by on the west side of Queen Street. It was perhaps largely paid for by the Irish merchants who headed the list of those for whom perpetual masses were afterwards said. (fn. 6) They were very likely men who frequented Chester on business rather than permanent residents.

The Irish Catholic population of Chester grew rapidly in the 19th century, especially after the Irish famines of 1821 and the 1840s. (fn. 7) In 1826 the priest appealed for help for the many destitute Irish among his flock. In the 1830s many people born in counties Mayo, Roscommon, Galway, and Clare were settled in the city, and the Irish-born population reached over 1,000 by 1841, concentrated into a small area in and around Steven Street, between Boughton and the canal. There were also some Italian Catholic immigrants in the earlier 19th century, mainly shopkeepers. The average annual number of Catholic baptisms rose from 4 in the decade 1794–1803 to 20 in 1814–23, 48 in 1824–33, 63 in 1834–43, 86 in 1844–53, and 115 in 1854–63. Numbers attending mass in mid century were estimated at c. 700 at the bishop of Shrewsbury's first visitation in 1850, and 800 as the average Sunday attendance when the religious census was taken in 1851; the actual total attendance on Census Sunday in the latter year, however, was 570 adults and 100 children. (fn. 8) The growth in numbers later must have been due more to the natural increase of the settled population than to continuing immigration. There were an estimated 2,800 Catholics in Chester in 1889, 4,800 in 1929, 7,000 in 1951, and 10,000 in 1974. (fn. 9) As a proportion of the total population that represented a steady increase from probably under 8 per cent in the 1880s to about 12 per cent in the 1970s. (fn. 10)

The chapel in Queen Street was soon too small. Franciscan Capuchin friars from Pantasaph (in Whitford, Flints.) established a mission in Cuppin Street in 1858, saying mass first in a room and later in a temporary building, both located in Watergate Row South, before laying the foundation stone of a chapel in Grosvenor Street in 1862. The bankruptcy of the builder, an earth tremor, and a hurricane thwarted initial plans, but a temporary building, seating 500, was opened in 1864 and replaced in 1873–5 by the church of St. Francis. The friary behind the church in Cuppin Street was completed in 1876 and enlarged in the 20th century. (fn. 11)

Suburban churches were opened as the Catholic population moved away from the central area after the Second World War. In Upton masses were said in the village hall from 1939 and a church was opened in Plas Newton Lane in 1964. A parish for Blacon was established in 1956, and a church opened there in 1959. A church for south Chester was built by the Franciscans from the city-centre friary in 1960 on the Lache council estate. (fn. 12)

The earliest modern religious order established in Chester was the Faithful Companions of Jesus, who ran schools from their convent in Dee House, Little St. John Street, from 1854 to 1925, when they were replaced by the Ursulines, who left when the school closed in 1976. (fn. 13) The nursing order of the Little Sisters of the Assumption was established in Queen Street in 1911, building St. Augustine's convent and chapel in 1913 on land in Union Street given by Margaret Collins. They were succeeded there in 1957 by the Irish Sisters of Charity. (fn. 14) In 1976 there were also Sisters of Charity of Our Lady, Mother of Mercy, in Cliveden Road, Lache. (fn. 15) In 1995 the only order in the city apart from the Franciscans was a group of Benedictine nuns recently established in Curzon Park. (fn. 16)

The many Roman Catholic social organizations which flourished from the mid 19th century were based in the early 20th at no. 34 Queen Street, which closed in 1972 and was replaced in 1975 by a social centre in the former Bowling Green Hotel in Brook Street. (fn. 17)


The old church of St. Werburgh, Queen Street, was a plain building in Classical style, of stuccoed brick with a Doric portico under a pediment, two panels with garlands decorating the upper wall, and tall roundarched windows in the side walls. An adjoining house became the presbytery and there was a burial ground to the rear. The chapel was converted into a school when a replacement church was opened in 1875 and was demolished during the redevelopment of Queen Street in 1966. (fn. 18)

Figure 93:

St. Werburgh's

The new church of St. Werburgh was built between 1873 and 1875 to designs by Edmund Kirby of Liverpool, and extended in 1904 and 1914. (fn. 19) The site, fronting Grosvenor Park Road, required a reversed orientation. The church, built of pale yellow sandstone under a steeply pitched slate roof, has Early English details. It consists of an apsidal west sanctuary with a polygonal vestry adjoining it on the north and a western ambulatory, and a tall nave of six bays with north and south aisles and a gabled east porch. All the windows are single lancets. There is a side altar flanking the high altar to the south, and an organ in the corresponding bay on the north. The pulpit was given by Patrick Collins in 1894. (fn. 20) The adjoining presbytery in Union Street is a red-brick house of two storeys with attics, enlivened by blue headers and prominent chimney stacks.

Figure 93:

St. Columba's

The church of St. Francis was designed by James O'Byrne of Liverpool in uncoursed sandstone with a slate roof. (fn. 21) It comprises a sanctuary flanked by shallow recesses for side altars, a wide aisleless nave of seven bays, and a small west porch. There are two further altars in the north wall, two confessionals in the south wall, and a west gallery. The west wall has two twolight windows with Decorated tracery but the nave windows are without tracery. The building debt was paid off through bequests from the Tatlock family in 1899. (fn. 22)

St. Theresa, Blacon Avenue, was designed by Reynolds and Scott in pale red pressed brick with stone dressings and flat roofs. (fn. 23) It consists of a sanctuary of one bay with a shallow polygonal apse, a tall nave, slightly raised over the western entrance, low north and south aisles, and a slender south-east tower. A west gallery over the lobby carries an organ. The attached presbytery stands to the north-east.

St. Clare, Downsfield Road, Lache, also by Reynolds and Scott, (fn. 24) is built in pale red and yellow pressed brick with tiled roofs. It comprises a sanctuary of two bays, a low north-east vestry, north and south transepts, a nave of four bays, and a slender south-west tower. The gabled end walls of the transepts and the west nave wall each have a small central hexagonal window circled by seven smaller ones, all filled with coloured glass. The nave and sanctuary windows are plain pointed arches with mullions. Inside there is a west organ gallery over the lobby, and confessionals are built into the north wall.

St. Columba, Plas Newton Lane, was designed in a non-traditional style by L. A. G. Prichard, Son, and Partners, (fn. 25) using a variety of walling materials and copper roofs (Fig. 93). The ground plan is a symmetrical polygon, essentially half an octagon. A pyramidal spire rises over the altar. The internal space, apart from an enclosed lobby under an open organ loft, is semi-circular, arranged with low benches facing a semi-circular railed altar space against the east wall. The wall above the altar has 15 small triangular windows with red and blue glass. The lighting is suspended in clusters from a high wooden ceiling.


  • 1. This and next para. based on K. R. Wark, Elizabethan Recusancy in Ches. (Chetham Soc. 3rd ser. xix), esp. 2–3, 5–8, 14–20, 61–2, 70–3, 80–4, 88–92, 94–104, 106, 108–14, 124–7, 129, 138–73.
  • 2. Para. based on M. W. Sturman, Catholicism in Chester, 1875–1975 (Chester, [1975]), 9–25.
  • 3. The last figure based on Returns of Papists, 1767, Dioc. of Chester, ed. E. S. Worrall (Catholic Rec. Soc. Occasional Publications, i), pp. 172–3.
  • 4. The number in 1851: P.R.O., HO 129/459/55.
  • 5. Sturman, Catholicism in Chester, 17–20; Returns, 1767, ed. Worrall, pp. 172–3; Sturman's analysis of immigration patterns from the 1767 returns (pp. 23–5) is unreliable.
  • 6. Sturman, Catholicism in Chester, 16, 25–31; description of chapel below.
  • 7. Para. based, except where stated otherwise, on Sturman, Catholicism in Chester, 49–54, 61–2, 87.
  • 8. P.R.O., HO 129/459/55.
  • 9. Shrewsbury Dioc. Year Bk. (1974), 51–2.
  • 10. Cf. above, Population.
  • 11. O.N.S. (Birkdale), Worship Reg., nos. 8642, 9366, 16255; Sturman, Catholicism in Chester, 40, 47–8; description below.
  • 12. Sturman, Catholicism in Chester, 91–3; O.N.S. (Birkdale), Worship Reg., nos. 67632, 68041, 71215; Catholic Dir. (1969), 427; (1976), 379.
  • 13. Sturman, Catholicism in Chester, 66–7; Ches. Observer, 16 Feb. 1979; below, Education: 1944–74.
  • 14. Sturman, Catholicism in Chester, 98; Catholic Dir. (1976), 380.
  • 15. Catholic Dir. (1976), 379.
  • 16. Chester Chron. 26 May 1995, p. 6.
  • 17. Sturman, Catholicism in Chester, [109].
  • 18. Sturman, Catholicism in Chester, 30–1; Pevsner, Ches. 153.
  • 19. Sturman, Catholicism in Chester, 44; Pevsner, Ches. 153; Dioc. of Shrewsbury Centenary Rec. 1851–1951, 56.
  • 20. Inscription on pulpit.
  • 21. Pevsner, Ches. 151.
  • 22. Inscription in porch.
  • 23. Pevsner, Ches. 171.
  • 24. Implied ibid.
  • 25. Ibid. 172.