“It is never just one group – the Jesuits – doing things. It’s a co-operation with people and over the years the amount of people that have been involved with the Jesuits is tens of thousands, if not more.”
Father Arturo Sosa with Father Denis Blackledge after the unveiling of the commemorative plaque
By Simon Hart
There was, inevitably, sadness but there was also a strong sense of gratitude when the Jesuits said their farewell to Liverpool Archdiocese last month.
After 175 years, the order’s time in the city ended with a final Sunday Mass celebrated by Father Denis Blackledge, the outgoing parish priest, at Saint Francis Xavier’s Church on Sunday 16 April. Five days earlier, on Tuesday 11th, Father Arturo Sosa, Father General of the Jesuit order, had celebrated an official Farewell Mass at SFX and afterwards unveiled a plaque commemorating the Jesuit ministry in the parish.
It was Fr Sosa’s first visit to the British province. Moreover, not since 1848, and the church’s opening, had a Jesuit Father General made the journey to Liverpool.
Reflecting on his visit, which included a tour of the two Cathedrals, Fr Sosa said: ‘The Jesuits have done a lot of work here and it’s to say thank you to the community, the people, the city and to know a little bit of the history of our brothers here.
‘It’s not only the parish but the school. We are very proud of our brothers who’ve gone before us.’
The school that the Jesuits established, St Francis Xavier College, was set up in 1842. By the 1880s it had become the largest Catholic secondary day school for boys in Britain.
SFX Church opened in 1848, meanwhile, and in the 1860s was the biggest parish in England and Wales.
In his homily, Fr Sosa added: ‘As a visitor, it gives me great pride to see what the people of God have done in this place over such a long time.
‘But I know there is sadness in parting. A big part of that sadness is down to the departure of people we love. Fr Denis has served as your parish priest here for a very happy six years, well into the age of retirement.
‘Not so long ago, Fr Joe Duggan died. Many of you miss him. Brother Ken Vance, for his part, has been part of the life of this parish since he was a boy and he came back so generously just recently to make sure the transition to a new parish priest would go well.’
With Fr Denis retiring at the age of 80, there was no available priest from the Jesuit order to replace him, meaning that Fr Chris McCoy, a diocesan priest, has taken his place.
Brother Ken, who grew up in the parish, felt the sadness of the Jesuits’ farewell as keenly as anybody, yet also shared that ‘deep gratitude’ expressed by Fr Sosa.
He said: ‘He celebrated a lovely Mass thanking people for all the support and help they’d given the Jesuits over the years.
‘It is never just one group – the Jesuits – doing things. It’s a co-operation with people and over the years the amount of people that have been involved with the Jesuits is tens of thousands, if not more. There’s gratitude for that and the fact we can hand over something that has still got energy and life.
‘It is almost like a family album of the local community – you can go into SFX, look around and see 175 years of history in the walls, in the statues, in the windows, so it is a thank you.'
A long history
The Jesuit connection with this area of England dates back to the time of St Edmund Campion in the 16th century. The Blundell family, Lords of the Manor of Crosby, had close links with the order, with Jesuits located at Crosby Hall in the 1600s. In 1707, Fr William Gillibrand became the first Jesuit to reside in Liverpool. In 1736, the first Jesuit chapel – St Mary’s – was built.
The Jesuit presence in Everton commenced in the 1840s when priests from Stonyhurst College arrived in Liverpool to set up SFX College.
‘We were also invited to run the parish and in its day SFX was the largest parish in England – it was 13,000 Catholics,’ explained Brother Ken.
‘I grew up in SFX parish, at the top of Brunswick Road. When I was a kid, there was a large number of Jesuits on the staff of the college. Then it moved out to Woolton in 1962.’
If parish numbers fell drastically in the wake of the 1960s slum clearances, SFX’s fortunes have gradually recovered over the decades since.
In 1984, a nationwide campaign saved the nave. To mark the parish’s 150th anniversary in 1998, the Window of the Hidden Saints was installed.
From 1999, Hope University transformed the derelict SFX schools by setting up a creative campus on the site. In 2000, the parishes of St Mary of the Angels and St Joseph’s amalgamated with SFX and the church was rewired and had its roof replaced.
In 2004, Faith Church of England and Catholic Primary School opened in the parish. The school has close links with the church and held a retirement service recently for Fr Denis. To underline the esteem in which he was held by the local community, Fr Denis received an Honorary Senior Fellowship from Hope University in January this year.
Looking back on recent milestones, Brother Ken cites 2008, Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture, as he recalls the parish’s hosting of an exhibition of objects gathered by the Jesuits, including Mary, Queen of Scots’ prayer book and Thomas More’s hats.
‘We displayed 70 objects around the church and for a whole month people were coming from around the world and that gave the church an energy and from that things changed,’ he remembered.
Additionally, he highlights the work of the Whitechapel Centre for the Homeless across the road from the church, which is Liverpool’s largest homeless and housing charity.
Brother Ken, who will be based in Preston henceforth, continued: ‘I am going to stay on the management committee of the Whitechapel Centre. I was chair of that for 14 years. It’s the thing I am most proud of. When I started it had a staff of 12. Now there is a staff of 120. It is a marvellous organisation.’
‘There’s a lot of energy around SFX and not necessarily just those that go into Mass on Sunday,’ he adds. The challenge now is to sustain this energy in the new chapter ahead for one of our most historic churches.
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