Visible Expression

The ecclesial community, while always having a universal dimension, finds its most immediate and visible expression in the parish. It is there that the Church is seen locally. In a certain sense it is...

"... the Church living in the midst of the homes of her sons and daughters..."

Pope John Paul II
Christifideles Laici [27]

Sunday, 4 October 2009

A Short History of St. Mary's Church



A Short Account of the history of Saint Mary's Catholic Church, Great Eccleston as researched and recorded by Canon Leo Harrison in 1985 to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the church. It was first published in 1986 in the Lancaster Diocesan Directory.

According to Anthony 'Atticus' Hewitson, '...Great Eccleston, in the parish of St. Michael's-on-Wyre, is now (c.1900) probably the most secluded village in the Fylde...'. Here the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass never ceased to be offered up throughout the dark ages of persecution, either in the village itself, or in the houses or recusants in the neighbourhood, such as Eccleston Hall (later Leckonby House) in the village and in the Desmesne of Elswick, both seats of the Leckonbys, also in Gillow House, Little Eccleston, and in Great Eccleston Hall. There were many other such houses, each with its secret chapel, where Mass was celebrated by itinerant priests.

Then in 1686, in the more propitious days of James II, a chapel was built adjoining Maynes Hall, Little Singleton, and it is possible that about that same time an independent mission was established in the village of Great Eccleston, in a thatched house in the Raikes, though there is no record of a resident until 1701 when the Rev: William Caton arrived.

During the following years, in spite of sporadic outbursts of "No Popery" persecutions, the mission, sometimes without its own priest, appears to have flourished, and in 1784 Bishop Gibson gave Confirmation to 37 persons, with 185 receiving Holy Communion. In 1760, under the initiative of Richard Leckonby, a chapel, dedicated to St. Lawrence, was built near the old thatched house. Later its accommodation had to be increased by the addition of a gallery, and subsequently it became the school. With the addition of two extensions it still serves that purpose.

In 1832 the Rev. Richard Brown began the building of the present church dedicated to Our Lady, which was solemnly opened on July 26th, 1835, and it was the 150th anniversary of this opening that was celebrated last year (1985). The cost of the building, church with presbytery under the same roof, was £1,238.15s and of this £1,109.15s.2d had been collected before the opening.

'Atticus' in "Our Country Churches and Chapels" (A.Hewitson Preston, 1872) describes the building as...
'...resembling a large square gentlemanly residence ... looking out serenely from an arbour of ancient trees..."
...perhaps a reflection of an age when it was still injudicious, at least, to build a Catholic church that too clearly proclaimed its purpose.
"...The chapel has a beautiful interior ... and its sanctuary a very charming appearance. The altar and reredos, put up in 1869 as a gift to the memory of the last of the Leckonbys, are exquisite pieces of sacred art surpassed in no Catholic church we have visited..."
These were in fact the benefaction of Miss Emma Mary Phipps, one of whose family married a Leckonby; she went for a day's visit to Great Eccleston to see the... [Editors Note: missing text here I need to find it!]


It is a source of some satisfaction that over the years, with the demands that age and developing Liturgy make, the character of the church and the message of history which it speaks have been thoughtfully preserved. In 1969 Fr. F. E. Hampson, parish priest for 39 years, and now living in retirement in the School House, faced with an old church invaded by damp, difficult to heat and when the entrance opened directly into the body of the church, and patchily repaired over the years, undertook a radical restoration and cleaning up of the building and its surrounds. There was a new roof with a belfry, a new entrance and porch, and the former entrance became an attractive Baptistery; the church was given a new skin of appropriate brick, and new heating and lighting installed. His work was given a special award by the Civic trust for a "restoration in an area of architectural interest and natural beauty which paid particular respect to the character of its surroundings, and emphasising the essentially good elements of the building", so that "a building has been achieved which adds to the quality of Great Eccleston".

With the fabric of the church made sound and attractive, the 150th anniversary of its opening was seen as an appropriate occasion to provide a permanent altar to meet the modern liturgical requirements. While the fulsome admiration of the altar and reredos made in 1870 might not find acceptance today, they have sufficient merit to justify the resolution that in the re-ordering of the sanctuary, both should be retained, and the character of the church preserved to proclaim its age, and to speak of its place in the history of the development of the Church in the Fylde, and, incidentally, to perpetuate the memory of the Phipps/Leckonby families as benefactors of the parish and district. The altar was successfully separated from the reredos to become a free-standing stone and marble altar and the sanctuary made more spacious and liturgically practical. On September 26th 1985 His Lordship the Bishop Foley, Bishop of lancaster Diocese, consecrated church and altar, and he returned the following week to concelebrate a Mass of thanksgiving with priests who had been associated with the parish. As at the opening and restoration of the church, the work was paid for before its completion. It was particularly appropriate that descendants of the Phipps/Leckonby family were present at the celebrations. The present parishioners looked back with gratitude to God for the great faith and dedication of their predecessors, and pray that God will bless the parish and keep its faith as firm as that of its illustrious past.

Meanwhile the church of 1760 to 1835, now part of the school echoed its academic past when in July it celebrated a "Victorian Day". Teachers, children, many parents, kitchen staff all dressed in the fashion of that age, and with slates, chalkboards etc, the children had lessons according to the teaching methods of that time. A traditional Punch and Judy show ended the day. How will they celebrate 2035?

Leo Harrison
[Parish Priest Saint Mary's Great Eccleston 1983 - 1990]