St Mary’s Church
“St Mary’s, without exception the most magnificent thing that Catholics have done in modern times in this country”
Dr (later Cardinal) Wiseman at the opening of St Mary’s Church 9th October 1839
The opening of St Mary’s Church, Derby, in October 1839, marked a significant moment not simply for Derby Catholics but also for 19th century English Catholicism. It was the beginning of the fruits of Catholic emancipation, and in the words of Dr Wiseman marked “the real transition from chapel to church architecture amongst us”
St Mary’s was designed by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852), an inspirational figure whose dedication and spiritual attachment to the Gothic medium was to transform English church architecture. Indeed, it is almost impossible to overestimate his influence on the 19th century world of building and design. In a few short years he would design five cathedrals as well as innumerable churches, hospitals, convents, schools, monasteries, orphanages and private houses. He did not simply design the shells of Gothic buildings; his passion extended to all aspects of the interior furnishings – furniture, ceramics, metalwork, stained glass, wallpaper, curtains etc. It was said that there was nothing he could not design in a Gothic style. His most famous legacy, though he was not credited at the time, was his work for the Houses of Parliament where he designed most of the internal furnishings and the iconic ‘Big Ben’ Clock Tower. However, during his lifetime, the highlight of his career was arguably the Medieval Court display at the Great Exhibition of 1851. This saw him bring together his ‘team’ of craftsmen: George Myers (master builder), John Hardman (metalwork and stained glass), Herbert Minton (ceramics) and John Crace (textiles), to demonstrate to the international community the extent of their talent in designing and creating all things Gothic. Most of these giants of the world of architecture and design would at some point extend to St Mary’s Derby the benefit of their skills and expertise.
The simple fact of having been designed by such an eminent architect as Pugin would give St Mary’s a certain kudos. However, her significance goes far beyond this. She was his first church of importance, and benefitted from having a fledgling genius with a healthy budget and promoters as eager as he to restore to English Catholicism the beauty, dignity and glory of the parish church “of ancient days”. That they succeeded can be testified to by the regard in which St Mary’s is held. Her Listed Building report from 2011 states: “The church is of exceptional significance in the history of English church architecture…and is considered to be a possible candidate for upgrading to Grade 1.”
The structure of St Mary’s has remained largely the same since it was opened, the only significant addition being the Lady Chapel in the 1850s. However, it would be a brave man who would put his hand on any part of the building and claim a provenance of 1839. A working parish church of this style requires a considerable amount of upkeep and from the very beginning of her life embellishments, restorations and renewals have been required. In the years 1854-1855, 1876, 1892, 1898-1901, 1927-1931, 1968, 1979, 1986-1989 and 2016 we know of large scale building and/or decorating projects. Other years have also witnessed a community raising money to make ongoing repairs and deal with the results of unexpected disasters. In 1860 lightning destroyed some of the pinnacles of the main tower and in 1907 another pinnacle crashed down on the church roof during a service and bounced onto the Rectory roof before hitting the flagstones below. Three years later the congregation was still paying off the debt caused by the repairs with special subscriptions, concerts and other entertainments.
It is this sense of community spirit that has coursed through the parish life of St Mary’s for nearly 180 years. She is not a museum piece to another age but the heart of a living, worshipping community, a place where God is glorified and hopes and dreams are shared. In her years she has witnessed both joys and sorrows, and like a much cherished friend she continues to accompany us on our Christian journey.
St Mary’s history book
If you would like to know more about the history of St Mary’s Church and parish, our book The Story of St Mary’s Catholic Church, Derby (ISBN 9780993179211) can be purchased from the Church Office, contact: Fran Wickes or Kim Cheek, St Mary’s Rectory, 17 Bridge Gate, Derby, DE1 3AU, email email@example.com or from Derby Cathedral Bookshop, Irongate, Derby.
To learn more about the life and work of AWN Pugin we recommend reading God's Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain by Rosemary Hill (ISBN: 9780713994995).
History of Derby’s Catholic Schools and Convent
By Sister Camilla Hunt
The history of the Sisters of Mercy in Derby is deeply intertwined with the story of St. Mary’s Church and Schools.
Basic schooling for Catholic children had begun in stealth around 1813 when the Catholic Chapel was built. It is thought that after land to build a new Church was bought in the late 1820s, the first building erected on the site was a school. It consisted of two large classrooms in a substantial, two-storey building, fronting on to Edward Street, was well established before religious sisters came to Derby.
The current Convent of Mercy on Bridge Gate owes its existence to the generosity of the Honourable Elizabeth Beaumont, daughter of Lord Scarsdale of Kedleston Hall. She was a convert to the Catholic faith and a very generous benefactor. She shared her dream with the Parish Priest, Rev Sing, of founding a community of nuns who would take charge of Catholic education in Derby. He encouraged her in this enterprise.
Hon Mrs Beaumont’s first venture was to build a convent. She donated £10,000 for the building of a large Gothic style convent on Nottingham Road. The next priority was to find a Religious Congregation to run the school. The Society of the Holy Child Jesus was founded in Derby on 13th October 1846 under the sponsorship of the future Cardinal Wiseman. They did valuable work in the school but moved from Derby after two years to a new convent in St Leonards on Sea, Sussex, secured for them by Cardinal Wiseman. Meanwhile, Bishop Ullathorne of the Midland District, had heard about a new Irish Congregation called “The Sisters of Mercy,” which was founded in Dublin in 1831 for the relief and instruction of the poor. Successful negotiations resulted in six of the Sisters making a foundation in Derby on 17th October 1849. The new Sisters occupied the Convent in Nottingham Road. They took control of the day and night schools which were already set up, as well as visiting the poor and sick in their homes.
On 30th May 1850, the first public ceremony of a nun entering the Novitiate and receiving her Holy Habit took place in the Convent Chapel. By 1851 the Convent had increased to 27 sisters, 18 private scholars and a domestic staff of 12.
The Derby Mercury dated 28th May 1856 reported:
"The Reverend Mother, of the founding convent who, with fifteen other nuns, attended the sick and wounded at Scutari in the Crimea, during the whole of the war, arrived back in Derby on Friday, to a hero's welcome."
Time, however, had proven the Convent building on Nottingham Road to be unsuitable for habitation. It was damp and rat infested due to its proximity to a stream from the River Derwent which served as the town sewer. In 1862 Hon Mrs Beaumont generously shared a substantial part of her large house on Bridge Gate with the Sisters and in 1866 donated the entire house to them and moved to a new home in Hathersage. Thus the Sisters came to live next door to St. Mary’s Church.
The additional space allowed the Sisters to increase the number of fee paying pupils. This had a twofold benefit: firstly, education for the daughters of the developing middle class - the mill owners, managers, engineers and senior employees - and secondly, much needed funding for the Convent, as teachers at this time were unsalaried. This venture was the fore runner to St. Philomena’s Convent High School.
St Mary’s Schools had developed rapidly as successive Factory and Education Acts curtailed the age and hours that young children were allowed to work in the factories and mills. New school buildings were erected in 1853 on the Edward Street site, with an “average attendance of 98 boys, 149 girls and 134 infants”.
The Education Act of 1870 introduced compulsory education. Teachers were required to be trained and certified and would then receive salaries and grants for their schools. Following this Act, the decision was made to place the schools under Government Inspection. Over the years, all Sisters working in schools attended Teacher Training Colleges or Universities.
Successive H.M.I. reports commended the work achieved in the school but deplored the overcrowding. In 1891 another classroom was built to house the Infant Department but this was not a long term solution. It was not until 1930 that the parish could afford another building project. This project was major: a completely new school.
The new school opened on 24th August 1931. It was built adjacent to the earlier building which was eventually dismantled. The school was reputed to have cost £12,000. St Mary’s was an all age mixed school. The new building provided a Senior School on the upper floor while infants and juniors occupied the ground floor. Still the numbers increased and overcrowding continued to be a problem. However there was no possibility for further development on the Church site. Land was the crucial need.
Meanwhile at the Convent, as the numbers of Sisters and fee paying pupils grew, a narrow three storey extension was built at the end of the Convent, fronting on to Arthur Street. The first and second floors became St Philomena’s Convent High School; the top floor was sleeping accommodation for the Sisters. From 1942, the pupils here took the Cambridge School Certificate. It became a gateway for able girls from St. Mary's to higher education and the professional world. It was also a bridge between Catholics and Derby society at large. Many people who were suspicious of Catholicism overcame their prejudices and sought education for their daughters.
Many Sisters now earned salaries and the community, living very frugally over many years, saved and invested in a visionary project. In March 1947, after much prayer and legal advice, they purchased the Highfields Estate for the ‘Works of God’. This was a property of 84 acres, which had been requisitioned for the RAF during the war and was now on the market. It included four large houses, several smaller ones and a number of cottages. Derby City Council were keen to purchase a strip of the land for the northern stretch of what is now the A38. This sale refilled the empty coffers and enabled the gradual development of the site.
In September 1947 the Senior School of St. Philomena’s Convent High School numbering 245 pupils moved into Highfield’s House. The Sisters involved in the School went to live permanently in Highfields. Thus a new branch House of the Bridgegate Convent, St Philomena Convent of Mercy, was formed. In 1997 the old St Philomena’s High School was converted into accommodation for vulnerable adults.
Pupil numbers continued to increase and in 1965 plans were drawn up to build a completely new school on the estate. The building was completed in 1967 and the number on roll could now be increased to 425 with room for more expansion.
Meanwhile, Monsignor Wilson, Parish Priest of St. Mary’s and Chair of the Governors of St Mary’s School was engaged in a similar building project. In 1966 St Mary’s Secondary Modern School was opened on the Highfields Estate leaving the whole of the accommodation on the Edward Street/Darley Lane site to the infants and juniors.
In 1971, St. Philomena's High School and St. Mary's Secondary School merged to become a Voluntary Aided Comprehensive School for boys and girls aged 11 – 18, under the new name of St Ralph Sherwin. This School could cater for 1,050 boys and girls across the two sites. In 1986 a further merger took place between St. Ralph Sherwin and St. Thomas More Schools creating St. Benedict School on the Highfields site, with 1400 on roll. Today it is known as St Benedict Catholic Voluntary Academy and is the only Catholic Secondary School in Derby.
In September 2002, due to the generosity of the Sisters of Mercy, the Edward Street infant and junior schools moved into new accommodation on Broadway on the Highfields Estate. The School has expanded to include a Nursery unit and is now known as St Mary’s Catholic Primary School and Nursery.
Alongside the development in Education, other works of mercy were evolving. In early January 1968 a branch house was created in “Beechwood House”, part of the Highfields’ Estate. The purpose was to provide a house for Sisters as they retired from their active ministries as well as to provide flats for the elderly. Once built, the flats would be self-supporting and the Sisters would be a pastoral presence with one Sister acting as Warden. The Council gave planning permission in 1977 and the flats were officially opened and blessed by Bishop McGuinness in 1979.
A natural progression from the Beechwood Flats was a Care Home to cater for the elderly when they were no longer able to care for themselves. Mount Carmel House was officially blessed and opened in July 1985 and it has remained fully occupied - a testimony to the great need for this particular Mercy ministry. After many years under the supervision of the Sisters, it was necessary to appoint a lay manager. In 2012, Beaumont House for Dementia Care was opened and blessed by Bishop Malcolm McMahon. In 2013 Kinsale Court was opened with 18 close-to-care apartments, comprising two bedded, one bedded and studio apartments. These three buildings are now renamed ‘The Mercy Care Centre’.
Homily In Thanksgiving For The 170 Years Of The Sisters Of Mercy In Derby 23/9/19
What a wonderful presence you have had in Derby as Sisters of Mercy. From first establishing a convent here in St Mary’s parish on the Nottingham Road in October 1849, and the early vitality of teaching in the day and night schools, of setting up an orphanage, a house of mercy and a teachers’ training college. Just ten days after arriving in Derby your predecessors were visiting the poor and the sick in their homes. Seven months later the joy of a new novice. Six years later in 1856, being feted with a military guard of honour for the return to Derby of Mother Mary Francis Bridgeman and three other sisters after their heroic and selfless nursing work during the Crimean War. Then the necessary move of the convent from Nottingham Road to what became Bridge Gate in 1862, a gift from the Honourable Mrs Beaumont whose home it had been and who was such a generous benefactor. Then, along the way of your spiritual journey here in St Mary’s parish, Derby, you gradually established St Philomena’s Convent, Beechwood, Catherine McAuley House, Mount Carmel House, St John Fisher and St Philomena Convents, and all the units of The Mercy Care Centre. Although the difficult and painful decisions to close both Bridge Gate and Beechwood Convents have now been made, what a wonderful legacy of Christian nursing care for the elderly, and specialist care for people suffering from dementia, still remains here in Derby thanks to your prayerful presence and hard work over the past 170 years.Then there’s your ecumenical work at the Padley Centre in reaching out to the homeless.
Your work in education here in Derby also led out from the Bridge Gate Convent schools to the following houses being opened in Derbyshire at points in your history, Belper, St Joseph’s, Derby, Alvaston, Swadlincote and St Mary’s Nursing Home, Ednaston, and in Nottingham at Carlton, and in Lincolnshire to the staffing of a primary school and a secondary school in Gainsborough. Not all have continued to this day, some only for a short while, but they each served a useful purpose in their time. And so here again we thank God for the legacy in education you leave here in Derby.
I am delighted to have this opportunity to join you in giving God thanks for all that he has helped you to achieve through your prayerful and active presence here in Derby. You have indeed much to give thanks to God for, and you have chosen some most appropriate scripture readings to express this. In particular, I would like to comment a little on the first reading from St Paul, one of my favourite scripture passages.
‘Out of his infinite glory, may he give you the power through his Spirit for your hidden self to grow strong, so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith, and then, planted in love and built on love, you will with all the saints have strength to grasp the breadth and the length, the height and the depth; until knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond all knowledge, you are filled with the utter fulness of God.’
On occasions like this, there can be a danger of just being nostalgic, but instead this reading from St Paul is an encouragement to you as a Religious Congregation to look upon the past 170 years as a time of grace, as a fruitful time marked very much by the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit. It has indeed been a most blessed period of time in your history which at some point soon will bear being re-examined to explore what can be learned for your present time and for the future. I say this because although the English translation of this piece of scripture suggests, in its use of the words ‘you’ and ‘yours’, that it’s a prayer addressed to the individual, in the original Greek, all these pronouns are plural. It’s a rich scriptural text therefore that a community or a Religious Congregation could fruitfully reflect upon especially when you hear Paul praying that you ‘may grow strong’. Because isn’t it true that most of us are strengthened in our faith and in our commitment to the Lord by the witness of those around us, and by that of those who have gone before us? Therefore, the memory and varied Christian witness, teaching, prayer, nursing and acts of courage, compassion and love of your Sisters who have served here in Derby these past 170 years all have the power to continue to inspire, shape and strengthen your lives as Sisters of Mercy.
There’s also a challenge for you, for all of us, in this scripture passage when St Paul prays may ‘Christ live in your hearts through faith’. This personal living relationship with Christ was foundational for the amazing generosity and self-sacrifice which inspired the first Sisters of Mercy who came to Derby and subsequent Sisters since. The Risen and living Lord Jesus continues to come to us in Word and Sacrament, as today in this Mass of Thanksgiving, and, as well we know, he continues to seek hearts in and though which he may live and act. We know in hearts where Christ is allowed to dwell and to work there is always self-giving and passionate love which continues to inspire and make fruitful the work of all Christ’s disciples; this is certainly true of you and of all who live out the Religious/ Consecrated Life, because your life is essentially a response to the Holy Spirit’s call to follow Jesus intimately and to live the Gospel generously, especially in and through your 4th vow of service and outreach to the most vulnerable and poor of our society.
Your leadership team has had to make difficult decisions concerning Beechwood and Bridge Gate. Yes, there are real issues to be faced of ageing Sisters and a decrease in the number of young people entering Religious Life, which have no doubt had a bearing on the decisions they have made. But in the gospel reading, you have chosen for this Mass of Thanksgiving to God, I hear a wonderful expression of your ongoing trust and confidence in the One whom we each seek to follow generously; the One whom you hear saying to you in this gospel passage when contemplating your future: “Do not worry. No; set your hearts on his Kingdom...There is no need to be afraid” I thank God and you for your courageous witness in Derby these past 170 years, and I ask God’s blessing on your new initiative to lease the Bridge Gate Convent building to a local charity, Women’s Work, Derby for part of their work. It’s a charity which works with and reaches out to support and improve the health and well-being of disadvantaged and vulnerable women (and their children) here in Derby and the county. To the Leadership Team and to all the sisters who have served so generously here in Derby, and whose presence will be greatly missed, I now end by personalising the final part of St Paul’s prayer in the first reading. This is my prayer for you, and I know I am joined in it, by all your guests, especially the clergy and parishioners of St Mary’s and neighbouring parishes:
‘Glory be to God whose power, working in you, can do infinitely more than you can ask or imagine; glory be to him from generation to generation in the Church and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen.’
Bishop John Sherrington’s homily from the 180th anniversary Mass at St. Mary’s Derby 9th October 2019
It is a great joy to be celebrating the 180th anniversary of the consecration of St. Mary’s Church in Derby as we approach the canonisation of Cardinal John Henry Newman. This anniversary is an opportunity to look back and to give thanks to God as well as look forward and reflect on what we can learn about how we hand on the gift of faith to others. With great pomp and ceremony, on Wednesday 9th October 1839, St Mary’s was consecrated by Bishop Walsh as the first church to be built in Derby since the Reformation, only ten years after Catholic emancipation when there was much economic and social prejudice against Catholics.
On 9th October 1845, John Henry Newman would be received into the Roman Catholic Church by Blessed Dominic Barberi. Both were part of the ‘second spring’ (of which Newman wrote from Oscott in 1852) and the return of Catholicism to England. It is on the shoulders of our forebears that we live our faith.
The dreams of the Catholic community in Derby in 1836 were ambitious. Fr. John Chaloner had been priest at Derby from 1815 until his death in 1836 and he wished to build a church for the expanding Catholic population. Fr. Thomas Sing, arriving in 1836, set about building the Church. His choice of Pugin, a mere 24 year old, was certainly influenced by John Talbot, the 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, who had met Pugin in 1836 and was impressed by his youthful passion for a revival of the Gothic architecture.
The people of Derby must have been surprised by the ambitious plans to build St. Mary’s. The foundation stone was laid on 28th June 1838, the same day Queen Victoria was crowned. Both were beginnings for the new age that would follow.
Music and liturgy is always contentious and the consecration of the Church was no exception. As the Mass was to begin, Pugin became alert to the choice of music. Fr. Sing had arranged a Beethoven Mass with a local orchestra and full choir, including women. Pugin and the Earl of Shrewsbury had assumed that the neo-Gothic church would again be filled with medieval Gregorian plainchant. They were horrified to discover this choice of music and protested. When the bishop said that the Mass would proceed, they asked the bishop to hand his golden vestments back to Shrewsbury who left the Church with Pugin and his party. Tragic circumstances on what should have been a day of such rejoicing! There was not only internal discord amongst the Catholics, but also much contention amongst the Protestant clergymen who were appalled at the new church and the resurgence again of Catholicism. St. Mary’s was a confident and bold statement that the Catholics had returned to Derby.
As we look upwards, we see the gothic Perpendicular style with its pointed arches lifting us up to heaven towards the Transcendent, and the new life of the resurrection. Pugin wrote that “height, or the vertical principle, emblematic of the Resurrection, is the very essence of Christian architecture.” In industrial Victorian derby, with its ‘dark satanic mills’, the beauty of the Church of St. Mary’s lifted the hearts of the local people and the many migrants who arrived from Ireland towards the New Jerusalem. Like countless people who have come to pray in the Church over 180 years, sought solace, celebrated the sacraments and poured out their sins in the confessionals, our minds are lifted towards the great crucifix, the great symbol of our salvation, which leads us to pray, “We adore Thee O Christ and we praise you because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.” St. Mary’s shines out as a beacon in the lives of generations of families in Derby and as home.
In the stained glass of the splendid Lady Chapel and in the windows we glimpse the lives of the saints and our history, St Ralph Sherwin, the Padley martyrs, Blessed Nicholas Garlick, Robert Ludlam and Richard Simpson, Blessed Christopher Buxton, and also are reminded of the service of the poor in the window of St. Catherine Labouré. The proximity of the Sisters of Mercy, so integral to this history, remind us of their apostolate of education and the care of the sick. We thank God for their ministry.
St John Henry Newman’s sister, Jemima, lived in Derby and was married to John Mozley. Jemima mourned deeply Newman’s leaving the Church of England and he wished to explain himself to her. His letters to her were full of news and events but sometimes his pain and sense of hurt are unleashed in them. In 1846 he chided her for her coldness towards him. When at last she invited him to Derby, because their brother Frank was going to be there, he wrote a dreadful and harsh letter and refused to go. In spite of this, they continued to write regularly. Jemima died on Christmas Day 1879, some months after he had been made a Cardinal. On 6th January 1880 he wrote very tenderly to Anne Mozley, her sister-in-law,
What I miss and shall miss Jemima in is this — she alone, with me, had a memory of dates — I knew quite well, as anniversaries of all kinds came round, she was recollecting them, as well as I — e.g. my getting into Oriel — now I am the only one in the world who knows a hundred things most interesting to me. E.g. yesterday was the anniversary of Mary’s death — my mind turned at once to Jemima, but she was away. (Mary was a younger sister who had died in 1829 at the age of 19).
We read here of a tender memory for his sister, a depth of his love for her, but also the pain of separation and death.
While Newman recognised Pugin’s genius and the debt that Catholics owed to him for his revival of Gothic architecture among them, he wrote to Mr. Ambrose Philipps de Lisle, criticising Pugin as ‘intolerant’ and continued “if I might use a stronger word, a bigot. He sees nothing good in any school of Christian art except that of which he is himself so great an ornament.”
This celebration is an opportunity to look towards the future as a Church here in Derby and ask what can we learn from our past?
First, the need for beauty to lift the mind and soul to God. Pugin was ambitious and his architecture raised the spirit towards heaven during a period when industrialisation and work was hard grind. Our churches, the liturgy and our music must continue to show the way of beauty towards the Creator.
Second, Blessed John Henry Newman searched for the Truth throughout his life. Today many people are searching for meaning and feel quite lost. We live in a diverse and multi-religious society. We can help people to search for the Truth which we find in Jesus the Way, the Truth and the Life. Our meetings with other Christians and people of other faith and none is an important part of our call to build a society in which each person can flourish. This is the work of evangelisation and we are called to be missionary disciples of Jesus.
Third, the daily prayer and the sacraments celebrated here at St. Mary’s have sustained the lives of thousands of Catholics and families over 180 years. The walls carry the prayers of the people and the benches witness to those who have knelt and opened their heart to the Father, and Our Blessed Lady. It is this witness to Christ that enables us to celebrate this anniversary. We have the duty to continue to hand it on to the next generations.
May God who has begun this good work at St. Mary’s bring it to fulfilment.
Bishop John Sherrington