Thursday, 28 June 2012

The first church of St Alexander, Bootle

This was the church that the servant of God Teresa Higginson loved so much, and where she was granted the privilege of daily communion.  She was a teacher for 8 years in St. Alexander's school (on the left of the photo) that was attached to it.  For most of that time the then rector Fr. Edward Powell was her spiritual director, and it was in lodgings in the parish that she wrote so many of her letters of her mystical experiences and about the devotion to the Sacred Head.  

Teresa stated in one of her letters to Fr. Powell that this church would become a major pilgrimage site and shrine to the Sacred Head, and that pilgrims would come far and wide.  Alas, this was not to be. It was destroyed in the May blitz of 1941, and its modern replacement was demolished in 1991 along with the school.  All that remains today is the presbytery on the right of the photo, now offices in what is an industrial wasteland.

The mission began in 1862 under Fr. Samuel Walker to serve the needs of the rapid influx of Irish migrant workers in the newly constructed Bootle docks, and at first mass was held in a hayloft behind the Mersey hotel in Derby Road.  Shortly after under Fr. Edward Powell funds were raised for the building of a permanent church with the foundation stone laid in 21st October 1866.  This was designed by A.W. Pugin and  dedicated to St. Alexander of Constantinople, the namesake of the then Bishop of Liverpool Alexander Goss. It was opened on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, 8th December 1867, with a high mass with orchestra in which the Dominican Fr. Bertrand Wilberforce was to preach.  The presbytery was completed in July 1876.

The church soon could not accomodate the large number of faithful, and a temporary chapel of ease was opened dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Succour in November 1878, lasting until May 1884 when the church east end was considerably extended to give more space.  Below is a postcard of the church c.1900:


Fr. Edward Powell remained the parish priest up to October 1885 when he was moved to Lydiate due to the controversy caused by stories spreading about Teresa.  The parish covered densely populated slums and courts in West Bootle near the docks, where Teresa would go on her missions of works of mercy, often bearing pails of pea soup in the school lunch hour for the poor.  His successor was an Irishman Canon Michael Beggan, who along with the other curates were to treat her very harshly.  He refused to bring her communion when she was ill and dismissed her from the school in 1886 on the pretext he needed to employ masters in the boys school. 

In its heyday in the Edwardian period it had a parish population of over 9000 and as many as six priests mainly from Ireland. It had a very rich life of masses and devotions, and was a center of the temperance movement: many sermons and missions on this were preached, at one point causing many of the local pubs and liquor stores to close!  In 1876 the Redemptorist fathers preached a mission in the church and started the Holy Family Confraternity: Teresa was to diligently persuade many families to join on her visits of the poor.  Twenty years later in 1896 on another mission, the Redemptorists found that there were too many confraternities in the parish to be workable!  Later a chapel of ease was opened in 1938 in Miranda Road: the church of St. Richard, which is now the present parish church of the area. 

In May 1941 the blitz came along targeting the docks, dealing the parish and the church a blow from which it was never to recover and which along with the decline of the docks and later urban redevelopment sealed their fate.  Bootle was to be the most heavily bombed borough in the British Isles.  The church was first severely damaged by a bomb on the night of May 5th destroying the Sacred Heart chapel and the sacristies, and then on the night of May 6th it was to be burnt down by an incendiary.  Much of the parish was to destroyed along with it.

A replacement church was built on the same site, and consecrated in 1957.  However it was short lived: it was to be closed and demolished in 1991.  Most of the streets and houses that Teresa knew and visited are all but a memory, and the area is a now desolate industrial wasteland.  More information is given in depth by the Liverpool History online project at these webpages: the Parish Timeline and the Marriage Index.

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