St. Vincent's Catholic Church –
A Short History
A concise synopsis of an original manuscript by E. M. Cummings and Dr. D. Cullen.
Adapted for the purposes of this website by P. J. Fenwick
Adapted for the purposes of this website by P. J. Fenwick
The story of St Vincent’s begins midway through the nineteenth century at the height of the Industrial Revolution when thousands of Irish immigrants moved to England. Many of who, after disembarking in the Liverpool Docks, were attracted by the increasingly prosperous cutlery and tool industries and actually walked across the Pennines in order to reach Sheffield.
At this time most of Sheffield’s iron and steel industry centred around the Crofts; a huge area of small courtyards and alleyways stretching right from Scotland Street in the north down to Paradise Street in the south and spread across Solly Street, Hollis Croft and either side of Tenter Street and Broad Lane. It was here the majority of the Irish - of whom were mostly catholic - settled, and where two thirds of the population lived in severe poverty in overcrowded back-to-back houses.
During the early part of the nineteenth century the Penal Laws established during the reign of Elizabeth I that restricted the practice of the Catholic faith, had began to be relaxed. This lead to a tremendous catholic revival and in 1853 lead by Fr Edmund Scully, the head of the Sheffield Mission at the newly built St Marie’s Catholic church in the city centre, a school-chapel was built in middle of the Crofts. Therefore it became possible for the Irish Catholics to attend Mass and once again fulfil their religious obligations.
Once the school and place of worship was established, on 13 April 1853, the first Vincentians arrived from Dublin and took charge of the mission.
The following extract taken from Fr Burke’s personal memoirs, who was later to become the first parish priest at St Vincent’s, graphically describes his first and general impressions of his newly inherited Catholic flock:
‘The dirty, squalid and miserable conditions of their homes, or rather hovels, in back lanes and dark courts (we counted a hundred residents in one small dark court in White Croft) was such as made us come to the saddening conclusion that their pale and wretched looking children must die out in one or two generations. Such was their state at a most prosperous period in Sheffield, when trade was extremely flourishing and in the midst of unusual material prosperity.’
It took a while, but gradually over the next two to three years there was a steady increase of children attending the school and children and adults present at the Masses. Although money was scarce in the immediate vicinity, funds were forthcoming from afar. Neighbouring towns and wealthy business people had donated hundreds of pounds to the proposed building of a new church. In May 1854 The Catholic Young Men’s Society (CYMS) was formed, and with it brought a greater sense of spiritual awareness amongst the community.
A little over two years after the first Vincentians arrived in Sheffield, enough money had been raised to start building the new church, and Fr Burke wasted no time in turning his vision into reality. The contract was signed with builder, Mr Bernard Carr, for the sum of £1,650 and on the 25 March 1856, the Vicar General, Dr Joseph Render laid the foundation stone on a plot of land called White Croft.
Just 8 months later, St Vincent’s Church was officially opened and dedicated in the presence of Bishop Briggs of Beverley and Dr Roskell, the Bishop of Nottingham. Fr Burke and Fr Plunkett, were the first priests to celebrated Mass there on the 15 December 1856 - the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. The Sheffield Telegraph reported the opening of the completed church as follows:
‘The opening of the new Catholic Church in White Croft took place yesterday morning. The attendance was very numerous. The new church completed a series of edifices completed within the last two to three years in this neighbourhood for the education and religious instruction of the poorer Catholics who are very numerous in White Croft and the surrounding locality.’
Over the next few years, despite being in a deep industrial depression, the parish continued to grow and on Easter Sunday 1860, five thousand people were recorded to have received Holy Communion.
At the same time the CYMS had also continued to grow bringing its members to now over four hundred. It became so popular that a penny saving scheme, that had been introduced some time earlier, had started to show dividends. A co-operative store was set up where shareholders in the scheme were able to draw shares from the profits.
As the parish grew there were an ever-increasing number of children wanting to attend the school-chapel. Having become severely overcrowded, five years after its opening, Fr Burke announced that a new boys school, facing into Solly Street, would be built to ease the congestion. The original school building was to be kept for the girls and infants, an arrangement that continued for the next thirty years.
Following the arrival of the Sisters of Charity in 1857, life in the Crofts started to change for the women also. Three establishments were immediately set up to help aid the unmarried women, the older married ladies, and the younger girls, respectively.
However, life in the Crofts was still severely poverty stricken. Fr Burke, had no doubt improved the lives of the people of all denominations by contrasting the dire and featureless Crofts with a beautiful church and school. However, hygiene and living conditions were very poor. So much so, that at the turn of the century disease was rampant.
Fr Cornelius Hickley, who had become Fr Burke’s successor as superior minister and, as it turns out, was to be the longest serving parish priest in St Vincent’s history, soon realised the magnitude of work that was placed in his hands.
The Crofts had the highest death rate in Sheffield, with one in four children dying before the age of one year old. Quite often eight or more people would share one property, which basically consisted of three rooms, a parlour, a bedroom and a garret (attic). Many were fortunate if they had a mattress to sleep on and bedding in many cases meant dirty sacking or bundles of rags thrown onto the hard wooden floors.
The sanitary system was appallingly inadequate and precautions against the spread of disease were relatively non-existent. For these reasons the Crofts were singled out by the Sheffield Corporation for demolition. As the demolishers moved into one slum area, many residents would simply move into another to avoid having to leave the area completely.
In 1903 the first block of flats was built on the site of the old Crofts and by 1908 the second phase of re-housing a large number the croft-dwellers with a second block of flats and number of small shops was complete. Despite these pioneering efforts made by the Sheffield Corporation to improve living conditions in the Crofts, many were to remain poorly housed until the 1930’s.
In the autumn of 1910 a new church tower designed by Charles Hadfield was built. Just 6 months later on Easter Sunday, 16 April 1911, a 25 cwt bell was installed up high inside the tower and could be heard summoning the parishioners to their devotions until the late 1970’s.
In the summer of 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were shot in the streets of the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo. Germany invaded Belgium, and Britain was plunged into war. Many men were soon to enlist, as they saw it as not only a patriotic duty but also a relief from their everyday existence of poverty. Many of the ladies were not only maintaining their homes and families for the fighting men, but were additionally ready helpers in the voluntary welfare services so essential in wartime.
Out of the 950 men that went off from the parish to serve in the armed forces throughout The Great War, 253 lost their lives, and many more were wounded.
The first, of what turned out to be many, Welcome Home Party’s for the returning soldiers and sailors, was held in St Vincent’s Hall on the evening of October 23rd 1918.
After the devastation of the First World War there was a great sense of grief and loss but over time the years of bloodshed and conflict were followed by an understandable upsurge in everyone’s spirits. Parish social and community activities began to flourish with amateur operatics, dances, bazaars and other functions being organised, to raise funds for the parish. Mrs Norah White, a local parishioner at the time, tells of the harmony in which the people of the Crofts lived their lives:
‘There are Irish and English Catholics, Italian Catholics, English Protestants and Jewish people living in St Vincent’s Parish, but one thing we all have in common is that we are all Vincentians.’
In 1931 the church had managed to clear the parish debt and St Vincent’s could now be consecrated. This was celebrated by four days of rejoicing by both Catholic and non-Catholic residents of the Crofts with a Mass to mark the event in the presence of Bishop Robert Cowgill of Leeds, Bishop T. Shine of Middlesborough and Auxiliary Bishop of Edinburgh, Dr. H. C. Graham.
Unfortunately the high spirits were to be short lived as the majority of the Croft’s inhabitants were still appallingly housed; there were still thousands of back-to-back homes standing, many nearly 150 years old. Unemployment, continued and poverty and depression forced the Sheffield Corporation to unleash yet another major slum clearance regime. This time it was to affect most within half a mile radius of the church. By 1932 over 3 acres of old properties were evacuated and demolished, their inhabitants, as many as 1000 people subsequently moved to new housing in the suburbs of Wincobank, Abourthorne and Shiregreen.
1938, saw the end of sixty years occupancy of the Red Hill Convent by the Sisters of Charity. This was due to a compulsory purchase order by the City Council as part of their redevelopment scheme. Although they were left with no alternative but to move to another living accommodation outside the area, they continued to teach in the school and visit the parish.
In common with the entire nation, the parish mourned on January 21st 1936, the passing of King George V and the occasion was suitably marked within the services of the church. This sadness was heightened in February by news of the death of Fr Patrick Hullen, whose eight and a half years of service to St Vincent’s had included the whole of the 1914/18 war.
Some efforts were being made at this time to heal or at least try to cover over some of the scars left around the Crofts by the slum clearance programme. Work had started on the building of blocks of flats at the top end of Edward Street and Solly Street.
The start of the 1939 war with Germany brought a number of changes in the Mission Staff at St Vincent's with the departure of Fr Patrick Barry and the arrivals, also in September, of Fathers Joseph McNamara, Owen McArdle and Michael Devlin. Two months later, Fr Devlin was to be transferred away from Sheffield again as Chaplain to the Forces.
It was during the Sheffield Blitz, December 1940, the German Luftwaffe scored a direct hit on St Vincent’s church. Reduced to a huge heap of rubble was the entire girls' school including the original and historic two-room school-chapel Fr Burke had founded in his Mission 87 years prior.
The white marble High Altar was irreparably damaged and every window in the church had been blasted from its frame, including all the beautiful and valuable stained glass, which over the years had been added to enhance the beauty of the church. The thirty years old church organ was almost completely destroyed, as were the southern ends of the new sacristies, which had also been opened in 1910. Remarkably, despite the extensive destruction of the High Altar, the tabernacle remained intact, as also did all the main statuary, which had graced the church for so many years.
The Rector, Fr O’Leary, the priests and parishioners, salvaged as much as possible from the church and by the following Sunday, the Parish Hall had been converted into a Mass Centre with a temporary altar, which was to serve the parish for the next 16 months.
Everyone was involved in the war effort, whether serving in the armed forces on the far side of the English Channel or at home in the steel and engineering industries, which were so vital in their support. Despite hours of shift work, many of the parishioners still found time to help with repairs to the church. After sixteen months of hard work, life in what remained of the Crofts parish began to settle once again to some degree of normality. The church was reopened and the first Mass was celebrated at the new High Altar on Easter Sunday 1942.
The end of the war in Europe, on what became known as V.E. Day, May 8th 1945, was an occasion for great rejoicing. Parishioners who had served their country on the front lines returned to great celebrations and were welcomed with many moving services of thanksgiving and remembrance at St Vincent’s Church.
During the early post war years the spiritual life of the parish flourished and once again the church found itself crowded with worshipers.
As the 1940’s progressed a new youth centre, The Dramatic Society, was established. It was here, preparing and presenting a series of plays both on the parish hall stage and on the newly built large stage in the youth centre itself, that the 1950’s world famous television and film star Patrick McGoohan learned his trade.
Although the dramatic society’s claim to fame was the internationally acclaimed Patrick McGoohan, the financial benefit brought to the parish is credited to the scores of backstage workers and helpers. These people behind the scenes were responsible for not only constructing the scenery but also a large proportion of the excellent costumes used on stage throughout the years.
By July 1953, the church organ salvaged after the 1940 bombing of the church, was finally reassembled and erected in the new gallery. This was followed by a complete redecoration of the church in preparation for the planned centenary celebrations.
Exactly 100 years and two days after, Fr Michael Burke, and his colleagues first arrived in Solly Street, the Centenary celebrations began. On the 25th November 1953, Fr J P Sheedy, the Vincentian Provincial, and many priests concelebrated a Requiem Mass in memory of the deceased clergy and parishioners who had served the parish since its foundation.
On Sunday 29th November 1953, the church was filled with an estimated congregation of 1,200 people for a High Mass celebrated by Bishop Heenan of Leeds. The contrast in surroundings from that first Mass, one hundred years earlier in the upper schoolroom in White Croft were striking.
The following year a celebration dinner took place at the Cutlers Hall in Sheffield to celebrate the centenary of the CYMS foundation. Exactly one month later, a Solemn High Mass, celebrated at St Joseph's church, Howard Hill by Father E. McDonagh, marked the Golden Jubilee of Sister Winifred's profession as a Sister of Charity of St Vincent de Paul. Arriving in Sheffield in 1921, Sister Winifred had spent over 33 years teaching and caring for the infant children in St Vincent's school and had greatly endeared herself to the thousands of children who had benefited from her devotion and care.
1960 was a particular auspicious year for the Vincentians as it marked the tercentenary of the death of St Vincent. In addition to the High Mass in Westminster Cathedral to mark the occasion, St Vincent’s Church held a tridiuum of prayer on the 27th September.
Throughout the 1960’s, gradually, the focus of the parish started to drift away from the city centre, as many of the parishioners started to move out of the Solly Street area. It was towards the end of the decade that also saw a change in the name of the Catholic Young Men’s Society, to the Catholic Men’s Society. The CMS still remains a unique Catholic layman’s organisation today.
Despite the majority of the parishioners residing in Walkley and Crookes, St Vincent’s Church continued to be the hub of the parish’s spiritual and social life. Funds continued to be donated and in 1977, a new Mortuary Chapel was built on the site of the old sacristy.
The 1980’s began with the formation of the new Diocese of Hallam with Gerald Moverley installed as the first Bishop of Hallam. Unfortunately, after 105 years, due to the falling number of priests, it was decided St Vincent’s presbytery in Solly Street had to be vacated. In 1983, Provincial Developments Ltd purchased the presbytery, along with a number of other buildings that had served the parish over the years.
Concern about the future of St Vincent’s Church was increasing in the late 1980’s, with the closure of St Vincent’s school in 1989. The church was left virtually standing alone. Requests for a new church in the Walkley and Crookes area where many parishioners now resided were forthcoming.
After being given permission from Bishop Moverley and Fr Noolan, the Vincentian Provincial, Fr McMahon and the parishioners of St Vincent’s went to work raising funds for a new church on a site in Pickmere Road, Crookes.
Volunteers began almost immediately organising social events, jumble sales, coffee morning, bring and buy sales, dances, race nights, barbeques, sponsored runs, car-boot sales and even sale of a parish recipe book. This was just as the people of the parish had assembled some 140 years earlier.
On Sunday 14th April 1996, it was announced that the Vincentian Fathers would be withdrawing completely from Sheffield after having served St Vincent’s Parish for over 144 years. Just three months later on 19th July 1996, the old St Vincent’s Church closed its doors for the last time.
The final Mass was concelebrated by Mgr William Kilgannon, the Vicar General and Fr Kevin Rafferty, CM Provincial of the Vincentian Order. Along with hundreds of parishioners, both old and new, many Vincentian priests, who had ministered at St Vincent’s over the years, were also in attendance.
Over the next few years fund raising for the church continued and on the 21st May 2001, the new church in Pickmere Road, Crookes, was opened. With the aid of the newly appointed parish priest, Fr Patrick Walsh, St Vincent’s parish once again adapted to the needs of its parishioners, just as it has catered for the needs of its parishioners for the past 150 years and once more the people of St Vincent’s had been reunited in a church in the centre of its congregation.
The old St Vincent’s Church today is still standing, empty but still proudly dominating the landscape over Solly Street and the Crofts. There is undoubtedly a strong feeling of nostalgia when we remember its glorious past, but this should be tempered with hope and optimism for the future.
A hope that is reflected in the following from the Mass leaflet used at its closing ceremony.
‘In a world of unrest and uncertainty, all God’s children should find in their parish a home, which brings them hope.’ Karl Ralmer SJ
Since the last Mass in 1996 the old church and school buildings have remained empty, although there are negotiations taking place to redevelop the entire St Vincent’s Solly Street site. The surrounding car park is used on a commercial vehicle parking basis to generate revenue for the parish. All funds raised are used for charitable purposes.
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Illustrations in this article courtesy of St Vincent’s. History of a parish 1853 – 2003, (published 2003). Original manuscript by E. M. Cummings, edited by D. R. Cullen.
Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information edited for this publication. However the content of this article is intended to be of general guidance only. Furthermore, St Vincent’s Parish Council can accept no responsibility for any errors or omissions contained therein.