St Marie's on the Sands celebrates 175 years

By John Heneghan & Patrick Hart

A special thanksgiving Mass has taken place in the Southport parish of Saint Marie's on the Sands to celebrate both its 175th anniversary and the wider Catholic life of the town since the church opened on 20 May 1841.

The Mass was presided over by the Archbishop of Liverpool, Malcolm McMahon, together with the Archbishop Emeritus, Patrick Kelly, and parish priest Father John Heneghan on the evening of Friday 20 May. It was an occasion for the parish community to give thanks for the wonderful gift of 175 years of the Catholic Church in Southport.

As such, the Mass and refreshments that followed formed part of the Festival of Faith initiative involving Southport's Our Lady of Walsingham pastoral area: the parishes of Holy Family, Southport; Our Lady of Lourdes, Hillside; St Joseph, Birkdale; Sacred Heart, Ainsdale; St John Stone, Woodvale; St Patrick, Churchtown; St Teresa of Avila, Birkdale; and of course St Marie on the Sands.

The Mass was held on the exact anniversary of the 1841 opening of a church designed by Augustus Welby Pugin, the great Victorian architect; its inauguration came 12 years after the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, which had fully restored the civil rights of Roman Catholics and paved the way for the re-establishment of England's Catholic hierarchy in 1850. Originally the church was often called St Mary's, before becoming more commonly known as St Marie's or St Marie's on the Sands. School buildings and a presbytery were added as well as a house that became a convent for the Sisters of Charity of Saint Paul. The school, started in 1876, served the parish until 1968.

As the population of Southport increased through the second half of the 19th century and beyond, other parishes were opened. The last of these additions, St John Stone, was inaugurated in 1967, bringing to eight the number of Catholic churches in Southport. Meanwhile, religious Sisters continue to bless the town's Catholic community with the presence of the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul and the Sisters of Notre Dame.

The story of the Catholic Church in the centre of Southport continues with St Marie's open daily from 9am until 4pm. The old school/parish centre operates as a Marian centre for evangelisation; the old presbytery and parish hall have been converted into homes for retired priests; while after the Sisters left, the old convent became the parish house and parish priest's residence. These bare facts are merely a flickering glimpse of the goodness and generosity lived out by countless priests, nuns and lay people during the last, faith-filled 175 years.