Remembering Archbishop Thomas Whiteside

'He presented a type of priestly perfection'

January 2021 marks the centenary of the death of the first Archbishop of Liverpool. It might not be generally known that the Cathedral was originally intended as his memorial.
Thomas Whiteside was born in Lancaster on 17 April 1857. He was one of eight children of Isabella (née Shaw) and her husband Robert Whiteside, a corn merchant. At the age of 11 he became a boarder at St Edward’s College in Liverpool, then the junior seminary for the Liverpool diocese as well as being the residence of the second Bishop of Liverpool, Dr Alexander Goss. A pious and conscientious boy, he moved on to Ushaw College as a clerical student in 1873. His ability as a mathematician meant that he ended up staying there, as pupil and professor, for eight years. The papers that survive among the Archdiocesan archives show his abiding affection for Ushaw. He regularly attended annual reunions of former pupils, and on his subsequent consecration as Bishop his schoolfellows presented him with a richly decorated breviary.
He spent four years at the Venerable English College in Rome, studying for the priesthood, and was ordained at the age of 28 on 30 May 1885 in the Basilica of St John Lateran. Returning to England, he was appointed to the staff of St Joseph’s College, the diocesan senior seminary then recently established at Upholland. Such were his talents that he became a Doctor of Divinity and rose to be head of the college, one of his staff members remembering him as a ‘successful ruler and a noteworthy promoter of the studies of the college’. Unusually, he had never served as a priest in a parish before being appointed as the fourth Bishop of Liverpool in 1894. At the very young age of 37, he was consecrated by Cardinal Vaughan in the Pro-Cathedral of St Nicholas on 15 August.
As Bishop, he was extremely hard-working, and apart from college reunions he is known to have taken only one holiday, to Linnane in the west of Ireland. One of his secretaries recalled that ‘he did the work of two men’, undertaking parish visitations and Confirmations, ordaining priests, among the other administrative work for a vast geographical area. His diocese extended as far as Barrow-in-Furness, yet he was assiduous in visiting throughout his fiefdom, taking a particular interest in offering guidance to communities of Religious and children’s homes. Visitors were always given a sympathetic hearing and letters were answered promptly. 

During his time in charge, more than 40 churches were added to the diocese, and the number of convents almost doubled. His courage, deep faith and sense of justice made him a leader and spokesman for the opposition to Education Bills proposed by the Liberal government in 1906–07 that would have taken away control of Catholic schools from those who had built them and paid for them. When the Pope appointed Thomas Whiteside as its first Archbishop in 1911, the Northern Province based in Liverpool had by far the largest Catholic population of all the Provinces then created. Whiteside himself did not take his elevation for granted, but self-deprecatingly believed that ‘the authorities in Rome thought that the fewest difficulties would be created by leaving well alone and promoting the bishop who happened to be on the spot’.
Following a severe stroke, Archbishop Whiteside died on 28 January 1921. His popularity among his flock can be seen in the numbers of schoolchildren who lined the streets for his funeral, and the crowds of men and women who followed the cortege during its five-mile journey from the Pro-Cathedral to Ford Cemetery. It seems that to clergy and laity alike he ‘presented a type of priestly perfection’. At meetings later that year and into 1922 there was much discussion about how to celebrate his time as Archbishop. ‘His memory’, it was stated, ‘must be perpetuated in a work as conspicuous and as ungrudging as his merit.’ Arising from these meetings, the Archbishop Whiteside Memorial Fund was established with the sole intention of gathering funds that would enable the construction of a Catholic Cathedral in Liverpool. Land was purchased and work on the new building was advanced enough by 1936 that the late Archbishop’s body was removed from Ford and reinterred in the Crypt, which was all that was built of the original Cathedral designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. The ‘Relics Chapel’ in the Crypt also now holds the remains of two of Dr Whiteside’s successors as Archbishop, Richard Downey and George Andrew Beck.
Archbishop Whiteside’s personality was said to be shy and retiring. Father Joseph Howard was ordained by him in 1907, and according to the biographical memoir he wrote in 1936, ‘he belonged to the old school’. His letters would be written down in handwriting that can be difficult to decipher: 'The typewriter and indeed the telephone were strangers to him,’ said Father Howard.
Finally, the annual Good Shepherd appeal which still takes place today, was an initiative of Bishop Whiteside in 1902 and his obituary recalls its origins: ‘His next effort was to enlist for the homeless little ones of his diocese the sympathies not alone of the grown-up people but even of the little children, both those of the well-to-do and those of the poor but self-supporting working people. Year by year, at the beginning of Lent, he wrote a special letter addressed to the children of his diocese pointing out the needs of the waifs and strays and asking them to sanctify their Lent by denying themselves little luxuries and to practise charity by devoting the money thus saved to the needs of those still poorer than themselves. To this appeal the children generously responded, the united offerings of the schools sometimes reaching a total of over £2,000.’