Our history

The story of Catholic Liverpool

Beginning in 1850, we have been served the people of Liverpool for over 150 years. This is our story.

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Early years

The Diocese of Liverpool was established on 29 September 1850, stretching north to Lancaster and the Lake District, south to Widnes and Warrington, and including the Isle of Man.

On 28 October 1911, Liverpool was established as a Metropolitan See and became an archdiocese. In 1924 the Diocese of Lancaster was established, taking territory from the north of the archdiocese, with the River Ribble becoming the border between the two.

In the early years of the diocese and archdiocese, there was an emphasis on building up the expanding Catholic community with a programme of school and church building. The seminary at St Joseph's College was founded by Bishop O'Reilly in 1880 to train students to the priesthood.

Serving immigrants and the poor

Following the famine of 1847, the Catholic population of Liverpool grew substantially due to mass Irish immigration. Schools and churches were built for the new arrivals and many organised charitable efforts were put in place.

Monsignor James Nugent worked tirelessly to provide for the needs of the poor, building schools and orphanages for those in poverty. His work is continued today by the Society which bears his name - Nugent.

Mission and education

The early twentieth century was also a period of consolidation, developing and educating people in the Catholic faith. This was during the time of Liverpool's longest-serving Archbishop, Richard Downey, who had previously been a member of the Catholic Missionary society.

The city’s new cathedral

There was a long road to Liverpool's Catholic Cathedral. The first design was by Edward Welby Pugin in 1883, but only the Lady Chapel was built in Everton.

In 1930, Archbishop Downey commissioned architect Sir Edwin Lutyens to build a new cathedral and the foundation stone was laid on 5 June 1933. The design was colossal, having a great dome with a diameter of 51 metres and an internal height of 91 metres. However, only the crypt was built - completed after the Second World War, by which time the cost of the cathedral had risen to an impossible £27 million. Adrian Gilbert Scott was commissioned to produce a scaled-down version of the Lutyens design but the project was ultimately abandoned.

In 1960, Archbishop Heenan launched a competition to design a cathedral, which was won by Sir Frederick Gibberd. Building began in October 1962 and the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King was opened in May 1967.

In 2023, Pope Francis granted cathedral status to the Church of Saint Mary of the Isle based in Douglas in the Isle of Man. The announcement came following Douglas being awarded city status as part of the late Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations in June 2022.  The Church will be a co-cathedral for the Archdiocese of Liverpool.

Times of change and unity

The 1960s and 70s were a time of transition for the Church following the Second Vatican Council. After his arrival in Liverpool in 1976, Archbishop Derek Worlock set about implementing the decrees of the council.

Ecumenical relations were high on the agenda as Liverpool had a history of sectarian division. Many bishops and archbishops from both the Catholic and Anglican churches had maintained both public and private friendships, including Archbishop George Andrew Beck, Bishop Stuart Blanch, Archbishop Worlock and Bishop David Sheppard, culminating in the signing of a Covenant of Unity in May 1985.

The National Pastoral Congress was held in 1980 and Pope John Paul II visited the city's two cathedrals in 1982.

The new millennium

In 1996, Patrick Kelly became Archbishop of Liverpool, and his ministry among the people of the archdiocese was tireless. As the new millennium dawned, difficult decisions had to be made; the Catholic population had declined and an exodus from the city to the new towns led to church closures and amalgamations.

Archbishop Kelly also encouraged the Catholic population to look beyond the north-west of England. Projects were initiated with the Holy Land, and in 2008 a major conference of African and European bishops was held to heal the wounds of Liverpool's history as part of the slave trade.

The way ahead

In 2014, following Archbishop Kelly's retirement, Archbishop Malcolm McMahon came to Liverpool. He called an Archdiocesan Synod to be held in 2020 which, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, met after four years of prayer and preparation in 2021.

The fruits of the Synod are a pastoral plan for life and worship in the archdiocese which is now being implemented with the aim of 'Becoming the Church which we are called to be'.

Previous archbishops