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September 2013 - Web Special

St. Joseph’s College, Upholland, Lancashire

~ “One of the glories of Catholicism in England” ~

Its Rise and Fall


The opening of St. Joseph’s College, Upholland in 1883 was primarily due to the determined efforts of Bernard O’Reilly, ordained as Bishop of Liverpool on 19th March, 1873. According to Father Nugent, the Bishop’s contemporary at Ushaw, writing in The Catholic Times, the building of St. Joseph’s “was the cherished child of his heart, even to his last breath”.

The problem which had to be tackled was how to find priests to cope with the spiritual needs of the large and growing Catholic population of the Liverpool diocese. This was summed up by the Very Rev. Canon Walker of Lancaster, as reported in The Liverpool Mercury of Monday, 19th April 1880.

He said that “in 1780 the Catholic population of England was estimated at 50,000. Forty years later, in Lancashire alone they numbered 73,500…. At this moment, in the dioceses of Liverpool and Salford there was a Catholic population of 515,000, there being 483 priests, and 283 churches.”

The first Junior Seminary of the Diocese was founded at St. Edward's College, Everton in 1842 as a Catholic 'classical and commercial school' and in 1875 it was extended to accommodate double the number of students. The shortage of priests, however, was such that many had to be borrowed from Ireland. It was decided that the longer term solution must be for the diocese to have its own seminary to produce the requisite number of priests, a view very much in line with the decisions of the sixteenth century Council of Trent. Initially, consideration was given to the expansion of St. Edward’s but a more radical solution was favoured, the creation of a diocesan seminary elsewhere, but for this funds would have to be raised.

In his scholarly book, “Mitres and Missions in Lancashire, The Roman Catholic Diocese of Liverpool 1850 to 2000”, Peter Doyle explains that when the diocesan clergy were consulted “they were unanimous in expressing their opinion that the great work should be at once undertaken.” The Bishop headed the subscription list by giving two sums of £1,700 and £2,000 which had been personal bequests to him. The clergy raised over £5,000 in amounts ranging from £200 to £5. In response to a pastoral letter, pledges of almost £35,000 were received. While the funds were still coming in the Bishop paid a visit to Rome where Pope Leo XIII encouraged the Bishop to lose no time on the project and to be sure to build it large. A site still had to be found.

The Bishop’s Pastoral Letter of 12th April 1885 on the “NEW DIOCESAN COLLEGE OF ST. JOSEPH” recalls this search.

“In the meantime we were busily occupied in seeking for a locality suitable for the new college, and there were several who kindly aided us in our search……At length we were informed that a farm, Walthew Park, near Upholland, was for sale. We asked some friends to visit it, and we did the same ourselves, and we were satisfied by their judgment and our own that it would be a most desirable site. We at once determined to purchase the farm, and we did so at the cost of £8,000, a large sum for us to expend, but not more than it was worth. In extent it measures over 153 acres….”

The estate, also known as Rough Park Farm, had been purchased at an auction held at the Victoria Hotel, Wigan on the 20th July 1877.

Bishop Bernard O’Reilly

The Bishop’s Pastoral Letter of 9th April 1880, dealing with the blessings of the foundations of the diocesan seminary, stated:-

“Everyone was delighted to obtain the site on a small farm which presented exceptional advantages – one mile from the village of Upholland and about two miles from two railway stations on different lines. Moreover, upon the site there is a quarry of that excellent stone known as Upholland Stone. Upon this farm which contains about 150 acres, sheltered from the North Western winds will shortly stand St. Joseph’s College.”

Mr. James O’ Byrne was engaged as architect. Canon Worthy, the Bishop’s cousin, was appointed site manager. He re-drained the land, constructed the College drive, laid out the gardens and orchards and planted several thousand trees before starting building in 1880.  A quarry was opened on site to provide almost all the stone for the College and the lodge, which the Canon occupied. On St. Joseph’s Day, 19th March, 1880, a special train was arranged to run from Liverpool to Orrell and people, led by Dr. O’Reilly converged on Upholland for the foundation ceremony.

A full account is contained in The Liverpool Mercury, Monday, 19th April 1880:-

“In the presence of several thousand persons from all parts of Lancashire, the Right Rev. Dr. O’Reilly, Roman Catholic Bishop of Liverpool, blessed and laid, yesterday, the foundation stone of St. Joseph’s Seminary, an institution designed for the education of priests for the diocese under his pastoral care. This is a project which Dr. O’ Reilly has cherished since his accession to the episcopate….. After the stone had been laid the Very Rev. Canon Walker of Lancaster addressed the assemblage…. He earnestly hoped that not a single member of a Catholic family in that great diocese would miss the honour and privilege of contributing to this important work. Above all, let them recommend daily the success of this undertaking in their prayers to God, asking Him to make the seminary the fruitful mother of learned priests and apostolic men.”

An enormous boost had been given to the building fund by a bequest of £17,000 from Gilbert Hayes “a Citizen of Liverpool, sometime Illustrious Professor of Veterinary Art “which financed the building of another wing.

Before the College opened, however, The Tablet of 11th March 1882 gave an update on progress:-

St. Joseph's Seminary — Diocese of Liverpool.

…of all our Diocesan Seminaries the one laid out upon the largest scale is the new Seminary dedicated to St. Joseph, for the diocese of Liverpool……. It will be in form of a quadrangle when completed, with a quad very nearly an acre in size—considerably larger, therefore, than any of the famous quads in Oxford and Cambridge. At present two sides of the quadrangle have risen up. As you enter the building you find yourself in a corridor 228 feet long, and 13 feet wide: large windows in a simple Gothic style, with seats below them, are on the left, while on the right are class rooms, reception rooms, and approaches to staircases. Out of the north corridor are the temporary chapel, a room of 70 feet, and a room for defensions, as an ante-room to the dining hall, which is also of noble proportions. Attached to the north wing are the offices, which leave nothing whatever to be desired for the convenience and comfort of the servants of a large community; everything that is necessary has been provided. Very extensive and convenient cellarage for coals, stores, and whatever other purpose it may serve, has been procured under the north wing and part of the servants' wing….The south and west sides of the quadrangle have not been undertaken; and there is no present intention of beginning them.

The college is three storeys high, and, in addition to public rooms, it contains forty bed-rooms. The walls are of stone, lined with brick. The stone has been quarried chiefly on the property of the college. The red ashlar stone dressings of the windows are from Runcorn. Though all superfluous ornament has been scrupulously avoided, and a rigorous exclusion has been practised in regard to whatever was not essential, the appearance of the whole building is decidedly pleasing—grave and solid without being heavy, bright and light without being frivolous…….The present contract will be completed and the seminary will be opened in the summer of next year. The grounds are already being laid out. It is reported that the seminary will open with about twenty-five Philosophers and Divines. There are at present over 150 ecclesiastical students belonging to the diocese of Liverpool, scattered through different colleges at home and abroad. The wants of the diocese, we are informed, cannot be met by a smaller supply of priests than ten every year. All this makes it clear how necessary it is that the Bishop should have a seminary of his own, in which he can watch over the education and character of the young men who are destined to become his future clergy.

Opening was not long delayed. In September 1883, the appointed Rector, Canon Teebay, his housekeeper and niece travelled from Southport in an ancient carriage drawn by Canon Worthy’s strongest horse “old Bob” and driven by a short man in a long coat and top hat, known generally as “Little Jimmy”. With them came a German professor of Dogma Fr. Franz Steffens. The other professors arrived later on the same day: Dr. Ernest Commer, professor of Philosophy; Father John Bilsborrow of Ushaw, Vice Rector and professor of Moral Theology; and Daniel O’Hare, also from Ushaw, Procurator.

Canon C. Teebay and Fr. J. Bilsborrow

The original college, photographed in 1883 (front) and 1894 (rear)

A major article was written in the Wigan Observer on 3rd October 1883 entitled:


We have says the Catholic Times, to chronicle an event of great importance to the future existence and advancement of Catholicity in England and especially in Lancashire. The new college of St. Joseph, Walthew Park, for the education of ecclesiastical students for the diocese of Liverpool, was opened on Tuesday last with celebrations continuing the two following days…”

Thirty one students had assembled on Saturday, fourteen studying theology and seventeen philosophy. The six year course leading to ordination is explained; “two years of philosophy and four years of theology, canon law, sacred scriptures &c.

The article continues:

After dining with the students and professors, his Lordship blessed every room and corridor from roof to cellar, and was accompanied by all the professors and students chanting in procession the Miserere Psalm and the Litany of the Blessed Virgin, after which there was benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.

The Wigan Observer  continued:

The Bishop proposed the toast of the Rector….The Rector, after thanking the Bishop…said that whatever facility of expression he might possess it would utterly fail him if he were to attempt to shape his feelings that day into words. He was conscious of the great work which was begun, and fully alive to the expectations of the diocese of the good which was to come from St. Joseph’s College….Feeling that much depended on himself, and knowing as no one knew so well, his own deficiency; he would have shrunk from the responsibility had he been allowed to decline the burden. Still with his misgivings he had many grounds of confidence and hope….

It is evident therefore, that the Rector had, with some reluctance, complied with the Bishop’s request to accept this position, a significant point in view of the difficulties which were to arise. On the grounds of ill-health, he had already refused the post of President of Ushaw in 1877.

Although the students had arrived, the College was not fully functional. Many doorways were without doors and at night a man was needed to patrol the corridors armed with a gun to ward off vagrants. Some financial problems arose initially since several of those who had pledged money with enthusiasm proved unwilling or unable to meet their obligations when called on to do so. However substantial donations enabled enlargement of the College to occur, thus increasing its ability to accommodate students. James O’Byrne, the architect, in 1897 left to the College a fine collection of works of art valued at £20,000, intended as the nucleus of a museum, and an additional sum which accumulated to £130,000 to finance further building. There was, however, only one bath in the College for the use of professors and students which meant a bath only at three monthly intervals. Students used to swim in local ponds or have a cold swill in a tin bath in their rooms.

The April 1891 National Census reveals some of the changes which had taken place during the early years of the College, some of which must have been disturbing to the Bishop.  Charles Teebay was living in retirement in the College and at 67 afflicted with “old age”. The Rector was The Right Rev. Monsignor Canon John Bilsborrow, who was also Professor of Scripture and Theology. The Vice Rector and Professor of Theology was Thomas Whiteside. The teaching body was completed by two further professors, Daniel Donoughue and John Turner, aged 26 and 31.  There were 11 students of Theology, chiefly in their mid twenties, and 6 students of Philosophy aged 20 on average. The great majority of these students had been born in Lancashire but one of the students of Theology was American. To meet the needs of the professors and students there was a female housekeeper, aged 50; nine female servants, all of whom were single and typically in their twenties; plus two female sick nurses, one of whom had been born in France and the other in Luxemburg.

Drawing on the work of Peter Doyle, we can see an early battle between liberalism and tradition within both the diocese and the College with Rector Teebay being far more liberal than the majority of his peers. At its inception, a constitution for the College had to be established. Fr. James Swarbrick, a member of the Board given this task, believed that senior students should have as few rules as possible, consistent with good order and regularity. Lectures should be limited to an hour; these should be based on the works of approved authors and follow lines of argument approved by Rome. Some science should be studied alongside the traditional area of philosophy and theology. Stories of laxity grew with students being allowed to read newspapers, even those believed to be anti-religious. The President of St. Edward’s despaired about what was happening to his junior seminarians when they went to Upholland – they were even allowed to play football in white trousers and “variegated jackets”. They displayed “a sad tone of worldliness and vanity”. He threatened resignation.

The Rector received the following letter from his Bishop:-

My Dear Charles,

I am very much pained to hear that the students at their games continue to dress in fancy costumes. I spoke to you on a former occasion saying how strongly I condemned this practice and forbidding its continuance and you promised that it would never again be allowed. During the past week I received a letter from one of our Priests in the Diocese stating that these costumes were still being used, and expressing his dissatisfaction and that of others that such a practice should be permitted in an Ecclesiastical College and by Ecclesiastics. Indeed, the letter was couched in such strong language that I was startled by reading it….

The practice must never again be allowed.

+ Bernard.

The Rector replied:-

Some of them have worn jerseys over their waistcoats at football and a few flannel trousers. I thought that they would preserve their clothes. I never thought that they would be considered a uniform or a fancy dress.

The American student listed in the 1891 Census commented favourably on Upholland’s “beautifully broad, general and liberal” regime which was so different from that of Ushaw where the students were mere machines. Some donors regretted contributing to the building of a College where there was a “want of Priestly discipline and Priestly spirit” manifested by students travelling to Wigan, going to shops, visiting their parents and reading unsuitable novels.

Canon Teebay resigned in 1886 because of ill-health but continued to live in College until his death. He was replaced by the much less liberal Canon Bilsborrow who came from farming stock and consequently took great delight in the running of the College Farm. Frequent donations of cattle were received and a fine herd built up.

Canon Bilsborrow became Bishop of Salford in 1892 to be followed as Rector by Dr. Whiteside until appointed as Bishop of Liverpool after the death of Dr. O’Reilly on 9th April 1894. He in turn was followed by Provost William Walmsley who remained as Rector until 1926.

The Liverpool Mercury, of 14th April 1894 describes the funeral of the Bishop.

The Late Bishop O’Reilly
Celebration of the Obsequies
An Impressive Function.

Amongst the enormous numbers of those listed as present, both clerical and lay, the chief mourner was identified as Very Rev. Dean O’Reilly, brother of the deceased. The celebrant of the mass was the Right Rev. Dr. Bilsborrow, one-time Rector of St. Joseph’s but at that time Bishop of Salford.

The writer refers to the pro-Cathedral as being “massive in drapery of black…. In front of the High Altar lay on a simple catafalque, surrounded by candelabra the oaken casket containing all that is mortal of him who for 21 years was the chief pastor of the diocese. On the lid of the coffin was a chasuble, a biretta, a mitre, a crosier, and a chalice, significant of the priestly and episcopal offices which had been held by the dead prelate. On either side of the catafalque and before it were gathered together the clergy, regular and secular, the former including the Benedictines, Franciscans, Jesuits and Passionists in their several habits. Here and there too were seen the dark garb and snow white head-dress of the Sisters of Bon Secœurs and the light blue gowns and spreading linen caps of the Sisters of Charity….As the recital of the Mass for the Dead went on, the voices of the priests in the choir rose and fell in the mournful measures of the ancient Gregorian plain song, whose pathos and majesty remain untouched, despite the lapse of centuries. …. 

When the function was at its height, the scene in the pro-Cathedral, in which Bishop O’Reilly’s stately figure had been so often seen, and in which his voice had been so often hears, was most impressive…

After the imposing ceremony in the Pro-Cathedral the coffin was conveyed to the Exchange Station…. The platforms were crowded and the departure of the mourners was watched with deep interest.  Orrell Station was reached shortly after four o’clock. Many availed themselves of the numerous vehicles in attendance in order to reach St. Joseph’s Seminary, Upholland, in the grounds of which the remains of the deceased prelate were laid to rest. From various parts of the district about two thousand persons had assembled.

Impressiveness characterised the solemn service for the dead, and during its course the large gathering of several thousand persons remained with heads uncovered, though the air was cold and biting….The funeral service concluded at half-past five, and the mourners, who had journeyed from Liverpool, returned from Orrell where a special train was in waiting to convey them to their destination.

Much work was done to the grounds of the College in the late nineteenth century. The first cricket pitch appeared between 1886 and 1888. The College cemetery was planned as early as 1884, its wall built in 1896, the wrought-iron gates added in 1903. The central stone cross was erected in 1898 as a memorial to the late Bishop O’Reilly.

Photographs show students, suitably dressed in waistcoats, digging out earth to form a college lake about the turn of the century. Heavy manual labour featured in the lives of most of the students, many being employed in creating and re-surfacing paths on the estate as well as maintaining the woodland and digging drains. A grass tennis court existed before 1914. From 1883 to 1920 there was only one football pitch, occupying the lower part of the field known as The Quarry.

By 1914, Upholland had produced 250 priests but The Great War had a major effect on St. Joseph’s as on the rest of the country. When the garden staff were called-up the students had to take over the growing of fruit and vegetables. Those in Major Orders were exempt from call-up; priests were released to act as chaplains to the Forces. By mid 1918 there were only ten students left; four were ordained and the remainder sent to Ushaw. The College then closed down, becoming home for seventy Liverpool orphans under the care of some Sisters of Mercy. Then came the children of soldiers and sailors with their carers. Only Provost Walmsley remained in post. With the ending of the War, the junior seminary at St. Edward’s was closed, the building being sold to the Christian Brothers with the junior seminarians being transferred to St. Joseph’s to join the seniors.

Archbishop Keating then planned a massive building programme to house the new influx and improve facilities for the senior seminarians. He had been appointed Bishop of Northampton in 1908 and was translated to Liverpool in 1921 after the death of Archbishop Whiteside. His efforts in the development of the College led to his being described later in the Upholland Magazine as “Co-founder of Upholland”.

Archbishop Keating

On 8th March 1923, he chaired the first meeting of a committee formed to discuss “the New College”. From this group, two sub-committees were formed, the Building Committee and the Scholastic Committee. Plans were drawn by Messrs. Pugin and Pugin and on 17th October 1923 a new foundation stone was laid. This was the first of four foundation stone days marking the different phases of construction. A large quad was planned to go in front of the existing structure and a new chapel, to be built out of red sandstone. The edifice was surrounded by landscaped gardens and sports facilities. Some of the new building was opened in 1927, followed by a new chapel and numerous sub-chapels. The completed college was described in the 1929 Lenten Pastoral Letter as “one of the glories of Catholicism in England.”

The Catholic Herald of May 10th 1930 contains an important article on the College.
Seldom has the golden jubilee of an English seminary been celebrated with such ritualistic pomp and even nation-wide rejoicing as have marked the opening of the extensions to St. Joseph’s College and the consecration this week by Cardinal Bourne and ten mitred prelates of England, Scotland, and Wales of the College chapel and its eleven stone altars of imposing design…the greatest event in the history of the Church in England since the Reformation. Twenty-two relics of the early saints from the Roman San Cabisto Catacombs, two for each of the eleven altars consecrated were borne in solemn procession. Fourteen Bishops, along with the Cardinal, abbots, monsignori and about a hundred priests marched in public veneration of the relics without which no altar can be dedicated. The relics were carried in a cabinet on a bier draped in red, symbolising the blood of martyrs. The eleven altars were consecrated simultaneously, and from the eleven thuribles incense filled the air with its sweet fragrance. The Cardinal from the high altar intoned the antiphons and psalms….The most beautiful of the altars is that built as a memorial to the English martyrs…. Each bishop gave (as is usual at consecration ceremonies) an indulgence to be gained on the day of consecration and on its anniversary in perpetuity to those who visit that particular altar….The high altar, composed of Forest of Dean pillars, is dedicated to St. Joseph, patron of the College…The College choir, under the conductorship of Fr. J. F. Turner, M.A., rendered the Vatican plain-chant all through the seven-hour ceremony – a feat scarcely without parallel…Besides the eleven consecrated, there are two of wood on the rood screen, and a third, also of wood, to Our Lady near the front entrance...

Could there be a better description of high Catholicism prevailing before the Second Vatican Council?  We are fortunate today to have access through the internet to a British Pathé news clip of the event.

In the book “Upholland College, A Record of the New Buildings”, edited by Rev. J. Ibison and Rev. Mr. J Maxwell, a telling comment is made:

“and now we are privileged to look upon the whole majestic pile – to see the full mid-day glory of the ‘enclosed garden’.”

However, the College was not quite finished. A notable physical feature was to be the Observatory on the north tower of St. Edward’s wing, the telescope coming from St. Edward’s College, Liverpool.

The Chapel, Refectory and Professors’ Dining Room

The period following the resignation of the first Rector was not only marked by physical changes but also a sterner attitude towards the proper training of future priests. To senior clerics, the world was seen as containing dangers from which tender minds should be sheltered. In 1873, at the Fourth Provincial Synod, the English bishops had stated that only approved books should be read in seminaries; students studying philosophy and theology should be separated from students of other disciplines lest their faith be challenged. Boys who were considering entering the priesthood should be separated from their peers. Provost William Walmsley had such traditional views.

Peter Doyle provides interesting information as the attitudes of Archbishop Keating. At the commencement of work on the enlargement of the College, the Archbishop said it was to be “a centre of sacred learning, an exemplar of religious observance, a treasure-house of ecclesiastical culture.” Staff would be “unsullied by liberalism” and generally well qualified. The Archbishop’s choice of Rector, Monsignor Joseph Dean, appointed in 1926, was a scripture scholar of ultra-conservative views who remained until 1942 enforcing unbending discipline and traditional practice on junior and senior seminarians alike. The Archbishop believed that the views expressed by the professors should always be in total conformity to those of Rome as conveyed through the Catholic hierarchy. Although lectures could be in English, he welcomed the concept of formal disputations being carried out in Latin. Staff were at all times to maintain professorial dignity, wearing academic dress within College and being back within the building by 10 p.m. Evidently some of the staff wished to change the postal address of the College to remove the name “Wigan” since the town had been the butt of music-hall jokes.

The Archbishop was not to see his project through to completion, dying after a short illness on 7th February 1928. His death and funeral is reported in The Tablet. His uncoffined, embalmed body laid in state in the pro-cathedral of St. Nicholas with a bodyguard of the Knight of St. Columba. At least 150,000 members of the public visited the church to pay their respects. The funeral service was in the presence of a score of Archbishops and Bishops representing the hierarchies of England, Wales and Ireland. They included His Eminence Cardinal Bourne, the Archbishop of Cardiff, the Abbots of Ampleforth and Downing and Monsignor Vincent Keating, brother and sole surviving relative of the deceased. The coffin was taken from the church through a dense crowd of mourners for burial at Upholland, escorted by the Knights of St. Columba. The seminary students had drawn up in a long line at the approached to the College. He was buried next to the Bishop in the graveyard of the College. A superb British Pathé film clip of the funeral is available on-line.

The Cardinal was himself opposed to Modernism. He was not overly supportive of interfaith dialogue nor of ecumenism. He condemned granting greater freedom to divorce or birth control. He also desired to see the United Kingdom adopt the Roman Catholic faith as its official religion.

In the post Second World War world, the traditional practices of the Church came under greater scrutiny which led ultimately to the calling of the Second Vatican Council by Pope John XXIII in 1959. His Holiness considered there to be a need to open the windows of the Church and let in some fresh air.

Seven new emphases resulted from the meetings of the Second Vatican Council between 1962 and 1965 which were intended to address the relationship between the Church and “the modern world”. In 1965 the Council issued the “Decree on Priestly Training” (Optatam Totius). Seminary administrators and teachers should form a very closely knit community, both in spirit and activity, with their students. A better integration of philosophy and theology was urged. There should be awareness of traditional Catholic philosophy but this should be properly complemented with knowledge of contemporary philosophical investigations; there should be a strong pastoral emphasis in training and there should be willingness to draw on lessons from psychology, science and sociology. The intention was to educate students so that they could correctly understand the “characteristics of the contemporary mind” and be “prepared for dialogue for men of their time”. While some welcomed this modernisation wholeheartedly, traditionalists regarded it as undermining the Church’s centuries’ old work and beliefs. Although the impact was not immediate, inevitably Upholland was affected by these debates which challenged the enshrined practices of the seminaries. Clearly, the gate of the enclosed garden was to be opened but something was not to change. “Optatam Totius” stated that students were “to realize deeply how gratefully” they should receive “the venerable tradition of celibacy” as a “precious gift of God for which they should humbly pray” but they should be “warned of the dangers that threaten their chastity especially in present day society.”


We now attempt to give some indication of life within the senior seminary of Upholland in the late 1960s and early 1970s; a life of ritual – meditation, prayer and study – fun, contentious change and increasing doubt. Were there then signs of threats to the College’s existence?

On 8th September 1969 Michael Peyton set off from Bradford for Upholland College. Increasingly immersed in Catholicism during his childhood, he had made the decision to train for the priesthood which had involved periods of study in Rome and Liverpool. His years in Upholland were to be the final part of a process intended to lead to ordination.

The seminary had two divisions, the Lower House was for junior seminarians between the ages of eleven and eighteen, and the Upper House for adult students of whom there were about sixty. His normal daily wear was the cassock which he had been given by a priest in Bradford. This was worn in the chapel, lectures, tutorials, the refectory and when walking in the grounds. Casual dress was only to be worn while in his own room or in the students’ corridor. For the first time in his training he found that he was expected to wear a biretta.

Mike was one of nine new students who entered the Upper House in September 1969. Some of his fellow students had been through the Junior Seminary at Upholland or at St. Michael’s College, Underley Hall, Kirkby Lonsdale, and so had been in a seminary since the age of eleven. Some were taking a two year course in Philosophy; others, having completed this, were at various stages of a four year course in Theology.

Entrance Hall, Chapel Corridor, Professors’ Corridor, Refectory Corridor.

The professors who were to be responsible for his intellectual and pastoral training were headed by The Rector, Monsignor Sidney Breen. Their specialisms were Philosophy, Church History, Moral Theology, Canon Law, Scripture, Liturgy and Dogmatic Theology. Mike found aspects of the course at St. Joseph’s to be stimulating and intellectually satisfying, for example Scripture and Canon Law.

The first event was a retreat, to make the student appreciate and feel the importance of seminary training, “to bring the mind and heart under the influence of the great truths of religion”. Retreats normally preceded the conferring of orders and priestly ordinations. Senior seminarians went through the “cursus honorum” or “course of honours” which involved a movement up the ecclesiastical ladder. A layman became a cleric through a ceremony known as “tonsure”. Then there were the “Minor Orders” to be conferred at intervals – Porter, Lector, Exorcist and Acolyte. Originally an “Exorcist” cast out demons but this was not an activity which could, in practice, be carried out by seminarians! Then came the “Major Orders” of sub-deacon, which involved taking the vow of celibacy; deacon and presbyter (priest). Mike was tonsured on 12th September 1970 and became a Porter and Lector on 4th June, 1971. On 15th August 1972, Pope Paul VI abandoned the term “Minor Orders” in his “motu proprio” document entitled “Ministeria quaedam”. Mike, therefore, was one of the last group of seminarians to have this status.

Changes in priestly training are dealt with in depth in the writings of Rev. Dr. Kevin Kelly, “50 Years Receiving Vatican II – a personal odyssey.” He taught at Upholland between 1965 and 1975 and he was struck by the attitude to senior seminarians. He saw these young men as having little chance to mature personally and to gain the experience essential for them to carry out their priestly functions. He pays credit to Father Thomas Worden, Prefect of Studies, who, as a “peritus”, advised the English Bishops during their attendance at the Second Vatican Council, for renewing the whole approach to theological and biblical studies. Formal lectures were reduced to a minimum. Regular essay writing encouraged personal thought and reflection. Weekly seminars allowed students to exchange ideas and explore challenging concepts. The intention was to follow the spirit of Vatican II and make students feel at home at a time of radical change. Instead of certainties, students would have to live with uncertainty. Times certainly had changed from Dr. Kevin Kelly’s years in the junior seminary at Upholland when “the image of a priest put before us was of a man, strong, independent, able to control himself and others, and totally obedient to the will of God which came through the voice of authority and the rules of the seminary.”

Academic work took up only part of the College life. Except on Sundays, the daily routine started with meditation, then mass, breakfast, two lectures, lunch, private study and an evening meal followed by evening prayer. Although in the Junior Seminary, the “magnum silentium” – the great silence – was supposed to be observed between evening prayers and the ending of final word of grace at breakfast, this was not practised by most of the senior students. Students had free time on Saturday afternoons. On Sunday, more emphasis was given to religious observance with solemn sung mass in the morning and solemn Benediction in the afternoon.

Some idea of Mike’s life during his time at Upholland College may be gleaned from the College Diary for which he was responsible for part of his stay. This refers to routines within College enlivened by celebrations to mark lengthy periods of service as a priest, the end of exams, the start and end of terms and drama productions involving the students.

On September 25th 1969, for the first time the “New Order of the Mass” was used in College rather than the traditional Latin Tridentine form.  The “New Order” or “Ordinary Form” (sometimes called the Mass of Paul VI) is the liturgy of the Catholic Mass promulgated by Paul VI in 1969 after the Second Vatican Council. The purpose of the changes considered by the Council was “that devout and active participation by the faithful may be more easily achieved” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 1963). The changes included the use of the vernacular language instead of Latin and the priest being allowed to face towards the congregation. A group of theologians under the direction of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre warned that the New Order “represented a striking departure from the Catholic theology of the Mass as it was formulated by the Council of Trent.” They said that on many points the New Mass “had much to gladden the heart of even the most modernist Protestant”. Despite the opposition of some, the New Order was introduced. On 11th February 1970, the Latin Mass was celebrated for the last time at Upholland.

Monsignor William Dalton.
The last Rector.

In the late 1960s, considerable efforts were being made by mainstream churches to promote Christian Unity. Within the Catholic Church, a leading figure in this movement was Cardinal Johannes Willebrands.

The College Diary records that on 21st January 1970 the Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool hosted an ecumenical service during which the Cardinal was to preach. This was seen by some members of the Protestant community as a dire affront and they were determined to display their displeasure. Several followers of the Rev. Ian Paisley scattered themselves amongst the congregation to maximise their effect and began their work as the Cardinal began to speak. A cry of “No Popery” was heard which led to strenuous attempts by the ushers to remove the heckler. That done, another protestor would pop up. The reaction of other members of the congregation included shock, disgust and some amusement. Mike was sitting on a bench near to a professor from Upholland, William Dalton, whose special field of study was Church History.  When one demonstrator popped up very close to them with the cry of “No Popery here!” his rather mischievous comment to Mike was “Well not too much, eh!” Eventually the Cardinal was able to deliver his message of unity and friendship.

Although in 1965 the Vatican Council had expressed its aim to change the way in which priests were trained in the Decree of Priestly Training, these changes still needed to be implemented in each country. To this end, in January 1970, the “Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis” (Basic Scheme for Priestly Training) was issued by the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education. Although national conferences of bishops were to devise their own appropriate schemes of training they had to conform to the spirit and norms of the Second Vatican Council. The Upholland College Diary records that this document was discussed on June 21st 1970. The curriculum already in place in Upholland, owing to the work of Father Worden, seemed to be very much in line with contemporary thinking.

In 1970 the students of Upholland were involved in another highly significant event, namely the Canonisation of the Forty Martyrs. These were a group of Catholic men and women executed for treason in England between 1535 and 1679 and canonised on 25th October, 1970 by Pope Paul VI.  The College was given a week’s holiday in honour of the occasion. Some of the College’s students had been to Rome for the service. In College, an exhibition in honour of the Forty Martyrs opened, to put the martyrs in their historical context and explore issues of the English Reformation. In Liverpool Archbishop Beck (in office 1964-76) held a celebratory mass in which the Upholland students participated.

During his second year at Upholland, Mike had to prepare and deliver sermons based on a text given by the tutor. Performance was judged on voice projection, intonation, gestures, whether or not the student could capture the attention of the congregation, relevance, use of personal examples and reference to the Eucharist, since the homily formed part of the mass. Fellow students would make comments and the tutor would give his assessment. Long, boring sermons did not impress.

Increasing emphasis on pastoral work meant that this was offered on Wednesday afternoons. For one year he and some contemporaries were assigned to a local hospital to talk with patients in the wards. Their intention was certainly not to spread the Catholic faith. A totally different involvement in pastoral work involved visiting Walton Prison, Liverpool each week over a period of several weeks. The purpose was to give the prisoners some idea of religion in its broad sense. The prisoners found this a pleasant alternative to being in their cells. In fact Mike and his fellow student rarely got anywhere. The inmates were chiefly concerned with being able to tell them their life stories and what had led them to being imprisoned.  In his second year he went to the parish of St. Oswald and St. Edmund Arrowsmith, Ashton in Makerfield, the church of which housed the hand of Saint Edmund, one of the martyrs recently canonised. The parish priest assigned to them areas to visit. The houses were not always inhabited by Catholic families but, even so, their welcome was normally polite. With experience he found it effective to let the householders talk about their lives and families. Inevitably a number of contemporary issues were raised, for example the Church’s attitude to contraception. Care had to be taken to follow approved lines of argument, especially since academic and pastoral training were incomplete.

Mike had been involved in the life of the Catholic Church from his primary school days when he had been fascinated by the ritual and language of religious life. During his time in a Catholic grammar school staff had sought to increase knowledge of religious texts and practice rather than to deepen faith. His parents and grandparents had been supportive but he had never faced family pressure to pursue priestly training. He coped with the academic demands of university in Rome but even then doubts were growing. He questioned the nature of a course which required hundreds of students to sit on long wooden benches in lecture theatres.  Anthony Kelly in his book “A Path from Rome” recalls his memories of the same system - ”Many of us for a long time, and all of us for some time, found the Latin of the lectures to be incomprehensible”. After the Second Vatican Council a marked split occurred within the Church between the modernisers and the traditionalists. The lifestyle of the Church in Rome did not fit well with his increasing interest in “liberation theology”. Mike noted the extremes of wealth in the city. He was part of a group which was in sympathy with the ideas expressed in the journal Slant - a Catholic magazine associated with the University of Cambridge and the Dominican Order in the 1960s. It sought to combine Catholic beliefs with left-wing policies and was influenced by the philosophies of Wittgenstein and Marx. These factors led to his decision to return to England to study in Liverpool for a year. There he encountered the work of a wider range of philosophers and people, staff and students, from non-religious backgrounds.

He entered Upholland for theological training already well-read in philosophy. The expression “Fides Quarerns Intellectum” (Faith Seeking Understanding) - the subtitle of St. Anselm’s “Proslogion” – relates to how philosophy helps one who has faith to understand what he believes.  In Mike’s case, however, his knowledge of philosophy increased his doubts. He had emotional difficulty with some of the Sacraments, for example Penance and Anointing of the Sick.

Celibacy never featured in discussion with any tutors in Upholland, or in Rome, or even with fellow students. The vow of celibacy would be required when taking Major Orders and, at length, he decided that could not really accept it philosophically since the requirement seemed partially tied up with medieval problems of the transfer of property rights. Anglican, Methodist and clergy from other denominations who were married seemed to function effectively. His concerns were reflected in the wider Church. In 1970, nine German theologians, including Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, signed a letter calling for a new discussion on the requirement for celibacy, without indicating whether it should be maintained. (Ratzinger, Rahner, et al. On Celibacy. (1970))

By summer 1971, Mike had more or less decided that he could not become a priest. The foundations of his faith, based on traditional certainties , had been undermined, and Pope John XXIII’s fresh air had entered the Church with gale force. In the event he left quietly towards the end of the Christmas term, 1971. He explained to friends and some staff his reasons for departing.

1934, the successor to Archbishop Keating, Archbishop Downey, argued that the ideal candidate for priesthood should not be encouraged to be clever or smart, not be encouraged to hold strange and original ideas or to break away from abiding, age-long traditions of the Church. The aim of institutions such as St. Joseph’s was then to withdraw candidates within sheltering walls and promote chastity, humility and obedience.  His was a perfect description of a Tridentine seminary as a “hortus conclusus” (an enclosed garden) designed to promote spiritual growth. It is highly unlikely that Mike could ever have conformed to this ideal but the wind of change being deliberately let loose into the Church in the 1960s threatened the entire seminary model.

When Mike left he and his fellow students did not imagine that the senior seminary would close. Peter Doyle gives a succinct explanation of the events which led to the closure. In 1965, Archbishop Beck had pointed out that the fall in the numbers of young men being ordained would lead to an estimated diocesan shortage of 160 priests by 1980. In the north of England there were two senior seminaries, Upholland and Ushaw. The belief grew that it may be necessary to close one and use the other to house a united junior seminary. Discussions were complicated by consideration being given to changes in the nature of priestly training to allow a period to be spent at university before undergoing specialist education in a senior seminary. Although the number of senior seminarians at Upholland was as high as it had been for twenty years, the real problem was the Junior Seminary. In 1974, none of the original thirty three boys who had originally joined the Junior Seminary had been ordained priest. The diocese had incurred a huge cost and had little to show for it; the seminary was not bearing fruit. Perhaps in the days of the Beatles and teenage culture the era of junior seminaries was over. Rome gave support to the idea of Ushaw being the single senior seminary. Archbishop Beck agreed to the closure of the senior seminary at Upholland. It would continue as a junior seminary and also remain a Theological Institute. When the planned closure and transfer of senior seminarians was announced to the students in the Refectory, their reaction was to bang spoons on the tables as an indication of disapproval. The last senior students left Upholland in 1975.

These proposals were unworkable. The criteria for the entry of pupils to Upholland became far wider, it became “a boarding school for boys considering a vocation” but, even so, the last boys left in 1992. The building became the Upholland Northern Institute, and was used as a retreat and conference centre for the archdiocese, under the management of Monsignor John Devine, one of Mike’s contemporaries. The end came with the decision of Archbishop Kelly to sell the building and grounds to a development company.

It is impossible to separate the end of St. Joseph’s from analysis of the wider Catholic Church in England and Wales where attendance at mass has halved in the past fifty years. Dr. Joseph Shaw, chairman of the Latin Mass Society, wrote in May 2013 “that something went seriously wrong in the Church in England and Wales in the 1960s and 1970s. Catholics ceased quite suddenly to see the value of getting married, having large families, and having their children baptised. Non-Catholics no longer perceived the Church as the ark of salvation, and ceased to seek admission. Young men no longer offered themselves for the priesthood in the same numbers as before”. The Society points out that in 1965 there were 233 ordinations, falling to 14 in 2009. A marked improvement occurred in 2010 with a rise to 23 to drop again to 16 in 2011.

Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) warned us in “The Prince”:

“There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to institute a new order of things.”

The Second Vatican Council did attempt to “institute a new order of things”. For a body like the Church, historically based on concepts of faith, obedience and infallibility, to encourage the faithful and their priests to seek inspiration from sources as diverse as psychology, physics, Buddhism and “Wind in the Willows” to fit in with “the modern world”, was asking for trouble. St. Joseph’s had its own problems. It was an ideal “enclosed garden” but its remoteness from secular universities and lack of good transport links made it unsuitable at a time when integration of priestly training with wider society was being stressed. 

The magnificent edifice of St. Joseph’s, loved by many, is slowing decaying. At the centre of its burial ground, under a memorial cross, lie the mortal remains of Bishop O’Reilly and Archbishop Keating, the two men chiefly responsible for the creation of the College. Whatever the future holds for the former St. Joseph’s it will never again be “one of the glories of Catholicism in England.”


“The Catholic History of Liverpool”, Thomas Burke.
“Mitres and Missions in Lancashire. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Liverpool, 1850-2000”. Peter Doyle.
“Upholland Magazine” (the magazine of St. Joseph’s College), various issues.
 “Up Holland in Old Picture Postcards”. Dr. Allan Miller
The Wigan World website.
The Wigan Observer (Museum of Wigan Life), - microfilm - various dates.
On-line copies of regional and Catholic newspapers and journals.
British Pathé News Clips
"Late Archbishop Keating - Cardinal Bourne, 14 Bishops and host of Clergy, at passing of Liverpool's revered Archbishop.” 
“Cardinal Bourne, two Archbishops, nine Bishops and great concourse of clergy, assist in consecration of Upholland College Chapel.”

Dr. Allan Miller, for providing research materials.
Dr. Meg Whittle, Archivist of the Liverpool Roman Catholic Archdiocese.
The staff of the Museum of Wigan Life for providing access to microfilmed sources.
The staff of Harcourt Ltd for arranging access to the college graveyard.


By the same authors:

The Little Box from Toulouse - The Relics of St Edmund




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