The following is a summary of our earliest years, written by Jean Williams for an edition of our Parish Magazine.
Catholicism in Radcliffe dates back hundreds of years, even beyond the Radclyffe family who were the original owners of the local manor, Radcliffe Tower, located near Close Park and who worshipped at the ancient Parish Church of St Mary. During the Reformation public demonstration of the faith all but disappeared from the town. However, Catholic emancipation in 1829 led to the founding of the Salford Diocese 21 years later; and, swelled by large numbers of Irish immigrants, new parishes began to spring up around the region. During the early 1860s, come rain or shine, many Radcliffe residents could be seen making their way up Stand Lane to Chapelfield, to await the arrival of a visiting priest from Bury or Ramsbottom. Reverend William Scheides would ride over the hills on horseback, an imposing figure with his black cassock flapping around his ankles in the wind. The upper room of a borrowed stable was the venue for Mass for the assembled crowd, made up of mill workers, farm labourers and miners.
In 1863 Reverend Malachy OCallaghan arrived in Radcliffe to become the first resident priest, and officially found the parish of St Marys. He set up two new places of worship, one in Mount Sion Street and later in 1865, he bought a disused Methodist Chapel in Mow Brow (Church Street) to celebrate Mass. It took 4 years for the parishioners to raise £100 towards the £440 cost of purchasing the chapel, despite being in receipt of some money from the Poor and New Missions diocesan fund. By 1872, when the next priest, Fr. Gerrard arrived, there were 770 parishioners, and 30 baptisms had been carried out that year. In order to accommodate the growing number of children and educate them in the Faith, it was decided to open a day school in Sugar Lane (off Stand Lane) and 51 children registered that year.
The parish continued to expand and by 1876 the congregation had increased to 1012, and 142 children were on the school register. Meetings were held and it was agreed to build new premises, which would combine a school and a place of worship for the Catholics of Radcliffe. A plot of land at the corner of School Street and Victoria Street was acquired from the Earl of Wilton on a 999 year lease, at an annual ground rent of two shillings. The chapel was opened on Sunday 24th March 1878 by Bishop Vaughan (later Cardinal) and the final cost of the whole building was the princely sum of £2,000.
The school at Victoria Street has educated several generations of St Marys parishioners and stood for over 100 years before it was finally demolished, leaving many former pupils with just their own memories to remind them of happy or troubled schooldays. The school remained in its original premises until the first phase of the new infant department was opened in 1970, but the church moved on, both to give the school more room and to accommodate its growing numbers. In 1893 land at the corner of Seed Street and Spring Lane was purchased for £92/2s/2d, and plans were drawn up by Jacksons architects of Manchester. The church of St Mary was built by John Allen of Railway Street and cost an estimated £3,000, with the memorial stone being laid by Bishop John Bilsborrow on May 5th 1894. Many people stood on the sand dunes (now the festival gardens) opposite the church to watch the proceedings. The Rev. William Fowler was the first parish priest to preside over the new church, and as the population increased he got his first assistant in the shape of Fr. John Foley, to help him tend to the spiritual needs of his flock as the nineteenth century drew to a close.
The sounds drifting in through the Church windows on a warm summer day are now of cars navigating the traffic roundabout, rather than the clip-clop of horses and cart wheels trundling up the dirt track that has become Bury Road. Much has changed in Radcliffe over the last 138 years since the parishs first beginnings in a stable, but a lot, like the people, remains the same.