St Mary’s Church
“St Mary’s, without exception the most magnificent thing that Catholics have done in modern times in this country”
Dr (later Cardinal) Wiseman at the opening of St Mary’s Church 9th October 1839
The opening of St Mary’s Church, Derby, in October 1839, marked a significant moment not simply for Derby Catholics but also for 19th century English Catholicism. It was the beginning of the fruits of Catholic emancipation, and in the words of Dr Wiseman marked “the real transition from chapel to church architecture amongst us”
St Mary’s was designed by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852), an inspirational figure whose dedication and spiritual attachment to the Gothic medium was to transform English church architecture. Indeed, it is almost impossible to overestimate his influence on the 19th century world of building and design. In a few short years he would design five cathedrals as well as innumerable churches, hospitals, convents, schools, monasteries, orphanages and private houses. He did not simply design the shells of Gothic buildings; his passion extended to all aspects of the interior furnishings – furniture, ceramics, metalwork, stained glass, wallpaper, curtains etc. It was said that there was nothing he could not design in a Gothic style. His most famous legacy, though he was not credited at the time, was his work for the Houses of Parliament where he designed most of the internal furnishings and the iconic ‘Big Ben’ Clock Tower. However, during his lifetime, the highlight of his career was arguably the Medieval Court display at the Great Exhibition of 1851. This saw him bring together his ‘team’ of craftsmen: George Myers (master builder), John Hardman (metalwork and stained glass), Herbert Minton (ceramics) and John Crace (textiles), to demonstrate to the international community the extent of their talent in designing and creating all things Gothic. Most of these giants of the world of architecture and design would at some point extend to St Mary’s Derby the benefit of their skills and expertise.
The simple fact of having been designed by such an eminent architect as Pugin would give St Mary’s a certain kudos. However, her significance goes far beyond this. She was his first church of importance, and benefitted from having a fledgling genius with a healthy budget and promoters as eager as he to restore to English Catholicism the beauty, dignity and glory of the parish church “of ancient days”. That they succeeded can be testified to by the regard in which St Mary’s is held. Her Listed Building report from 2011 states: “The church is of exceptional significance in the history of English church architecture…and is considered to be a possible candidate for upgrading to Grade 1.”
The structure of St Mary’s has remained largely the same since it was opened, the only significant addition being the Lady Chapel in the 1850s. However, it would be a brave man who would put his hand on any part of the building and claim a provenance of 1839. A working parish church of this style requires a considerable amount of upkeep and from the very beginning of her life embellishments, restorations and renewals have been required. In the years 1854-1855, 1876, 1892, 1898-1901, 1927-1931, 1968, 1979, 1986-1989 and 2016 we know of large scale building and/or decorating projects. Other years have also witnessed a community raising money to make ongoing repairs and deal with the results of unexpected disasters. In 1860 lightning destroyed some of the pinnacles of the main tower and in 1907 another pinnacle crashed down on the church roof during a service and bounced onto the Rectory roof before hitting the flagstones below. Three years later the congregation was still paying off the debt caused by the repairs with special subscriptions, concerts and other entertainments.
It is this sense of community spirit that has coursed through the parish life of St Mary’s for nearly 180 years. She is not a museum piece to another age but the heart of a living, worshipping community, a place where God is glorified and hopes and dreams are shared. In her years she has witnessed both joys and sorrows, and like a much cherished friend she continues to accompany us on our Christian journey.
St Mary’s history book
If you would like to know more about the history of St Mary’s Church and parish, our book The Story of St Mary’s Catholic Church, Derby (ISBN 9780993179211) can be purchased from the Church Office, contact: Fran Wickes or Kim Cheek, St Mary’s Rectory, 17 Bridge Gate, Derby, DE1 3AU, email firstname.lastname@example.org or from Derby Cathedral Bookshop, Irongate, Derby.
To learn more about the life and work of AWN Pugin we recommend reading God's Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain by Rosemary Hill (ISBN: 9780713994995).
History of Derby’s Catholic Schools and Convent
By Sister Camilla Hunt
The history of the Sisters of Mercy in Derby is deeply intertwined with the story of St. Mary’s Church and Schools.
Basic schooling for Catholic children had begun in stealth around 1813 when the Catholic Chapel was built. It is thought that after land to build a new Church was bought in the late 1820s, the first building erected on the site was a school. It consisted of two large classrooms in a substantial, two-storey building, fronting on to Edward Street, was well established before religious sisters came to Derby.
The current Convent of Mercy on Bridge Gate owes its existence to the generosity of the Honourable Elizabeth Beaumont, daughter of Lord Scarsdale of Kedleston Hall. She was a convert to the Catholic faith and a very generous benefactor. She shared her dream with the Parish Priest, Rev Sing, of founding a community of nuns who would take charge of Catholic education in Derby. He encouraged her in this enterprise.
Hon Mrs Beaumont’s first venture was to build a convent. She donated £10,000 for the building of a large Gothic style convent on Nottingham Road. The next priority was to find a Religious Congregation to run the school. The Society of the Holy Child Jesus was founded in Derby on 13th October 1846 under the sponsorship of the future Cardinal Wiseman. They did valuable work in the school but moved from Derby after two years to a new convent in St Leonards on Sea, Sussex, secured for them by Cardinal Wiseman. Meanwhile, Bishop Ullathorne of the Midland District, had heard about a new Irish Congregation called “The Sisters of Mercy,” which was founded in Dublin in 1831 for the relief and instruction of the poor. Successful negotiations resulted in six of the Sisters making a foundation in Derby on 17th October 1849. The new Sisters occupied the Convent in Nottingham Road. They took control of the day and night schools which were already set up, as well as visiting the poor and sick in their homes.
On 30th May 1850, the first public ceremony of a nun entering the Novitiate and receiving her Holy Habit took place in the Convent Chapel. By 1851 the Convent had increased to 27 sisters, 18 private scholars and a domestic staff of 12.
The Derby Mercury dated 28th May 1856 reported:
"The Reverend Mother, of the founding convent who, with fifteen other nuns, attended the sick and wounded at Scutari in the Crimea, during the whole of the war, arrived back in Derby on Friday, to a hero's welcome."
Time, however, had proven the Convent building on Nottingham Road to be unsuitable for habitation. It was damp and rat infested due to its proximity to a stream from the River Derwent which served as the town sewer. In 1862 Hon Mrs Beaumont generously shared a substantial part of her large house on Bridge Gate with the Sisters and in 1866 donated the entire house to them and moved to a new home in Hathersage. Thus the Sisters came to live next door to St. Mary’s Church.
The additional space allowed the Sisters to increase the number of fee paying pupils. This had a twofold benefit: firstly, education for the daughters of the developing middle class - the mill owners, managers, engineers and senior employees - and secondly, much needed funding for the Convent, as teachers at this time were unsalaried. This venture was the fore runner to St. Philomena’s Convent High School.
St Mary’s Schools had developed rapidly as successive Factory and Education Acts curtailed the age and hours that young children were allowed to work in the factories and mills. New school buildings were erected in 1853 on the Edward Street site, with an “average attendance of 98 boys, 149 girls and 134 infants”.
The Education Act of 1870 introduced compulsory education. Teachers were required to be trained and certified and would then receive salaries and grants for their schools. Following this Act, the decision was made to place the schools under Government Inspection. Over the years, all Sisters working in schools attended Teacher Training Colleges or Universities.
Successive H.M.I. reports commended the work achieved in the school but deplored the overcrowding. In 1891 another classroom was built to house the Infant Department but this was not a long term solution. It was not until 1930 that the parish could afford another building project. This project was major: a completely new school.
The new school opened on 24th August 1931. It was built adjacent to the earlier building which was eventually dismantled. The school was reputed to have cost £12,000. St Mary’s was an all age mixed school. The new building provided a Senior School on the upper floor while infants and juniors occupied the ground floor. Still the numbers increased and overcrowding continued to be a problem. However there was no possibility for further development on the Church site. Land was the crucial need.
Meanwhile at the Convent, as the numbers of Sisters and fee paying pupils grew, a narrow three storey extension was built at the end of the Convent, fronting on to Arthur Street. The first and second floors became St Philomena’s Convent High School; the top floor was sleeping accommodation for the Sisters. From 1942, the pupils here took the Cambridge School Certificate. It became a gateway for able girls from St. Mary's to higher education and the professional world. It was also a bridge between Catholics and Derby society at large. Many people who were suspicious of Catholicism overcame their prejudices and sought education for their daughters.
Many Sisters now earned salaries and the community, living very frugally over many years, saved and invested in a visionary project. In March 1947, after much prayer and legal advice, they purchased the Highfields Estate for the ‘Works of God’. This was a property of 84 acres, which had been requisitioned for the RAF during the war and was now on the market. It included four large houses, several smaller ones and a number of cottages. Derby City Council were keen to purchase a strip of the land for the northern stretch of what is now the A38. This sale refilled the empty coffers and enabled the gradual development of the site.
In September 1947 the Senior School of St. Philomena’s Convent High School numbering 245 pupils moved into Highfield’s House. The Sisters involved in the School went to live permanently in Highfields. Thus a new branch House of the Bridgegate Convent, St Philomena Convent of Mercy, was formed. In 1997 the old St Philomena’s High School was converted into accommodation for vulnerable adults.
Pupil numbers continued to increase and in 1965 plans were drawn up to build a completely new school on the estate. The building was completed in 1967 and the number on roll could now be increased to 425 with room for more expansion.
Meanwhile, Monsignor Wilson, Parish Priest of St. Mary’s and Chair of the Governors of St Mary’s School was engaged in a similar building project. In 1966 St Mary’s Secondary Modern School was opened on the Highfields Estate leaving the whole of the accommodation on the Edward Street/Darley Lane site to the infants and juniors.
In 1971, St. Philomena's High School and St. Mary's Secondary School merged to become a Voluntary Aided Comprehensive School for boys and girls aged 11 – 18, under the new name of St Ralph Sherwin. This School could cater for 1,050 boys and girls across the two sites. In 1986 a further merger took place between St. Ralph Sherwin and St. Thomas More Schools creating St. Benedict School on the Highfields site, with 1400 on roll. Today it is known as St Benedict Catholic Voluntary Academy and is the only Catholic Secondary School in Derby.
In September 2002, due to the generosity of the Sisters of Mercy, the Edward Street infant and junior schools moved into new accommodation on Broadway on the Highfields Estate. The School has expanded to include a Nursery unit and is now known as St Mary’s Catholic Primary School and Nursery.
Alongside the development in Education, other works of mercy were evolving. In early January 1968 a branch house was created in “Beechwood House”, part of the Highfields’ Estate. The purpose was to provide a house for Sisters as they retired from their active ministries as well as to provide flats for the elderly. Once built, the flats would be self-supporting and the Sisters would be a pastoral presence with one Sister acting as Warden. The Council gave planning permission in 1977 and the flats were officially opened and blessed by Bishop McGuinness in 1979.
A natural progression from the Beechwood Flats was a Care Home to cater for the elderly when they were no longer able to care for themselves. Mount Carmel House was officially blessed and opened in July 1985 and it has remained fully occupied - a testimony to the great need for this particular Mercy ministry. After many years under the supervision of the Sisters, it was necessary to appoint a lay manager. In 2012, Beaumont House for Dementia Care was opened and blessed by Bishop Malcolm McMahon. In 2013 Kinsale Court was opened with 18 close-to-care apartments, comprising two bedded, one bedded and studio apartments. These three buildings are now renamed ‘The Mercy Care Centre’.