History of the Church of St Philip Neri
We go back as far as 1825 to find Fr George Brown living in Catharine Street. He became the first Bishop of Liverpool on 3 November 1850. Stationed then at the Pro-Cathedral was Fr James Nugent who was to leave an indelible impression on the Catholic and Civic life of the City.
At that time there was an alarming need for schools. Both Bishop Brown and Fr Nugent saw that elementary schools were not sufficient to produce a well-educated laity capable of taking high office in the City and so in 1851 they opened a Catholic middle school in Rodney Street. Early on it became apparent to Fr Nugent that the accommodation was cramped and inadequate. He bought some land in Hope Street and in March 1853 Bishop Brown laid the cornerstone for the new school. This school was named “The Institute” and on 31 October 1853 was solemnly opened by Cardinal Wiseman. Later on, John Henry Newman from the Birmingham Oratory of St Philip Neri visited the school.
The Parish of St Philip Neri really began at this point in the Oratory of the Institute. Its naming was a courtesy gesture to the Oratorian, Dr Newman. The Rector of the Institute was also the Parish Priest until the Christian Brothers took over the management of the school.
1864 saw the canonical erection of the parish. The administrators were Dr Henry O’Brien and Fr Henry Thrower. Then followed Fathers P Kelly, Thomas Dunne, Thomas Carroll and Martin Gallagher dating from 1871 to 1887. Fr John Berry then came to the Parish. He had founded the well-known Fr Berry’s Homes in Shaw Street, but his first venture was St Philip’s Home for Street Trading Boys in Marble Street. Fr Berry died in 1897 after a lengthy illness and was succeeded in 1900 by Fr Alfred Jeanrenaud, popularly known as Fr John. He remained Parish Priest until his death in 1929. It was during his tenure that the Institute and Parish were separated and the church in Hope Street was replaced by a new church in Catharine Street.
Fr John wanted the new church to be something a bit different. During a visit to Venice he fell in love with St Mark’s and decided to put a little bit of Venice into Catharine Street. The building of the present church commenced just before the First World War, and after a long suspension, was finished in 1920. The architect was P. S. Gilby. Before his death, Fr John had the satisfaction of seeing the marble and mosaic decoration in place.
Fr Benedict Cain became Parish Priest on the death of Fr Jeanrenaud in 1929. The less spectacular and more unwelcome task of paying-off the £18,000 debt fell to him. The building of the Oratory of St Philip Neri had not been cheap; it cost a total of £35,000. Amazingly, Fr Cain managed to remove the entire debt.
In 1939 war broke out once again just as Fr Cain was planning to put the finishing touches to the church. Both Fr Cain and his curate, Fr Fanning, lived and ministered here during the Blitz. One night a high explosive dropped in what is now known as the Spanish Garden wrecked the presbytery and blew out every window in the church.
Dr John Garvin succeeded Fr Cain in 1945. He had been on the staff of Upholland College and the Beda College in Rome. It was in the early 1950s that he designed and built the Spanish Garden. He stayed in the parish until 1965 when he became Parish Priest of St Mary’s in Aughton.
From 1945 the following priests were curates: Fathers Billington, Foley, Diggins, Twomey, Breen, Karalus, Hughes, Baker, Cunningham, Rowlands, Atherton, Ashton and Gallagher.
For almost 20 years there was a Polish Chaplain whose work for the Polish residents of Merseyside had centred at St Philip Neri’s where a polish Mass was celebrated every Sunday at 12 noon. The first Polish priest was Fr Burdyszech followed by Fr Sarneta and then Fr Welczak who stayed for 10 years. He was succeeded by Fr Klementowski.
In 1965 Fr Morgan O’Healy came as Parish Priest. It was during the time of Fr E Crowley, 1969-1980, that the number of priests in the parish was reduced to one.
In 1980 Fr John Taaffe became Parish Priest and remained here until his death on 6 October 2001. Later that year the parish was closed and became part of the Cathedral Parish. All records are now kept at the Cathedral.
Since that time the Archdiocese of Liverpool selected the building to be used as the Catholic Chaplaincy to the University of Liverpool and Liverpool John Moores University. The Catholic Chaplaincy to the University of Liverpool had previously been based on Mount Pleasant in what is now known as the Hart Building. Fr Chris McCoy, the Catholic Chaplain, oversaw the move from Mount Pleasant in the summer of 2002. In September 2003 Fr Ian McParland was appointed as chaplain, and served for 13 years in that role until the summer of 2016. After a brief period during which the Fr James Claffey OP served as Chaplain, Fr Neil Ritchie took over as Catholic Chaplain in January 2017. Fr Neil had been a student in Liverpool in the early 1980's, and had actually been received into the Catholic Church in 1983 after taking part in one of the earliest RCIA programmes in the Archdiocese at the Catholic Chaplaincy.
Since 2015 St Philip Neri Church has been under restoration. Nearly 100 years old, the entire fabric of the building, especially the roof and the dome, has needed extensive renovatory work. This has necessitated the removal of the mosaic image of Saint Philip Neri over the Sanctuary, the covering over of much of the mosaic-work at the front of the church and over the apse, and the stripping of the cork tiling on the inside of the dome. However, once complete, the mosaic will be restored and the dome interior relined and painted. This beautiful church, a place of worship and celebration through the last 100 years, will eventually be restored to its former glory.