Text of the homily given by Fr Michael Campion at St Mary’s Cathedral, Newcastle on Monday 30 September 2019

When Newcastle’s first census was taken in 1801, the town had a population of just 28,000 people. Fifty years later, a few years after this church was built, it had trebled; and by the end of the century had reached 210,000.

In that 19th century the British Empire was at the height of its power and Britain had the dominant world economy. This strength was concentrated in a line north of the Wash to the Severn Estuary.  By contrast, southern England outside London was predominantly rural and poorer. (How times have changed!)

Newcastle then was one of the country’s leading industrial centres and its thriving mining, shipbuilding and other industries drew people to live here. Among those who came seeking work and a better life were desperate Irish Catholic families fleeing the potato famine. By mid-century, 8.1 per cent of the Newcastle population – 7,124 – were Irish born.

Coinciding with the industrial boom, the centre of Newcastle was being transformed, principally by three people – John Dobson, architect, Richard Granger, builder, and John Clayton, town clerk. All three have streets named after them including this one where we gather today. The centre-piece of their ambitious plans was Grey Street with its fine, neo classical-style buildings.  In the same year – 1838 – that the Theatre Royal, the street’s most famous address, was completed, the monument to Northumbrian-born Prime Minister Earl Grey erected, and the railway line from Newcastle to Carlisle opened, a small group of Newcastle’s Catholics met “on a summer’s afternoon” in their little schoolroom in St Andrew’s, Worswick Street. They discussed the rapidly increasing number of Catholics in the town and the inadequacy of their single chapel to cater for them.

At their meeting, seven resolutions were proposed and unanimously agreed. The first was that another church or ‘Edifice’ should be built. The second is worth quoting in full:

That this meeting is of the opinion, as Newcastle is alike important for the number of its Population, the extent of its Commerce, the greatness of its wealth, and the grandeur of its buildings, it behoves the Catholic Body to endeavour to erect a large and handsome Church, that may be at the same time an honour to their religion, an ornament to the Town, and capable of affording sittings for about twelve hundred persons.


“It is easy to forget that this plan for a new Catholic church was being proposed by the poorest community on Tyneside. The money required would have to be raised by public subscription. There were no wealthy patrons or rich families to bankroll the project. Yet they had a vision of what could and should be done, and with their pennies and halfpennies they commissioned the finest Catholic church architect of the day – Augustus Pugin (1812-1852) – to build the biggest and grandest church they dare. In the face of some significant anti-Catholic suspicion and hostility in those days, they were proud of their faith and believed it deserved the best. And they realised that their church must be able to stand unapologetically amidst the architectural grandeur of the expanding city.” (Howard Baker, Sursum Corda, 2001)

St Mary’s was opened as a parish church on Wednesday 21 August, 1844 and became the tallest building in the city. Advertisements for the opening were placed in the newspapers for the Pontifical High Mass to be celebrated by Dr William Riddell, Bishop of Longo, and the sermon to be preached by Dr Gillis, Bishop of Limyra. Nine bishops, 70 priests and a packed congregation took part in the Mass.  The music for the liturgy – “sung effectively by the choir” – was Beethoven’s Mass in C Major, Opus 86 (a setting first performed in Vienna just 40 years earlier).

To Pugin’s considerable frustration, Newcastle could not afford to provide for every interior decorative scheme he wanted. Although the tower, designed by Dunn and Hansom, was erected in 1872 (20 years after Pugin’s death), it took another 160 years after the church’s opening before his vision for St Mary’s – spiritually and visually – was brought to fruition. While I was fortunate to help with this, I pay special tribute to Howard Baker, the second anniversary of whose death was commemorated here less than a week ago; and also to the generous benefactors who made the project and the development of the new facilities possible.

As an indication of the hostility Catholics were still experiencing in the 1840s, the editor of the Newcastle Journal published a letter highly critical of the new Gothic church ‘(that it was neither a church nor Catholic’). The writer also objected that the word ‘Romanist’ did not appear in the adverts, and mocked the Bishops’ titles of Longo and Limyra. (Since the Reformation, Catholic Bishops were forbidden to have titles for English dioceses.) In a footnote, the editor agreed with the writer’s sentiments and pointed out that “Priests were liable to heavy penalties under the Relief Act for assuming the title of Bishop and he thought it high time that such arrogance and defiances were checked.” (V A Bartley, ‘A History and Guide of St Mary’s Cathedral’, 1988).

One of the glories of St Mary’s is the East Window, designed by Pugin and made by local glass-painter William Wailes. Its luminous colour depicts the genealogy of Christ, from Jesse, Father of King David (the ‘root’) through the kings of Israel seated in green branches. The ‘Final Flower’ of this family tree is the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child, placed in the middle of the swirling tracery at the window’s apex. The child is standing on its mother’s knee, Pugin’s favourite way of depicting St Mary with the infant Jesus. The image is repeated in the centre panel of the beautifully carved stone altar.

In these challenging times for our Church and divided country, allow me to draw attention to the central panel of the Window that depicts King Jeconiah, the last of the ancient kings of Israel. Dethroned by the King of Babylon in 6 BCE and taken into captivity, the panel portrays him in torment, hand against head, a curse having been placed upon him that none of his descendants would rule over Israel. Records exist of Jeconiah and his five sons receiving food rations when exiled in captivity. The highlighting of his plight in this window is a sobering reminder to worshippers and visitors alike that not far from here several food banks have to support both natives of Newcastle and destitute people seeking refuge and asylum who have been transported to our city. The ‘peripheries’ or situations of need which Pope Francis encourages parishes to support are not that far away from our church doors.

Six years after the church’s opening, Central Station across the road was opened by Queen Victoria. In that same year Catholic dioceses with their own bishops were restored and St Mary’s became the Cathedral church of the new diocese of Hexham. This designation was to the initial horror of William Hogarth who had been appointed the first Bishop of the new elevated diocese. Wanting the Cathedral to be located in Hexham, he wrote:

A bishop may occasionally go into Newcastle on great occasions but no one should be condemned to live there.

Hogarth’s horror at the prospect of being ‘condemned’ to live here may have been due to the fact that Newcastle, like all 19th century cities, was dirty and unsanitary. For instance, a typhus epidemic here in 1832 killed 306 people; in 1847-49 it killed 412; and its worst outbreak was in 1853 when 1,533 died.  Amongst its victims in 1847 and 1848 were two Cathedral priests – William Riddel and his assistant, Fr William Fletcher. It’s on record that during the typhus epidemic ‘William Riddell went into houses that no other minister in the town would enter’. He and Fr Fletcher risked their lives by visiting and offering the Rites of the Church to parishioners dying of the fever (spread between humans by body lice). Both men were interred in the vault erected in the Cathedral garden.

When Cardinal Basil Hume returned to Tyneside in 1994 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the opening of St Mary’s, he described William Riddell and William Fletcher as ‘martyrs of charity’. We might add that these two pastoral shepherds, as Pope Francis would say, had ‘the smell of the sheep’ on them.

In the Gospel chosen for this Mass (John 4:19-24), we find a weary Jesus resting by a well in the heat of the midday sun. He meets a woman drawing water and asks her for a drink. She is taken aback that he, a Jew, would speak to her, a Samaritan (Jews and Samaritans detested one another). In the course of their conversation, and after Jesus discloses his awareness of her having been married five times, she salutes him as a prophet. This leads him to speak to her of a future when true worship of God will not be limited to locations, such as the Samaritan or Jewish mountains. He, himself, he says, will be the focus and new point of contact between people and God. Furthermore, he will satisfy the deepest thirst in people searching for meaning by offering them the ‘Water of Life’. It is then – through him and in him – that they will worship God ‘in spirit and in truth’.

For the past 175 years countless generations of people – whom St Paul in the Second Reading refers to as ‘temples of God’s Spirit’ – have gathered here to meet Christ in the Eucharist and the other Sacraments. Here they have found the Water of Life and rest for their weary souls; and ‘founded on our faith in Jesus Christ’ they have worshipped God ‘in spirit and truth’. Today we honour them and thank God for the wonderful legacy they have bequeathed to us.

St Mary’s is now a familiar landmark on Tyneside.  As one of Pugin’s important Gothic Revival churches, it is his major work in the North East and takes its place among the major public buildings in the city. And the suspicion and hostility of former years have given way to respect and affection.

But, of course, St Mary’s is much more than just a historic building. It is an oasis of peace and prayer in the heart of a busy city. It is a spiritual home for the poor and the powerless, and a place of refuge and reconciliation for those broken in spirit. It is a focus for the life of the diocese and a place for celebrating the great events which permeate our history.

And what of its future?

As the public face of the Catholic Church in the city and region, the challenge for St Mary’s is to be the best possible advert, visually and spiritually, for the faith and life of our unique diocese and its rich heritage. The Cathedral Café and Pauline Bookshop are vital ingredients in this mission. As the Mother Church of the diocese, the Cathedral must have the finest liturgy carried out in a way that is beautiful and effective, with a solemnity that inspires and yet involves people and is not exclusive. Liturgical celebrations must be generously supported by the highest quality music of all styles from the Catholic tradition in order to enhance worship and draw hearts to a merciful God. And the Cathedral must have a strong presence in the city, taking an active part in its spiritual and cultural life, where music and the other arts flourish.

However, the parish of St Mary’s cannot do this on its own. The Cathedral needs practical, structural and financial support to fulfil its many responsibilities as the Mother Church of the diocese and its mission to the city and region. It is not fair to expect the parishioners here to bear the cost of this task alone and I, for one, look forward to a fruitful partnership between the Cathedral and the diocese.

As our country becomes increasingly and bitterly divided, and we are living in an age when there are over 100 definitions of gender, may St Mary’s continue to be a place “where those who feel God is far away can take their first tentative steps towards Him, where the lost can find hope and the heartbroken, healing”. (Bishop Ambrose Griffiths, Pastoral Letter, 2002)

Thus we make our own the prayer of Solomon at the dedication of his Temple in the First Reading:  ‘ … day and night let your eyes watch over this house, over this place of which you have said, “My name shall be there”  … from heaven where your dwelling is, hear; and, as you hear, forgive”(I Kings 8:29-30).  And God grant that the faith, vision and courage in the lives of this church’s founders may live on in ours.

Michael Campion

30 September 2019

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