Artefacts in Archives Series: Unlocking a door to the past – The Key to St Peter’s Church, Birmingham

By Naomi Johnson : Naomi is the curator archivist for the Catholic Archdiocese of Birmingham, maintaining the historic collections and buildings of the diocesan seminary, St Mary’s College Oscott and the archives of the Archdiocese, housed at St Chad’s Cathedral.

I often joke to visitor’s at St Mary’s College, Oscott, that the Pugin designed ceremonial keys in the cabinet are those which once graced the hands of St Peter; they are, after all, a spitting image of the keys that adorn every statue of St Peter and are incorporated into the papal crest. However, I can now claim to truly hold the key to St Peter’s! St Peter’s Church in Birmingham that is.

Whilst packing up the reading room at the Birmingham Archdiocesan Archives recently, in order to allow the decorators to give it a much needed facelift, I came upon a key that had fallen down the back of a cabinet. It was labelled, the key of St Peter’s; an unassuming brass key that could easily have been discarded, it represents a story of struggle, hope and ultimately destruction. It literally is the key to Birmingham’s catholic past.

The Key to St Peter’s Church, Birmingham

In the late 17th century, Birmingham Catholics (as elsewhere) suffered much from prejudice. Persecuted like all their brethren since Henry VIII had broken with Rome over 150 years before, they believed, however, that a period of tolerance would follow the accession to the throne of James II in 1685.  Emboldened, and under the guidance of Brother Leo (also known as Fr Randolph) of the Franciscan order, they built the first Catholic church in Birmingham since the Reformation.

A large group of Catholics and Protestants turned up to watch the laying of the first stone on March 23, 1687. Sadly, just 18 months later, the church of St Mary Magdalene was razed to the ground, its materials were taken for other buildings until nothing remained. The event is recorded at the time by Brother Leo: The church was first defaced and most of it burned within, to near the value of £400 by ye Lord Dellamere’s order, upon ye 2nd November 1688 and ye day sevenight following, ye rabble of Birmingham began to pull ye church down and seased not until they had pulled up the foundations

 All that now recalls the existence of the church is the name of Masshouse Lane.

Almost 100 years later, the local Catholic families tried once more to build a place of public worship. Led by another Franciscan, Father J Nutt, and by Dr Johnson and Mr Lewin, they raised £312 to buy land on the emerging area of Broad Street, an area that was still very much on the outskirts of the emerging city.  Upon this plot, the new chapel of St Peter’s was constructed. Yet Catholics had to remain wary of narrow minds, knowing that if the building looked too much like a church it might draw unwanted attention and so it was built to look like a factory.

Image from Postcard Series – BAA:PC/P2

Slowly the congregation grew and with financial support of more open minded Protestants, as well as Catholics, the chapel was extended. When Fr Nutt died in 1799, he must have been immensely proud all that had been achieved.

Twenty-five years later, the Franciscan’s gave up their care of St Peter’s and, according to the clear wishes of the congregation, Bishop John Milner (Vicar Apostolic 1803-1826) appointed Fr Thomas McDonnell as the first secular priest. McDonnell was a remarkable man who spent his life battling religious and class bigotry and was widely held in high esteem by all the people of Birmingham, regardless of their denomination (or none). He was the first Irish priest in Birmingham and a powerful speaker who challenged Protestant preachers on several occasions, who sought to stir up trouble.

A staunch supporter of Daniel O’Connell and the campaign for Catholic emancipation, McDonnell also fought to help the poor whatever their background and campaigned and backed the call for Parliamentary reform. He was so popular that in 1831, he became the only Roman Catholic on the council of the Birmingham Political Union – which a year later played a crucial role in achieving an extension of the vote nationally.

However, McDonnell’s forceful approach was not always appreciated by his superiors and in 1841 he was transferred to the south-west of England. Within three days of his departure, over 7000 people – many of whom were Protestants – had signed a petition asking for his return. It was not to happen. Nevertheless, his active and praiseworthy involvement in public life made things much easier for Catholic’s in general and paved the way for those who followed him; and his care and devotion to the Irish poor ensured that St Peter’s would always be seen as their church.

Under one of his successors, Canon Bernard Ivers, the chapel underwent much needed renovation work; originally planned as a total rebuild, the work finally was reduced to a reordering, expansion and redecoration project, including the addition of two gothic windows, a lady chapel and embellishment to the sanctuary. It was reopened on Saturday 8th July 1871 and Saint John Henry Newman preached the sermon from the text ‘Whatever you do, do for the glory of God’. Canon Ivers remained at St Peter’s from 1849 until his death in 1880; he built on the work Fr McDonnell and the church continued to draw in Irish immigrants and those who had come to the city to find work. It became fondly known as the Mother Church of Birmingham.

Images from Postcard Series – BAA:PC/P2

The next eighty years of the church’s history tell tales of mixed fortune, changing congregation sizes, fewer Irish Catholics -as they set up a community in Digbeth- and more Italian immigrants trying to start a new life. The construction of a catholic school and a burial ground all reflected the changing needs and diversity of the city. On 13th July 1933 the church was finally consecrated, having rid itself of debt and after installing a fixed altar, a gift of the Hardman family. Having fought religious bigotry, waning congregation numbers and financial ruin for one hundred and fifty years, it was a glorious day in the church’s history. A three-hour long mass and celebration recognising the past whilst looking to a future which seemed full of hope. Unfortunately, thirty six years later, the church was to close its doors for the last time as structural damage and local redevelopment left it to be a victim of chance and change once more.

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