St. Augustine of Canterbury Church, Leeds Centenary Book.1905-2005

A Brief History of Catholicism in Leeds

In October 1794 a Dominican Priest Fr. Bernard Albert Underhill, with the help of a dedicated Catholic Mill owner Joseph Holdforth, opened the first Catholic Chapel in Leeds since the Reformation. St Mary’s Chapel on Lady Lane served the growing Catholic community of Leeds until July 1831 when St Patrick’s Church was opened. The first Cathedral Church of St Anne replaced St Mary’s Chapel in 1838.

For two hundred and fifty years Catholicism had been suppressed by the Penal Laws. Few people had access to the Mass or the Sacraments and the numbers of Catholics had dwindled to a tiny minority of the population. Many recusant families were members of the landed gentry who were better able to use their homes as secret Mass Centres and hide visiting priests among their households. The Catholic population of Leeds in 1790 may have numbered as few as fifty people. Recusant families at Allerton Grange, Middleton Hall and Red Hall, Roundhay played a major part in keeping the Faith alive in Leeds at the time. The situation changed with the passing of the first Catholic Relief Act in 1782 and finally The Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 restored the rights of Catholics to practise their faith.

The Industrial Revolution brought many people to areas like Leeds seeking work in the mills and quarries. The population of Leeds grew from 47,000 in 1794 to 172,000 in 1851. Irish weavers and labourers arriving in the 1820s swelled the Catholic population and this was added to by a much larger number of people fleeing the Potato Famine in Ireland between 1845 and 1850. It is thought that by 1898 the Catholic population of Leeds had risen to 30,000. Many of the Irish who settled in Leeds occupied an area on the Bank near Holdforth Mill living in overcrowded and insanitary conditions. In 1840 an outbreak of cholera and typhus killed many of the people living on “The Bank” including five priests who had been “ministering to the needs of the distressed Irish.” A statue of St Patrick was placed in St Patrick’s Church to commemorate their work and dedication.

Irish Catholics soon outnumbered the old Catholic recusant families. Catholicism ceased to be practised discreetly behind closed doors and became a religion of the ordinary people. Many people were alarmed by this and the Irish in particular were sometimes treated with hostility and suspicion. People failed to understand their culture and their poverty and apparent lack of {English} education drew criticism. The restoration of the Catholic Hierarchy in 1850 and the later declaration of Papal Infallibility caused further alarm in some places. The old fears of “foreigners with split loyalties” were resurrected. In spite of these difficulties the church grew in Leeds and thanks to the dedicated work of Priests, Nuns and committed lay people many more parishes were established.

The status of the Catholic Church in England and Wales was normalised by the Apostolic Constitution “Sapienti Consilio” of 1928 and under the 1908 Code of Canon Law the existing missions became parishes.