They educated hundreds of thousands of children over more than a century and a half in “Priest Town.”
But now the Winckley Square Nuns have become the latest casualties of a crisis which threatens the future of the Catholic Church in the city.
The Sisters of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus are packing up and moving out after 162 years of devoted service to Preston. Falling congregations have prompted the Lancaster Diocese to consolidate its presence in the city centre with a programme of closures and amalgamations in a bid to halt a near terminal decline. And for the Winckley Square Nuns that spells the end of an association which dates back to 1853.
“Our work here is done, it has come to a natural end,” admitted Sister Philomena Grimley, one of only two nuns remaining at Parish House in St Austin’s Road.
“There was a huge Catholic population in Preston, there were thousands in the parish. But as people moved to the suburbs, the number of people attending inner city churches radically dropped and there is also a shortage of priests.
“Now the parish has amalagamated with five others, and we have all happily found new spiritual homes.”
There was a huge Catholic population in Preston, there were thousands in the parish. But as people moved to the suburbs, the number of people attending inner city churches radically dropped and there is also a shortage of priests.Sister Philomena Grimley
A celebration mass has been organised to take place at St Wilfrid’s Church in Chapel Street, from 2.30pm on Thursday, October 15, to celebrate the achievements of SHCJ. The date has been chosen as it is the society’s Founding Feast day, marking the anniversary of the first mass held by the sisters in 1846.
“It is also significant as it was through the invitation of the Jesuit Fathers that we came to Preston in the first place”, said Sister Philomena.
“There will be a little sadness at the mass, but overall it will be held in the spirit of gratitude and acceptance.
“It will be thanksgiving for what God has enabled us to do and thanksgiving to Preston too. Preston has given a lot to us. People who have been educated by us have come to join us and there are many, many sisters from Preston. That rejoices our hearts.
“Our contribution to education has set people off to achieve great things in their lives, both in public and hidden.”
The departure of the nuns is the latest in a series of set-backs for the church in a city which was once a major stronghold of Catholicism.
The Bishop of Lancaster blamed dwindling congregations for the closure of both St Ignatius and St Augustine 10 months ago.
“It’s sad, but Preston has too many churches for too few people,” confessed the Rt Rev Michael Campbell, who described the measures as “necessary surgery.”
The Society of the Holy Child Jesus was founded in 1846 by American Cornelia Connelly and in 1853 they were invited to Preston, a time when the city was suffering with the cotton famine, poor education and poverty.
Beginning their work from a base in Fox Street, the sisters moved around the then town centre, teaching at a range of church centres.
Although best known for teaching at Winckley Square Convent School – where they moved in 1875 – the society’s nuns also taught in many primary schools in the area, including St Wilfred’s, St Ignatius, St Walburge’s, English Martyrs, St Joseph’s, Sacred Heart, St Bernard’s, as well as high schools Edmund Campion, St Cecilia’s in Longridge and St Thomas More.
Due to educational changes in the mid 1970s, the Convent School was closed later that decade to amalgamate with others to form Cardinal Newman College.
By the 1980s, the society’s ivolvement had come to an end, and lately the main involvement has been in the local parish, doing things such as running a food bank, helping people’s spiritual development and wellbeing, visiting the elderly and taking them the sacrament and helping with the regeneration of the Avenham area.