Is the end nigh for worshippers in Preston?

St Ignatius Church.St Ignatius Square. Preston
St Ignatius Church.St Ignatius Square. Preston
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It survived the Reformation and gave Preston its name.

But a dwindling band of worshippers now fear the end is nigh for their faith in a city once described as the most Catholic place in England.

“In another 20 years there will be no-one going to church here anymore,” said one disillusioned pensioner whose city centre church was one of two shut down as surplus to requirements by the Bishop of Lancaster before Christmas.

“Look around at the shrinking congregations and you’ll hardly find anyone under the age of 50 - maybe even 55.”

The alarming decline of Catholicism in Britain has come despite a wave of immigrants from Poland and other Eastern European countries.

Poles celebrating Sunday Mass in Preston numbered around 300 when they worshipped at St Ignatius Church in the city centre. But three years after being moved to the outskirts of town at St Maria Goretti Church in Ribbleton the attendance has slumped by a third.

“No-one spoke to us,” said a member of the congregation at the time. “Our priest just told us one day that we were moving - no discussion.”

Ask 130 regulars at St Ignatius and a further 90 at St Augustines in Avenham if things have changed since 2011 and their answer will be a resounding ‘No.’

Both churches were summarily axed in November, each after more than 150 years of worship.

“There was no discussion,” said Ralph Cooper of St Augustines. “No wonder feelings are running high. The Catholic Church is in crisis in inner Preston. Very few people are under 50, very few people are coming to Mass. Religion, as far as the Christian faith is concerned, is clearly not fashionable anymore.”

St Ignatius and St Augustine’s are the latest churches to be closed in the city, following on from St Teresa’s in Fishwick, shut down in 2011, and a threat to St Walburge’s - a move which was only shelved last year when a Latin Mass group from Italy agreed a deal to rejuvenate the iconic building.

A radical reorganisation sparked by falling numbers, increasing running costs and a shortage of priests was flagged up in 2009 when a controversial document titled Fit For Mission was published by the Diocese of Lancaster as it tried to address a staggering £10m “black hole” in its finances.

At that time St Ignatius, with its British, Polish and Keralam (Indian) groups, was hailed as a “lighthouse” church, serving as a focul point for others in the area.

Margaret Nelson, 71, who has been attending Mass at the church for more than 40 years, said: “We were a thriving community with the Poles and the Keralams which you could build a church around. But then we were sabotaged.”

Within two years the Poles and the Keralams had both been relocated to the outskirts of the city. St Ignatius was merged with English Martyrs in Garstang Road and restricted to just one Mass a week, leaving the remaining 130 worshippers to surmise they were being “slowly strangled” into submission.

And when the church’s air supply was finally choked off in November the shell-shocked regulars staged protests and declared a boycott of their “sister” church, which still remains in force weeks later.

“Put simply we have been stitched up,” said Moira Cardwell, former church secretary at St Ignatius and now leader of the campaign to force a rethink by the Bishop.

“The Catholic Church is struggling for numbers here in central Preston - and those numbers are going down every year. After what’s happened to us, is it any wonder people decide not to bother?

“Both St Ignatius and St Augustine’s were vibrant little communities. Now we’re told we have to go elsewhere for Mass. Some people can’t physically get to other churches, so that’s even more people not attending church in this city.”