Preston nurse who stole valuables from church jailed

Chairman Charles Roger Jacson
Chairman Charles Roger Jacson
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Local historian Keith Johnson takes a look the case of a light-fingered nurse...

On the last Saturday of March 1874, Mary Byrnes, aged 39, from Ireland, was brought up at the Preston Police Court on a charge of sacrilege.

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She had been arrested on suspicion of having stolen a coat and some other articles from a house where she was employed as a nurse. Whilst being searched, 30 pawn tickets were found in her possession. Some of which related to valuable property that had been stolen from St Augustine’s RC Church in Frenchwood.

The court heard that the accused had been employed at the church and presbytery as a charwoman. It was alleged that whilst engaged in that capacity she had at various times since Christmas stolen four sets of costly curtains, two silver candlesticks, a quantity of fine linen, table cloths and various other articles. All of which had been pawned for trifling sums of money at various pawnshops. The property had all been identified by the sacristan John Coupe as belonging to the Rev. Canon James Taylor.

Local pawnbroker Albert Evans was called and he was asked by the magistrates why he had not been suspicious when the accused had arrived with the candlesticks for pawning.

He replied that they were only silver plated. The magistrates then committed Mary Byrnes for trial at the next Preston Quarter Sessions.

The accused had been well known in the parish of St Augustine’s, which was served by Canon Taylor and two other priests. The average Sunday Mass attendance in those days was over 3,200 in a parish with over 8,000 dwellers. The district being described as having murky houses, ragged children and poverty, yet uplifted by the nuns and priests.

A fortnight later, faced with the prospect of a trial by jury Mary Byrnes entered a guilty plea on all the charges before the Chairman CR Jacson. Addressing the prisoner he told her she had abused the confidence and trust that had been afforded her in a most disgraceful manner.

He then informed her that she would be committed to the House of Correction for a period of six months.

St Augustine’s Church was built between 1838 and 1840, at a cost of £5,000, and was lengthened in 1890 with its two tall towers added.

A glorious period in the church’s history followed with pews packed with generations of devout Catholics. Unfortunately, due to dry rot, the church building was closed in 1984 and services moved to the nearby school. Inevitably, the main body of the church was demolished in 2004, although the iconic frontage and towers were retained.

A purpose-built sports centre was then added and the premises are now part of the Cardinal Newman College concourse.