21 August 2022

Saint Marie’s Cathedral,
Sheffield, and its early
beginnings in a house

Saint Marie’s Cathedral on Norfolk Row is almost hidden from sight in the centre of Sheffield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Marie’s Cathedral, the Roman Catholic cathedral with a tall spire towering over Sheffield, stands on Norfolk Row, a quiet street just off Fargate, a busy shopping area in the centre of Sheffield.

During my visit to Sheffield last week, Saint Marie’s Cathedral was a surprising but welcoming place to explore. Its Gothic Revival architecture hides an interior rich with symbolic decoration, stained glass, and Victorian tiles.

The cathedral has a fully restored, 1875 Lewis Organ, and over 200 decorative angels. Its treasures include seven alabaster figures dating from the 15th century, a highly decorated Pugin chalice, and an antique chasuble.

The cathedral is just a few minutes’ walk from Saint Peter and Saint Paul Cathedral, the city’s Church of England cathedral, but is easy to miss, discreetly located as part of the story of Catholicism in Sheffield.

The story of Saint Marie’s begins over 300 years ago, when the open practice of Catholicism in England faced legal penalties.

The principal landowners in Sheffield were the Dukes of Norfolk, who inherited the Sheffield estates of the Talbot family, Earls of Shrewsbury, who are buried in the Shrewsbury Chapel in the Church of England cathedral.

In the 18th century, Mass was celebrated in a few gentry houses in Sheffield, including a house on Fargate that belonged to the Duke of Norfolk that had a hidden chapel in its roof. Known as the Lord’s House, it was built by the Duke of Norfolk in 1712 and was occupied by his agent.

With Catholic Emancipation in the late 18th and early 19th century, Catholics in Sheffield bought the ageing house on the corner of Fargate and Norfolk Row. They built a small chapel in the back garden on a site which is now between the Mortuary and the Blessed Sacrament Chapels.

The rest of the land where the cathedral now stands became a cemetery. Bodies from the cemetery were moved to the new Catholic cemetery at Saint Bede’s in Rotherham and work on Saint Marie’s began.

Inside Saint Marie’s Cathedral, Sheffield, facing east (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Father harles Pratt was appointed to the Catholic mission in Sheffield in 1843. He was imbued with the principles of the Gothic Revival espoused by AWN Pugin, and attempted to give a more ecclesiologically correct character to the late Georgian chapel. He installed a screen and seating for surpliced choirs, and commissioned a font and statue of Our Lady from the workshop of George Myers, Pugin’s favourite builder.

However, these were merely improvements in Pratt’s eyes, and he wanted to build a larger Gothic church. He acquired additional land to the west of the chapel and obtained designs from the local architect Matthew Ellison Hadfield, the young partner of JG Weightman and a member of the congregation.

The two travelled together throughout the East Midlands and East Yorkshire, visiting 14th century churches which might serve as appropriate models. Hadfield’s eventual design was in the ‘Middle Pointed’ style approved by Pugin and others involved in the Gothic Revival. They were influenced above all by Saint Andrew’s Church in Heckington, Lincolnshire.

The foundation stone for the new church was laid by Bishop Briggs, Vicar Apostolic, on the Feast of the Annunciation, 25 March 1847. The principal contractors were Thomas Hayball and Benjamin Gregory of Sheffield.

The new church would be dedicated to Saint Marie, a French or mediaeval rendering of Saint Mary that was a favourite conceit of Pugin and his followers.

Saint Marie’s Church was expensively decorated with the aid of generous donations from the Duke of Norfolk, his mother and parishioners.

Pratt died at the age of 38 in 1849 while the church was being built and was buried at Saint Bede’s, Rotherham. However, a stonemason, who had often heard him say he wanted to be buried in Saint Marie’s, dug up the coffin and reburied Pratt in a tomb he had prepared near the altar. Pratt’s body is still there and a plaque marks the spot, although his effigy has been moved.

The effigy of Father Charles Pratt in Saint Marie’s Cathedral, Sheffield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Saint Marie’s was completed in 1850 – the year of the restoration of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England and Wales – and opened on 11 September.

The reredos was designed by AWN Pugin and made at the Myers workshop by Theodore Phyffers. The stained glass was by William Wailes, including the east window designed by George Goldie, and Hardman & Co, including the west window designed by Pugin.

The floor tiles in the chancel, Norfolk Chantry and Blessed Sacrament Chapel were designed by Minton & Co. In keeping with the best practices espoused by Pugin, a rood screen enclosed the entrance to the sanctuary.

The Parish of Saint Marie’s, which included the whole of Sheffield, became part of the new Diocese of Beverley in 1850.

Building the church cost more than £10,500 – the equivalent of about £1.5 million today – and the church was not free from debt until 1889.

A new presbytery, now known as Cathedral House, was opened in 1902.

During World War II, a bomb blew out stained glass windows in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. The remaining windows were removed and stored in a shaft at Nunnery Colliery. The mine flooded during the war, the glass sunk in mud, and drawings for recreating the windows were destroyed. However, it was still possible to reinstall the windows in 1947.

The high altar and sanctuary in Saint Marie’s Cathedral, Sheffield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

When Saint Marie’s was re-ordered in 1970, following Vatican II, dark woodwork was removed and new lighting and benches were installed. In 1972, a new altar, allowing Mass to be celebrated versus populum, was consecrated by Bishop Gerald Moverley, auxiliary Bishop of Leeds.

During the reordering of Saint Marie’s, at the invitation of the Anglican Cathedral, Mass was celebrated at the altar of the Shrewsbury Chapel once again.

When the new Diocese of Hallam was formed in 1980, Saint Marie’s became the cathedral. Bishop Gerald Moverley was the bishop until he died in 1996. Bishop John Rawsthorne then became the second Bishop of Hallam.

During an extensive programme of renovations, the cathedral closed from September 2011 to November 2012. During that time, the sanctuary was extended into the crossing and reordered, a new cathedra was installed and the choir moved to the west end of the building.

The side chapels and the roofing were restored, in some cases revealing original features previously hidden.

During this restoration work, a collection of Nottingham alabaster carvings, mostly dating from the 15th century, were discovered and underwent extensive restoration. They went on display in the cathedral cloisters in April 2017.

Saint Marie’s Cathedral re-opened in November 2012. Bishop John Rawsthorne then retired and Bishop Ralph Heskett became the third Bishop of Hallam in 2014.

In recent years, the cathedral has been developed as a concert venue, hosting many of choral ensembles. The cathedral is one of few Roman Catholic churches in England equipped for change ringing. It has eight bells in the ring and an Angelus bell.

The cathedral has been a Grade II* listed building since 1973. Saint Marie’s Cathedral received a grant in 2014 to conserve its heritage, art and treasures.

Father Christopher Posluszny is the Cathedral Dean. Sunday Mass is at 8 am, 10.30 am, 12.30 pm, and 6.30 pm. Daily Mass, Monday to Friday, is at 8 am, 12.30 pm and 5.30 pm, and on Saturday at 8 am and 12.30 pm.

Inside Saint Marie’s Cathedral, Sheffield, facing west (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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