1828 - 1865

The Growth of the Catholic Community in Wolverhampton (part 5)

The problems for the Roman Catholic church

The arrival of the vast army of Irish immigrants created a serious problem for the Roman Catholic Church in England as its human, physical, and financial resources became intolerably over-strained, especially during the famine years. The Bishops saw with alarm the urgent need to stem the "leakage" that was becoming increasingly evident, as large numbers of Irish Catholic immigrants ceased regular attendance at church services. In the third quarter of the century, several Catholic commentators and members of the clergy, including Edward Lucas of 'The Tablet' and Bishop Vaughan of Salford, deemed "leakage" to be the major challenge facing the Church in England. [K.S.Ingliss "Churches and the Working Class in Victorian England " 1963 pp 119 – 130] While religious observance was admittedly low amongst the labouring Irish Catholics, it was considerably higher than among other sections of the native British working-classes. [ibid] As each successive wave of Irish immigrants entered the country, the problem of "leakage" became more pronounced. [E.D.Steele "The Irish Presence in the North of England 1850 – 1914" Northern History xii 1976 p.220]

In the spring of 1851, Father O'Sullivan found himself faced with a potential problem of "leakage" when the teacher he had provided at his own expense was denied access to the 20 Roman Catholic children who were resident in the Wolverhampton Union Workhouse. In March of that year, the priest appeared before the Board of Guardians and expressed his surprise that the children in question, whose ages ranged from six to ten years, had not been allowed to attend instruction on the Catholic catechism. In response, the Chairman, Rev J.B. Owen, agreed to set up a special sub-committee to look into the complaint. [WC 26th Mar 1851] A week later, Mr Coleman told the members of the Board that the children had "stated that they wished to be Protestants, but could not tell why". Though Mr Richard Wullon, a Catholic member of the Board, argued that these orphans were too young to be able to make out a case for not attending the services of the established Church, the Chairman ruled that it would be wrong to ignore their wishes and force them against their conscience to attend instruction by the representative of the Church of Rome. [WC 2nd April 1851] Father O'Sullivan was not prepared to let the matter rest, and on 31 March 1851 he wrote to the Poor Law Board in London explaining that the young Catholic orphans in Wolverhampton were "influenced by some indirect means to refuse attending upon the Roman Catholic priest who visits the house twice a week for the purpose of instructing them in the religion of their parents; that they are taught the catechisms of the Church of England, and sent to prayers with the Church of England children". He felt that the youngsters had been "tampered with" and that the Chairman had been wrong in ruling that children of such a tender age could make a decision on whether to attend Catholic instruction. [WC 9th April 1851]

Six weeks later, the Board of Guardians received a letter from the Secretary of the Poor Law Board supporting the stand taken by O'Sullivan, and directing them to make certain that the Catholic children "until of age to make an intelligent, unbiased, and independent choice for themselves, be brought up in the religious opinions which their parents professed." [WC 28th May 1851]

This success for the Roman Catholics was reversed when, in October 1855, the same problem recurred. A meeting of the Guardians of the Poor Law Union heard the request of "five little girls of the Roman Catholic faith to be brought up with the Protestant children". The girls, aged between nine and thirteen years, complained that they did not accept what they had been told by the Catholic priest, namely that he had the power to forgive sins, and that they should pray to the Virgin Mary. "Disbelieving this, they had lately absented themselves from the ministrations of the priest". The girls were interviewed by a committee of inquiry to whom they stated that "their wish to change their religion was their own and not dictated by anyone". The Catholic protests that the girls had been put under pressure and that they were too young to decide on such an important issue were swept aside, as the committee voted to allow the girls to choose for themselves. [WC 17th Oct 1855].