1828 - 1865

The conflict within (part 1)

The clergy versus the laity

The attempt by the Catholic clergy to establish its dominance over the laity has been the subject of much recent discussion [Bossy op cit pp. 323 – 326, Aveling op cit pp. 322 – 346] for it seems clear that the great transformation that was taking place within the Catholic Church in Britain was upsetting the balance of power. In 1770 the Roman Catholic community was still dominated by its secular aristocracy, but the Catholic gentry, like English gentry in general, was gradually losing its demographic, economic, social and political supremacy. Some families were simply disappearing through their inability to produce a male heir, while others were deserting Catholicism to join the ranks of the Church of England, a local example being Peter Giffard, who became an Anglican in 1786. [Bossy op cit p. 324] The exodus of Catholic labourers and their families from rural areas, and the increasing immigration of Irish to the manufacturing towns, helped further diminish the influence of the Catholic gentry.

This process was aided by the appointment of John Milner to the position of Vicar Apostolic of the Midlands District in 1803. Although Bishop Milner became the declared opponent of the aristocratic predominance of the Catholic community, this did not mean that he was a liberal; indeed, he was quite the opposite, continually expounding the Catholic principles of episcopal authoritarianism as divine law, "and condemning the democracy of the liberals as mad and heterodox". [Aveling op cit p. 340] In his twenty three years as Vicar Apostolic, Milner effectively presided over the subjugation of the Catholic gentry and aristocracy by the clergy. Bossy argues that "by about 1820 the tension between the clergy and the third estate over congregational institutions had reached a point of balance". [Bossy op cit p. 347].

The conflict that existed within the Wolverhampton Catholic community was to some extent a reflection of a national struggle, but it was also the result of clashes of personality between certain members of the laity and clergy in the area.

The Presbytery of SsMary and John's Church, Snow Hill, today.

Father Patrick O'Sullivan, who came to SS Peter & Paul's chapel in 1830 and who became, perhaps, the dominant Catholic priest in the town for most of the period under review, was involved in a number of controversies with colleagues. O'Sullivan's superior, Bishop Walsh, was not particularly impressed by the way in which the Irishman carried out his duties as parish priest and was considering, in the early months of 1839, whether it might not be advisable to move him to another town. [WC 13th Mar 1839] The Catholics of Wolverhampton were alarmed at this prospect and 771 of them signed a petition urging the Bishop to leave their priest in the town. Walsh was obviously embarrassed by this situation, later confessing that he thought that it was unlikely that he had voiced such criticisms about the worthy O'Sullivan, and that, if he had done so, "he would now declare that he ought not to have said such words". [ibid] As a result of this retraction by Bishop Walsh, who had been prepared to bow to pressure from the laity, Father O'Sullivan was to remain at the Wolverhampton chapel until the early 1850s.