1828 - 1865

The conflict within (part 4)

Ss Mary and John: strife with the laity

While the differences with Wullon had been the result of his commercial self-interest the conflict which developed between another member of the laity, John Hawkesford, and the clergy was based on matters of higher principle. Hawkesford came to Wolverhampton in 1821 and, thirteen years later, at the age of twenty-six years he was converted to Catholicism. [WC 27th Jan 1864] By the late 1840s, he was one of the prominent lay Catholics in the town, and through his knowledge of legal matters, he negotiated to purchase the land on Snowhill from the Duke of Cleveland's agent in February 1850. Bishop Ullathorne had promised the Catholics of Wolverhampton that if they bought a suitable piece of land, he would pay for a church to be built on that plot. [WC 3rd Oct 1861] When the laity fulfilled its side of the agreement, the Bishop announced that his funds "had failed him", [ibid] and that the congregation would have to pay the major part of the construction costs. John Hawkesford, however, knew that Ullathorne was a beneficiary in the will of the elderly and wealthy Mrs Bowden, and as her executor, Hawkesford visited her to persuade her to make it a condition that the Bishop should use part of the legacy to pay for the Wolverhampton church. [Letter from Ullathorne to Hawkesford 20th June 1855]. 

The interior of Ss Mary and John, from a  post card of about 1900.

Unfortunately for Hawkesford, Mrs Bowden gave only a verbal undertaking to do this, and later the Bishop denied that he had promised the old lady to use part of his inheritance for the purchase of SS Mary & John's. Hawkesford retaliated by refusing to pay any part of the Bowden legacy to Ullathorne when Mrs Bowden died. The Bishop's response was a refusal to invite the Wolverhampton lawyer to the foundation-stone laying ceremony at the new church.

Bishop Brown of Shrewsbury tried to reconcile the two men. At one stage he felt that the Birmingham Bishop needed to be reminded that "Mr Hawkesford is probably the most generous Catholic in Wolverhampton". [Letter from Bishop Brown to Ullathorne 13th Dec 1852] In January 1854, Bishop Ullathorne wrote to Hawkesford explaining his absence from the town: "If I have kept away from Wolverhampton, though I have always satisfied myself that the work has been done well, it has been done from a sense of delicacy ....but the time has come, I hope, to put things on a settled footing". [Letter from Ullathorne to Hawkesford 3rd Jan 1854].

Hawkesford was not to be placated so easily, and on 4 April 1855, just a month before the opening of the new church, he decided to assert his leadership of the Catholic community in Wolverhampton by issuing a set of demands in a letter to the clergy of the town.

"Mr Hawkesford hereby gives notice that he requires an entire gratuitous seat or pew on the north side of the nave opposite the pulpit ... set apart for the exclusive use of his family on the day of the opening ... and from henceforth. Mr Hawkesford also takes this opportunity of professing against any charge being made to any person ... in the shape of pew rents ... in as much as the church is to be entirely and absolutely a free church, and the clergy supported by the gifts of the people." [Letter from Hawkesford to Roman catholic Clergy of Wolverhampton 4th April 1855].

Bishop Ullathorne was determined to win this conflict, and so he sent Rev Huddlestone to see Hawkesford, and this he did, informing the Wolverhampton man that "it was an interference which could not be allowed, and that this matter must be left to the discretion of the clergy". [Letter from Huddlestone to Ullathorne 18th April 1855] Hawkesford did not take kindly to this advice, and Huddlestone wrote to the Bishop warning him that Mr Hawkesford "may work himself up to such a temper that he may give your Lordship a good deal of nuisance". [ibid].

The power struggle between the laity, in the form of John Hawkesford, and the Roman Catholic clergy entered a more serious phase when the former had thousands of copies of a letter printed and distributed to the Catholics of Wolverhampton in June 1855. Signing himself "Justicia", Hawkesford began by listing some of the grievances of the town's Catholic population. "....of late the progress and promotion of the interests of our holy religion have been seriously checked, if not entirely retarded. Are not our poor unfortunate children being reared in ignorance? The boys' school has dwindled down to comparatively nothing, and Sunday school there is none." [Letter from "Justica" op cit] A bitter attack on the role of the clergy and the autocratic methods they used followed.

"Clergymen forgot their position as committee men; assumed undelegated powers, and seemed to imagine that those selected by the congregation to manage affairs were appointed merely as instruments in the hands of an authority which was warranted neither by the knowledge nor the experience of those who sought to exercise it. The committee by degrees numerically decreased. The vacancies were not refilled, and the confidence of the people abated .... The clergy assumed the entire control ... and at last the church was opened." [ibid].

Hawkesford identified one of the main problems as "the interference of clergymen in temporal matters of which they knew little or nothing", and suggested that if they left business affairs to those best qualified to manage them, "they themselves would have far more leisure to devote to the education and instruction of youth, and other spiritual duties, which is, in fact, their real vocation". A strong reprimand was also delivered to the laity of Wolverhampton which had allowed the situation to develop. "The apathy, almost approaching to indifference, which you on your part have all along exhibited in not manifesting your disapprobation of those things to which you most naturally and of necessity have been opposed." Hawkesford concluded by warning Wolverhampton Catholics of the dangers of being too deferential towards the clergy: " ... never lose sight of the line of distinction which ought properly to be drawn between the holy and spiritual authority which you ought to obey". [ibid].

Further attacks on the Catholic clergy appeared in a letter from "Truth" in the Wolverhampton Chronicle three weeks after the opening of SS Mary & John's Church. This item of correspondence expressed views similar to those that Hawkesford had included in his letter to the Catholics of Wolverhampton. It revealed that many Catholics had stayed away from the opening ceremony of the Snowhill church because there had been far too many delays in producing what was, in the end, a half-completed building, and also that the lay members of the committee appointed to prepare for the opening had found it impossible to achieve an amicable relationship with the clergy. [WC 23rd May 1855].

John Hawkesford continued his attack on some members of the Catholic clergy by demanding the removal of the first parish priest at SS Mary & John's, Father Fanning, before the Bowden legacy was paid to Ullathorne. The Bishop fought strongly against this attempt by a member of the laity to exercise control over the appointment of priests. He wrote, "it would be insofar an abdication of the episcopal authority". [Letter from Ullathorne to Huddlestone and Smith 3rd Jan 1836] Despite this, Bishop Ullathorne was prepared to compromise to establish an understanding with Hawkesford, who had become Wolverhampton's first Catholic Mayor. In May 1856, he made John Hawkesford the recognized founder of the Snowhill church and, two years later, he moved Fanning to another parish.

The struggle between laity and clergy characterised by Bishop Ullathorne's differences with John Hawkesford in Wolverhampton, were to be seen in many other parts of the country. In 1844, Bishop Brown of the newly created Lancashire district issued a pastoral letter abolishing all existing fund-raising machinery for churches and schools, and replacing it by a district board which contained no lay members. As far as the laity of Lancashire was concerned, contributions could be made only by individual donations and, furthermore, the control of how this money should be spent lay completely with the clergy. [Bossy op cit p. 350].