A brief history
“Rev. Thomas Taylor, for many years priest at Gillmoss, contributed to the Catholic Annual Directory for 1913 a most interesting account of this Mission. Previously to that Dom Gilbert Dolan had published in the Transactions of the Historical Society of Lancashire and Cheshire a fairly detailed list of the priests who had served this mission. From these two sources the following is compiled.
He practised the Catholic Faith in secret
Two miles beyond the village of West Derby, and skirting Croxteth Park, the ancestral home of the Molyneux family, lies the hamlet of Gillmoss, where the Lamp of the Faith was kept burning throughout the times of persecution by the lords of Molyneux, who remained staunch adherents of the Old Faith till their unfortunate son forsook it in 1769, just when happier days were dawning. In Lord Burghley’s map of Lancashire, dated 1590, a cross is placed against the name of Sir Richard Molyneux, of Croxteth Hall, as being one of the popish recusants, against whom the penal laws were to be rigorously enforced. In the ‘Vewe of ye State of ye Countie’ it is said that ‘he maketh shew of good conformitie, but many of his company ar in evell note.’ He temporised outwardly and practised his religion in secret. His children were brought up Catholics, and all his descendants remained so till the premature death of the father of the ninth Viscount Molyneux. Throughout the days of persecution Mass was regularly said in the private chapels of Croxteth and Sefton. Among the noble confessors for the Faith in times of persecution there were several Molyneux: Caryll, Viscount Molyneux (Baronet of Sefton and third Viscount Molyneux of Maryborough in Ireland); John Molyneux, of the Wood, Melling, who died in Salford Gaol in 1581 for harboring six Catholic priests (one of them was the famous Cardinal Allen); Anthony Molyneux, Esq., who was banished from the kingdom for his Faith, and who died in 1586 in St Dominica; and also Father Thomas Molyneux, S.J., who was tried at Newcastle Assizes for being a priest and a Jesuit. He was poisoned in Morpeth Prison on January 12, 1681, aged forty-three.
There were many witnesses of this murder
As there were many witnesses of this murder, the prison authorities gave it out that this holy priest had committed suicide, and they cast his body on a dungheap for the fanatical mob to cast all kinds of filth on it. When the body was exhumed ten years later, it was found perfectly incorrupt and as white and flexible as that of a living person. In 1746, when the Lord of the Manor was a Jesuit priest – the Rev. William, seventh Viscount Molyneux – there were seven members of this family in the Society of Jesus. For more than two centuries, in defiance of the savage penal laws then in force, a chaplain was maintained at Croxteth Hall to minister to the Catholics in the neighbourhood, and the ancient Mission, now known as Gillmoss, had its origin in this chaplaincy.
The old chapel and presbytery, Gillmoss, ca. 1923
In defiance of the savage penal laws in force…
In 1768 Charles William, ninth Viscount Molyneux (who was created first Earl of Sexton in 1772 in reward for his desertion of the Catholic Faith), caused a presbytery to be built up to the end of a farmhouse at Gillmoss, near Croxteth Hall, and converted the attics in this farmhouse into a chapel, to be used by the residents in place of the chapel at the Hall. Regarding the unfortunate lapse of the head of this once great Catholic family a recent writer has with much fairness said: ‘Hon. Charles William became ninth Viscount Molyneux on the death of his uncle, Rev. Viscount Molyneux, S.J., in 1769. He was at this time only eleven years of age. It has frequently been asserted that he ’embraced’ Protestantism [the compulsory belief-system enforced by the state], and he has been stigmatised as an ‘apostate’; but as his father had left him under the guardianship of the Protestant Duke of Beaufort and others, without any stipulation as to religion, it is highly improbable that he had any opportunities of being brought up a Roman Catholic. At the age of twenty he publicly read ‘a renunciation of the Errors of the Church of Rome’ before the curate and clerk of St Martin’s-in-the-Fields, London, on 5th March, 1769. This curious document is now in the muniment room at Croxteth.’ The truth is that the responsibility in this matter rests with the Government of the time, which seized every opportunity of placing Catholic minors under Protestant guardians, thus ensuring the Protestant education of the heirs to great estates. The Penal Laws being then in force, the relatives had no redress. This same device was practised in the case of the young Bradshaigh, of Haigh Hall, and many other leading English families, and also in the still more remarkable case of the young Duke of Gordon in Scotland in 1728, whose father, the second Duke, died from the effects of a hurried journey from the Highlands to London to defend the little Catholic chapel of St Ninian in the Enzie from desecration.
He had hurried to defend the little Catholic chapel of St Ninian from desecration
The chaplains at Croxteth Hall were the following: From 1600 to 1634 the names of the chaplains are not yet known; in all probability the Rev. John Birtwistle, who came from Valladolid in 1600, served here till his death, when he was buried at Harkirk, February 26, 1620; the Rev. Thomas Fazakerley, alias Ashton, came from Rome in 1636, and died here March 22, 1664, and was buried at Harkirk; the Rev. John Birtwistle died here January 26, 1680, and was buried at Harkirk; Rev. Thomas Martin, a native of Ireland, died here, and was buried at Harkirk, June 11, 1691; Father Albert Babthorpe, S.J., was here in 1701-1704, but was probably tutor to the family, for the chaplaincy was served by the secular clergy; Richard Hitchmough, alias Barker, the notorious apostate, informer, and pursuivant, states that he was chaplain here in 1709.
The snares of worldly rewards
He had become an apostate in 1714, and was rewarded for his treachery with the vicarage of Whenby in Yorkshire. In 1717 Hitchmough informed the Commissioners for Forfeited Estates that ‘at Croxteth in the hundred of Derby, in the County of Lancaster, the seat of the Rt. Hon. William, Viscount Molyneux, were one large silver chalice double gilt within with gold; one large paten of pure gold; two silver crucibles alias cruets, for wine and water; one silver plate upon which the said crucibles did stand; six tall silver candlesticks; and a large silver crucifix, the whole solid silver, and which the Lady Molyneux, the first wife to his present Lordship, told this deponent cost his Lordship £400 in London. All the above plate this deponent says he saw often in the year 1709, at which time he officiated there as chaplain to his Lordship.’ Certainly, the family at that time had the true Catholic spirit, when they so handsomely provided for the celebration of holy Mass; but this generosity was almost universal in the old Catholic homes of Lancashire and of England generally.
The Government rewarded informers with titles, money and property of Catholic Christians
But to continue the list of chaplains: Father Thomas Worthington, O.P., was here from 1713 to 1717, when the fourth Viscount died. Father Worthington’s register is now at Middleton in Yorkshire. Between the years 1713 and 1717 four marriages are recorded, the second on the list being that of William, Viscount Molyneux, to Mary Skelton, but as Lord Molyneux died in the following year, this marriage apparently has never been given in the Peerage. It is witnessed by – Skelton, Robert Molyneux, James Leyburn, and Father Worthington. The rest of the book contains thirty-one baptisms under the heading, ‘List of those baptised by Father Thomas Worthington, Miss. Apost. 1713 to 1717,’ and most of these are stated to have taken place ‘in capella de Croxteth.’ A little further on occurs the entry: ‘1727, 11 Aug. I received of Sister Veronica a crown for Bro. Ivor A ducate on account of M. Skeldon…. Two little rings and a silver Seal for Neece Ursula from Sister and Aunt; she being dead I left ’em for nephew Tom with Mrs. Molyneux of Mosborow.’ (Copy of register at Somerset House, kindly supplied by R. J. Broadbent, Esq.)
The Catholic Relief Act had not yet been passed…
Rev. Richard Jameson, who was serving the Mission of Bardsea, a hunting seat of Lord Molyneux, till the troubles of 1715, when he fled to Ashton, probably succeeded Father Worthington. Father Richard Billinge, S.J., was here on March 5, 1720; Father John Cuerdon, of the Discalced Carmelites, served here from Sefton from September, 1726. In 1728 Bishop Williams confirmed 207 persons here. Rev. Robert Kendal came to Croxteth in or about 1733, and died there April 19, 1746, aged forty-five, and was buried at Sexton as ‘Priest from Crocksteth.’
Caryll, the sixth Viscount, having died a few months before Father Kendal, was succeeded by Father William Molyneux, S.J., who transferred the chaplaincy to his own order. Father Charles Dormer, S.J., sixth Lord Former, was appointed in 1747, but removed to Foole Hall, Cheshire, in September, 1750; Father John Bodenham came in 1750, and died here that same year. Father Sebastian Redford was appointed in November, 1750, and stayed till 1756. The chaplaincy at the Hall was then transferred to the Benedictines, who had long served that at Sefton Hall.
It was illegal to build a Catholic chapel
From 1756 to 1768 Dom Bernard Bennet Bolas, O.S.B., served as chaplain. In 1768 the Croxteth Hall chaplaincy ceased through the approaching marriage and change of religion of Charles William, ninth Viscount Molyneux, who married Isabella Stanhope, daughter of the Earl of Harrington, and who provided a new chapel in the attics of a farmhouse at Gillmoss and a presbytery for Father Bolas in place of the chapel at Croxteth Hall, as already narrated.
Father Bolas, O.S.B., had charge of the ‘old chapel’ from 1768 till his death in 1773. This chapel may be seen by visitors at any time, and will be found in the same condition as in Father Bolas’s days. In the illustration the centre building contains the chapel, which ran from end to end of the attic. On visiting it one is surprised to find how roomy it is. A very similar position is seen at Hornby, where the large attic above the priest’s house was evidently intended for a chapel. One must of course bear in mind that the first Catholic Relief Act had not yet been passed: hence it was illegal to build a Catholic chapel, and the best that could be done was to use the space under the roof. A visit to these attic chapels is very instructive and serves to impress on the mind the difficulties of our Catholic forefathers.
It serves to impress on the mind the difficulties of our Catholic forefathers
Oftentimes distinguished visitors attended this hallowed sanctuary, as it is shown by the following record on the back of one of the baptismal registers at Gillmoss in the handwriting of Rev. Joseph Emmott, S.J., who was then the priest there: ‘During the month of September, 1812, Mons. le Comte d’Artois, with his attendants, the Baron de Rolles and the Duc de Berri, paid his customary annual visit to Croxteth Hall, and, as usual, came regularly to prayers at Gillmoss. His seat in the chapel, known by the name of ‘the King of France’s seat,’ is the one nearest to the Gospel side of the Altar.’ The Comte d’Artois became Charles X, King of France, in 1824, his elder brother, the Comte de Provence, ascending the French throne in 1814 as Louis XVIII. Both were brothers of the ill-fated Louis XVI, who was guillotined during the Revolution. The Duc de Berri, son of the Comte d’Artois, and father of the Comte de Chambord (the last of the elder branch of the Bourbons), was assassinated by Louvel in 1820.
The future King of France had attended Mass regularly at Gillmoss
The priests who ministered for fifty-six in the old chapel (1768-1824) were: Father Bolas, O.S.B. (1768-1773); Father Joseph Emmott, S.J., who states in one of the registers that he came to Gillmoss on April 10, 1773, and who died there in 1816, aged eighty-two. During his time Bishop Walton confirmed in the ‘old chapel’ 200 persons (June, 1774). In 1783 the congregation was reckoned to number 200. In October, 1784, Bishop Matthew Gibson confirmed 62 persons, the communicants being returned at 175.
St Swithin’s Church and presbytery, Gillmoss, ca. 1923
‘For the glory of God and the benefit of the neighbouring Catholics’
The Jesuit Fathers attended the Mission till the year 1887, when it was transferred to the secular clergy, and Rev. John Kelly took charge. He was succeeded in 1891 by Rev. Thomas Taylor, to whom we are indebted for much of the above account. Rev. Wilfred Carr came to Gillmoss in 1913 and remained till 1921. Of the Jesuit Fathers, the two who resided longest at Gillmoss were Father Joseph Cope and Father Edward Morrison. The former built the present church of St Swithin a few yards distant from the ‘old chapel,’ and added the presbytery in 1826. His epitaph may be read on the right of the church-door entrance as follows: ‘Sacred to the memory of the Rev. Joseph Cope, S.J., who for the glory of God and the benefit of the neighbouring Catholics, by great personal exertions, mainly contributed to the erection of this chapel. Loved in life, he died lamented on 20th Dec., 1834, in the forty-fifth year of his age.’ Other Jesuits buried here are Fathers West, Morron, Hilton, Brindle, Noble, Etheridge, etc., whilst of the laity the names occur of many good old Catholic families, it being a favourite burial-place for the Catholic gentry. And, as it were, to link up Gillmoss with the Molyneux family, the Molyneux arms (azure, a cross moline) were fixed in stone on the outside wall over the entrance door of the present church of St Swithin, when it was opened in 1824, whilst in the cemetery lie buried Captain Hon. Roger Molyneux, and his only son, Roger Anthony, aged ten-and-a-half, who was buried at St Swithin’s in 1902, whilst all around lie the remains of old-time worthies, with names redolent of the Lancashire soil.
Two altar stones of penal times of rough slate and stone
There are some large and valuable oil-paintings hanging on the walls of the present church – The Last Supper, The Crucifixion, The Dead Christ, Mater Dolorosa, etc. – which pictures probably came from Croxteth Hall after Lord Molyneux had forsaken the religion of his forefathers in 1769. In the sacristy is the ‘Molyneux Ciborium,’ on the rim of which are scratched the following words: ‘The gift of ye Hon. Mary Molyneux to Croxteth, 1738. Pray for her.’ Also two altar stones of penal times of rough slate and stone, on which holy Mass had often been said.”
– Dom F. O. Blundell, O.S.B., Gillmoss, in Old Catholic Lancashire, Burns Oates & Washbourne, London, 1925