I.—SETTING THE STAGE
The year of Our Lord 1731, the fourth of our King George II. What days were those in this our town of Preston! “Priest’s town” was once its name, a title given on account of its numerous religious houses. But in 1731—was there a priest here to be found? Indeed yes, for never was this County of Lancashire without its sturdy adherents to the Faith of their Fathers. And so long as there were Catholics, so long also was the priest there to care for them in their needs. But in that year he went about in disguise and in fear for his liberty—and his life, too, perhaps.
A pageant was held in Avenham Park last year. It told by tableaux vivants the history of Preston’s Gilds. One fact stood out in striking prominence. It was the wonderful respect with which the friar, the monk, the priest was treated by the people in the days when our town was young. It was the sway that the priest held, and that those same people regarded as in no way usurped, but which they submitted to with loving cheerfulness. It was the way in which the sons of Preston turned to the priest in their difficulties for counsel. But, in 1731, the priest was by law a felon, a person liable to be hunted with a vigour and a hatred greater than was stirred by a murderer or a highwayman. Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, speaking during the trial of the case “King v. Webb,” thus summarized the law as regards the Catholic clergy, as it existed during the first three parts of the eighteenth century: “By the Statute of Queen Elizabeth 27, c. 2, it is High Treason for any man, who is proved to be a priest, to breathe in this kingdom. Another Statute was made afterwards more mild, that only imposed a fine and short imprisonment. And a Statute of King William (11 and 12 W. iii., c. 4) condemns any priest convicted of exercising his functions to perpetual punishment.” In very fact we find Father Matthew Atkinson, O.S.F., ending his life in the cells of Hurst Castle in 1729. As late as 1767, Father John Malony was sentenced to perpetual imprisonment under the Act just cited.
And in that same year, 1731, the priest’s spiritual children also were banned, were hated, were despised, were mishandled. For no other crime than this, that they served their God according to the dictates of their conscience and not according to the command of their temporal rulers, because, in a word, they remained true to the Faith of their Fathers, they were despoiled and oppressed.
True the activity of the pursuivant had largely abated, the Penal laws were administered with less fierceness than heretofore. But this was because the victims of the fury lay hidden. Catholics were cowed by persecution. They dared not show themselves as Catholics in public. They lived, as lived the early Christians in the first centuries of the Church.
Would they hear Mass? It must be done in secret. In the parlour of some friendly hostelry Catholics assembled, a few at a time. They sat around a table, pipes alight and tankards of ale to hand. When all had arrived, a sliding door revealed an altar, or a seeming wardrobe or sideboard was transformed into one. A priest in vestments came in from another room and began the Sacred Mysteries, while a watch was kept for the approach of spies. Did danger threaten, the priest snatched up the chalice and the missal and disappeared with them into “the priest’s hiding hole.” The altar was quickly hidden. The devout congregation remained chatting and drinking and smoking like ordinary tap-room frequenters.
Such was the position of our Catholic fathers in 1731. And their position under the Hanoverian George was going from bad to worse. Wealth and position had been usurped by “the Church as by law established.” The Papist was an outcast despised. And no slight rift appeared in the dark clouds ahead. It was still High Treason for a priest to say Mass. It was still a crime to give a priest a refuge. A Catholic was still unable to purchase land or to succeed to real estate. It was still punishable to send one’s children to the Continent for education; and it was but by stealth that they could be educated as Catholics at home. An apostate son could still drive his own father from his home. Still were Catholics kept out of the Army and Navy and excluded from the professions of law and medicine. Still were Catholics forbidden to be guardians over children. Still were the prisons filled by felons, whose crime was their Faith.
Though things were fairly quiet in Preston in 1731, it was but the lull between storms. The pursuivant was drowsing, the fierce heat of persecution had cooled down. But it wanted little to awaken the one, to fan the other to a blaze. Though beaten into outward submission, Catholics were still feared. Only sixteen years before stirring events took place, when the horse and foot of the Pretender marched through the streets of Preston and occupied the town. Catholics had lent their aid. Fourteen years later they rallied around Prince Charles Edward in 1745. They thought their cause and that of the exiled Stuarts was one. As a body they were with the Jacobite cause. This kept on them the Government’s attention; and this attention meant fresh penal legislation—in other words persecution—such, for instance, as the Statute 9, Geo. i., c. 18, of 1723, ordering £100,000 to be assessed on Catholics.
Such was in 1731 the position of the Catholics of England. Some fell away. Can one wonder? Life was so black for those who remained true. Life was made so bright for those who renounced their principles. Rich rewards, high honours, even dukedoms were held up as baits for apostasy—and were, in fact, conferred. But our Lancashire Catholics were cast in strong metal. They were staunch. They remained firm adherents of their Faith. But, as we have seen, they had to live again much as the early Christians had lived in the days of the Catacombs.
Would you have a picture of a Catholic of that day? Let us quote a passage from Dr. Edwin H. Burton’s “Life and Times of Bishop Challoner” (vol. i., p. 131.):
A ‘Garden-of-the-soul Catholic’ (a name given at the time of the Oxford Movement to the old hereditary members of the Church) went to communion only at the eight Indulgences, but his preparation lasted for days before each Feast, and his thanksgiving continued for days afterwards. He lwas regular in his morning and evening devotions, and devoted much of his Sunday to prayer; he kept the fasts and abstinences of the Church rigorously, and was active and untiring in works of mercy … His piety was deep and strong, but very sober in character.
Such was the Catholic in 1731. His piety was deep and strong. Steel is hardened by heat. Your Catholic fathers were hardened by the fires of persecution. “He was active and untiring in works of mercy.” Solidly pious and untiringly merciful, such were the founders in 1731 of “The First Catholic Charitable Society.”