From the Archives: St Francis Xavier, Liverpool


Architect's drawing of SFX church, 1844

On Tuesday 30 May, the BBC will air the first episode of its new drama Broken. Set in a Catholic community in the north of England, it tells the moving stories of its priest, played by Sean Bean, and parishioners. Much of the series was filmed in the Jesuit Church of St Francis Xavier in Liverpool, known locally as SFX, and Parish Priest Fr Denis Blackledge SJ was on hand throughout the filming to act as a religious advisor.

In honour of the show’s debut airing, we explore the SFX archives held at the Province Archives.

The Jesuits have had a presence in Liverpool since the late sixteenth century. In 1840, a group of lay people, the Society of St Francis Xavier, decided that a new church was needed to meet the demands of the growing Catholic community. In a copy of the petition to the Vicar Apostolic of the Northern District, Dr Briggs, the SFX Committee state that they have ‘secured a plot of land in Salisbury Street … about midway between the chapels of St Anthony and St Nicholas for the purpose of erecting another Catholic Church which we intend to present to the clergy of the Society of Jesus.’ Further correspondence reveals opposition to the idea, and in a copy of a letter dated 23 March 1840, the Vicar Apostolic says that he ‘cannot give [his] consent to the building of the proposed church, & that [he prays] the Committee desist from their efforts to raise subscriptions for that purpose.’

Permission for the building of the Church was finally granted, however, and Fr Francis West SJ was appointed the first Rector of St Francis Xavier’s to overlook its building. Joseph John Scoles was appointed as architect, and the foundation stone was laid in 1842. This image of the design, dated 1844, shows an additional aisle on the East side, which wasn’t built, and it has at some point been scribbled over with pencil. The church had been designed to hold 1,000 people but this proved to be insufficient for the congregation. The Sodality Chapel, designed by Edmund Kirby to solve this problem, was opened in 1888, which is why it does not appear in the sketch. In 1898 the wall dividing the Sodality Chapel from the main part of the church was demolished.

One of the treasures of the collection is a manuscript volume containing a series of anecdotes compiled by ‘A Happy Sodalist’, John Kay, in 1904, as a Christmas present to the Rector, Fr James Hayes SJ. An example involves Br William Baylis, who, ‘when playing football in the yard, kicked the ball against the face of the Sacred Heart in the window and broke it. I found all the pieces except two, I fitted a piece of clear glass in the opening, and cemented the stained glass on it, and touched up with paint the bare places. It still remains as so repaired.’ According to Kay, the electric lights were first switched on in the church at 3.59pm, 2 December 1901. John Kennedy in his St Francis Xavier’s Liverpool: 1848-1998I writes that ‘the congregation was amused, although Fr Hayes was not, as odd lights were going on and off during the service.’ The volume also contains portraits of Fr Hayes, and Fr Thomas Porter SJ, who was Rector from 1871 to 1879, as well as hand-drawn plans of the Church. The following plans compare the Church in 1872 and 1904.

During the first years of the Second World War, several bombs fell near the Church. Although it remained standing, the roof was badly damaged and two of the stained glass windows behind the High Altar were completely destroyed. Several other windows had been blown out and the East end of the presbytery had been devastated. On the evening of 6 January 1948, a heavy plaster panel fell from the roof onto the benches below. An examination showed that the church roof had been lifted, probably by a land-mine explosion, and the upper walls were out of alignment. The main body of the church was not able to be used until months of extensive repairs had been carried out. The church reopened on 3 December 1948, the feast of St Francis Xavier, as recorded in Fr Minister’s Journal for that day.

After a period of decline from the 1960s onwards, it looked as though the church might not survive, however a national campaign was launched in response to plans to demolish the nave in 1981 and it was saved. Today, it continues to play an important part in the life of the parish and its community.

The Jesuits in Britain Archives holds a range of material from SFX, including church notice books, news cuttings, and plans. If you are interested in the history of the church, its community, or the college, please contact us.