St Francis Xavier, Liverpool
A long heritage alongside the poor
Jesuits had a mission in the Liverpool area from the 17th Century. In 1712 they built the first Catholic chapel since the Reformation. A second larger chapel was built in 1736 only to be demolished by an anti-Catholic mob in 1738. It was rebuilt in the following year disguised as a warehouse. Much of the hard work which led to the opening of St Francis Xavier's Church in 1848 was done by the Society of St Francis Xavier, a group of lay people some of whom had been educated at Stonyhurst, the Jesuit college. They were fully aware of the debt Liverpool's growing Catholic population owed to the Jesuit mission in nurturing the faith.
In 1811 the population of Liverpool had reached 100,000 and by 1831 it had doubled again. Liverpool needed another Catholic Church. The first Catholic secondary day school in the country was opened in 1843 followed by SFX church five years later. Between the planning of the church and its opening in 1848, the Great Famine had devastated Ireland and Liverpool was now home to many more Catholic immigrants, many of them destitute. The church, designed to hold 1000, was expanded. In 1888 the beautiful Sodality Chapel was added.
The parish flourished and by the Second World War was the largest Catholic parish in England, with over 13,000 Catholics living within its crowded boundaries. There were several schools including SFX College. It remained a large parish until the early 1960s when the council started to clear the slums and re-house parishioners in other parts of the city and beyond. The area went into sharp decline. By the early 1980s there were plans to demolish the nave of the church, but a massive nation-wide campaign was successfully fought to save the building.
In recent years new homes have been built and the community has started to regain its former confidence. Hope College - the only ecumenical college of higher education in the country - moved part of its campus into former school buildings. In 2001 two local parishes, St Joseph's and St Mary of the Angels joined with St Francis Xavier's to form one new parish.
Over the following ten years a series of major capital restoration and renovation works were completed. In 2008 Held in Trust, an exhibition of Catholic heritage, with over 70 artefacts from Stonyhurst, was promoted at the church for Liverpool's 2008 Capital of Culture year. It was described as the best and most beautiful independent initiative of the year and welcomed over 12,000 visitors.
Nowadays the church and parish team continue to serve the poor, working closely with the Whitechapel Centre, Liverpool's largest homeless project, which is housed in one of the church's buildings. And SFX provides the secretariat for the Liverpool churches homeless co-ordination group, StreetFaith.
The Friends of SFX was established in 2010 to keep in touch with and celebrate the wider SFX family, as so many people’s family stories have some connection to the church. We get together for social events and outings, we produce a newsletter and we enjoy acting as ‘welcomers’ and tour guides, often picking up valuable information about the past from our visitors.
Find out more about the Friends of SFX visit their website
Pray with us
God our Father,
as St Francis Xavier travelled to the ends of the earth,
impelled by love of Christ and afire with his good news,
give me the trust and the grace to base all that I do entirely on you,
safe in the knowledge that you raise up the lowly
and fill us with good things.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Taken from Day 9 of this novena of grace to St Francis Xavier SJ
Who was St Francis Xavier?
In art, St Francis Xavier is often depicted holding a crucifix aloft to represent the zeal he felt for bringing Christ’s Gospel to those who had not heard it. Like St Ignatius Loyola, he originally had worldly ambitions, but on meeting Ignatius in Paris at the age of 19, he realised the power of the Spiritual Exercises and studied instead for the priesthood. He became one of Ignatius’ first Companions and took vows of poverty and chastity with Ignatius at Montmartre in 1534. He was ordained three years later.
Denis Blackledge SJ, parish priest, SFX parish church, Liverpool
Became a Jesuit in 1961. Denis has previously been a superior and parish priest as well as a diocesan communications officer. At present he is parish priest at St Francis Xavier, Liverpool.