A hundred and fifty years ago, on 4 October 1834, the foundation stone of the old Pro-Cathedral in Bristol, the Church of the Apostles, was laid. Thus Clifton Cathedral, Bristol, celebrates this month the 150th anniversary of its parish. Bryan Little, author of many books of local history and the architecture of Catholic Churches in Bristol and the West Country, tells the story.
IN THE SPRING of 1834 two events bore heavily on the history of the Catholic Church in this country and, in particular, on its fortunes in the Western District.
The first, on March 3, was the death of the Franciscan Bishop Collingridge who had, since 1809, been the Western Vicar Apostolic. This meant the immediate succession of his Auxiliary, the forceful and energetic Benedictine Bishop Peter Augustine Baines.
The second, on April 13, was the Royal Assent to the Catholic Emancipation Act whose provisions took effect in ten days.
The atmosphere of Emancipation, and its swift exploitation by Baines, were soon to have their effect on the starting, on a sloping hillside site in Clifton, of the Church of the Apostles whose parish still flourishes as that of Clifton Cathedral.
Bishop Baines, who was well aware of the Catholic situation in Bristol and its environs, must have realised that the central chapel in Trenchard Street, of fair size but tucked away in a narrow street and under what he considered to be uncongenial Jesuit control, was unsuitable as the chief Catholic church in the largest city in his district.
After he had dismissed a Jesuit parish priest, and had installed a congenial Franciscan, Fr Francis Edgeworth, the way was clear for a striking Catholic demonstration in the city's most fashionable area.
Though Catholics had had freedom of public worship for nearly 40 years there could still be trouble from the prejudiced owners of property who refused to sell if they suspected that land was intended for the building of Catholic Churches.
So the site in Clifton, sloping and quarried and with what proved to be awkwardly friable geology, was bought. not directly by Baines or Edgeworth but by John Tilladam, a Catholic layman of a family which had been in the shoemaking trade and whose members had attained modest prominence in Bristol.
Tilladam's widow later transferred the land to the Vicar Apostolic. In the meantime preparations were made for the design and building of what would, had it been quickly finished in accordance with its plans, have been England's largest and most ambitious place of Catholic worship.
Bishop Baines was a prelate whose architectural ambitions outran the limited resources of his flock: he was more at home amid the Baroque splendours of Papal Rome than in the poserty stricken Western District.
This appeared in w hat he did, or tried to do, at Prior Park, also in the scheme for a great church in Clifton.
The architect chosen for this church was the talented, versatile H E Goodridge of Bath. He was. the designer, in 1834, of the Roman Baroque ceremonial stairs by which one now approaches Prior Park's great Palladian portico.
Goodridge also worked, at Prior Park, on repairs after the fire of 1836, and he designed, but never saw built, the spectacular four-porticoed and domed church which Baines hoped would stand on the skyline behind the mansion.
He also designed the attractive Gothic Catholic Church at Lyme Regis. Goodridge must have worked on his Clifton designs early in 1834.
The church's foundation stone was laid, without local press publicity, on October 4th, 1834; this. being St Francis' day, was a fitting one, and perhaps deliberately chosen, as Fr Edgeworth, who was in charge of the local proceedings and probably laid the stone, was a Franciscan.
The church was to have been a splendid structure, though; decidedly dark inside, with a delicately pillared lantern tower casting ample light only onto the sanctuary.
The basement structure was to support a T-shaped church whose transepts were each to have a pair of Corinthian columns, while noble Corinthian three-quarter columns were to rise against the rusticated walls of the nave.
The main entrance was to be through a splendid six-columned Corinthian portico sshose pediment, capped by a statue of Christ. or St. Helen, carrying the Cross, was to be filled with sculpture showing the Sermon on the Mount, at which all the Apostles are assumed to have been present.. The planned appearance of the interior is unknown.
Work went on for a few years, but geological and financial difficulties halted progress so that the church, like Brunel's Suspension Bridge not far away, lay unfinished for several years.
Mass was, however, said, on or near the site, in a chapel of St. Augustine which held not more than 150 people.
Fr Edgeworth, in charge of the unfinished church after Baines' sudden death in 1843, went bankrupt and left the country. The building was put up for sale, but Bishop Ullathorne, who became Western Vicar Apostolic in 1846, bought the shell of the church from a Catholic lads to whom it had been mortgaged and raised money so that it could. in 1848, be fitted out for worship.
In 1850 the church became Clifton Diocese's "Pro" Cathedral. Alterations were made at various dates, and early this century Bishop Burton installed the fine, richly coloured set of nave windows showing saints and penal period martyrs associated with the counties which make up Clifton Diocese, and the patron saints of three of its bishops.
The basement is now used by the Bristol Waldorf School, but the upper part is sadly empty and largely derelict and awaits a new use. But Goodridge's side walls, and his three-quarter columns (without their intended capitals) still recall the superb scheme whose commencement, a hundred and fifty years ago, initiated what is now the parish of Clifton Cathedral.