HOW THE CATHOLIC FAITH PERSISTED IN THE MACCLESFIELD AREA It seems possible that from the time of Elizabeth I in the 1580 & 90s the Catholics in the Macclesfield area had Mass at Sutton Hall . In 1860 during alterations to one room in the Hall, 17 paintings were discovered built up in a recess in the wall and this recess may have been a priest’s hiding hole. By this time Catholics were only able hold on to their faith when they had the protection of a local gentlemen. It is feasible that it was through the protection of Sir Humphrey Davenport who succeeded to the Sutton Hall estate on marriage to Mary Sutton that a priest began to reside at Sutton Hall. He was the son of Margaret Davenport of Bramhall , one of the most renowned recusants, (as persecuted Catholics came to be known) in the County of Cheshire. Joseph Gillow in his book Catholicity in Stockport (1902) considered that it was “ highly probable that the Rev. Francis ffitton was here [Sutton Hall] in the early seventeenth century” This Francis ffitton was ordained priest in April 1600 in the seminary at Douai in Northern France. Joseph Gillow goes on to relate that ;” In all probability he [Francis ffitton] resided at Sutton , and was the donor of the ancient chalice bearing his name …which was used by the priests of the mission for close on two hundred and fifty years. Sometime during the 17C a chapel at Sutton Hall was built. Another piece of evidence of continued residence of a priest was that 1698 Sir Rowland Bellasis, the descendant & owner of Sutton Hall arranged for an annuity to be paid “to such priest or priests as should assist the Catholics of Sutton.” It was at this time following the Oates Plot in 1678 & the accession of William & Mary in 1688 ( the “Glorious Revolution” ) that a 30 year period of increasingly severe laws against Catholic were put in place making it increasingly difficult to hold on to the Catholic Faith. The secession of the 4 th Viscount Fauconberg of Sutton Hall in 1700 mirrored this tendency in England as a whole during the 18C that increasing numbers of wealthy families became disenchanted with the prospect of seemingly exclusion from power and bare sufferance in society. So, without the patronage and support of the wealthy many congregations ceased to exist. The Jacobite failures of 1715 and 1745 subjected Catholics to even greater antipathy and suspicion. The looting of Macclesfield in December 1745 by the army of Bonnie Prince Charlie only made matters worse. By 1767 there was a list made of thirty eight Catholics in the area : 21 of whom lived in Macclesfield town and 17 in Sutton who were largely artisans and craftsmen. The list names a Mr Hulme as the priest but as someone chiefly residing in Manchester. By this time the priests at Sutton were finding it more & more difficult to reside permanently at Sutton and the priest would move between Sutton, Manchester and then Townley Hall near Blackburn. However during this difficult time the small congregation of Catholics continued to meet for Mass and to manage to evade discovery by varying the place of celebration from the chapel in the Sutton Hall to a hay-loft above a stable at Ridge Hill Farm and to a house at Sutton Lane Ends built in 1720 for the Misses Orme. In 1743 a Catholic youth named Birchenough showed someone in black, alighting from a coach in Macclesfield Market Square, the way to the Misses Orme’s house where he served Mass for the celebrant who, he was told, was a Bishop- probably the Bishop of the Northern District. When the French Revolution in 1779 occurred many French including religious communities fled across the channel to take refuge in England. And just like now with the Ukrainian invasion & refugees, there was immense sympathy for the French refugees. The mood of suspicion & resentment for Catholics changed to compassion & toleration. The law was changed in 1778 that allowed Catholics to acquire land and open a school without incurring imprisonment for life. In 1791 law was changed to allow Catholics , clerical and lay, freedom to worship on fulfilling certain legal formalities. In November 1794 Rev. Edward Kenyon was appointed the first parish priest of St. Mary’s Mulberry St, in Manchester (the Hidden Gem), and a refugee priest of the French Diocese of Reims, Abbé Louis Robin, took pastoral care of the Macclesfield area starting the first known baptismal register in 1795 and working in Macclesfield until 1801. By 1801 the number of Catholics was about ninety and there was an influx of Irish weavers to work in the growing silk industry in the town. After the failed rebellion in Ireland by Wolf Tone in 1798 a large number of Irish came to Stockport and in 1798 Stockport became a separate mission from St. Mary’s Mulberry St.. Then in 1801 Fr. James Blundell, the priest at Stockport, took on the extra pastoral care of Macclesfield and Sutton . In the same year 4 lay members of the Macclesfield Catholic Community acquired land opposite to the present St. Alban's Church at Broken Cross Lane ( now Chester Rd) and St. Michael’s Chapel was opened on it on 25th August 1811. Finally, on 17th April 1821 , Fr. John Hall, a newly ordained priest, took up the pastoral care of Catholics in the Macclesfield area – a new parish was founded with a new parish priest.
This account is drawn from “The Churches And Chapels of Macclesfield Vol 1 The Catholic Community” by Dennis Whomsley.
Abridged by Fr Peter Cryan