A history of our church...

The earliest reference to Catholicism in Harrogate in the penal times is to the Trapps-Byrnand family of Nidd who had property in Harrogate in the late sixteenth century. Sir Francis Trapps-Byrnand and his family were presented as recusants in 1604. In 1618 his daughter Margaret was born at their house in Harrogate. Others, including the Squires and the Youngs, were presented at the end of the seventeenth century. 

In 1766 the Archbishop of York reported to the House of Lords that there were thirty-six Catholics resident in the villages of High and Low Harrogate. From the end of the seventeenth century these few Catholics were served by the Benedictine priests based on the Mission at Plumpton Hall, then, after the death of the last Plumpton in 1749, at Follifoot and finally in 1797 in Knaresborough itself. 

By 1800 Harrogate was still hardly more than a number of rural villages, but due in part to the construction of the turn-pike roads, the number of visitors to the Spa increased each year. Accomodation for these visitors led to an increase in building and a consequent increase in the number of permanent inhabitants.

St Mary's Catholic Church, Knaresborough

In 1838 Dom. W. Jerome Hampson, O.S.B., a member of the Ampleforth community, was appointed to take care of the mission of St Mary’s at Knaresborough, and almost immediately approached Bishop Briggs, then Vicar Apostolic of the Northern District, with a view to building a chapel in Harrogate. 

On 20th August 1842 he wrote to the Bishop again putting forward a case for a chapel, served from Knaresborough, to accommodate the increasing numbers of visitors coming to Harrogate in the summer months. He informed the Bishop that at a meeting held the previous day £120 had been subscribed towards the project. It was suggested some land in Low Harrogate opposite the Brunswick Hotel would be a suitable site and that Fr. Hampson hoped that “Lord Shrewsbury might be induced to take an interest in the undertaking and perhaps apply to the Government for a lease of the field for 99 years at a low rent of three or four pounds a year”.

In September of the same year an Irish priest named Fr. O’Connor put forward a scheme by which the new chapel would be served by the many priests who visited the town each year and that the Irish people living in the vicinity “alone who go far towards its completion”. But already the proposals had given rise to opposition and had particularly alarmed the vicar of Low Harrogate, Rev. George Digby, who denounced the scheme, warning people of the “most blasphemous doctrines of the Church of Rome”. Whether because of this opposition or because of the differing opinions of the sponsors, in any event the attempt to build a chapel came to nothing.

A further attempt years later also failed through lack of a suitable site and it was not until 1861 that Provost Render, then vicar capitular of the diocese following the resignation and death of Bishop Briggs, hired a room in the Crescent Hotel as a Catholic Chapel for the town. The Ampleforth community were unable to provide a priest so Fr. Francis Goldie, a brother of Fr. Edward Goldie, later secretary to Bishop Cornthwaite, was appointed to the new mission. 

The first Mass was said on the 26th May 1861, by Canon Chadwick, then the priest at Allerton Park, assisted by the choir from there. The small wooden table traditionally said to have been used at the first Mass was some years later presented by the Atkinson family to St. Robert’s where it is preserved to this day. At that time the permanent residents of the mission numbered about ninety, but there was also a considerable influx of visitors, during the summer months. The railway navvies working on the construction of the new North Eastern Railway station also helped to swell the congregation. In the summer there were two and sometimes three Masses each Sunday to accommodate the numbers who attended.

In 1863 the lease on the room at the Crescent Hotel terminated and a larger room was rented in the Somerset Hotel in Parliament Street, whilst Fr. Goldie took up residence in a house in James Street. An earlier attempt to buy the old Congregational Providence Chapel in James Street was unsuccessful but the next year a piece of land off Station Parade was bought as a site for a day-school and presbytery and building commenced in June 1864. The architect was George Goldie, brother of Fr. Goldie, and within the year the school and house had been built at the cost of £1,946. The school was used as a chapel for the next few years. In 1868 Fr. Goldie acquired a second plot of land next to the school chapel and he had already begun to make plans to build a new church on the site. However, for some time he had been desirous of entering the religious life and in 1868 the Bishop gave him leave to enter the Society of Jesus at Manresa. By the time Fr. Goldie took his leave the mission was well established. There were 176 permanent parishioners and 6 children in the school. Fr. Goldie was succeeded by Fr. William Wells, D.D. who stayed only a short time in Harrogate being appointed to the mission at Houghton Hall in 1871. His place was taken by Fr. James Glover the parish priest of Bentham.

It was Fr. Glover who put into operation the plans for building a church for the mission, and in October 1871 the architect Mr George Goldie, now principal of the firm Goldie and Child of London, supervised the beginning of the work. The estimated cost was to be £3,431, to the dismay of Fr. Glover who thought the debt would be beyond the resources of the mission, nevertheless the need for a church was so pressing that the work was begun. By April 1872 it was sufficiently advanced for the obtaining of the benches though economy dictated using the benches from the old church for the side aisles. The church was opened on the 5th June 1873 in the presence of Cardinal Manning, by Bishop Cornthwaite, Bishop of the Diocese. The church dedicated to Our Lady immaculate and St. Robert was built in the Gothic revival style characteristic of much of George Goldie’s work, in this case recalling the style of the 13th century.

The following photograph was taken during the Jubilee celebrations in 1925 but it can be assumed that little had changed since the construction of the church and that it gives a good idea of the interior at the time of construction –Editor

Differing from some of his earlier work the church was constructed largely of brick, though the pillars of the nave were constructed of matching red sandstone. Fr. Glover obtained from Rome a copy of the famous picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour which was blessed and sent for the new church by Pope Pius IX. The picture is now in the south aisle of the church [but it was earlier installed above the Tabernacle – see the photograph above – Editor] . It is interesting to note that with the opening of the church there was normally only one Mass on Sunday and this at 11a.m. Holy Communion however was given at 9a.m. There was catechism at 3p.m. and “Evening Prayers” and Discourse and Benediction at 6.30p.m.

In 1875 Fr. Glover was appointed to St Patrick’s Leeds and the Parish Priest there Fr. Michael O’Donnell, who had been at St. Patrick’s for over 25 years, came to Harrogate (Fr. Glover who was later to become Provost of the Diocesan Chapter, died at Horsforth in 1918). Fr. O’Donnell remained parish priest faithfully serving the growing parish, by 1880 the numbers had risen to 250, until his death on the 3rd December 1887. For a short time Fr. James Downes, who had been a curate at St. Patrick’s, Bradford took his place. He brought the well known musical tradition of that parish to Harrogate and set up an efficient choir of men and boys, but after less than two years he resigned the parish and was appointed to Huddersfield. 

His place was taken in 1889 by Canon William Pope the parish priest of Myddelton Lodge, Ilkley. Canon Pope was one of that group of eminent converts drawn to the church from St. Saviour’s, Leeds, and who numbered amongst them Bishop Wilkinson of Hexham and Newcastle and Fr. Rooke the founder of St. Dominic’s, Haverstock Hill, London. Canon Pope was responsible for much of the additional decoration to St. Robert’s replacing the old benches, setting up the baptistery, and the stations of the cross and placing stained glass in many of the windows. He was responsible for building the new school to the design of Edward Goldie on the north side of the church, in 1895. This replaced the old one of thirty years before. It was also during this time that the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus established their convent in Harrogate and began teaching in the school. Canon Pope died in his eightieth year on 5th November 1895 and was succeeded by Fr. Austin Saxon of Otley.

By now the size of the parish had so increased that it became necessary for there to be an assistant priest at St. Robert’s, and because of this Fr. Saxton began an enlargement of the presbytery. At the same time he instructed Mr. Martin, the Leeds architect, to draw up plans for a new Lady Chapel to be constructed in the south aisle of the church. Built in the memory of Mr. James Mollin by the generosity of his wife, it was opened in 1908. In addition four altars to accommodate the many visiting priests were erected in a cloister built between the wall of the church and the priests’ house. 

[These altars were removed during the alterations of the 1960/70s.- Editor]

An Apostolic Blessing from Pope Pius XI on the Occasion of the Church's Golden Jubilee in 1923

It was whilst Fr. Saxton was parish priest that two new parishes were established from St. Robert’s. In 1929 Bishop Cowgill laid the foundation stone of St. Aelred’s, Starbeck, which in the following year became a separate parish. And on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee of the opening of St. Robert’s the priests and people as a token of their thanksgiving decided to build a chapel-of-ease at Bilton, dedicated to St. Joseph. 

This was commenced in July 1925 and was first opened just a year later on the 30th July 1926. It became an independent parish in 1928, but before this occurred Fr. Saxton had died on the 11th August 1927 after being rector at St. Robert’s for twenty-two years. During this time he had seen the parish grow far beyond the expectations of his forebears. Where there had been neither priest or church there was now in space of sixty-four years four priests and three churches.

He was succeeded in September 1927 by Fr. Philip Bethel. Born in 1873 and educated at Ushaw where he was ordained in 1898, he had been curate at Harrogate with Canon Pope until 1901, but he returned to St. Robert’s from Skipton, where he had been parish priest since 1914. During the summer season there was an ever increasing number of visiting priests and in Fr. Bethel’s time it is reported that the record was reached with forty-six Masses in the church one Sunday morning. Three years after Fr. Bethel’s arrival the church was consecrated by Bishop Cowgill on the 10th May 1930.

We have a photograph taken on the day of the consecration and, apparently, showing the clergy assembled for the occasion. Does anyone recognise the building?-Editor

During Fr. Bethel’s time the church marked its diamond jubilee on the 11th June (Trinity Sunday) 1933 and the following photograph records the event. Note the ironwork gates and brick walls which then remained at the church entrance.


Clergy 1933

 Bishop Cowgill is central to the picture which  (according to a note made on its reverse) also shows….. Fr. Hammond, G.Rennison, Rev. T Ronchetti, E. Nash, Fr. Dinn, Fr. Bethel, 

Fr. Wilson, Cross- J.Bearpark, V. Riley, D. Wilkinson  

Fr. Bethel had been in failing health for some time when he died on        September 9th 1939.

His successor at St. Robert’s was the administrator of Leeds Cathedral, Canon Thomas Bentley. He was born in Wetherby in 1885 and ordained priest in 1913. It was by his energetic efforts that the debt which still remained on the parish was rapidly cleared and he began a programme of major repairs to the fabric of the church. The marble altar rails were erected during his time in the parish, and plans laid for the building of the new schools which changes in the education system now required. He continued the musical traditions of the parish, taking charge of the choir himself for a number of years. After saying two Masses, instructing the children and giving Benediction he died suddenly on Sunday 9th September 1951.

On the death of Canon Bentley, Fr. John Palfreman parish priest of Denaby was appointed to St.Robert’s. Always interested in education since his days on the staff of St. Bede’s Grammar School, Bradford he quickly put into operation the plans for providing new schools for the parish. In 1957 he opened the fine new school of Our Lady and St. John Fisher in High Harrogate [handed over to the Education Authority in the 1960/70s when the school moved to its present buildings in Hookstone Drive-Editor] and at Easter 1962 the new St. Robert’s primary school on an adjoining site. Both schools were built to the design of Weightman and Bullen, Architects of Liverpool. Canon Palfreman, as he now was, retired from the parish due to ill health in 1968. He was appointed to be chaplain to the Little Sisters of the Poor in  Leeds but before he was able to take up the post he died on 5th December 1968.

By the 1960's further alterations had been made to the sanctuary involving the removal of everything except the altar and reredos. The following photograph shows the result:

previous sanctuary

The new parish priest was Canon George Collins, parish priest of St. Marie’s, Sheffield and it was under his direction that further alterations were made to the interior of the church to accommodate the liturgical changes introduced by the second Vatican Council. A new principal Altar was erected in the Sanctuary and the entrance porch enlarged as seen in the following photographs.