By Lawrence R. Gregory
The beginnings of a school and a chapel-of-ease
It was in 1849 that Fr John Kershaw, Rector of All Saints Church, Barton upon Irwell rented a cottage on Barton Lane, Eccles with the intention of establishing a Catholic school for the district. After several relocations, Sir Thomas Joseph de Trafford donated the present site of the church on Oxford Street and a new school premises was constructed here. From 1871 the school was used for Sunday Mass, serving served as Chapel-of-Ease from Barton.
Father Thomas Sharrock – 1st Rector 1879-1893
In 1879 Fr Thomas Sharrock, curate at Barton, was appointed as the first Rector of Eccles. He died 24 January 1893 at the age of just 47. On 1 October 1887 the foundation stone was laid of a new Boys’ School, designed by the architect Oswald Hill and paid for by Lady Annette de Trafford. The ceremony was performed by her youngest son Gilbert de Trafford followed by a blessing from Monsignor Kershaw. Fr Sharrock founded a Boys’ Club in the parish in July 1888.
Two early photographs showing the 19th Century school where Mass was first celebrated
Father Francis Newton – 2nd Rector 1893-1923
The second Rector of Eccles was Fr Francis Newton who had previously been in charge of the fledgling Mission at Urmston. It was Fr Newton who, in collaboration with Sir Humphrey Francis de Trafford and his mother Annette, Lady de Trafford, began work on building the present church, designed by Mr WH Rawles. The foundation stone was laid on Saturday 28 August 1897 with Bishop Bilsborrow and Sir Humphrey performing the ceremony. The new church was completed and opened by Bishop Bilsborrow the following year on 15 August 1898, at a total cost of £5000. £3000 had been given by Sir Humphrey, while the High Altar was a personal gift from Lady Annette, and her daughter gave the Stained-Glass Sanctuary window. The church-tower remained incomplete with the intention being to construct the spire when funds permitted.
Fr Newton remained in charge at Eccles for twenty years until ill health forced his resignation in December 1923. He died two months later at his sister’s home in Longsight 15 February 1914 at the age of 63.
Original design, with spire
Early interior, with side altars and short pews in the side aisles
Father John Drescher – 3rd Parish Priest 1924-1958
Fr Drescher arrived at Eccles as the third Parish Priest in January 1924, moving from St Peter’s, Newchurch-in-Rossendale. He guided the parish through the difficult times of World War Two, having the stained glass windows removed and put into storage, which was fortunate as the church was damaged 22 December 1940 when the mill across the road was destroyed by a direct hit. Several other raids included incendiary bombs falling on St Mary’s.
Fr Drescher was successful at clearing the parish debt and on 29 October 1952 St Mary’s was consecrated by Bishop Marshall. In 1955 he erected grottos in the church grounds. He died in the presbytery 18 October 1958 at the age of 80.
Canon Thomas Baron – 4th Parish Priest 1958-1971
Father Thomas Baron arrived at Eccles in December 1958; he would be appointed an Honorary Canon in 1970. A new Infants school was erected and opened 23 February 1970. He retired in December 1971 and died 10 January 1972 at the age of 76.
Father Joseph Burns – 5th Parish Priest 1971-1985
Fr Joe Burns arrived as Parish Priest 31 December 1971, and would serve the parish for 14 years. He also served as Rural Dean of the district. In 1976 the new Junior school and nursery unit were opened, then in 1978 the two separate schools were re-amalgamated as a single institution under the headship of Sister Anne. In 1979 Sister Anne resigned and the first lay head was appointed in the person of Mr Stephen Harrison. Fr Burns installed a wooden forward-facing altar, so Mass could be celebrated facing the people.
1979 also saw the demolition of the 19th century school building and the clearance of the site for a carpark. Between 1980 and 1981 a new parish hall was constructed on a portion of this area. Fr Burns left Eccles 30 November 1985 moving to take charge at St Michael’s, Ancoats.
Father Richard O'Connor – 6th Parish Priest 1985-2000
Father Dick O’Connor was appointed to succeed Fr Burns and arrived in Eccles in December 1985. Fr O’Connor would undertake an extensive re-ordering of the interior of the church; this included the demolition of the high altar and side altars, the removal of the altar rails and the reduction of the pulpit into a lectern. He acquired the High Altar from St Mary’s, Palace Street, Bolton which was installed in the sanctuary. The base of the pulpit was remodelled into a font. The pews in the side aisles were also removed.
In 1998 the centenary of the church was celebrated, and the new altar was consecrated in the October by Bishop Brain. Fr O’Connor left Eccles in February 2000 to take over as Parish Priest at Haslingden.
Father Robert Livesey – 7th Parish Priest 2000-2019
Father Bob Livesey arrived as 7th and ultimately the final resident Parish Priest of St Mary’s, Eccles in February 2000. Fr Livesey commissioned a new stained-glass window in the Lady Chapel dedicated to the de Trafford family who gave the parish so much in its early days of formation.
Fr Bob would serve the parish for nearly two decades before his retirement in 2019. Following this, the process of merging St Mary’s with Holy Cross, Patricroft would commence.