Roman Catholic keys

Historical Review

Following the English reformation the allegiance of the Manx church to Rome was broken and Catholic practices forbidden. The running trade however brought trading links with Ireland, France and other Catholic countries thus providing a nucleus for a small Catholic community. Waldron notes, with some disquiet, that in the early 18th century Catholic children were admitted to school and their religion apparently tolerated. A small burying plot was established on Langness near the chapel of St. Michael , it would also appear another was later established within the grounds of the ruined cathedral on St Patrick's Isle. With the revestment most of these links were broken and church numbers declined - as noted in Wesley's famous comment (from his Journal) A more loving, simple-hearted people than this I never saw - and no wonder; for they have but six papists and no dissenters on the Island.

At its most anti-Roman Catholic period the English penal code stipulated perpetual imprisonment for saying Mass, declared Catholics incapable of purchasing or inheriting land and made the possession of a horse worth more than £5 a criminal offence. The Island did not follow these practices - until quite late in Elizabeth's reign the Earls of Derby were Catholic and did little to spread the reformation to the Island where it progressed relatively slowly. As noted by Sir James Gell [Manx Soc vol xxxi] "At the same time, it is presumed the Reformation was brought about in the island by means of the recognition of some of the Acts [of Westminster]; for there are no Acts of the Insular Legislature bearing upon the Reformation."

Though the Island displayed considerable religious toleration (however around the 1660s a small group of Maughold Quakers was persecuted) and had none of the penal laws re Catholics that so disfigured the English Statute book, they were of course required to obey the ecclesiastical laws re attendance at church, places of marriage and burial etc.(several Catholic priests were briefly imprisoned in 18th C for illegally celebrating marriage), another was presented in 1759 for attending a non-catholic.

From 1779 a Benedictine monk, Father Johnston, who served the mission at St. Begh's Whitehaven, started to make regular pastoral calls - he noted some 29 Catholics living on the Island. In 1789 an émigré priest, Father Louis, sought asylum on the Island; for a time he acted as tutor to the Governor's and Bishop's children whilst living at Castle Rushen. He would offer Mass in a barn at Scarlett or at the cottage of some Catholic family. He appears to have left the Island before 1794. Around the early 1800s an influx of Irish, fleeing the Irish rebellion of 1798, brought the number of Catholics up to around 200 One of these families, the Fagans, brought over their chaplain, Father Collins, who until his death in 1811 seems to have ministered to the Irish fishing community of Castletown. He is buried near St. Michael which appears to have been regularly used as a chapel.

The first priest to reside in Douglas was Father Miles McPharlan - as Rev Demsey says his story is not without interest and is also linked to the Dublin rising. Lieutenant Major Taubman (of the Nunnery family) and a contingent from the Manx Fencibles were sent to Dublin where Major Taubman was billeted in Fr McPharlan's rooms (though Peter Kelly in his History of St Mary's treats this as something of a myth). When Fr McPharlan fled to the Island around 1804, to escape debts incurred in setting up a brick factory for his Irish parish, he made contact with Major Taubman who gave a site, within a disused quarry on the Douglas-Castletown road, for a chapel [see Castletown Deed Hillary term 1821 #31 dated 29 Nov 1813] By 1814 the small chapel of St. Bridget was built [see CTD Hil 1821 30 dated Dec 1814 which states chapel built] though Fr McPharlan left for France to better escape his creditors.

The Irish Jesuit College, which had provided some earlier priests on a temporary basis, agreed to provide a resident priest in 1823 - this was Father Gahan, who also opened St. Mary's in Castletown. Along with Fr Gahan came John Kelly who taught at a school, St. Mary's, established in Douglas in 1824 which attracted both Protestants as well as Catholics becoming well known for many years for the breadth of its curriculum. Fr Gahan's generous Irish friends allowed the purchase of an old theatre at the corner of Athol Street and Prospect Hill which was adapted for use as Chapel and school in 1836. An additional footnote added to the second, 1841, edition of Quiggin's Guide noting this move stated that we are not aware of a single conversion of a native to Popery, having occurred on the Island. However Fr Gahan died in 1837 before the Church was fully ready, his memorial can be seen in the grounds of St. Mary's - he was accorded a full and generous tribute in the Mona's Herald - a letter to the Manx Liberal (dated 6 Oct 1837) however states that Fr Gahan's memorial in Krk Braddan had been repeated descecrated, mainly by chalked messages but also by scratching the stone.

On 29th July 1837 the Manx Liberal reported that

On Wednesday last, arrived from Liverpool, his Lordship the R. Rev. Doctor Brigs, R. C. Bishop of the northern district of England, accompanied by the Very Rev. Doctor Ewins, of Liverpool; and on the following day administered the sacrament of confirmation in the Church of St Francis Xavier, in Athol Street, the Rev. Messrs. Aylmer and M'Grath attending, where upwards of 110 children and adults were confirmed.

The Irish famines of the 1840s further increased the Catholic population who towards the end of the century were swelled in the summer months by the every increasing tourists mainly from the North of England.

Post reformation the parishes became linked with Ireland, however since the 1850s, with the restoration of the English Hierarchy, the Island parishes were attached to the Archdiocese of Liverpool.



St Mary of the Isle - Douglas

St Mary of the Isle - Douglas

In 1836 there were sufficient Catholics in Douglas to buy a theatre, St. George's Hall, in Athol Street and convert it into a church dedicated to St. Francis Xavier. According to the returns in the 1851 religious census it had space for some 300 seated and 226 standing. On that Sunday, apparently a wet and windy day there were two services - the first had 100 + 340 children; the second 240. Average numbers were claimed to be 476, 700 and 120 at an evening service - evidence enough that a new church was required This building was later, 1880s, used by the Methodist New Connexion before they moved to Derby Road!

Grid Reference SC380756


It was the indefatigable Father McGrath who sought out a better site. The present church, whose foundation stone was laid in 1857, opened on the 4th August 1859 with great ceremony which caused not a little adverse comment from certain elements in the Methodist community.

High Altar pre WW1

Built to the design of Henry Clutton in French Gothic early 13th Century style. Interior decoration includes work by Peter Paul Pugin and Sir Giles Gilbert Scott.

The parish school opened in 1861.

Guide bookPeter Kelly The History of St. Mary of the Isle 1984 (which also gives an excellent history of the re-establishment of a significant Catholic Community on the Island.
Thwaite's guide of 1863 gives a very full description of the church
1909 Jubilee described in Manx Quarterly

St Antony - Onchan

St Antony - Onchan

Built on Onchan head overlooking Douglas Bay. Opened in 1923 using one of the large wooden huts originally used as a recreation hut at the Knockaloe Internment Camp.
Originally intended to relieve the pressure on St. Mary's during the holiday season, it took on its own life and a parish priest was appointed in 1944.

Original 'hut' church

Grid Reference SC397775


In 1936 Sir Giles Gilbert Scott designed the bleached oak benches together with a high altar and pieta destined for a new permanent church. By the 1980s this hut, now nearly 70 years old was dilapidated and in need of replacement. A local millionaire businessman, Mr Albert Gubay, came forward and offered to pay for a replacement church; he also suggested that a focal point of the new church could be a window illustrating Christ walking on Douglas Bay. The church was designed by Clayton/Massey with Mr John Cryer, local architect, responsible for the interior with the window by Chris Spittall as focal point. Post Vatican-2 changes in the liturgy meant that the Giles Scott altar remained unused.

G.N. Kniveton The Onchan Story 1992 p33.

Sacred Heart - Pulrose

Sacred Heart - Pulrose, Douglas

Open 1939 to cater for the newly created housing estate for the rehoused slum dwellers of Douglas. Fine spacious, renaissance style church built to the design of Anthony Ellis

Now demolished after closure in July 2001 - the church was reported as needing £250,000 spent on repairs and as Pulrose estate was also demolished prior to rebuilding, the Archdiocese of Liverpool's review of church buildings indicated that rationalisation was called for - some of the internal fittings were re-used at St patrick's Peel.

Grid Reference SC366755


St. Joseph - Willaston

St Joseph RC Willaston

Another housing estate church built 1954 to the design of S.F. O'Hanlon of Douglas


Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea and St. Maughold - Ramsey

Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea and St. Maughold - Ramsey

In 1863, following a few years of using a meeting room above a tallower's, a disused warehouse was converted into a small chapel. Following a major effort of fundraising by Father Barton who died before the church could be started, a new church to the design of the young Giles Gilbert Scott was begun in 1909 and completed a year later at a cost of £3,000. The much admired design is typical of Scott and falls squarely within Catholic church tradition.
However the exposed site, facing the sea, meant that the mid 1980s saw much needed work in structural repairs and refurbishment.

Grid Reference SC454944


The plain interior focuses attention on the high altar with its beautiful coloured and gilded triptych

Interior Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea and St. Maughold - Ramsey

Guide bookG.L.Lynch The Land is Bright Liverpool: Universe Publications 1988
Dean Gillow Our Lady of the Sea and St Maughold, reprint 1910

St Patrick - Peel

St Patrick - Peel

The church, built at an estimated cost of £300, was opened in 1865. However there were too few Catholics in Peel to support their own priest and thus St. Patrick's operated as a chapel-of-ease to Douglas until 1930.

The land was bought at auction by Michael Smythe as anti-Catholic feeling in Peel would have made direct purchase almost impossible

Grid Reference SC


St Mary - Castletown

St Mary - Castletown

Established 1826 due to the efforts of Fr Gahan; built, with money collected from appeals in Ireland, to, it would appear, a design by Thomas Brine.
Like St. Patrick's at Peel it operated as a chapel of ease from Douglas for many years. Extensively renovated in 1924 prior to the appointment of Fr Walsh as its first parish priest. It was again renovated in the late 1980s.

Grid Reference SC


St. Columba - Port Erin


Baptismal & Marriage Records

see under Parish Register Transcriptions


Much of this page has been abstracted from Fr Demsey's excellent, and very readable, history.
William S Demsey,. History of the Catholic Church in the Isle of Man Wigan: Birchly Hall Press 1958

P. Kelly The History of St Mary of the Isle 1984
(gives an excellent history of the re-establishment of a significant Catholic Community on the Island)

Rev Dean Walsh Ireland and the Isle of Man 1903

A. W. Moore Diocesan Histories: Sodor and Man SPCK 1894

J. Roscow Eighteenth Century Nonconformists in the Records of the Manx Museum
Proc IoM Nat History and Antiquarian Soc IX #4 pp 473-490 1990

Dominic Dowling Fr. Mathew Gahan SJ, 1782-1837 Catholic Life pp18/9 Sept 2007


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Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
© F.Coakley , 2001