On Scotland Road

St Anthonys01I love it round here. Maybe because it’s the place where I feel I really first came alive, where I had my first proper job in the Benledi Street Housing office. Singing my way happily up the hill some days on my way to our sub-office in Netherfield Heights.

It’s all changed since then. Both housing offices are long gone, as is Netherfield Heights and most of the other tower blocks I used to thread my way between in those early 1970s days. Much of the hill is now parkland and Scotland Road is now more or less the motorway that leads to both Mersey Tunnels. But one thing that hasn’t changed is the warmth and the welcome from the people of the place. As we’re about to find out.

Scotland Road when I worked here. Woodstock Gardens and St Anthony's church.

Scotland Road soon after I worked here. Woodstock Gardens in its late days and St Anthony’s church.

But before we go through to Scotland Road, time for a quick look at Greatie.

The Street Market par excellence in full flow early on a Saturday afternoon.

The Street Market par excellence in full flow early on a Saturday afternoon.

Stretched out along Great Homer Street.

Stretched out along Great Homer Street.

Not  a genteel foodie-fan market this one.

Not a genteel foodie-fan market this one.

Expert shopper Sarah seriously considers why she might need a set of multi-coloured knives.

Expert shopper Sarah seriously considers why she might need a set of multi-coloured knives.

But passes on the Scouse special strawberry hair curlers.

But passes on the ‘Scouse special’ strawberry hair curlers.

And the lions, gargoyles and other garden ornaments.

And the lions, gargoyles and other garden ornaments.

These may be late days for Greatie in its current location, but it's still in great shape.

These may be late days for Greatie in its current location, but it’s still in great shape.

But enjoyable as it always is we’re not principally here for Greatie today. It’s mid-September, time for the Heritage Open Days. In previous years we’ve had outings to the Princes Road Synagogue and the Mersey Tunnel.

Today we're off to look at that church.

Today we’re off to look at that church.

St Anthony of Egypt, Scotland Road.

St Anthony of Egypt, Scotland Road.

These are pretty much the only buildings on Scotland Road not to have changed in the 40 years since I worked here - the church and the pub.

These are pretty much the only buildings on Scotland Road not to have changed in the 40 years since I worked here – the church and the pub.

And while I remember going in the pub a fair few times back in those days, I’ve never been in the church.

By the early 1970s I’d long left the Catholic religion I’d been brought up in, but hadn’t yet developed the confidence to go and appreciate lovely churches that gives me so much pleasure these days.

So this feels like it's going to be a great pleasure.

So this feels like it’s going to be great.

We all gather in the entrance to the church.

We all gather in the entrance to the church. I’m surrounded by North Liverpool voices and laughs, much like my own.

Surrounded by candles

Surrounded by candles too.

And take our first look at the magnificent space.

And we all take a look at the magnificent space.

Richly decorated.

Richly decorated.

And full of light.

And full of light.

Then when we're all seated comfortably the storyteller begins the story.

Then when we’re all seated comfortably the storyteller begins the story.

His first words, and the mantra he will repeat throughout the afternoon - "Come in, you are all very welcome here'

His first words, and the mantra he will repeat throughout the afternoon – “Come in, you are all very welcome here”

This is Michael O’Neill, teacher, historian, archaeologist, author and, as we will later discover, church organist here at St Anthony’s.

His specialism is ecclesiastical history, never something that’s much intrigued atheist me. But I’m always up for a good story, well told, by someone who knows their stuff. And for the next two hours this master storyteller has all of us, of all ages, utterly enthralled as he takes us through the history of Christianity: through hermits in the desert, the Roman Empire, the Crusades, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, to arrive in 1833 at the creation of this lovely church where we’re now sitting.

St Anthony of Egypt.

St Anthony of Egypt.

We are back to 251 years after Christ, when Anthony is born.

Pieces of history are handed round.

Pieces of history are handed round.

A 'widow's mite'  - the smallest denomination coin from the time of Anthony's birth. Found by Michael during an archaeological dig.

A ‘widow’s mite’ – the smallest denomination coin from the time of Anthony’s birth. Found by Michael during an archaeological dig.

Later a coin from the Emperor Constantine is also handed round as Michael tells us about Anthony becoming a revered hermit, living in a cave outside of Alexandria, who is visited by Constantine and consulted about the toleration of Christianity within the Empire.

The Fleur de Lys on the ceiling and all around the church are used to explain the French connection.

The Fleur de Lys on the ceiling and all around the church are used to explain the French connection.

Long after Anthony has died at over 100 years of age, revered as the founder of monasticism, French crusaders in the middle ages steal his remains from Egypt and take them back to France (‘for safe keeping’ as they will say). Their location becomes a shrine and children are named after the saint.

One of these, Jean Baptiste Antoinet Gerardot, becomes one of the many thousands of Catholic priests who are run out of France after the revolution of 1789 and kept out during the subsequent Napoleonic Wars.

He turns up in Liverpool. Finding work as a translator for French prisoners of war and their families. And he founds a church on the open land between the town of Liverpool and the village of Kirkdale. This was the sloping land of Hangfield (Anfield) and the brickfields (Breckfield) leading down to the expanding docks, where seasonal Irish labourers would camp out in the spring and summer months, employed in making the bricks to build the rapidly growing port of Liverpool.

He calls the church after himself, Antoinet, and after his patron saint, St Anthony of Egypt. It becomes known as the ‘French Chapel’ and is not the same church as we’re all in today. That first St Anthony’s was situated on the corner of what is now Dryden Street and Scotland Road (coincidentally and somewhat controversially Dryden Street is now planned to be the new home of Greatie as the area is redeveloped).

After Gerardot has died Liverpool continues to expand rapidly and soon a larger church is needed for the largely Irish and Catholic population of the area. An architectural competition is held where it’s specified that the new church should be able to accommodate 1,700 people and that there should be no pillars to impede anyone’s view of the altar. The competition is won by John Broadbent.

And this magnificent church is then built in 1833.

And this magnificent church is then built in 1833.

Many other architects at the time had said that it was impossible to build such a large space without pillars and still support the roof.

But remember those physics experiments from school where bricks could be supported by an egg?

But remember those physics experiments from school where bricks could be supported by an egg?

Well that's what James Broadbent came up with for here.

Well that’s what James Broadbent came up with for here.

The airy and spacious two thirds of the church that are above ground, are supported by the one third of the church that is underground, its crypt, and is built in the shape of eggs.

We’ll be going down for a look at the crypt soon.

But what a magnificent space. Extra seating up in the gallery to add up to the required 1,700 capacity.

But what a magnificent space. Extra seating up in the gallery to add up to the required 1,700 capacity.

Where everyone gets an unimpeded view of the altar.

Where everyone gets an unimpeded view of the altar.

And of St Bridgid here.

And of St Bridgit here.

The whole place illuminated by lightly stained glass. Much of it clearly paid for by parishioners over the years.

The whole place illuminated by lightly stained glass. Much of it clearly paid for by parishioners over the years.

And that’s just a summary of the story of the place. Much more on St Anthony’s lovely website and even more in Michel O’Neill’s book “A History of St Anthony’s Parish, Scotland Road, Liverpool.”

As a final flourish before we go down for a look at the crypt Michael reveals that he’s also the church organist here.

“And the piece I’ll play will give you an idea of my political leanings!”

Having been so impressed by him so far I’m gearing myself up for a thunderous rendition of ‘The Red Flag’ or maybe even ‘Jerusalem’.

But after a brief opening warm up.

But after a brief opening warm up.

He plays 'God Save the Queen'

He plays ‘God Save the Queen’

A chance missed there Michael! Two people do that old stand to attention thing, but the rest of us reveal that Catholic though much of this area may be, it’s also strongly Socialist.

Afterwards Sarah and a young friend eagerly seize this chance to play such a revered and magnificent instrument (currently the subject of a £750,000 Heritage Lottery bid for its restoration)

Afterwards Sarah and a young friend eagerly seize this chance to play such a revered and magnificent instrument (currently the subject of a £750,000 Heritage Lottery bid for its restoration)

Soon though we're all taken round the side of the church to go down to the crypt.

Soon though we’re all taken round the side of the church to go down to the crypt.

We're reminded about its construction, then taken in.

We’re reminded about its construction, then taken in.

To the place that has kept the church above standing for nearly 200 years.

To the place that has kept the church above standing for nearly 200 years.

The intricate and beautiful brickwork that supports all we've seen.

The intricate and beautiful brickwork that supports all we’ve seen.

Michael also explains that this place is a catacomb.

Michael also explains that this place is a catacomb.

Between all the archways, and adding to the building's stability, are extra sections of brickwork where many bodies are buried.

Between all the archways, and adding to the building’s stability, are extra sections of brickwork where many bodies are buried.

This was never the main burial place for the church.

But would be used to bury those particularly grieved over. Many of them children like this 'Aged 3 years 4 Months'

But would be used to bury those particularly grieved over. Many of them children like this ‘Aged 3 years 4 Months’

Handy to have a torch on your iPhone to illuminate the inscriptions.

Handy to have a torch on your iPhone to illuminate the inscriptions.

One Sarah lights up another.

One Sarah lights up another.

And soon our time is done, and we emerge looking up the hill to Everton, across where St Anthony's School used to be.

Too soon our time is done, and we emerge looking up the hill to Everton, across where St Anthony’s School used to be.

A great and educational day and the most welcome I’ve felt in a Catholic Church in my adult life. Thank you St Anthony’s and thank you particularly Michael O’Neill.

And as we walk away, Greatie is over for another week and nearly everything has been packed away.

And as we walk away, Greatie is over for another week and nearly everything has been packed away.

By the way, in the back of St Anthony’s I was delighted to pick up a copy of the Scottie Press, (‘Britain’s longest running community newspaper’). Still going strong, like it was when I worked there, after over 400 issues. ‘The Voice of Vauxhall’ – a treat I’ll return to on here one day.

9 thoughts on “On Scotland Road

  1. Martin Greaney

    Amazing church! I love seeing architectural pioneers in the suburbs, so seeing that pillar-less space was fascinating. Best of luck to them with their fundraising. It’s always heartwarming to see the best welcoming side in a religious place, unlike in so many contexts

    Reply

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