I 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.
But before we go through to Scotland Road, time for a quick look at Greatie.
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.
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.
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.
We are back to 251 years after Christ, when Anthony is born.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
This was never the main burial place for the church.
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.
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.