Deacon’s books tell of Catholic contribution to Steel City

Deacon Bill Burleigh, who has written a trilogy of books about the contribution of Sheffield Catholics to the city and the history of St Marie's Cathedral.
Deacon Bill Burleigh, who has written a trilogy of books about the contribution of Sheffield Catholics to the city and the history of St Marie's Cathedral.

The contribution that Sheffield Catholics made to the city across several centuries is explored in a new book trilogy by a Cathedral Deacon. Laura Drysdale reports.

The wide-reaching effects of Catholicism in Sheffield have left few corners of the city untouched.

In education, as in healthcare and sport, influential Catholics have made their mark across several centuries.

It is the contribution of this religious community that forms the basis of a trilogy of books by Deacon Bill Burleigh of St Marie’s Cathedral in Sheffield.

“I wanted to tell the story of St. Marie’s, the Catholic community of Sheffield and the legacy that it has left for the city,” he says, having spent six years researching and writing the three volumes, the latter of which he has just completed.

“Through the pages, you can see the contribution that Catholics have made to Sheffield’s artistic heritage, healthcare, sports and economy.

“The volumes tell the story of how Sheffield has embraced Catholics at difficult times when others have shunned and alienated them. I think this is testimony to the character of the people of Sheffield and is something of which we should all be proud.”

The series covers the period from 1549 right through to 1980, when the once St Marie’s Parish church became the Cathedral for the newly-created Diocese of Hallam, and explores the work of Catholics.

“There were several influential lay Catholics in Sheffield,” Deacon Bill explains. “Their work for the good of all faiths contributed to Catholics being recognised a valuable part of Sheffield life.”

The 8th Duke of Norfolk, who built The Lord’s House in 1707, which became a centre for Catholic gatherings and services, is among those mentioned, as well as Dr Arnold Knight, whose legacy in medicine lives on today.

The series tells of how, during an outbreak of cholera in 1832, he established a dispensary to serve the local poor; the building ran a 24-hour service and later became the Sheffield Royal Hospital, which eventually closed in 1978. It was not the only achievement of Dr Knight, the first Catholic to be knighted since the Reformation. He also changed conditions for cutlery workers, ensuring ventilation to reduce the number of deaths from chest diseases.

He was also key in establishing The Medical Institution, which later became the Sheffield Medical School, marking the beginnings of medical education in the city.

Also mentioned is Michael Ellison, an agent to the 14th Duke of Norfolk who persuaded the Great Northern Railway company to extend the London line to Sheffield, improving prosperity in the city. His son Michael James Ellison, agent to the 15th Duke of Norfolk, influenced the Duke to sell land at Bramall Lane to be used as a ground for the then Hallam and Sheffield Wednesday Cricket Club.

Members later formed Sheffield Football Club which held its first match there in 1862 before the ground went on to become the home of Sheffield United.

The 19th and 20th centuries are also a focus for Deacon Bill’s words, a time when a network of schools were built to provide free education by unpaid religious sisters and brothers. Among remarkable tales during the period is the story of St Marie’s stained glass windows being deposited in the depths of a colliery in the Second World War and their “almost miraculous” recovery from the flooded put afterwards.

“It is the story of the people told in the pages that matters most,” Deacon Bill says. “Sheffield people who showed their mettle in the face of authority, adversity and even war.

“There are hundreds of people and their contributions to Sheffield recalled for all to read about - it really is a fascinating journey through time.”

All three volumes of The History of St Marie’s and its Parish, printed by George Dawn of Mensa Printers, are available from the Cathedral book shop on Norfolk Street.