St Marie's Cathedral is situated on Norfolk Row, a quiet street just off Fargate, a busy shopping area in the centre of Sheffield. The Cathedral is easy to miss and almost seems hidden away, which gives you a clue to its origin.
The story of this church begins over 300 years ago in a house built by the Duke of Norfolk in Fargate. It was known as The Lord’s House. It stood just round the corner from where the present cathedral entrance is, in Fargate (just where the Next shop now stands). This house held a secret. Discretely hidden within it was a Catholic chapel. After the Protestant Reformation and under Queen Elizabeth, Catholicism in England had been outlawed and to practice as a Catholic was punishable by fines or even death. Therefore, Catholics needed hidden places to celebrate Mass.
Times slowly changed, and by the early 1800s Catholics were allowed to practice their religion openly and could build churches, provided they were set back from the public roadway. A modest chapel was built in the garden at the rear of The Lord’s House with a cemetery for Catholics between it and Norfok Row.
As Sheffield expanded with the Industrial Revolution, workers came from Ireland and continental Europe and the little chapel became too small. It was the vision and foresight of the priest, Fr Charles Pratt, to build a very fine new church. This was made possible through his friendship with both the Norfolk family and wealthy local Catholic gentlemen. By 1850 St Marie’s was completed and opened. Designed by local Catholic architect Matthew Hadfield, the church proudly made use of a neo-Gothic style, a reminder of the style of church buildings when England was wholly Catholic. The nationally famous Catholic architect, Augustus W. Pugin (who also worked on the Palace of Westminster) was commissioned to design a window and the original high altar of St Marie’s. The new church covered the whole area of the former chapel and the cemetery. The bodies were re-interred at the next nearest Catholic church at St Bede’s, Rotherham.
The magnificent St Marie's with its tall spire towering over Sheffield was opened on 11th September 1850. Sadly, Fr Pratt, the driving force behind the building of the new church, was never to see the completed St Marie's as he died on 17th February 1849, aged 38 years. He was buried in the cemetery of St Bede's Church in Rotherham. However, as St Marie's was being built, Fr Pratt had expressed a desire to be buried in his new church, presumably not thinking that this wish would have to be considered so soon. The master stonemason secretly disinterred Fr Pratt’s coffin and brought it at dead of night to his yard in Sheffield. The next day he placed it in a tomb he had made in the church. Fr Pratt had returned. An effigy now rests over his second burial place.
By 1889 the huge cost of building St Marie’s was paid and the church was consecrated. During the first fifty years, St Marie’s church was enriched and embellished with stained glass, fine carvings and tiled decoration.
During the Second World War a bomb destroyed the stained glass windows of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. The remaining glass was then removed and stored in a mine shaft at Nunnery Colliery. Unfortunately, the mine flooded during the War, and the glass was covered in mud and the drawings for recreating the windows were destroyed. However, in 1947 the remaining stained glass was retrieved and reinstated in the church.
In 1970, following the revision of Catholic liturgy after the Second Vatican Council, St Marie’s was re-ordered. Much dark woodwork was removed, new lighting was installed and in 1972, a new altar facing the people was consecrated.
Another milestone in the history of St Marie’s church is 1980, the year that it became a Cathedral. Initially, St Marie’s was part of the Diocese of Leeds, but as soon as the Diocese of Hallam was created, St Marie’s was chosen as its Cathedral, i.e. its mother church and the place where the Bishop of Hallam’s chair (cathedra) would be located.
Again in 2011-2012 St Marie’s went through a major re-ordering. A new Yorkshire Sandstone floor was laid, new under-floor heating was installed and the lighting and audio systems were renewed. The pews and other wooden furnishings were replaced and the earlier gilded and painted decoration was carefully restored. Most importantly, a permanent cathedra was added with matching altar, ambo (a raised place for reading the Scripture) and baptismal font.
More recently, St Marie’s Cathedral has been awarded a Heritage Lottery Funded grant to conserve its heritage and share its stories and treasures with everyone who lives in, works in and visits Sheffield. Among other things, this project will allow the conservation and long term preservation of the unaltered 19th-century Lewis organ, the highly decorated, narrative Victorian wall tiles and the set of 15th-century alabaster panels.
St Marie's is very much a part of the story of Sheffield. The development from a chapel into a Cathedral mirrors the growth of the village of Sheffield into a city. Likewise, the history of St Marie's Cathedral is a story of secrecy, courage, trust, generosity but most of all hope. Hope for a better future.
Two parts of A History of St Marie’s Cathedral and Parish by Deacon Bill Burleigh, in book form, have recently been published and are on sale in the Cathedral or on request at £5 each. Part One covers the history of Catholics in and around Sheffield from 1549 – 1850. Part Two covers the period from the opening of St Marie’s until 1920 and includes information about the parishioners who died in the 1914-1918 World War.