St Mary on the Quay Church, Bristol

At the Harbourside, River Frome, Bristol.

Society of the Divine Word, St. Mary-on-the-Quay Presbytery,
20, Colston Street, Bristol BS1 5AE
UNITED KINGDOM. Telp. +44 117 9264702, Email:,

Few, if any, would disagree with the words of Bishop Mervyn Alexander when he said: “St Mary-on-the-Quay is central to the history of the Catholic Church in Bristol.”

The church stands at the heart of the city, and apart from the pre-reformation St James Priory, is Bristol’s oldest Catholic Church. It was built in 1840 by the Irvingites for £15,000, but after a few years they found it too costly to maintain and the Franciscan, Fr Patrick O’Farrell, seized the opportunity to buy it on behalf of the Catholics of Bristol for £5000. He became its first parish priest. The church has a handsome neo-classical facade, and Bernard Ward, the historian, considered that at the time of its opening by Bishop Baines in 1843 it was the most impressive Catholic Church in England outside London. It is a Grade II* listed building.

In the early years there was a problem that Bristol’s Catholics needed to resolve. Scarcely two hundred yards from St Mary’s was St Joseph’s Chapel, the city’s  first purpose-built, post Reformation, Catholic Church, built in 1790 by the Jesuits, and it was clearly unsatisfactory to have two Catholic places of worship in such close proximity. There was growing tension, too, within the Catholic community. Some felt that as the Jesuits were the founders of the Bristol mission it was proper that they should run the city-centre church. Bishop Clifford determined to rationalise the situation, and in 1861 (by then Fr O’Farrell had retired) St Mary’s  was made the parish church under the care of the Jesuits, whilst St Joseph’s was adapted for use as St Mary’s schools . Negotiations were begun for the Society of Jesus to buy St Mary-on-the-Quay and these were completed on 3rd August, 1871. The Jesuits once again had their own church in Bristol. They had bought it for £2,700.

The significance of St Mary’s name, ‘on-the-Quay’, ceased to be immediately apparent at the end of the nineteenth century. Until then the Frome, an open river, passed the frontage of the church into the harbour, but in 1891 the authorities set to work to cover the area in order to cope with ever increasing road traffic. By 1893 the river was no longer to be seen – the metamorphosis was complete. So today the church faces not the waters of the harbour-side and the rigging of ships, but the Cenotaph and the swirl of cars where boats once plied.

In the First World War 545 men of the parish joined the forces. Sixty-seven lost their lives and their names are recorded on a fine brass memorial tablet fixed to the wall outside the church. The first name is that of George Archer-Shee. He had served as an altar boy at St Mary’s and became a naval cadet, but he was falsely implicated in the theft of a five-shilling postal order and had been expelled from his college in disgrace. At the time the episode was something of a cause celebre and the case was discussed in Parliament. In 1946 Terence Rattigan wrote a play based on it, The Winslow Boy, which became hugely popular. Passers-by reading the first entry on St Mary’s War Memorial – ‘Archer-Shee G.’ – are looking at the name of the real Winslow Boy.

During the Second World War Bristol was heavily bombed, but despite its location in the heart of the city, St Mary’s remained virtually untouched.

The development of new housing estates on the outskirts of the city in the post-war years ensured that the exodus of Catholic families from the centre of Bristol continued and by 1971 St Mary’s schools (which had been loyally served by the Sisters of Mercy) had been closed and the pupils accommodated in Catholic schools elsewhere. Eventually the parish was unable to meet the heavy cost of the church’s maintenance and on Sunday, 3rd February, 1980, after consultation with the Jesuits, Bishop Alexander announced that St Mary-on-the-Quay was to close.

As the headline in one Bristol newspaper read: ‘Famous church closed by rising repair bill.’ But determined supporters refused to give in; they set about raising funds which, with a grant from the Society of Jesus, finally secured the church’s continuance. In 1993 it celebrated its one hundred and fiftieth anniversary.

It had been customary for teams of three priests to serve the parish, but by 1996 the numbers had fallen to one, and on 7th July of that year, the Provincial of the Jesuits announced at all Masses that owing to staffing difficulties, the Society would be withdrawing from Bristol, and that by agreement with Bishop Alexander, the church would, in future, be administered by the Clifton Diocese. On 19th September 1996, Fr Claudio Rossi, the last Jesuit to serve the parish, handed over St Mary’s to the care of diocesan priests.

There was a certain time of disruption with 4 new parish priests in as many years, Mgr William Mitchell was moved to the Cathedral following the Administrator’s ill health; Fr McCauley went to work at the Diocesan Matrimonial Tribunal. Fr Peter Slocombe took an overdue sabbatical. But Fr Kevin Mortimer provided some stability in his 5 years of office. During this time a lift was installed at the back of the church, to enable access for those unable to manage the steps outside. A new Repository and a new staircase were incorporated into the project.

St Mary on the Quay Church Bristol

In 2004 there was a completely unexpected development. The Divine Word Missionaries were looking for a new parish in England and negotiated with the Bishop of Clifton to take over St Mary-on-the Quay, with the consent of the congregation. The suggestion was warmly welcomed by all. Fr Michael Cleary SVD duly arrived on the 14th September 2004 with Fr Nicodemus Lobo Ratu SVD (Indonesian), shortly followed by Fr Anil Thekadatu Paul SVD (from Kerala, India). The Divine Word Missionaries or, formally, the Society of the Divine Word (abbreviated SVD from its Latin title Societas Verbi Divini) is an international community of missionary Catholic priests and brothers, founded at Steyl in the Netherlands in 1875 by a German priest, Saint Arnold Janssen (feast day: 15th January). His early confrere, Saint Joseph Freinademetz (feast day: 29th January), whose main missionary activity was in China, was canonized with him on October 5th 2003 by Pope John-Paul lI. Two plaques depicting these founder members of the SVD now hang in the Lady Chapel. They were crafted, from pictures, by I Wayan Litha, a Hindu artist from Gianyar, Bali, Indonesia, and commissioned and brought back to St Mary’s by Fr Nico.

The Society currently numbers about 6000 members working in over 65 countries around the globe. They understand their particular contribution to the Kingdom of God (in addition to all their pastoral and preaching activities) to be the highlighting of universal inclusiveness and openness to diversity – hence the mixed nationalities in all their communities.

Within the context of Ireland and Britain at this time, they believe their mission to be one of dialogue. They write: “Christ is the centre of our life. A living union with him brings unity and gives depth to our whole life with its many activities. We seek to encounter Christ in a special way in the celebration of the liturgy, in the word of God, in prayer and in meditation. Such encounters continually challenge us to conversion and renewal of life.”

Sadly, Fr Michael passed away on October 28th 2008. Fr Nico was formally appointed parish priest in February 2009 and has remained here since. (Editor notes: Fr Vinsensius Mbu’i has replaced Fr Nico as the new parish priest since November 2016).

In the autumn of 2009, work started on a major redecoration and renovation project on the church and halls. The painting contract was awarded to South West Decorating Services Ltd of Church Lane, Bristol and they proved to be an excellent choice. Advanced work was also carried out on the wiring and lighting systems.

We were delighted to welcome back Vanessa Webb to restore and renovate the three altarpieces. She had designed and stencil-painted (with a previous colleague) the back drop to the main altar in the late 80’s and was very happy to restore it to its former glory. She also highlighted all the gold paintwork in the Italianate main altar, and redefined the edges and the shape where the stonework was chipped. She restored the gold within the cupola and regilded the pelican over the tabernacle. She also repainted, cleaned and regilded where appropriate the Sacred Heart altar and the Lady Chapel and statue.

The main hall was repainted and fitted with new lighting, and the middle hall also had a new kitchen. There remains much maintenance and refurbishment to be done, but a good start has been made. In 2011 the sacristy ceiling fell in, and had to be repaired. The room above has now been made into a meeting or prayer room.

There has always been a strong musical tradition here with good participation from the congregation. Choirs and organists tend to come and go, (the longest serving organist being Jim Fionda who played for over 60 years) but somehow replacement musicians always come forward. We currently have sung Masses at 9.30am, 11.00am and 5.15pm on Sundays, with combined choirs on Festivals.

In recent years there have been considerable developments to the Harbourside not far from the church, including many new riverside apartments and houses. Student accommodation has been created in the old city area. This has brought new parishioners to the church. In addition, the increase in overseas students at Bristol University and the influx of overseas nurses, care workers, doctors, and medical medical staff at the nearby hospitals has changed the character of the congregations. There is a thriving Filipino community, and worshippers from African countries, from India, European countries, Malaysia and elsewhere.

The priests of St Mary’s also offer Mass each Sunday at 8.00am in the newly renovated 13th century St James Priory Church, Whitson Street. This is a Grade I listed building and the oldest church in Bristol, dating from around 1129.

But apart from its new and continuing roles as a parish church and a centre of worship for visitors, shoppers and office-workers in the city, St Mary-on-the-Quay holds still, for family and historical reasons, a special place in the hearts of many Catholics who, though they live miles away, still make this their Spiritual Home.

(Ken Hankins, 1997, updated by Marion Morgan, December 2011)