A Brief History of St Peters Catholic Church Leicester
The Catholic Faith is thought to have been brought to Leicester about the year 653, although the original Diocese of Leicester was not constituted until 737. By the time of the Dissolution in 1538-39, the city boasted many Churches and was served by several Religious Orders of men and women.
The development of the Faith in post reformation times is due to the Black Friars, the Dominicans, whose original Priory was founded in 1245 by Simon De Montfort, Earl of Leicester. The first post reformation Masses were, however, said by Jesuit priests, who occasionally said Mass at the home of Mr. Byerley, in Elgrave. One of those who provided this service was Fr. William Bennett, S.J., who was later imprisoned, escaped, imprisoned again and eventually died from starvation and neglect in Leicester Gaol on October 30th, 1692. In 1746, Fr. John Clarkson, O.P., came to Leicester once a month from Aston Flamville to say Mass in the Byerley home. In 1774, Fr. Peter Robson, O.P., became the first resident, priest.
A small chapel was established in Causeway Lane in 1798, and it is indicative of the dangers Catholics faced in those days that all who came to the chapel were scrutinized Fitz through "spy holes" and that the priest used to arrive disguised as a hawker carrying a basket of fruit or flowers.
The dedication of those early pioneers is illustrated by Fr. Thomas Norton, O.P., who, in one day, attending to sick calls, walked from Hinckley to Leicester and back, then to Coventry and back, a distance of 54 miles. At about this time there were no more than seven Catholic Families in Leicester.
In 1817 the building of Holy Cross Church was begun. 1824 saw the opening of schools at Wellington Street and Belgrave Gate the latter being the beginning of the Parish of St. Patrick. Emancipation came in 1829 and was celebrated with a Solemn High Mass and an out door procession.
Further Missions were eventually established Wigston in 1880, the Sacred Heart in 1886. In 1896 the Mission of St. Peter was placed under the care of the secular clergy. Fr. J. R. Kane took up residence and Mass was said for some months in his house. He was followed in the same year by Fr. C. E. May, and in 1897 by Fr. H. Fitzgerald. At this time Mass was said first in a classroom of King Richard's Road Board School, then in a warehouse in Noble Street, where a small house was rented for the priest. Fr. Felix May served from 1899 1902, and Fr. Michael Griffin from 1902 1903.
The next resident priest, who became the first Parish Priest, Fr. (later Canon) Francis Isidore Caus, was, in the words of Bishop Brindle, "practically the founder of this Parish of St. Peter." Born in Elst, Belgium, on June 7th, 1868, Fr. Caus was a seminary student at Alost in 1892 when Bishop Bagshawe visited the seminary to try to recruit priests for the English Mission. Fr. Caus came to Nottingham,where he was ordained on Rosary Sunday, October, 1894. After service at St. Augustine's and St. Patrick's, Nottingham, and at Whitwick and Lincoln, he came to St. Peter's in the Spring of 1903, and was subsequently appointed Parish Priest on February 13th, 1905.
Fr. Caus immediately set about the task of providing the Parish with a permanent Church. Early in 1905 he organised a magnificent Bazaar which made a profit of over £500. As a result of this and other efforts, the foundation stone of the new church was laid in the presence of a great crowd by Bishop Brindle on June 13th, 1905.
St. Peter's Church, designed and built by a Parishioner, Mr. F. J. Bradford, who lived in King Richard's Road, was opened on October 15th, 1905.
The new church was the scene of a Mission to Non Catholics, which
was given by Fr. John Filmer, who had previously been a clergyman in
a Protestant church in Leicester.
School accommodation was provided by the Sisters of the Convent
of The Nativity of The Blessed Virgin Mary.
Later, the Presbytery was completed in 1925 a cost of £1,250.
Canon Caus died on January 18th, 1931, leaving the Parish free of
debt the church, presbytery and land had all been paid for.
Fr. Vernon Whiteman was appointed priest in charge temporarily,
and was followed by Fr. John Toomey, who left in February, 1932.
The next Parish Priest, Mgr. R. Barry Doyle, arrived in 1932 after
an illustrious career both as an Army chaplain, during which he served
on every battle front and was decorated by all the Allied Powers, and
as an International organiser for post war relief for children in the
He began the formidable task of providing a Catholic School and had plans prepared for a school costing some £12,000. Towards this he organised an Empire Fair at Blackfriars Hall, for which he enlisted the assistance of Bishop McNulty, Lady Mary Savile, Lady Odin Pearse, and many of the leading clergy of the Diocese.
However, he was not to live to see his plans realised, as he was called to his rest in March, 1933. His funeral was on March 11th, in the presence of the Bishop and fifty priests.
Canon Henry A. Hunt, a native of Leicester, was appointed in March, 1933. The altar of St. Peter's Church as a gift from his father.
Fr. (later Canon) John Farmer came in 1934.
As yet the Parish had no social centre but this was rectified when, on land given by Mr. Bradford, St. Peter's Guildhall was built, the official opening being on October 14th, 1937.
At this time the old convent in Kirby Road was bought for a school but this plan was thwarted because of the outbreak of the 1939 War.
In 1938 a Chapel of Ease, the English Martyrs, was blessed by the Bishop on the vigil of the Ascension. This was served by the priests of St. Peter's until the arrival of the Blessed Sacrament Fathers.
In 1944 Father (later Canon) Francis Thornhill was appointed but his health broke down and he was succeeded by Father (later Canon) Michael Gilleran.
On March 26th, 1946, Canon Gilleran bought "Ashleigh" and four acres of land on the Gimson estate for £8,500, Plans were drawn up and Christ the King Primary School was opened in 1951, at a total cost of some £75,000.
The Parish was responsible for the setting up of the Mother of God Parish and for the new church there which was opened on October 11th, 1957, at a total cost of some £35,000.
St. Peter's Parish, under Canon Gilleran, played a major part towards the English Martyrs' School on Anstey Lane. The site was £4,250 and the contract price for the school was £215,608, which was officially opened on May 4th, 1965.
Canon Michael Gilleran, who was the driving force behind these remarkable achievements, passed away suddenly on August 3rd, 1976.
He was succeeded by Father Joseph Jones who was previously Parish Priest of St. John Bosco Parish on the other side of the city. Father Jones took up residence on October 1st, 1976, and was joined on November 5th by Father Thomas McGovern who was formerly assistant priest at St. Joseph's Church in the city.
It had been known for some time that the parish would loose its presbytery church and church hall because of a new road scheme for the inner city area, but it was not until January 8th, 1977, that work began on the new site which had been acquired on Hinckley Road. Work on the new presbytery was completed by the end of the year and the priests moved into their new home on December 21st, 1977. Work continued on the new Parish Church and Hall. The last Mass in the old church on King Richard's Road was said at lunch time on the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, 1978, and the first Mass in the new church was said the same day in the evening after a Procession of the Blessed Sacrament from the old to the new church. Both Services were conducted by Father McGovern because of the illness of Father Jones, the Parish Priest. He was assisted by Father Shanahan and Father Jenkinson of the Blessed Sacrament Fathers.