“It looks like a barn!”

Columban Fr. John Boles discovers a rare example of an English “barn church” built during penal times whilst visiting Lancashire for a Mission Awareness and Appeals visit.

church made to look like a barn
Alexander P Kapp, St Mary's Church, Aughton, via Wikimedia Commons

I’d passed the church three times before recognizing it.

The voice of the “satnav” lady kept insisting that, “you have arrived at your destination”, but all I could see was a collection of farm buildings set in open fields.

Then I noticed a cross on top of one of the buildings.

This is how I finally came upon the Catholic church of St. Mary’s, near the Lancashire village of Aughton.

I was welcomed by parish priest Fr. Des and, and after concluding the opening pleasantries, I explained the reason for my delayed arrival. “It’s your church,” I said. “It looks like a barn !”

“It looks like a barn because it is SUPPOSED to look like a barn”, came the reply. “It was built that way”.

Over a hot cuppa Fr. Des explained the background. St Mary’s is unusual in that it was built DURING penal times, not after. To avoid upsetting local sensibilities, and so as not to attract too much attention, it was constructed away from the village, set back from the road, shielded by trees and designed to look like a farm. “Camouflaged, in other words.” The church itself was built in the style of a barn. “That is why it has no windows”. The presbytery was given the appearance of a farmhouse.

“There are a few of these ‘barn churches’ around,” Des continued. “Not all of them are Catholic. Some are Nonconformist chapels. The Dissenters had to be discreet in those days as well.”

I’d come to St. Mary’s as part of the Columbans’ mission promotion and fundraising programme and spent the weekend celebrating with the people. The parishioners are proud of their history and were eager to give me more details. It became clear that what had happened in Aughton had been a reflection of events that occurred throughout south Lancashire during the Reformation.

In 1534 the Act of Supremacy declared Henry VIII to be head of the Church of England. Soon, Aughton’s beautiful old Parish Church of St. Michael’s was following the Protestant rite, leaving Catholics with nowhere to celebrate Mass. Indeed, it was now ILLEGAL to celebrate Mass.

Fortunately, much of the local gentry in south Lancashire kept to the “Old Faith”. They protected fellow Catholics and often arranged for secret Masses to be celebrated. Geography was a factor in this. Many villages such as Aughton were cut off from their surroundings by bogs and marshes (known locally as, “mosses”).

In Aughton’s case the lords of the manor were members of the famous Stanley family (see inset). Their home at Moor Hall became a Catholic haven. (Extensive renovation work carried out recently uncovered traces of a small chapel, where the sacraments had probably been celebrated in secret.) Nobility, isolation and some well-directed bribes kept the Stanleys free from arrest, although as “popish recusants” they were not immune from punishment. Local records indicate that in 1584, because his “family adhered to the old religion”, Peter Stanley was “required to furnish the cost of a light horseman accoutred” for Elizabeth I’s war in Ireland, to the tune of £24 – no mean sum at that time.

Eventually, fear of the “Catholic menace” began to abate, and in 1784 it was considered worth the risk to start celebrating the Eucharist out in the open on the site of the present church. Finally, in 1823 the faithful felt sufficiently confident to be able to build St Mary’s, a full six years before the passing of the Act for Catholic Emancipation – albeit building the church in its disguise, and even then, leaving the doors open so that passers-by could be sure that nothing “untoward” was happening during liturgies.

Today, the parish community continues to thrive, despite St. Mary’s isolated location. People come from all over the rural area, inspired by the parish’s illustrious past.

Not bad, for a church that looks like a barn.

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Read more authored by Fr. John Boles, Columban Director in Britain.

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