PRESTON: St. Walburge’s

After three weeks in Preston, I finally visited one of its greatest historical buildings: St. Walburge’s Catholic Church. As an anxious exchange student and as a fairly devout Catholic, I had done a little research on St. Walburge’s prior to my trip. The church was named and dedicated to St. Walburga, who as it turns out has no relation to Mark or Donnie Wahlberg, but was an English missionary in the eighth century. 

The church is renowned for having the tallest spire of any parish church in the United Kingdom. It stands at 309 feet high and on a clear day, you can see all of the Lake District and even the Irish Sea from its windows. It was built during the 19th century during the time of Catholic revival in England by architect Joseph Hansom. 

Yet even knowing all of these facts, I was completely blown away when I arrived at St. Walburge’s on Sunday. Thinking that mass started at 11:00 when it fact it didn’t begin until noon, I had plenty of time to explore the church and speak with the deacon and a few other lifelong parishioners. It was nothing like I had ever seen in the United States and it was certainly a change of pace from St. Edward’s mass in Jones’ Auditorium. 

In addition to being awestruck by the beauty of the architecture itself, I was amazed by the history behind some of the relics. On one side of the church stood a memorial for all of the fallen soldiers from the Preston area during WWI and WWII, including one whose grandson still attends weekly mass at St. Walburge’s. At the center of this memorial is a crucifix that was recovered from a destroyed Catholic church and was carved 800 years ago. That single crucifix has more history than our entire country. It baffles me. 

The congregation itself was surprisingly small, especially considering that the bishop was visiting. For a church that holds up to 1000 people, there were probably no more than 35 in attendance so my friend and I were noticed almost immediately. After the service ended, the bishop greeted us individually, as did the pastor, excited to have fresh faces around. With such a small community and such expensive upkeep, the church has frequently faced the threat of closure, so they were eager to convert us into supporters for their cause. 

Part of what makes St. Walburge’s so special, beyond the legendary spire and the intricate stained glass windows and statues, is that it was built to celebrate the ending of a time when Catholics were persecuted in England. It’s been said to represent the pride of the Roman Catholic community and anyone who visits it can surely tell you that’s true. All they need now is central heating…