St Mary’s Lowe House has been dubbed “The Basilica of St Helens” and “The Poor Man’s Cathedral”.
These titles are very apt considering the current church was built using money collected from working class people during the depression.
In 1793 Mrs. Eccleston (whose maiden name was Lowe), the widow of John Gorsuch Eccleston of Eccleston Hall donated a piece of land for a chapel to be built on it. The church which was built was replaced with the current building which was the brain child of Fr. Reginald Riley SJ who was the parish priest from 1912 to 1946.
The current church design has been described as ‘free Romanesque’, that is, Romanesque fused with such Gothic features as the rib vaulting of the nave, aisles and transepts, the flying buttresses and octagonal crossing tower with castellations. The dome is a Renaissance embellishment and is somewhat controversial.
The renowned architectural historian, Nicolaus Pevsner, commented “It would have been better if the dome had never been built”. Be that as it may, the tower and dome of St Mary’s Lowe House continue to dominate the skyline of St Helens.
The impressive dome rises from an equally impressive castellated octagonal tower above the meeting point of the nave, sanctuary and transepts. The copper cross surmounting the dome is 16 feet high. It was given by the wife and daughter of Mr James Yearsley. (Mr Yearsley, with the help of unemployed miners, had laid the foundations of the church before it was taken over by the builders. Three builders of the parish, C J Middlehurst, J Yearsley and A Forbes formed themselves into a company for the construction of the church.
What is a Carillon?
The carillon is an extraordinary musical instrument with a history as rich as it is long. For more than five centuries the carillon has been a voice for the hopes, aspirations and joys of mankind. Few people in
St Helens could have failed, at some time or other, to have been stopped in their tracks by the sheer tonal beauty of the bells of St Mary’s, Lowe House, whether they be sounding out the cheerful bells of Christmas, or a splendidly rendered version of some religious or celebratory tune.
Carillons range in size from two to over six octaves, or from a minimum of 23 bells to as many as 77.
A range of four to four and one half octaves (47 – 56 bells) is most desirable since almost all carillon music can be played on such an instrument (by comparison a piano has 88 notes, whilst an organ keyboard has 61).
Most contemporary carillon music and much historic music is written for carillons with a range of four or more octaves. The carillon at St Mary’s, Lowe House is one of the largest in the British Isles with 47 bells. The largest bell weighs 4 tons 4cwt. It is known as the “Thanksgiving” Carillon because it was erected in the centenary year of Catholic Emancipation and therefore is a celebration of religious freedom. The bells are played by hand for which purpose a clavier or keyboard is provided, not unlike that of an organ.