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  • Writer's pictureMary Allen

155 year of the Sacred Heart, Edinburgh

Updated: Jan 24, 2022

This year marks the 155th anniversary of the opening of the Jesuit-run Church of the Sacred Heart at Lauriston Street, Edinburgh.

Looking back 300 years, the position of the Jesuits in Scotland, and indeed the Catholic Church, was not such a happy one:

The monasteries nearly are all in ruins … churches, altars, sanctuaries are overthrown and profaned … No religious rite is celebrated in any part of the kingdom, no Mass is ever said in public… and none of the Sacraments publicly administered with Catholic ceremonial. (Fr de Gouda SJ, the envoy of Pius IV to Scotland, 1562.)

The Pieta, Sacred Heart

The Catholic faith had been proscribed in Scotland in 1560, only 20 years after the foundation of the Society of Jesus by St Ignatius Loyola. In 1615, St John Ogilvie was martyred in Glasgow, having been convicted of high treason for refusing to accept the King's spiritual jurisdiction. During this time, and up until the suppression of the Society in 1773, Jesuits were among the priests who ministered to the faithful remnant of the Church in Scotland. Although members of the Society managed to continue as secular priests under the authority of Bishop George Hay, the Vicar-Apostolic, the old Scottish Mission was not to survive the Suppression. The Revolution in France and Napoleonic Wars that followed lead to the closure of all Scottish colleges in Europe, their property confiscated and the students and priests exiled.

In 1815, however, things began to look up for the Society. At the downfall of Napoleon, Pope Pius VII restored the Society, leading to the reopening of Scottish Colleges in Spain and Rome. The culmination of the process of Catholic Emancipation throughout Britain was the Roman Catholic Relief Act, passed by Parliament in 1829 and within Scotland the faith grew rapidly, paving the way for return of the Society of Jesus.

Laying the foundation stone of Sacred Heart Presbytery, Edinburgh, 29 May 1909

On the restoration of the Society, the Scottish Jesuits entered the English Province and in 1859, it was to the English Provincial, Fr Johnston, that Bishop Gillis sent an invitation to open a Jesuit church in Edinburgh. At that time, it is estimated that the Catholic population of Edinburgh was between 15 and 20 thousand. The city itself was served by only two churches: St Mary’s Cathedral in Broughton Street and St Patrick’s in Cowgate. The Lauriston parish began in the Grassmarket where a chapel was opened on the feast of Ignatius, 31 July 1859. From the first it was dedicated to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. On the day the temporary chapel was opened, the foundation stone of the Church of the Sacred Heart in Lauriston Street was laid. Initially, the scope of the Lauriston parish took in not only the territory of the present parish but also part of St Columba’s, St Peter’s and St Cuthbert’s.

Group photo on the Diamond Jubilee of church, 1920

11 months after the laying of its foundation stone, the new church was ready for use. At the first service, on the 8th of July 1860, Jesuit Provincial, Fr Seed, sang the High Mass, and Bishop Gillis preached. Bishop Gillis had hoped to build a new cathedral not far from Lauriston Street, and therefore instructed the architect of the new church, Fr Richard Vaughan SJ (uncle of Fr Bernard Vaughan), to build a temporary church that would merely be easily convertible into a hall. The new cathedral was never built however, and the Jesuits were able to remain at Lauriston Street, where the ‘temporary’ church still stands, 155 years later.

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