As a part of a new Catholic Diocesan structure created in 1850, Plymouth Diocese was formed. It compromised of the counties of Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. Plymouth was nominated the Cathedral Centre because, although Exeter had its own historical precedent, there were more Catholics in the town. Furthermore, a new law prevented the restored Catholic Diocese from using the same titles as had been established Church of England diocese.
Plymouth’s first Roman Catholic bishop was George Errington, a Yorkshire man, who had been Vice-rector to the English College in Rome. As priest at St. John’s Church in Salford, Manchester he was consecrated Bishop by Cardinal Wiseman on the 25th July 1851. In Plymouth, Bishop Errington soon overcame the bigotry of the town towards Catholics and concentrated on building up a Chapter of Canons and the Deaneries of the Diocese. He provided support for his few priests and supported his missions. Particularly active in the Stonehouse Mission, he celebrated the Sacraments and visited the sick and dying. He became especially fond of his weekly visit to Dartmoor Prison.
Canon William Vaughan became the second bishop of Plymouth. His family provided many bishops for England. At the Restoration of the Hierarchy he was responsible for the Pro-Cathedral of the Holy Apostles in Clifton, Bristol. It was there that Cardinal Wiseman consecrated him on 19th July 1855. At that time there were only twenty-three missions and twenty-three priests in Plymouth Diocese. After his forty-seven years as a bishop, there were one hundred priests, thirteen male religious houses, twenty-eight nuns’ houses, four orphanages, twenty-seven elementary schools and five schools for older children. Truly, Bishop Vaughan was a Founding Father of the Plymouth Diocese.
St. Mary’s had been the Pro-Cathedral and Bishop Vaughan decided that a fitting new building was required. On 20th February 1856, he bought a portion of “Fivefields” on Eldad Hill at the then towns’ outskirts. Mr. Edmund Bastard promised £1000 and a successful appeal was launched to raise the rest of the money throughout the diocese and country. The Hansom Brothers, Joseph and Charles (of “Hansom Cab” fame) became the architects and Mr. Roberts of Stonehouse the builder. His tender came to £3904 and was accepted on 22nd May 1856. Work started 22nd June. There were construction problems including subsidence caused by an English Naval Officer firing new heavy Turkish Man-of-War guns in Plymouth Sound. The Bishop’s house was constructed and the clergy moved in on the 23rd September 1857. The Cathedral was opened at the Feast of the annunciation on 25th March 1856. The Te Deum was sung at the close of the ceremony.
Bishop Vaughan built a church for the Catholics in Devonport and the sailors who were regularly in port. To do this he applied to the Secretary of State for War, Lord Panmure, for a site. The strength of numbers of the faithful averaging at least eight hundred swung the argument and “Prince’s Gardens” at Mutton Cove was offered. Schools were built on the south side of the site and the Chapel Street School moved in. By 24th September 1859 the Bishop was able to build the nave and aisle for a church. This became the Church of St. Michael and St. Joseph and its foundation stone was laid on 25th June 1860. The building work, done by Mr. Roberts the builder of the Cathedral, was completed. The opening celebration led by Bishop Vaughan took place on 19th December 1861. This was the military chaplaincy for the army and navy. The Devonport Mission became a thriving servant to the civilians and military people of Devonport.
The original town of Sutton Pool had been where a convent of Poor Clares had, until 1834, lived. Carmelite nuns from Lanherne convent brought and settled in Gasking House where the pre-Reformation Friary had stood. In its garden, mission buildings were built and schools opened. By 1872, the work was completed but the Carmelites did not stay long, soon moving to Wells in 1875. Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul took over the buildings as an orphanage. The Sisters continued their work there until 1920, when they moved to Saltash in Cornwall. Holy Cross Church in Ebrington Street also served the East Plymouth Mission.
Bishop Vaughan invited the Notre Dame Sisters to look after poor schools that had been set up in Plymouth. On 26th July 1860 they settled in the presbytery of St. Mary’s and from there taught at the Cathedral and Devonport missions. Soon, they purchased land immediately to the west of the Cathedral and, on 19th October 1858, they opened a convent and girls’ boarding and day school. It operated successfully until it was bombed during the Second World War. Today the site has been redeveloped and is a residential complex called Notre Dame House.
As Plymouth developed in size and scale, so did the number of churches across the city (3 towns became a city by Royal Charter). Bishop Graham opened the Church of the Holy Redeemer in Keyham on 6th July 1902. The story behind it relates to a hulk of a ship named “Hotspur”, later renamed “Monmouth”, moored for the use of Catholic sailors and their priests to celebrate Mass. Because of the expansion of the Naval Dockyard at the time, it was moved up river from its original moorings on the Hamoaze to a position near Saltash. It became a long way for sailors to row to Mass from their ships. The Admiralty approached Bishop Vaughan and land owned by Lord St. Levan was offered. The Admiralty gave £500 as a contribution towards the building work, but Miss Ellis, who had come to Plymouth from Hayle for health reasons, gave the magnificent sum of £5000.
The City Centre, with its bustling activities has been blessed by an extremely generous benefactor who enabled a chapel-of-ease to the Cathedral to be built in a prominent position in the main cross artery of the city, Armada Way leading down the from The Hoe. Christ the King is a major architectural achievement in the Gothic style designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. It was blessed and opened on 19th September 1962. It serves the community with daily Midday Mass, has an extremely useful Repository of books and religious items for sale and is the chaplaincy for the new Plymouth University.
During the post-Way years, Bishop Restieaux helped a blitzed and devastated city rebuild itself and he served the community for thirty years.
As the city grew, the Church grew with it and new parishes were formed. Some churches were restored and some new ones built. A beautifully constructed church was built in another part of Devonport to the old Church of St. Michael and St. Joseph. The site was at Raglan Barracks and not far from where the renowned Plymouth priest Thomas Flynn had worked above the George Inn. Father (now Monsignor Canon) Nannery was responsible for overseeing this popular development. He later went on, as Administrator, to oversee the 1994 reordering of the Cathedral. As regular parishioners will know the Cathedral is currently undergoing massive regeneration works, thanks to three grants received from the World War I fund. The diagram below shows the current layout of the Cathedral.