Last week, one of Manchester’s most popular churches opened its doors after nine weeks of repairs and maintenance. Renovating The Holy Name was quite a task, for it’s a huge basilica-like building. But there is more to it than sheer size. It is one of the masterpieces by the Victorian architect Joseph Hansom, and it has dominated the Oxford Road neighbourhood since it first opened its doors in 1871.

The church first served the poor migrant community that had flocked for work to Manchester’s booming factories. While their back-to-back terraces have since been swept away, The Holy Name has survived, thanks to recognition of its architectural merit and its more recent role as the church of the Catholic chaplaincy of Manchester University, where it is run by the Society of Jesus.

Fr William Pearsall, the parish priest, says the chaplaincy and church are thriving, particularly due to overseas students’ attendance. “They are rekindling the devotional life of other students, encouraging prayer and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament,” said Fr William. The Holy Name also runs a food bank, has an active St Vincent de Paul Society offering welfare and is home to Manchester Citizens. “We are a very active centre of faith,” said Fr William, “but we could not do it without Hansom’s church. Without it, we would just be a club”.

For many people, the name Joseph Hansom means, if anything, the designer of the Hansom cab, the safe form of horse-and-coach travel that is so evocative of the Victorian age. But Hansom deserves to be better known, especially among Catholics, for the remarkable churches and cathedrals he created for the growing Catholic population of England in the 19th century.

Born in 1803 into a Catholic family in York, Joseph Aloysius Hansom was apprenticed as a joiner, later qualifying as an architect, and set up in business in 1828. While his work includes secular buildings such as Birmingham Town Hall, his greatest achievements were ecclesiastical. They included three Catholic cathedrals: Plymouth (1856), Arundel (1873), and Portsmouth (1872), as well as the Oxford Oratory (1875), The Holy Name (1871) and Mount St Mary’s Church in Leeds (1851). Hansom also founded the Builder magazine (which continues today as Building). It ensured Victorian architecture was carefully recorded and its pages confirm that The Holy Name ranks among the best of that era’s designs.

The church is in Gothic style, built in sandstone, and inside is a vast nave, with five bays including the transepts. It was built in just two years and a close look at the interior reveals how Hansom’s innovation achieved this: some of what looks like stone is terracotta, and was prefabricated off-site.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection