The origin of The Willows Church in Kirkham goes back to 1809 when, following the Relief Act of 1791 that permitted, once more, the building of Catholic churches, Father William Irving erected a chapel and presbytery on land belonging to his family at The Willows.
The chapel was dedicated to the Holy Cross, but was usually known as The Willows Chapel after the willow trees that grew around it. The original chapel and presbytery were situated where the present day car park is sited.
In 1845 construction of the present church was completed. This building was the greatest work of Father Thomas Sherburne, who employed a leading architect of the day, A.W.N. Pugin, to design the magnificent new church in the Early English style. The church features a spire 110 feet high and a peal of bells said to be the first to ring out in a Catholic church since the Reformation.
Father Sherburne also presided over the construction of the first school at The Willows, situated on the corner of Bryning Fern Lane. This school was subsequently expanded by Father Frederick Hines in a series of developments that increased its capacity and facilities.
Father Hines recognized the needs of Catholics at Westby, and in May 1859 proceeded with construction of St Anne’s at Westby Mills. St. Anne’s was designed by Edward Welby Pugin, son of the architect of the Willows, and was opened in August 1860. This church was, at first, served from the Willows, but eventually Father Hines’ assistant, Father W. Ball, took charge.
As if building one church was not enough, Father Hines then began construction of St. Joseph’s at Wesham. The foundation stone was laid in July 1884, and the church was opened in March 1886.
Father Hines also had the forethought to extend the burial grounds with the purchase of land across Ribby Road, which was consecrated in 1880.
Finally, to complete this outstanding collection of development works, Father Hines presided over the re-construction of the chapel adjoining the old presbytery, extending the same and making a sitting room and other facilities.
Father Francis John Gillow continued the theme of constructing ever better facilities, making many beautifying changes to the interior of The Willows, including the pulpit, altar, pews, and statuary. Moreover, Father Gillow joined with Canon Taylor of Lytham in the building of The Holy Family Church at Freckleton, which was opened in 1900.
Following an era of building and expansion, subsequent Parish Priests of The Willows took on the role of maintaining, consolidating, and renewing resources.
One of the most significant of these activities was that of Monsignor Shaun Monaghan, who presided over the building, in two phases between 1971 and 1976, of a new Willows Junior and Infant School, and the demolition of the old buildings erected by Fathers Sherburne and Hines.
Equally important was the demolition of the old presbytery and construction of a new presbytery and meeting rooms adjacent to the church, and the general renovation and restoration of the church immediately prior to the sesquicentennial anniversary of the present church at The Willows. Both of these important development works were presided over by Father Dunstan Cooper.
During his time as Parish Priest Father Paul Johnstone established a programme of renewal and development of the magnificent grounds within which the church is set. This programme included creation of an extension to the burial grounds accross the road from the church on Ribby Road, clearing of the field to the north of the church and the planting of an orchard in that location, and clearing and restoration of the graves associated with the original chapel at The Willows site, which had become much overgrown and dilapidated. Father Paul also presided over the bicentenary celebrations in 2009, the Diocesan Mission Review, and numerous other activities, such as the 2009 Parish Census and Record of Faith.
Father Emmanuel Gribben was Parish Priest of the Willows, and of St Joseph’s, Wesham, for a relatively short time – two and a half years – before he was was re-assigned as part of a significant restructuring of parishes within the Diocese that followed the Fit For Mission review undertaken a few years earlier. In that time, however, Father Gribben achieved much. As well as significant renovations of the interior of the church, Father Gribben fostered increased linkage with the Willows Primary School, promoted the re-formation of the children’s choir and restoration of the choir accommodation at the rear of the church, and initiated a parish support organisation for the Mary’s Meals charity. Perhaps his most significant achievement, though, was to promote and foster increased cooperation between the parishes of The Willows and St Joseph’s, to the point where they could easily transition into a single merged parish, a process which he oversaw just prior to his departure in 2013.
In November 2011, The Willows became linked with the the Parish of St Joseph’s, the Parish Priest of The Willows serving both parishes.
On the 21st July 2013, the parishes of The Willows and St Joseph’s merged to form a single parish, The Holy Cross, named after the original chapel at Mowbreck Hall, from which they had both originated.
In summary, the history of The Willows, which is now part of the history of The Parish of the Holy Cross, is rich and complex, and is a story of faith, achievement, and great blessings.