St Francis Xavier Church stands on the east side of Broad Street, Hereford, a tall yellow building shouldered between pizza parlours, jewellers and banks. Opposite stands an old hotel, a library and a radio station. The road outside is busy with cab ranks, a bus stop and herring bone parking. Before the construction of the Hereford by pass and the new bridge when this church was put up Broad Street was the central thoroughfare of the city. The current church building is a fairly new arrival in Hereford being built in the years after the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act.
The church is built in Doric Greek fashion – popular in the mind 19th century – 1000s of trade halls and colleges mimic the style. In Hereford less reverential parishioners claim it’s a pun on the address: ‘Broad Street.’ The two tall columns at the front of the church, each four metres in circumference - appear to narrow the double doors that lead into the church. ‘Enter through the narrow gate. For…broad is the road that leads to destruction…’ The verse comes from Matthew 7. Broad Street once formed part of the A49 which ends rather more happily in Lancaster.
One busy Tuesday morning in September, 1837 a large crowd gathered in Broad Street. The field where the church would rise was already the trampled preserve of workmen, carts and draught horses. Catholics arriving nearer midday were surprised to find they could not get near the front of the crowd. Small boys wormed through the legs of their elders. Piemen and ale sellers appeared. The crowed was good natured and genial. Local leaders and city dignitaries attended. England’s new young queen, Victoria, sent a personal representative all the way from the Court of St James. Piles of rubble complicated the site. The new church was to rise on property owned by the Jesuits – they had created a secret chapel in the upper rooms of the house in the late 18th century. The priests were joined by Anglican ministers lending an ecumenical endorsement to the proceedings. The occasion was relaxed and welcoming that Tuesday – in marked contrast to the last recorded pubic appearance of a Catholic priest in Hereford. On 22 August 1679 a crowd gathered on Widemarsh Common to witness the public execution of Father John Kemble. The old priest, aged 80, was lead to the gallows after sharing a farewell cup and pipe with his guards. The crowd which normally would have jostled and jeered stood in silence. The expression, to share a Kemble cup, passed into Herefordian dialect meaning a sad farewell. Father John was beatified in 1929.
With the foundation stone laid the new church was completed in quick order. Passers by marvelled at the clean lines of a building that resembled the Treasury of the Athenians at Delphi, Greece. Although as the architect, Charles Day, was always careful to point out, not with the correct proportions. Described as a Grecian Temple and dedicated to St Francis Xavier, a notable Jesuit missionary in India, the church opened on Wednesday and Thursday, the 7th and 8th August 1839. Masses were said and sung in Latin. Priests could once again hear confession and preach the gospel openly.
However the church still bears a sign or two of the reformation. The building has no windows for rioters to throw stones and firebrands through. The steps and the narrow doors make it difficult to ride in a squadron of horse. Built right onto the street the original parishioners were able to flit inside unremarked by employers and constables. However fears of renewed repression proved groundless and the church flourished. Today it attracts worshipers from all over the world, Poland, Ireland, Africa, the Philippine Islands and India – families whose forebears once met and walked with St Francis Xavier.