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Chorlton's canonised Catholic

Saint Ambrose Barlow
Saint Ambrose Barlow was canonised in 1970

When the relics of St Therese of Lisieux arrived in Manchester, thousands came to visit them - yet, just south of the city, relics of a local Catholic hero rest in quieter surrounds.

Inside the humble St Ambrose RC Church in Chorlton-cum-Hardy lies the jawbone of Edward Barlow, whose martyrdom saw him become Saint Ambrose Barlow.

Edward was born in 1585 at Barlow Hall in Chorlton at a bad time for the Catholic faith and, indeed, for his own land-owning family.

The Barlows had been reluctant converts to Protestantism after the Reformation (the events in 16th century England by which led to the formation of the Church of England and a break away from the authority of the Pope).

In fact, so unenthusiastic were their conversions that Edward's grandfather died in 1584 whilst imprisoned for his Catholic beliefs and his father, Sir Alexander Barlow, had two thirds of his estate confiscated as a result of his non-conformance.

Edward, though, was a Protestant from the start, as he was baptised as an Anglican at Didsbury Parish Church on 30 November 1585.

Answering the calling

At the age of 12, Edward was apprenticed as a page to Sir Uryan Legh, a relative who cared for him whilst he was growing up.

Barlow Hall in 1900
Saint Ambrose was born at Barlow Hall in Chorlton-cum-Hardy

Upon completion of that apprenticeship, he realised that his true purpose was to become a priest and he went to Europe to study, first in Northern France at Douai and then in Spain at Valladolid.

In 1615, he returned to Douai where he completed his conversion to Catholicism, became a member of the Order of Saint Benedict and, two years later, was ordained as a priest, taking the name of St Ambrose of Milan in the process.

Once ordained, he returned to Manchester, first living at the family home in Chorlton and then moving to Astley, near Wigan, where he began his mission in earnest.

From Morleys Hall, the residence of Sir Thomas Tyldesley, he secretly ministered to local Catholics, avoiding the Protestant authorities by using a routine of travelling through the parish for three weeks and remaining within the Hall for one.

He became famed for his preaching and love of the poor, and was reported to walk long distances in order to fulfil his ministry.

A Catholic to the end

Despite his efforts to evade prosecution, Ambrose was arrested several times and was imprisoned at least four times before his final arrest in 1641.

Early in that year, King Charles I proclaimed that all priests should leave the country or face being treated as traitors - the penalty of such a crime being death.

Ambrose's congregation begged him to go, not least because he had recently suffered from a stroke that had partially paralysed him.

Morleys Hall
Father Ambrose ministered in secret at Morleys Hall

The priest refused to flee and soon after, his fate found him.

On Easter Day 1641, Morleys Hall was surrounded by the Vicar of Eccles and his armed congregation, so to defend his parishioners, Father Ambrose surrendered.

The priest was transported to and imprisoned in Lancaster Castle, appearing before Sir Robert Heath on 7 September, where he confirmed his Catholic faith and defended his actions.

When asked why he had not left the country, he said that the law had referred to Jesuits and seminary priests and that he was a Benedictine.

His argument was disregarded, though he was offered his freedom in return for no longer preaching his faith; he quickly and firmly refused to capitulate.

With no defence and no renouncing of his faith, the following day, Sir Robert found Ambrose guilty and sentenced him to death.

Two days later, he was taken from Lancaster Castle to the place of execution, where he was hanged, dismembered and quartered, with his head being removed and displayed on a pike.

Becoming Saint Ambrose

Almost three centuries later, Ambrose was beatified by Pope Pius XI, taking the title of Blessed at a ceremony at the Vatican City's St. Peter's Basilica on December 15 1929.

He achieved the full canonisation 41 years later, when Pope Paul VI bestowed the title of Saint on the forty martyrs of England and Wales, a group of British Roman Catholic martyrs who were executed during the Reformation.

Along with his jawbone in Chorlton, Ambrose's skull is on display at Wardley Hall in Worsley, the official residence of the Roman Catholic Bishops of Salford, and his hand is preserved in Stanbrook Abbey, near Worcester.

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