The present parish church of Blackburn is now known as the Cathedral. It is situated in the centre of the town, between Church Street, Darwen Street and the bus station known as the Boulevard. It is thought to have been around the year 596 when the first church was erected on this site (or very near to it) and dedicated to St Mary. This is when Christianity was first established in the Hundred under the authority of Pope Gregory I. according De Statu Blagbornshire accredited to the Whalley abbot John Lyndelay in (circa 1837). St Mary’s Parish Church is also briefly mentioned in the Domesday Book.
The ancient structure of the church was renewed during the reign of Edward III and the middle aisle and choir were re-roofed in compartments about the reign of Henry VIII. A chantry of Our Lady in the south aisle was founded by the second Earl of Derby in 1509 and was endowed with lands for the maintenance of a priest who should say mass and teach a grammar school and song school.
The old church stood towards the north-west of its present position and is described as:-
“A rather short nave, with small, circular-headed clerestory lights in couples: low-walled aisles, with roofs clopping up to the line of the clerestory window-sills; gabled porch at the west end of the south aisle, with pointed-arch doorway; chancel of equal length with the vace; having also a clerestory, and an elaborately-traceried east window of four lights; Gothic crosses at the eastern apexes of nave and chancel roofs; athe west end a strong, embattled square tower of three storeys surmounted by a stunted spire; flanking the chapel the two mortuary chapels of the Osbaldestones (on the north side) and of the Walmsleys (on the south side), the latter with embattled roof-line; tower, aisles, chapels and chancel walls supported by a deep graduated buttresses……
The site of the old church was but a few paces in the rear of the houses on the south side of Church Street”.
(W.A. Abram, History of Blackburn 1877)
By 1818 the church was showing signs of decay and at a special vestry meeting on August 6th it was decided that the church should be pulled down and re-erected. There had been much apprehension as to its safety for many years and by 1819 props were required to support the chancel end and the north side. A bill was introduced into Parliament which received Royal assent on July 11th of the same year. The act gave trustees power to lay a rate upon the parish of 1 shilling (5p) in the pound until the sum of £15,000 had been obtained. The last service of the old church was on 10th November 1819 and the foundation stone of the new church was laid by the Rev TD Whitaker on September 2nd 1820. The site was moved slightly south to a site where the Old Grammar School had been and the tower, which housed the bells was left standing. This is perhaps because services were being held at the nearby church of St John’s Church, the commencement of which were signalled by the peal of St. Mary’s bells. The tower was unroofed in 1833, the clock removed for repair and the bells removed to the tower of the new church and a new roofed remains was used for hearse/coach storage. The tower was was eventually fully removed in 1870.
The new church was consecrated by the Bishop of Chester on September 13th 1826 before a congregregation of between 3000 and 4000, some of whom had to stay outside. It is described by Abram as:-
“a large and handsome edifice….14th century gothic is style; the plan consists of nave, chancel, north and south aisles, western tower and porches and north and south vestries at the east end. The lateral aspect of the exterior presents aisles about 110 feet in length, upheld by graduated buttresses with pinnacles heading each buttress, between which are six large windows of three lights, transomed, with head of elegant tracery ……the clerestory has twelve lights on each side, placed in couplets, trefoil-headed; the east end exhibits the entrance to the vaults, beneath a large east window of five lights……. At the west end a very bold tower of three storeys rises in the centre and is flanked by porches with recessed pointed arches.
St Mary’s promotion to Cathedral occurred 100 years after its rebuild. It soon became obvious that it needed extensive alterations and enlargement to fit its new purpose. However today’s design is a mixture of old and modern, a modern bell tower together and what has been described by some as a ‘flying saucer’ attached to the side of the building may be seen by some as progress at its worse.
The Parish Registers date back to 1568, but only begin in a semblance of order from about 1600. The is a gap during the Civil War between 1642 and 1651.
On Thursday 6th January 1831 the Church was seriously damaged by the accidental overheating of a stove. Firemen battled until the early hours to stem the fire, but after sunset the damage could be seen, the beautiful groined roof of the nave was entirely gone and damage was estimated at £6,000. Fortunately the parish registers, and other valuables had been removed immediately and were saved.