From the Archives: 155 year of the Sacred Heart Church, Edinburgh

POST BY RSomerset

This year marks the 155th anniversary of the opening of the Jesuit-run Church of the Sacred Heart at Lauriston Street, Edinburgh.

Looking back 300 years, the position of the Jesuits in Scotland, and indeed the Catholic Church, was not such a happy one:

The monasteries nearly are all in ruins … churches, altars, sanctuaries are overthrown and profaned … No religious rite is celebrated in any part of the kingdom, no Mass is ever said in public … and none of the Sacraments publicly administered with Catholic ceremonial.’ 

(Fr de Gouda SJ, the envoy of Pius IV to Scotland, 1562)

The Catholic faith had been proscribed in Scotland in 1560, only 20 years after the foundation of the Society of Jesus by St Ignatius Loyola. In 1615, St John Ogilvie was martyred in Glasgow, having been convicted of high treason for refusing to accept the King's spiritual jurisdiction. During this time, and up until the suppression of the Society in 1773, Jesuits were among the priests who ministered to the faithful remnant of the Church in Scotland. Although members of the Society managed to continue as secular priests under the authority of Bishop George Hay, the Vicar-Apostolic, the old Scottish Mission was not to survive the Suppression. The Revolution in France and Napoleonic Wars that followed lead to the closure of all Scottish colleges in Europe, their property confiscated and the students and priests exiled. 

The Pieta, Sacred Heart Church, Edinburgh

In 1815, however, things began to look up for the Society. At the downfall of Napoleon, Pope Pius VII restored the Society, leading to the reopening of Scottish Colleges in Spain and Rome. The culmination of the process of Catholic Emancipation throughout Britain was the Roman Catholic Relief Act, passed by Parliament in 1829 and within Scotland the faith grew rapidly, paving the way for return of the Society of Jesus.

Black and white photograph showing men in suits and altar boys standing around while one man hits a stone

Laying the foundation stone of Sacred Heart Presbytery, Edinburgh, 29 May 1909

On the restoration of the Society, the Scottish Jesuits entered the English Province and in 1859, it was to the English Provincial, Fr Johnston, that Bishop Gillis sent an invitation to open a Jesuit church in Edinburgh. At that time, it is estimated that the Catholic population of Edinburgh was between fifteen and twenty thousand. The city itself was served by only two churches: St Mary’s Cathedral in Broughton Street and St Patrick’s in Cowgate. The Lauriston parish began in the Grassmarket where a chapel was opened on the feast of Ignatius, 31 July 1859. From the first it was dedicated to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. On the day the temporary chapel was opened, the foundation stone of the Church of the Sacred Heart in Lauriston Street was laid. Initially, the scope of the Lauriston parish took in not only the territory of the present parish but also part of St Columba’s, St Peter’s and St Cuthbert’s.

Black and white photograph of a group of women standing with a priest in their midst. One woman is holding a toddler up and several of the women are wearing hats.Black and white photograph of a group of seven priests sat or standing in a group. None of them is looking at the camera.


Fr Ronald Fraser SJ with Women's Sodality, c1909   Edinburgh Diamond Jubilee of church, 1920

11 months after the laying of its foundation stone, the new church was ready for use. At the first service, on the 8th of July 1860, Jesuit Provincial, Fr Seed, sang the High Mass, and Bishop Gillis preached. Bishop Gillis had hoped to build a new cathedral not far from Lauriston Street, and therefore instructed the architect of the new church, Fr Richard Vaughan SJ (uncle of Fr Bernard Vaughan), to build a temporary church that would merely be easily convertible into a hall. The new cathedral was never built however, and the Jesuits were able to remain at Lauriston Street, where the ‘temporary’ church still stands, 155 years later.

To find out more about the records of the Sacred Heart Church or other Scottish missions, please contact the Archives of the Jesuits in Britain.

Mary Allen, Assistant Archivist