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The Forgotten Gem Windleshaw Abbey St Helens
Rob Ainsworth 28 March 2007
The graveyard adjoining the St Helens borough cemetery known as Windleshaw Abbey is a hidden heritage gem. The vandalised Cemetery was a chantry, built almost six centuries ago by Sir Tomas Gerard of Bryn and dedicated to St Thomas of Canterbury, It was a place where Masses were said for the souls of his ancestors. It is of significant national and local historical importance of great antiquity, having been built in 1435.
This ancient place of worship, which should be a local treasure to the people of St Helens is unfortunately the haunt of vandals and drug users”. it is only a small cemetery originally measuring 50ft by 14ft, the tower is 36ft high and 12ft square and built of yellow sandstone,
Its closure was ordered under the Chantries Act of 1447 when Sir Thomas Gerard descendant of the founder pleaded in vain for its exemption under Edward VI. When Edward's sister, the Catholic Queen Mary, came to the throne six years later, there was a brief respite and Sir Tomas was made High Sheriff of Lancashire. His fortunes changed under Elizabeth and he was imprisoned in the Tower, charged with plotting to replace Elizabeth with Mary Queen of Scots.
Sir Thomas's son the Jesuit John Gerard was also sent to the Tower, having the distinction of being one of the few to escape from it. Despite having been tortured on the rack, he managed to climb down a rope from Cradle Tower to Tower Wharf and get away by boat.
From the early 1700's land around the chantry became a burial place for Catholics denied burial elsewhere. Many of the interments took place secretly at night. It is believed that Windleshaw chantry was partly demolished in 1644 at the time of the Civil War, when Lathom House nine miles away, was under siege by 3,000 troops under Cromwell's General Fairfax.".
Before the Windle estate passed out of the family's hands in the early 1900's, Dean Austin Powell of Birchley persuaded Lord Gerard to donate land as a site for a new school and church. Opened in 1911, the church was like the chantry, dedicated to St Thomas of Canterbury.