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Stockport's 'Miraculous Roses' Church to Close - Mike Russell

The Roman Catholic Bishop of Salford, John Arnold, has made some radical reconfigurations to the number of parishes in his Diocese. 150 parishes have been reduced, amalgamated, redesigned into 75 and one of the churches to close is St Mary’s Heaton Norris, Stockport, the site of the ‘Miraculous Roses’ after the Second World War.

In 1947, the parish May Queen was seven-year-old Pauline Byrne and she crowned the statue of Our Lady at the evening service on May Sunday. The coronet was made up of 22 cream roses and was delivered to the parish priest Fr James Turner on Saturday 4th May and stored in the presbytery cellar until needed. The May Crowning service went ahead and Fr Turner expected the roses to fall or fade after a few days – a fortnight at the most – so a second crown had been prepared for the rest of May, Our Lady’s special month. However this second crown was not needed because the crown of roses refused to fade!

Word of the ‘miraculous roses’ spread and the Sunday evening service of Benediction became very popular, with pilgrims coming from far and wide to view the still-intact crown. In October 1947, three similar crowns were prepared at the same florist and placed at the foot of the statue in honour of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary, but these soon faded, whilst the May crown remained intact, as it did throughout Advent, Christmas, New Year 1948, on through Lent and Easter until May Sunday again approached. Pauline Byrne was again the May Queen but why she was granted this privilege a second time is unclear – perhaps Fr Turner considered her a special child. Pauline led the procession around the church before entering the sanctuary, ascending the steps and replacing the 1947 unfaded rose crown gently on the Virgin’s head and then placing the 1948 rose crown on top. Our Lady of Heaton Norris now had two rose crowns and the talk amongst the congregation leaving the church that evening was whether the new crown would fade and wither. It didn’t and a year later Fr Turner commissioned another crown of golden Ophelia roses for the 1949 May Crowning.

The 1949 May Queen was seven-year-old Anne Curley and she, watched by former May Queen Pauline Byrne, place a third crown on Our Lady’s head. Again the roses in this third crown did not fade but as May Sunday 1950 approached, Fr Turner decided that a different statue of Our Lady would be crowned in this Holy Year , during which the dogma of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven had been proclaimed by Pope Pius XII. He announced that to put a fourth crown on the original statue would destroy the symbolic significance of the fifty roses and the three crowns but he didn’t explain this. The roses on the 1950 statue soon faded, as they did in 1951, 1952 and 1953. The three crowns on the original statue still had not faded or died.

By 1954, Fr Turner had left the parish and the Diocese, taking with him the original statue and the three rose crowns. It was therefore not possible to examine them independently of him. He had had several suggestions as to why the crowns had not faded: one writer was convinced the roses were made of wax; another that the roses had taken root in the statue and a ludicrous theory that ants with a two-way run up and down the statue kept the roses alive with little drops of moisture! In 1947, a senior lecture in horticulture at Manchester University suggested the roses had been cut before reaching luxuriant growth and then put in the cool, even atmosphere of the church; the atmosphere in the building created a condition similar to that which occurs when buttercups are preserved by pressing them between sheets of blotting-paper. He was of the opinion that as soon as the church’s central heating was turned on, the roses would fade. But that didn’t happen in 1947, 1948 or 1949.

There were cynics amongst the Salford clergy, who believed Fr Turner regularly replenished the May crowns with new roses and as a clear demonstration of that scepticism he became known as ‘Rosie Turner’ across the Diocese. Bishop Vincent Henry Marshall was equally unimpressed and he made his Visitation to the parish on Passion Sunday 1948, when all the statues, including the ‘miraculous roses’, were covered in purple drapes in the run-up to Easter. Twenty years on, a former altar-server claimed he knew the secret of the unfading roses – they had been threaded with fine wire through the heart of each flower and then knotted behind each bloom. The ferns and the leaves hid this wiring. This explanation, however, doesn’t stand up to examination. Mrs Edith Ainley was the person who made all the rose-crowns for St Mary’s Heaton Norris and she made them all the same way – those that faded and those that didn’t.

So, what was the explanation for this three-year phenomenon? Was it fraud on Fr Turner’s part? He obtained much wealth for the church from the donations thrown into the sanctuary by the large number of pilgrims who visited, enough to pay off the parish debt and to have the sanctuary impressively lined and decorated with marble. He went on tour to America, promoting the phenomenon with talks and selling postcards of the statue. When he left the parish, some say he had to take the ‘evidence’ with him for fear of being exposed as a fraud. Others asked whether it was not Our Lady herself showing Heaton Norris her favour – the ‘miraculous roses’ brought many people back to the Church after their faith had been tested by the Second World War. More people came to Mass and the evening Benediction. Pilgrims came for all over the world to see the phenomenon and say prayers before the statue. The roses were a generator of devotion, a reason for faith, a focus for pilgrimage. Surely this was a sign of Mary’s favour?

I believe the most probable explanation is a bit like Hans Christian Anderson’s story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. None of those who saw the Emperor’s new ‘clothes’ wanted to admit they weren’t there! There was something of this at Heaton Norris. First we have a very intense, a very intelligent priest with a great devotion to Our Lady; he notices that the roses on her May crown of 1947 have not behaved as in previous years, so on Rosary Sunday he draws attention to this fact. Word gets passed around, stories appear in the local and Catholic press and the people come to see this phenomenon. They come, after a terrible War and a terribly cold Winter to see something special – the ring of roses that haven’t faded. They are told the roses haven’t faded, haven’t drooped and, just like the courtiers in the fairy story, they buy into the ‘party-line.’ No-one was going to shout, “It’s just a ring of straw!”

But after three straw rings, even Fr Turner could no longer justify carrying on the phenomenon and had to switch statues for the 1950 May Crowning. One he had left the parish, the crowns and the statue had to go with him to preserve the legend. With Fr Turner gone, the pace of regular, humdrum parish life resumed and the phenomenon gradually forgotten. There is still a wariness of talking about ‘the roses’ and until I researched it for a pamphlet, published in 2008, nothing had been written about the events. With the closure of the church, the whole incident will soon cease to have a focus and will retreat into Catholic folklore. For those who knew nothing of these events, this is just another piece of the great living tapestry that makes up the history of a proud and interesting town and yet another contribution to the richly-embroidered cope of Roman Catholic history in the North-West.

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