Bishop Declan Lang is the ninth Bishop of Clifton. The Clifton Diocese came in to existence in 1851 and was preceded by the Western District.
Click on the names of the former Bishops of Clifton, on the left, for biographical details and pictures.
For more historical information about the diocese and bishops ‘The Diocese of Clifton 1850 – 2000’ by Clifton Diocese Archivist Canon Tony Harding is essential reading. It’s available in out ‘Books‘ section.
William Joseph Hendren, Vicar-Apostolic, 1848 to 1850, First Bishop of Clifton, 1850 to 1851
The future Bishop was born in Birmingham on 19 October 1791. He joined the Franciscan Novitiate at Abergavenny in June 1802, and was ordained priest on 28 September 1815. He taught at the Franciscan Novitiate at Perthyr in the Monnow Valley until 1818 when he was moved to the Novitiate at Aston. In 1826, he was appointed missioner at Abergavenny and he served there until he was sent to the Franciscan Convent at Taunton where he was Chaplain from 1839 until 1848, when he was appointed Vicar Apostolic of the Western District in succession to Bishop William Ullathorne. He was consecrated Bishop at the church of St Mary-on-the Quay in Bristol on 10 September 1848.
When the English Hierarchy was restored in 1850, he was appointed the first Bishop of Clifton and was consecrated on 29 September 1850 at the Pro-Cathedral at Clifton. In June 1851, Bishop Hendren was transferred to the new Diocese of Nottingham, but ill-health forced him to resign and he retired on 23 February 1853. He returned to the Franciscan Convent at Taunton where he died on 14 November 1866.
He is remembered at Clifton for his efforts in completing the Pro-Cathedral building, establishing the parish school, having the presbytery built and purchasing the site of the Catholic cemetery at Arno’s Vale and the adjacent Catholic Reformatory for Girls. These were not inconsiderable achievements in his three years of office.
Thomas Burgess, Second Bishop of Clifton, 1851 to 1854
The future Bishop was born at Clayton-le-Woods, Lancashire, on 1 October 1791.
He was educated at Ampleforth where he became a professed monk of the Order of St Benedict on 13 October 1807. He was ordained priest in 1814 and elected Prior of Ampleforth in 1826. In 1830, with his Sub-Prior, Father Thomas Rooker, and the Procurator, Father Edward Metcalfe, he left Ampleforth and the Benedictine Order to join Bishop Peter Baines, the Vicar-Apostolic of the Western District and Father Thomas Brindle, the missioner at Bath, who were also members of the Benedictine Order, in the task of establishing the new school and seminary at Prior Park.
A difference of opinion with Bishop Baines caused Father Burgess to leave Prior Park in 1831. He served as missioner at Cannington and later at the new chapel in Brunswick Place at Bath. From 1835 until his appointment as Bishop of Clifton, he was missioner at Monmouth.
Bishop Burgess was consecrated at Southwark on 17 July 1851. On returning to his diocese, he set himself the task of putting the financial affairs of Prior Park in order. But this proved to be beyond his ability and, indeed, beyond the ability of anyone. In spite of his failing health, he made several ‘begging missions’ as he called them to the dioceses in the north of the country to raise funds for the college. Shortly after returning from one such mission in October 1854, he became seriously ill and he died at the convent at Westbury-on-Trym, Bristol on 27 November, 1854.
William Clifford, Third Bishop of Clifton, 1857 to 1893
The future Bishop was born at Irnham in Lincolnshire on 24 December 1823, the son of the Seventh Baron Clifford of Chudleigh. He received his early education at Hodder Place, near Stonyhurst, and, at the age of 15 he went to live in Rome where his father had a house. In Rome, he studied at the Collegio di Nobile and later at the Venerable English College. He left Rome in 1848 to continue his studies at the Jesuit College in Louvain. On 26 July 1849, he received the Diaconate at Bruges and returned to complete his studies at St Beuno’s College in North Wales. He was ordained priest by Bishop William Hendren at the Pro-Cathedral on 25 August 1850. After his ordination, he returned to Rome where, in September 1851, he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Divinity. He served as a priest in the new Diocese of Plymouth until 1857, when, on 15 February, he was consecrated Bishop of Clifton by Pope Pius IX. He was enthroned at the Pro-Cathedral on 17 March 1857.
During the next 36 years at Clifton, he succeeded in laying the foundations of the modern diocese. The early years saw the diocesan finances restored, often with the Bishop’s private means. In 1867, he re-purchased the Prior Park estate to re-open the school and the seminary. From 1871 to 1874, he undertook a massive refurbishment of the Pro-Cathedral under the guidance of Charles Hansom, the architect responsible for the first buildings at Clifton College. At his personal expense, he had the new premises for the boys’ school built to comply with the needs of the 1870 Education Act. In 1882, to mark his Silver Jubilee as Bishop, he completed the church at Prior Park, which had remained half-finished since lack of funds had caused work to cease in 1845.
Nationally, Bishop Clifford is best remembered for the important part he played at the Vatican Council of 1870.
In spite of failing health, Bishop Clifford made his last Ad Limina visit to Rome in June 1893 and he died at Prior Park on 14 August of the same year. He is buried at Prior Park
William Robert Brownlow, Fourth Bishop of Clifton, 1894 to 1901
The future Bishop was born at Wilmslow, Cheshire, on 4 July 1830. His father, Canon William Brownlow, was vicar of the parish church. Robert Brownlow was educated at Cambridge and after graduating was ordained in the Anglican Church. He served at the parish church at Torquay for four years but resigned in 1861. He was received into the Catholic Church in 1863 and ordained priest in 1866. As a priest of the Diocese of Plymouth, Father Brownlow became well known for his writings in defence of the Catholic Church. He was consecrated Bishop of Clifton at the Pro-Cathedral on 1 May 1894.
Bishop Brownlow, lacking the wealth of his predecessor, was unable to give Prior Park the financial support the college had enjoyed under his guidance. Accordingly, he invited the Irish Christian Brothers, who had opened a grammar school for Catholic boys in Clifton, to be responsible for Prior Park. The Brothers agreed to take the college for a trial period of seven years and made a success of the venture, having almost one hundred boarders at the college by the end of the century.
In addition to the several new churches he opened in the diocese during his short time as Bishop, he had a special care for the spiritual well-being of the many Irish labourers who came to Avonmouth to work on the construction of the new dock. For this reason, St Bernard’s Church in Shirehampton is dedicated to his memory. For many years, both during his time as an Anglican and after his conversion, the Bishop had exchanged letters with Father (later Cardinal) John Henry Newman, and many of the letters are still preserved in the diocesan archives. Among the Bishop’s other works are, ‘A History of the Catholic Church in England’, and, in collaboration with Dr Northcote, ‘Roma Sottoranea’, a history of the Roman Catacombs.
Bishop Brownlow died at Clifton on 9 November 1901.
George Ambrose Burton, Fifth Bishop of Clifton, 1902 to 1931
The future Bishop was born at Kingston-on-Hull on 28 April 1852. After education at Ratcliffe College, he taught at there until 1884. Then, at the age of 32, he went to Rome to study at the Venerable English College. He was ordained at St John Lateran in 1890 and in the same year gained his doctorate. He returned to England for two years serving as a curate at St Mary’s Cathedral, Newcastle-on-Tyne. He was then appointed to the church of St Bede in South Shields, where he served, at first as a curate and later as parish priest, until 1902, when he was appointed Bishop of Clifton. He was consecrated at the Pro-Cathedral on 1 May 1902.
The finances of Prior Park College, which the diocese had taken over from the Christian Brothers in 1903, soon began to cause the Bishop serious problems and he had no alternative but to close the College again at Easter 1904. Following the closure of the college where the Bishop had been living, Bishop Burton took the present residence of the Bishops of Clifton, St Ambrose, in Leigh Woods, Bristol.
The outbreak of war in 1914 brought many problems for the diocese and its Bishop. The influx of Belgian refugees and the vast army camps established around Salisbury Plain caused serious difficulties in the provision of chaplains and Mass centres. But the Bishop’s pastoral letters of the war years were particularly inspiring and were often quoted in the local press.
After the Armistice, there were further troubles for the Bishop. The large numbers of Irish Catholics in the diocese seemed divided on the political difficulties of that country. Unemployment, too, was a problem and the Bishop earned the admiration of many by addressing mass meetings of the unemployed in Bristol.
The Bishop took great pleasure in the church building programme which took place around the diocese in the 1920’s. In addition, he improved the Pro-Cathedral by installing the new High Altar and several new stained-glass windows. Towards the end of the decade the Bishop’s health began to fail and his secretary, Monsignor (later Bishop) Lee, deputised for him at many ceremonies during his last years. Bishop Burton died on the evening of Sunday 8 February 1931.
William Lee, Sixth Bishop of Clifton, 1931 to 1948
The future Bishop was born at Mitchelstown, County Cork, Ireland on 27 September 1875. He was educated at St Colman’s College, Fermoy; St John’s College, Waterford and Oscott College in England. He was ordained at Oscott on 2 March 1901. His first appointment in the diocese was as curate at Holy Cross Church, then in Victoria Street, Bristol where he served until 1903. He was appointed Bishop’s Secretary and Diocesan Treasurer in that year remaining in the post until 1910, when he was appointed Administrator of the Pro-Cathedral. In 1920, he was awarded the MBE for his welfare work among the Belgian refugees who had come to the country during the war years.
Between the wars, the future of the Catholic schools was much to the fore. As a co-opted member of the Education Committee the future Bishop was familiar with the debates which raged over the question of grants for new Catholic schools. So it was that when the new Bishop was consecrated at the pro-Cathedral on 26 January 1932, he already knew only too well of the difficulties which lay ahead for the Diocesan Schools Committee.
The outbreak of war in 1939 added to his problems. There were many Catholic children among the evacuees to the West Country in whose welfare the Bishop took a practical interest. The onset of the air raids from 1940 to 1942 and the consequent damage to Catholic churches and schools created a host of new problems. It was not surprising that the Bishop’s health deteriorated under the strain. Nevertheless, he persevered in the great desire of his priesthood, to bring the Mass to the people. In spite of all the difficulties, 72 new missions and Mass centres were established in the diocese during his years as Bishop. In addition, he did much to improve the interior appearance of the Pro-Cathedral, including the installation of many of the stained-glass windows. Bishop Lee died suddenly on 21 September 1948.
Joseph Rudderham, Seventh Bishop of Clifton, 1949 to 1974
The future Bishop was born at Norwich on 17 June 1899. He was educated at St Bede’s, Manchester; St Edmund’s, Ware; Christ’s College, Cambridge, and the Venerable English College, Rome, where he was ordained in 1926. He served at All Saints, Peterborough from 1927 until 1932 as curate, and from 1932 until 1943 as parish priest. From 1943 until his appointment to Clifton, he was Administrator of Northampton Cathedral. He also served as Diocesan Inspector of Schools from 1941 until 1949. His consecration by Archbishop Joseph Masterson was on 26 July 1949, at the Pro-Cathedral.
The new Bishop soon found himself enmeshed in the many difficulties created by the 1944 Education act and the raising of the school-leaving age which had come into effect in 1948. As a means of raising the necessary funds to provide new schools, the Bishop was forced to inaugurate a Diocesan Development Fund, raising a levy on each parish in the diocese.
Three other tasks faced the Bishop in the 1960’s and the 1970’s. First came the attendance at the various sessions of the Second Vatican Council between 1962 and 1965, and the putting into effect the recommendations of the Council, many of which were not well received by the older generations of Catholics. Then came the debates over the Papal Encyclical ‘Humanae Vitae’. Again there was widespread disagreement among Catholics. Finally, there was a more pleasant task, the planning and the supervision of the building of the new Clifton Cathedral. In front of a vast gathering of church and civic dignitaries, the Bishop took possession of the new Cathedral on the Feast of SS Peter and Paul 1973. He retired to Nazareth House at Cheltenham in 1975, where he died on 24 February 1979.
Meryvn Alexander, Eighth Bishop of Clifton, 1974 to 2001
Mervyn Alban Alexander was born on 29 June 1925 in Highbury, London. He died on 14 August 2010 at St Angela’s Home in Clifton, Bristol. He was the eldest son of William and Grace Alexander. The family moved from London to Salisbury, Wiltshire, when he was one year old.
He began his schooling at the Bishop Wordsworth Grammar School and later went to Prior Park College, Bath, a public school then run by the Irish Christian Brothers. He trained for the priesthood at the Venerable English College, Rome and was ordained Priest on 18 July 1948 in the Leonine College, Rome. He continued his theological studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome, and obtained his Doctorate in Divinity in 1951.
Returning to England he was appointed assistant priest in the Cathedral parish, Clifton, Bristol, where he served from 1951 to 1964. He acted as Chaplain to the Bristol Maternity and Homeopathic Hospitals. He also became part-time Chaplain to the University of Bristol in 1953 and was appointed full-time Chaplain in 1964. During this time he opened the University Catholic Chaplaincy on Queens Road as a study and residential centre for students. The Chaplaincy continues to serve students today.
In 1967 he was appointed as parish priest of Our Lady of Lourdes, Weston-super-Mare, until he was appointed auxiliary bishop of the diocese on 25 April 1972. On 20 December 1974, he was made Bishop of Clifton.
In addition to his work in the diocese he held a number of national posts. He was a member of the Vatican Secretariat for Non-Believers (1973 to l983), and Chairman of the National Commission for Non-Believers (1973 to l983), Vice-Chairman of the Liturgy Commission (1977 to l983), and also Episcopal President of the Catholic Child Welfare Council (1976 to l983). His interest in ecumenism was reflected in his role as Co-Chairman of the Roman Catholic / Methodist Committee (1976 to l980), and his appointment as Co-Chairman of the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1977. In 1982 he was Chairman of the committee concerned with spiritual preparation for the visit of Pope John Paul II to England and Wales. He was Chairman of the Committee for Art and Architecture from 1983 until 1999, as well as Episcopal Adviser to Marriage Encounter from 1980. He presided at a Diocesan Synod which took place from 1987 to 1988.
As Bishop of the diocese Bishop Mervyn encouraged the growth of pastoral collaboration between clergy and laity. Under his leadership the diocese became one of the first to set up a Diocesan Pastoral Council and was the first Catholic diocese to appoint a lay person as Financial Administrator.
Having served as Chaplain to the University of Bristol he saw the need to encourage young people to become involved in the life of the Church. He has also maintained the links between the diocese and South America and visited diocesan priests working there a number of times.
His personal hobbies and interests include reading, sport, in particular golf, music and walking.
In February 2001 Bishop Alexander was recognised by the University of Bristol for his contribution to the life of the city and the university and was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Laws. The commendation speech was given by the then Bishop of Bristol, Right Reverend Barry Rogerson.
He was succeeded as Bishop of Clifton by Bishop Declan Lang on the 28 March 2001.
On his retirement as Bishop of Clifton he returned to Weston-super-Mare, as Parish Priest of St Joseph’s a role he fulfilled until 2008. He then moved to live at St Angela’s.