THE LIFE AND WORK OF FATHER NUGENT
A review of our September meeting by Mary Champion
On 24th September the Revd Dr Ben Rees gave us a comprehensive account of the life of Monsignor James Nugent (1822-1905). Most of us have seen Father Nugent's statue in St John's Gardens and have heard of the Nugent Care Society, but may not be aware of the huge amount of work he did in and for Liverpool in the nineteenth century.
James Nugent's Irish Catholic father was a Liverpool greengrocer and his English mother was a convert. James went to college in Durham and then to the English College in Rome, and became a priest in Blackburn. In the 1840s, due to the Potato Famine, many thousands of Irish people came to Liverpool. Forty people sleeping in a cellar was not uncommon and disease became rife. A leader was needed to provide comfort and care - and James Nugent came back to Liverpool from Blackburn.
He set up schools for the poor Catholics, and also arranged weekly concerts and public lectures. Among the invited speakers were Cardinals Wiseman and Newman. He set up a children's refuge in Soho Street - a census in 1869 having found 541 boys and 172 girls selling matches or begging on the streets of Liverpool at midnight. Nugent later established a printing works and newspaper for the Catholic community, but came into conflict with the Irishman James Whitty who was founder and editor of the Liverpool Daily Post.
Nugent had many contacts in the United States and Canada, and arranged for children to be sent there to work and start a new life. He also supported Father Theobald Matthew's temperance crusade, seeing drunkenness - and the money spent on drink - as a great social evil. It is said that 40,000 Irish Catholics in Liverpool signed the pledge at that time! Nugent also campaigned for prison reform - and in the 1860s became Catholic chaplain at Walton Gaol.
Finally, he became interested in local politics. The Irish Nationalist Party was strong in Liverpool, because neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals welcomed Catholics into their clubs. Like the rest of his Church, though, Nugent was opposed to the Fenians and tended to favour the Catholic Liberal Party.
In 1890, Father Nugent was made Monsignor. He gave up his duties as a priest to concentrate on lecture tours of America and the establishment of new churches all over Liverpool. By 1904 he was frail and living in Formby, and the following year he died of pneumonia. His funeral was huge - and even today he is remembered as one of the 'great men' of Victorian Liverpool.