The Western District, established in 1688, consisted of the whole of Wales and the present dioceses of Plymouth and Clifton. It was by far the poorest of the four districts into which the country was divided. In 1830, in an attempt to ensure a supply of priests for the district, Bishop Peter Baines, the Vicar-Apostolic, had bought the Prior Park estate near Bath and had established there a school and a seminary. Although an academic success, the College was a financial disaster. The first Bishop of Clifton, Bishop William Hendren, resigned in 1851, realising his inability to do anything about the huge debts on the College. His successor, Bishop Thomas Burgess, died in 1854, without doing anything to solve the problem.
A Decree of the Sacred College promulgated on 22 December 1855, prevented the appointment of a new Bishop of Clifton until the problems of the College had been solved. Instead, an Administrator was appointed who would manage the affairs of the diocese until a Bishop was appointed. He was Archbishop George Errington, Co-adjutor to Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman the Archbishop of Westminster. He arrived at Prior Park at the end of October 1855, but was not able to do anything to preserve the College. A court order was enforced against the College for non-payment of rent, and the contents of the College were sold by auction, and the premises vacated.
The problem of Prior Park having been settled, the new Bishop of Clifton was appointed. William Clifford, the second son of Lord Clifford of Chudleigh in Devon, was consecrated by Pope Pius IX on 15 February, 1857, and enthroned at the Pro-Cathedral on 17 March, 1857. For the next 36 years, he guided the diocese to prosperity. The Pro-Cathedral had an unfortunate history. Work on the building started in 1834 but ceased the following year when the foundations failed. The half-finished building was abandoned in 1843 when a second attempt to reinforce the foundations again failed. Bishop William Ullathorne, Vicar-Apostolic from 1846-1848, had a roof placed on the half-finished building so that it could be used as a church, but Bishop Clifford, with the advice of the architect Charles Hansom, had it converted into a reasonable Pro-Cathedral. He also re-purchased Prior Park and re-opened the school and the seminary, much of the expense being found by the Bishop’s family. Bishop Clifford died in 1893.
His successor, Bishop William Brownlow, was consecrated in 1894 and died in 1901. His successor, Bishop George Ambrose Burton, a priest of the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle, was Bishop of Clifton for the next 29 years. An outstanding scholar, he was an authority on ancient manuscripts and catalogued the documents which now form the basis of the diocesan archives. He saw the magnificent Benedictine Abbey at Downside completed and he welcomed a second Benedictine community when the convert community from Caldey Island came to the diocese to settle at Prinknash.
Bishop William Lee, who had been secretary to Bishop Burton, succeeded him in 1931. During his 16 years as Bishop, he founded 72 new parishes and Mass centres. His successor, Bishop Joseph Rudderham, a priest of the Northampton Diocese, was consecrated at Clifton on 26 July, 1949. The financial demands made on the people of the diocese to provide new schools to comply with the provisions of the 1944 Education Act resulted in expenditure of £332,000 between 1949 and 1960. In spite of these demands, the building of a new Cathedral was undertaken in 1968. On the Feast of SS Peter and Paul, 1973, in the presence of a vast gathering of religious and civic dignitaries, Bishop Rudderham took possession of the new Cathedral, which now graces the Bristol skyline.
Bishop Rudderham resigned his See in August 1974 and died in retirement in February 1979. His Auxiliary Bishop, Bishop Mervyn Alexander was appointed eighth Bishop of Clifton in December 1974 and guided the diocese for the next 27 years. He then retired to Weston-super-Mare as parish priest at St Joseph’s. In March 2001 Bishop Declan Lang was ordained as ninth Bishop of Clifton.
It may be worthy of note that when Bishop Baines visited Rome in 1840, he estimated that the number of Catholics in the 16 missions in Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire was 13,014. In the same area there are currently 107 parishes within 13 deaneries serving a Catholic population of around 190,000 with 33,000 people attend Mass around the diocese every weekend.