Downey is ordained to the priesthood on May 25, 1907 at St. Joseph Seminary, Up Holland, Skelmersdale, Lancashire. He is Professor of Philosophy at Sacred Heart College, Hammersmith, and then Professor of Dogmatic Theology at St. Joseph’s College, Up Holland, where he is also Vice-Rector. On August 3, 1928, he is appointed Archbishop of Liverpool by Pope Pius XI, succeeding the late Frederick William Keating. He receives his Episcopal consecration on the following September 21 from Cardinal Francis Bourne, with Bishops Robert Dobson and Francis Vaughan serving as co-consecrators.
Downey’s tenure sees the construction and dedication of the crypt of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, built to a design by Sir Edwin Lutyens, although the Cathedral itself is never completed as he had envisaged. A picture of Lutyens proposed cathedral is printed on postcards sold to raise funds.
In 1929, before the actual construction begins, Downey states, “Hitherto all cathedrals have been dedicated to saints. I hope this one will be dedicated to Christ himself with a great figure surmounted on the cathedral, visible for many a mile out at sea.” He also declares that while the Cathedral will not be medieval and Gothic, neither will it be as modern as the works of Jacob Epstein, a statement somewhat at odds with the design that is finally realised after his death.
In 1933, after the urn containing the bones of King Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York is removed from Westminster Abbey for examination and then returned with an Anglican burial service, Downey says, “It is difficult to see what moral justification there can be for reading a Protestant service over the remains of these Roman Catholic princes, even though it were done on the plea of legal continuity of the present Anglican Church with the pre-Reformation Church of Britain.”
Downey dies in Liverpool at the age of 72 on June 16, 1953, having served as Liverpool’s archbishop for twenty-four years. His remains are interred in a crypt at Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, Liverpool.