St Robert of Newminster (1970)

Longsight

Denomination: Roman Catholic

Postcode: M13 0PL

 

Today, the ethnic diversity of Longsight is immediately apparent in the variety of its places of worship. These include the Anglican St Luke’s Church and Neighbourhood Centre, the Jain Simaj Temple, the Russian Orthodox Church of the Pokrov, as well as a number of mosques. In the post-war period Longsight was, along with Chorlton-cum-Hardy and Levenshulme, the destination of choice for Manchester’s increasingly aspirational, and predominantly Roman Catholic, Irish communities. Continual population churn provides a partial explanation for the construction and subsequent demise of St Robert of Newminster, a catholic church that once stood on the corner of Hamilton Road and Montgomery Road.

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The parish of St Robert was established in 1915, and a dedicated church erected in 1929. Through the years the parish continued to grow and, by 1963, average Sunday attendance stood at over 1,500 persons across the four masses served. Consequently, the existing building was deemed inadequate and, in 1961, plans for a new church, traditional in plan and form, were drawn up by the Preston-based architectural firm of Cassidy and Ashton.

However, when the long-incumbent priest at St Robert, Father O’Shaughnessy, died, his successor Father Brennan inherited the desire to build a new church, but not as per the prepared plans. Father Brennan entered into fraught discussions with the Right Reverend Thomas Holland, then-Bishop of Salford, arguing that the recreational, as well as spiritual, needs of the parishioners had to be met and that a hall should be provided in addition to the church and presbytery. Money was the main concern: the Bishop was aware that extravagant building projects had on earlier occasions placed a heavy financial burden on the Diocese and individual parishes. Despite this, a budget of £100,000 was agreed and Diocesan financial rules that required 75 per cent of funds to be in-hand before any new construction could commence were relaxed. The agreement came with a caution from the Bishop:

 

‘There are numerous ways…for showing the Lord how much we value him, but one of the basic requirements of all of them is that we keep our feet on the ground and build within our resources.’

 

The Manchester-based firm of Mather and Nutter, previously responsible for designing Manchester Universities Catholic Chaplaincy (1965), was asked to prepare new plans to occupy the half-acre site, and to include a church, a presbytery, and a separate hall  (see feature image above). However, when it became apparent that the inclusion of a separate hall meant exceeding the maximum sums stipulated by the Bishop, the plans were further revised to accomodate the hall in the basement of the proposed church. The intended 600-seats in the main worship space, arranged on three-sides of the nave to allow for unhindered views of the sanctuary, had to be tiered to allow ground level windows to be incorporated; these would provide natural lighting and ventilation into the hall below.

 

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The building façade largely consisted of blue-brown brick, punctuated by narrow panels of tinted glazing and supported by a concrete frame. Both the front and rear doors, of cast aluminium, were by Walter Kershaw of the Rochdale Sculptors Group, and depicted the creation of the Universe and the Apocalypse. These were complemented by a stained glass window, by Chris Burnett of the same arts collective and, set in timber framings, was located behind the font. Other items such as the tabernacle front, candlesticks and font cover were in stainless steel and, designed by the architects, were bespoke to the building.

According to Father Brennan, the interplay of light and dark was among the most important factors in the success or failure of a church. In the sanctuary, a Portland Stone altar was placed on a raised platform and lit from above by the monitor rooflight; the roof itself was clad in aluminium. In the nave, a ceiling of cedar planks was supported by laminated beams made from Douglas Fir, the walls were of a golden-coloured hand-made brick, and buff-coloured pre-cast paving slabs provided the floor finish. At the rear of the sanctuary, a raised podium gave access to a lectern and tabernacle, both items also made of Portland Stone in order to lend a visual coherence with the altar.

 

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With W. Snape & Sons of Eccles acting as main contractor, construction of St Robert began in July 1968 and, upon completion, was formally opened by the Bishop on 23rd April 1970. Father Brennan was confident that, in time, the church would acquire ‘the patina of a lovely thing’.

 

Postscript

Whilst explaining how the design of St Robert met the strict guidelines laid down by the Second Vatican Council, the opening brochure also observed that:

 

‘There are office blocks and homes and flats going up which plainly reflect a new vogue in architecture with its profusion of glass, concrete, plaster, steel and aluminium … [St Robert] could scarcely speak its concern for the future in the clothes of the past.’

 

Certainly, St Robert was not dressed in the clothes of the past. Neither were its parishioners backward looking; they celebrated the opening of the church by pressing a vinyl record of its children’s choir. Yet within a single generation, those same parishioners who contributed much to the church’s building fund had moved on. When, in 2004, the Diocese of Salford assessed their building stock in light of dwindling congregations and priest shortages, St Robert was one of fifteen Roman Catholic churches selected for closure. Demolished soon after, it never acquired the patina that Father Brennan spoke so eloquently of.

 

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For a short period, the vacated site was utilised to provide temporary accommodation for St Agnes Primary School. Today, Longsight Community Primary School occupies the site, albeit the nearby Makki Masjid has taken up partial residency whilst their new mosque is constructed on Beresford Road.

If anyone has further images of St Robert they would like to share (or a copy of the afforementioned vinyl record!) , we would appreciate it if you could contact us.

 

Acknowledgements

Feature image and interior photograph are taken from the Catholic Building Review and may be subject to copyright.

Other images are courtesy of the Manchester Local Image Collection and the Salford Diocesan Archives; with thanks to David Govier, Father Dave Lannon and Lawrence Gregory.

The Salford Diocesan Heritage Centre is located behind St Augustine’s Church, Grosvenor Square, and open to the public on Tuesday afternoons from 2pm.

St Catherine of Siena (1957-59) Revisited

Lowton

Denomination: Roman Catholic

Postcode: WA3 1LB (Click here)

 

Further to our recent post highlighting the threat of demolition faced by St Catherine of Siena, we regrettably bring news that our application to have the church added to the List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest has been rejected.

English Heritage consider St Ambrose, Speke and St Mary, Leyland to be better examples of the post-war church by the firm of Weightman & Bullen. Whilst these churches are wonderful buildings, and rightly listed, we maintain that both are indebted to the architectural innovations manifest at St Catherine.

Not all buildings can, or should, be saved. However, we believe the listing system, and its methods of assessing architectural merit, still err on the side of the subjective and vague: design intent, and contemporary concerns, are not fully considered when assessing buildings. Although concerted efforts ARE being made to change the way we approach and evaluate our architectural heritage, particularly that of the twentieth century, the loss of buildings such as St Catherine, continues. For this particular sacred space, soon only memories will remain.

 

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ABOVE: This image, taken prior to a minor re-ordering of the church in late 1980s, shows the altar in its original position with altar rails intact.

BELOW: Though not fully centralised in plan, the positioning of the light fitting suggests an awareness of new liturgical ideas by the architect, Patricia Brown of Weightman & Bullen.

 

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ABOVE: The foundation stone of the church was laid by the then-Archbishop John Carmel Heenan on 28th September, 1958. The church opened on 3rd June, 1959, with Father John Connolly installed as Parish Priest.

BELOW:  Archbishop Heenan, later a participant in the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), addresses the gathered congregation.

 

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We will continue to monitor developments, and provide updates where appropriate. Meanwhile, you may read our earlier blog on St Catherine here.

 

Acknowledgements

Once again, we would like to thank Dr Robert Proctor (Bath University) for the use of his images, and support in writing the listing application. He is the author of Building the Modern Church: Roman Catholic Church Architecture in Britain, 1955 to 1975 (Ashgate, 2014).

St Catherine of Siena (1957-59)

Lowton

Denomination: Roman Catholic

Postcode: WA3 1LB (Click here)

 

Continuing in an easterly direction along the A580 and beyond the village of Astley and St Stephen, one shortly arrives at St Catherine of Siena. This Roman Catholic church, built between 1957-59, was intended to serve housing estates proposed to the north and west of Lowton.

In the 1950s, a combination of population migration, urban development, and relatively high attendances saw the Roman Catholic Church invest heavily in developing urban areas such as Lowton. However, the subsequent decline in religious observance has left many dioceses oversupplied with places of worship. Rationalising such an extensive property portfolio tends to favour older, more traditional churches, placing others, like St Catherine, at risk: despite being well-attended and well-maintained, this church closed 2011 and is facing imminent demolition.

Although certain post-war buildings are recognised for their heritage value, listing designation is predominantly skewed towards pre-twentieth century buildings: only 3.2 per cent of buildings constructed after 1900 are listed, and only 0.2 per cent of those belong to the post-1945 period. There is a further bias towards buildings located in and around London (often the best financed). Yet many buildings beyond the south-east of England are important in understanding the evolution of the British architectural scene: First Church of Christ Scientist, Manchester (1903-04) by Edgar Wood is an example of complete innovation in the form of places of worship, this partly owing to the lack of precedence from a client who had only one other church in Europe. St Catherine was equally ground-breaking due to its deployment of an unusual plan and form that, although observable in post-war church design on mainland Europe, was a first for the Roman Catholic Church in England.

St Catherine’s hexagonal nave (described below) anticipated the ‘church in the round’ configuration seen in later churches such as Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Liverpool (1967), and is critical to our understanding of the evolution of post-war ecclesiastical building types. Designed by Weightman & Bullen, a north-west firm of architects established in the nineteenth century, the practice’s pre-war churches were fairly traditional. However, by the 1950s, the firm was employing graduates schooled in Modernist principles: Patricia Brown, an alumna of the Liverpool School of Architecture, was the architect responsible for St Catherine and, as Robert Proctor, author of Building the Modern Church: Roman Catholic Church Architecture in Britain, 1955 to 1975, states:

 

‘St Catherine’s seems to be the earliest of the firm’s churches in which a fully-fledged interest in modernism is seen.’

 

The nave and sanctuary of St Catherine are housed within a hexagonal form whose reinforced concrete frame is expressed externally – each side of the hexagon divided into three structural bays. The lower portion of this double-height structure is infilled with red-brown brickwork with abutting structures, including a single-storey flat roofed narthex, in matching brick with decorative features. The upper portion is generally clear-glazed to eaves level, although a band of alternating blue and clear glazing sits immediately above the brickwork. The sidewalls of the sanctuary also include vertical panels of coloured glass.

 

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Emphasising the hexagonal form of the nave and sanctuary is the folded copper roof, its dramatic form and verdigris patina, atopped with decorative finial, make the building an easily recognisable landmark. Above the narthex is the bell-tower, a concrete structure which incorporates a distinctive cruciform motif: a strong identifying feature of the church, this motif is repeated in low relief plaster internally on the wall behind the altar. The bell itself originates from the nearby parish church of St. Lewis, Croft and is a later addition.

 

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Writing in 1969, Nikolaus Pevsner initially characterised the plan as being octagonal rather than the hexagon that it is, declaring St Catherine of Siena to be ‘fussy in all details’. Delicate may be the more accurate adjective. The building conveys an attentive level of detail extended to both the interior and exterior – details that are mostly well-conserved.

 

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St Catherine can, perhaps, be considered as a prototype for St Ambrose, Speke (1961), and St Mary, Leyland (1964), both by Weightman & Bullen and Grade II listed. It has been described as a ‘pioneering’ work where the firm ‘first broke the mould’: the hexagonal plan pre-empted the involvement of congregants in the Roman Catholic liturgy who, as sanctioned during the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), would no longer stand passively whilst watching rituals performed by a priest facing the alter and speaking in Latin.

Although many other denominations, such as the Quakers and the Methodists, had long advocated the inclusion of the congregation in the rites of worship (and often adopted polygonal forms), it was the Roman Catholic Church that had the finances to commission the more experimental designs to reflect the new liturgy. Architects such as Patricia Brown, however, had already anticipated the shift, and St Catherine provides ample evidence of this.

 

Postscript

On 30th September 2014, Wigan Metropolitan Borough Council received a planning application from the Archdiocese of Liverpool seeking permission to demolish St Catherine; the requisite notice to proceed was served on 27th October 2014. According to the diocese, electrical rewiring costs are prohibitive to the continued use of the building as a church, although a shortage of priests has also been cited as a reason for closure. Alternative uses for the building do not appear to have been considered.

In December, a listing application was submitted to English Heritage in the hope that this important piece of post-war architecture – also notable for being by a female architect – can be saved. If unsuccessful, we hope that our story of its plight may, at least, serve to raise awareness of the threats faced by our modern places of worship.

 

Acknowledgements

We thank Dr Robert Proctor (Bath University) for his information on St Catherine of Siena, the use of his images, and support in writing the listing application. He is the author of Building the Modern Church: Roman Catholic Church Architecture in Britain, 1955 to 1975 (Ashgate, 2014).

We also thank Matthew Fernside for bringing this church to our attention.