Atherstone - St Benedict

Owen Street, Atherstone, Warwickshire CV9

title= title= title= title= title= title=

A neat, restrained 1859 essay in red brick Gothic style by C. A. Buckler, terminating internally with a well-constructed apse roof. Furnishings of note include two carved stone panels of the reredos from the Hansoms’ nearby priory, demolished in 1967. The church and attached later presbytery make a positive contribution to the local conservation area.

From the late eighteenth century, priests (including French abbés) from Caldecote Hall came to say Mass in houses in Atherstone. Dominican friars from Hinckley established a mission here in 1828 and Bishop Ullathorne encouraged Dominican nuns to build a new convent here. With money collected locally and a £500 donation from Ambrose Phillips de Lisle of Grace Dieu, Leicestershire, the foundation stone was laid on 18 October 1837 by de Lisle and the Rosary Convent designed by Joseph Hansom opened in 1839. The Dominicans withdrew in 1858 and the Benedictine nuns of Colwich bought the convent and became resident in the renamed St Scholastica Priory in May 1859. This was demolished in 1967, and houses now occupy the site. 

The Rosary Convent chapel had been used by Atherstone Catholics but as the nuns were an enclosed Order, land for a separate church was acquired in Owen Street. Charles Alban Buckler, perhaps better known as an illustrator than an architect, built St Benedict’s with a school behind in 1859. The convent provided priests until a resident priest was appointed in 1876; a presbytery had been built in 1870. The primary school behind the church (perhaps by Robert Jennings, 1859-60) moved to a new site about a mile away in 1964 and was mainly replaced by a new flat-roofed parish hall, with one old classroom retained and refurbished as the Tudor Room.

In the 1960s, many of the original timber furnishings were replaced because of woodworm, and an underfloor heating system installed (which did not work for long). On the demolition of the Priory in 1967, the stone altar from the chapel was taken to the Anglican parish church, but the dismantled, damaged reredos ended up in a builders’ yard. It was rediscovered in about 1978 and two panels were re-erected at the east end of St Benedict’s, flanking the tabernacle. In 1989 the present sanctuary arrangement was created with new altar, font and ambo of polished Portland stone.

The church sits squarely on the corner of Owen Street and St Benedict’s Close, so the altar is actually facing northwest. For the purposes of this report, it will be presumed to be at the east.

The Gothic church of St Benedict was built in 1859 in red brick and stone dressings with a tiled roof by Charles Alban Buckler, with a school behind possibly by Robert Jennings, 1859-60. A presbytery was added to the north in 1870 with a link to the northeast end of the nave, just east of a little tower extension for the confessional. The plan is a simple rectangle, with the steeply-pitched roof running straight through to end in a three-sided apse, each side with a tall, brick gabled dormer apparently cantilevered off the walls. The windows are mainly single cusped lancets, with a two-light south window lighting the sanctuary steps and a cinquefoil roundel to each side of the apse (the central blocked). The west front rises to a single bell turret, with a three-lancet plate tracery west window with two small trefoil roundels and a pointed arch west door.

The interior is articulated by the black timbers of the roof; four arch braced trusses rise from stone corbels to a high collar with struts, so dividing the space into three bays, with a half bay before the sanctuary. Each bay then has a strong mid-bay principal rafter and there are two purlins and a ridge piece. The iron tie-rods were presumably inserted later as the walls appear to lean out. The apse is roofed by four trusses rising from stone corbels to meet below the apex of the tiled roof, enhanced by the addition of two further short struts from the eastern nave truss. Each dormer has a pitched roof with small tracery spandrels – the only roof tracery, as there is no ‘chancel arch’ as such. All the main timbers are chamfered.

The west gallery front is currently boarded but has an exposed ironwork rail. Below it a narthex is formed by traceried framing with leaded lights (1920s?), with the southern third open to the church as a Lady Chapel. The statues of Our Lady and the Sacred Heart with their inverted Corinthian capital pedestals are from the chapel of St Scholastica’s Priory. The solid nave floor is of the 1960s, as are the benches.

The present carpeted wooden sanctuary platform was created in 1989, with altar, font and ambo of polished Portland stone. The second platform for the altar makes an awkward junction with the north ambo. The gilt tabernacle sits in a recess in the east wall, flanked by the two sculpted panels salvaged from the middle section of the high altar of St Scholastica’s Priory in 1967 and installed here in about 1978. To the left is St Benedict giving the Eucharist to his monks ‘Adoremus in Terram’ and to the right, St Scholastica on her deathbed receiving Viaticum from her twin brother, ‘S S Sacramentum’. The sculptor is not recorded (possibly Boultons of Cheltenham) but they are of good quality and presumably belong to the 1861 enhancements to the convent chapel by Joseph and Charles Hansom. The two apse cinquefoils contain stained glass (IHS to the north, MR to the south) and the central dormer has the standing figure of St Benedict, all probably of 1859 by Hardman. The north lancets have 1986 and 1993 memorial glass by Norgrove Studios. 

Diocese: Birmingham

Architect: Charles Alban Buckler

Original Date: 1859

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Not listed