Bedworth - St Francis of Assisi

Rye Piece Ringway, Bedworth, Warwickshire CV12

title= title= title=

A red brick church of various late nineteenth dates. The northwest tower, though not tall, is of value in the townscape and the well-reordered sanctuary has fittings by Carmel Cauchi of a consistently high standard.

The church is now reverse orientated with the high altar at the west (actually slightly to the southwest). For the purposes of this report, the altar will be presumed to be at the east.

It would seem that the few Catholic families in Bedworth went to Mass in Hinckley, Coventry or Nuneaton until about 1875, when John Ross set up a room for instruction that became a chapel in a disused shop in Sleath’s Yard off Mill Street. The mission was established in 1877 and became so well attended that a Mrs Wyatt demolished three cottages she owned in Leicester Street and built a chapel dedicated to St Lawrence and Our Lady. The first Mass was said by the Rev. Louis Waldon from Weston-in-Arden on 10 August 1879.

Franciscans from Nuneaton began to serve the chapel (and Weston-in-Arden) soon afterwards and they bought the plot on Rye Piece - then a cul-de-sac off King Street. The foundation stone of a new church dedicated to St Francis of Assisi was laid in May 1882 and it was opened 7 June 1883. The unaisled church with a schoolroom was designed by T. R. Donnelly of Coventry and built by Thomas Smith of Chilvers Coton. The sanctuary was then towards Rye Piece; the present ‘west’ round window was above the high altar. The school was attached at right angles across the other end (the present ‘transept’ area) with folding doors to allow it to be used for extra seating. There was a west gallery and a porch filled the south angle of the church and school.

In 1889 the Franciscans left and in 1892, Fr Francis CRP of the Premonstratensians (who had taken over at Weston) came to live at Bedworth in a sacristy he built to the north of the sanctuary (east of the present tower). This may have been of two storeys. He began to buy land around the church, firstly for the presbytery and then for a separate school to the rear of the site, both of which T. R. Donnelly completed in 1894.

The orientation of the church was reversed fairly early on, although it is not quite clear when. The process may have begun around 1900 when Kelly’s Directory 1916 reports an ‘enlargement to seat 400’. The three bells in the tower are dated 1899-1900, so dating it to c.1900. Its construction only makes sense if the original chancel to which it is attached was now the west end of the reversed church. However, a brass now in the narthex records the insertion of ‘this stoup’ (and a chancel window)  in memory of a couple who died in 1864 and 1891, which suggests the process may have begun by the 189os. The Tablet account of the death of Donnelly in July 1908 states that he received the last rites from his friend Fr Francis, and gives 1891 as the date of the church he built at Bedworth.

The 1904-5 Ordnance Survey map shows the church to the same length as now, though the aisles seem not to have been built, just a south porch and sacristy. Arthur Wall records the addition of side aisles and a choir gallery over the former site of the high altar (with an organ by Robert Topp of Bedworth). He reports all this work as being completed in twenty three years from the departure of the Franciscans in 1889, so by 1912. Parish status came in May 1919. The church was consecrated by Archbishop McIntyre on 4 September 1923; the delay in consecration is explained by the need to pay off the debt. As the church was hemmed in by buildings on either side (a police station on the north), the chancel and nave were lit by dormers; the only side windows are in the narrow western bays of the south nave aisle, which had been a sacristy - hence the dormer at the west end of the wider eastern bays.

The fiftieth jubilee in 1929 was marked by a new setting for the high altar, with panelling along the east wall up to the base of the round window, extending along the side walls.

In the late 1960s, the north aisle was widened right up to the boundary and continued as the north wall of the north transept to run alongside the chancel as a sacristy. At its west end, the two-storey extension to the east side of the tower may be a refashioning of the 1892 sacristy; the 1967-8 OS map shows all this as exists today. Rye Piece was still a dead end and the Police House stood immediately next to this north side of the church, so again, top lighting was needed.

In the 1970s, the sanctuary was extended west just beyond the chancel arch and refurnished with artworks by the Maltese artist, Carmel Cauchi.

In 2012, Andrew Capper of Wood, Goldstraw and Yorath (architects of Stoke on Trent) reordered the church by inserting a ‘pod’ at the west end of the north aisle for a reconciliation room etc., creating a flat access from the southwest door into a narthex separated from the nave by a glazed screen (instead of iron grilles like those still under the tower) and by refurnishing the narthex. WCs were inserted in the base of the tower, requiring a new first floor ringing chamber. At the east end, the former schoolroom north of the sanctuary became the sacristy with a ramped entry replacing steps from the north aisle. The south sacristy became the Canon Roughan (priest 1971-2002) Room with an adjacent former boiler house becoming a kitchen with a new boiler house extension to the east. The former confessionals off the south ‘transept’ became storage space. The presbytery is now home to the Sisters of Providence and the ground floor front room is the parish office, accessible form the south transept.    

The various extensions have given the church a confusing exterior. It is built of the local red brick with stone dressings and slated roofs, with red clay crestings. The oldest part visible towards Rye Piece Ringway is the original 1882-3 chancel and east nave gable by T. R. Donnelly of Coventry, with blue brick courses at side window capital and cill level. The two lancets of its originally north wall remain visible and as the nave was unaisled, the first few blue bricks of the nave cill course can also be seen. In the 1890s, the church was reorientated and the round gable window framed with nailhead bricks that was over the original high altar at geographical east became a ritual west window, lighting the choir gallery which had been inserted when a new chancel was built at the other end. (Hereon, all references will be to ritual compass points).

 

By 1900, the sturdy northwest tower had been added to the east of an 1892 sacristy built on the north of the original chancel, all probably by T. R. Donnelly. The tower has stepped angle buttresses, twin bell openings with louvres on each face and a pyramidal roof. To its east is a 1960s two-storey extension flanking the former 1883 sanctuary, which possibly incorporates parts of the 1892 sacristy. It is built in stretcher bond with three crude pointed windows to each storey on the north. With the tower, a porch was built in the angle between the tower and the original chancel, with a gabled southwest door (recently re-made for easy access) and a twin lancet west window lighting the new narthex behind. The large triangular dormer was presumably added when the original chancel was floored to light the inserted gallery. Another dormer lights the 1960s extension, but this might have existed from 1892 as Fr Francis was said to have lived in (above?) the sacristy until the presbytery was built (in about 1894).

There was another sacristy on the southwest corner of the nave and this seems to be represented by the two narrow western bays of the south nave aisle. This would also explain why the eastern bays are wider and lit by a glazed gable at their west end. However, the external brickwork of the whole aisle is now of one period and the windows look the same as those in the west porch. Arthur Wall tells us that the aisles were added after the tower was built and the south aisle is clearly added to the 1894 presbytery. The sequence then would be c.1900 tower and narthex added to the 1883 chancel, before the south aisle was created, replacing a 1883 sacristy abutting the southwest corner of the unaisled nave and incorporating a second entry.

The north side of the church is one long brick wall, now looking even more fortified with the barbed wire on the top of it. The north nave aisle has three transverse roofs with shallow glazed gables then a flat roof before the pitched roof of the north transept. The virtually invisible flat roof north chancel sacristy has two roof lights but the two triangular dormers of the north chancel roof are visible. The different cresting suggest that the roofs of the nave, transept, south aisle and 1960s block east of the tower are of the same time (the latter re-used?) and of a different period to the 1883 chancel cresting; the dormers and transverse gables with plain concrete ridge tiles are then also of the same building period.

There are two entry points at the southwest; through the narthex and the south nave aisle. The former leads through a 2012 door into the space under the west gallery, originally the 1883 sanctuary. On the north side are two flat-headed corbelled openings with Gothic detailing, now filled with doors leading to the tower and to the shop in the ground floor of the 1960s block. These openings, like that to the nave, were filled with iron grilles, some of which remain loosely stored but one small one can be seen in the trefoil window looking into the north aisle (possibly of the 1892 sacristy?) The former chancel ‘arch’ is a double ‘A’ truss standing on a chamfered respond with moulded import block. The chancel step survived until 2012 when the glazed screen was inserted by Andrew Capper (Wood, Goldstraw and Yorath). The panelled gallery front conceals a raked gallery with grained pews like those in the nave. The round window is now of clear glass with a red border. The 1960s block intrudes into this space. 

The walls of the 1883 unaisled nave have been punched through with simple arcades of square piers supporting flat two-centred arches with continuous chamfers; three and a half bays, the latter at the east representing the 1883 west gallery. The present transept was built as a transverse schoolroom and Arthur Wall recounts the dividing wall being ‘torn down’ when the new chancel had been built on the east side of the schoolroom. There is no crossing, but there are beams continuing the line of the arcades across the north and south transepts with cusped arched braces like those of the chancel. Externally, the transept roofs are lower than the continuous nave and chancel roof, so the roofs of the nave and transepts are of 1883, with the new chancel roof cutting across the former schoolroom roof to join with the original nave roof. The nave scissor trusses rise from stone corbels and their timbers are chamfered and not moulded like the chancel and slightly chunkier as well as lacking cusped braces. The transepts are ceiled as is the original chancel ceiling, but all roofs have longitudinal purlins and a thin ridge. Arthur Wall states that the roof of the old school can still be seen’ above the transept altars.

The south aisle roofs are also ceiled with no timbers visible, the west bays flat, the eastern pitched and ending at the west in a glazed gable. The only side windows are here, paired or single lancets filled with coloured glass. This is presumably the ‘ornamental Cathedral glass by Evans of Smethwick’ mentioned in the Nuneaton Chronicle report of 8 June 1883 and re-used from the original south nave windows.

The north aisle is broader and has tie beam trusses, again off stone corbels, supporting ceiled transverse roofs which could be of any twentieth century date but look recent. The walls are articulated with arched recesses echoing the shape of the main arcade and the three western bays have 1960s glazed shallow gables. Although the external brickwork is of the 1960s, the aisle could have been built to this scale before 1923 and simply refaced.

The east walls of the transepts have tall arched recesses which in 1923 surrounded altars to the Sacred Heart and Our Lady. A ramp stands against the north wall of the north transept leading to the door to the north chancel sacristy, also accessed from the sanctuary. The flat floors of the transept, nave and aisles are carpeted, but the east nave area is tiled (2012 Minton?) which continues down the centre of the nave. 

The sanctuary floor emerges just beyond the continuously moulded pointed chancel arch, with two steps leading to a parquet floor. The island tabernacle stands on a three step platform. The east wall is articulated with three recesses with two-centred arches, the outer very narrow, the central encircling the high round east window. The pitched roof is in two bays with a central hammerbeam truss rising off wallposts standing on stone angel bust corbels. It has delicate tracery in the spandrels of the arched braces that rise to a high collar. Two large dormers to each roof pitch provide light.

The round stained glass window depicting the Vision of St Francis receiving the Stigmata is by Hardman of 1883 and was transferred here from the original chancel roundel. The two eastern dormers have a pair of standing saints (Francis and Elisabeth to the south, Clare and Lawrence to the north) which although the same four saints reported in 1883 as filling the four small lancet side windows, stylistically are surely not by Hardman. The west pair of dormers is filled with flattened trefoils with plain glass and coloured borders.

The most interesting art works are the early 1970s sanctuary fittings by Carmel Cauchi, a Maltese artist who settled in Nuneaton and whose stained glass and sculpture in various media can be found in Catholic churches across England. The tabernacle, pulpit and font are square wooden boxes faced with large panels of plaster and papier maché surfaced to look like ceramic, with applied sculpture; the Crucifixion and Adam and Eve on the north pulpit, the Baptism of Christ on the smaller font (south side). The altar is a rectangle of marble supported by a central tapering support with ceramic panels; Abraham and Isaac on the face and fish on the back, wheat and a vine on the side panels. The largest piece is the three dimensional life-size sculpture of the Risen Christ on the east wall.

Diocese: Birmingham

Architect: T. R. Donnelly

Original Date: 1883

Conservation Area: No

Modifications: 1899-1912

Listed Grade: Not listed