Bicester - Immaculate Conception

The Causeway, Bicester, Oxfordshire OX6

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An early architectural work by Desmond Williams, completed in 1963 and still displaying the influence of his mentor Arthur Farebrother. The design is a modern version of Gothic, a character reflected particularly in the internal volumes and forms. The external treatment is plainer, with the massing of traditional form, and was designed deliberately to be deferential to its historic context. The tower forms a landmark in the conservation area.

In 1869 a Mass centre was established in Bicester in a room over a jeweller’s shop, served by a priest from Hethe. In 1883 a school-chapel was built in King’s End. Anticipating the post-war expansion of Bicester, a parish was erected in 1943. The present site, occupied by stables, was acquired and the adjoining property Henley House became the presbytery. The present church, seating 350, was built in 1961-3, from designs prepared by Arthur Farebrother & Partners (completed by the successor practice of Desmond Williams & Associates). The builders were the local firm of Norman Collinson. The final cost was £43,000 (with a further £10,000 for the furnishings) and the church was opened by Archbishop Grimshaw on 23 March 1963. The external design and materials were intended to harmonise with the historic context, in particular with the nearby medieval parish church. The diocesan yearbook described it as ‘a fine church … which adds considerable dignity to the small country town’, its internal arches ‘modern as they are, [recalling] the simplicity of an early medieval church’. 

In 1993 a bronze statue of the Immaculate Conception was installed over the entrance to the church. In the same year a property adjoining the presbytery was acquired and renamed Webb House (after the first parish priest), to serve as a parish hall.

The sanctuary of the church has been reordered on more than one occasion, most recently in time for the building’s consecration by Archbishop Nichols on 10 July 2000; this involved the introduction of the present altar (which came from the cathedral, where it was surplus to requirement after the reordering of that building), along with new stone seating, ambo and font. A painted Crucifixion, painted in Primitive Italian style by the Prior of Farnborough Abbey, was installed in place of the former reredos and crucifix. New furnishings in the (north) Blessed Sacrament chapel included stained glass windows by Jane Campbell and a domed tabernacle.

More recently Webb House was sold in order to raise funds for a new parish and community centre, the Pope John Paul II Centre. The foundation stone for this was laid by Archbishop Longley in 2010 and the building opened by the Princess Royal in 2011. It is a white rendered and glazed contemporary ‘passiv’ design by Ziggurat Architectural Design of Bicester.

Also in 2010, the Foynes Memorial Garden was created on the south side of the church - an area for cremated remains designed by Robert James Landscapes Ltd., with a high curved stone faced wall with inscriptions. 

The church is designed in a modern Gothic style, more overtly expressed internally. It is built of loadbearing brick of a pale colour chosen to blend with the Cotswold stone of surrounding buildings. There is some sparing use of stone for the dressings and the steeply pitched roofs are clad with interlocking clay pantiles. The building is T-shaped on plan, and consists of a three-bay nave with narrow passage aisles and baptistery (now Lady chapel), confessionals and sacristies giving off, western narthex, square ended sanctuary with raised tower crossing and shallow projecting transepts-cum-side chapels. The tower is square and fairly low, with a shallow pyramidal roof. Plain tapering buttresses divide the nave bays at the sides, and the windows are metal framed with cambered brick arches. The front elevation is plain, the brickwork relieved only by the segmental arched entrance (doors renewed) and a large bronze statue of the Immaculate Conception (1993).

The main entrance leads into a spacious narthex in which are located the stairs up to the gallery, and a large holy water stoup (the relocated 1960s font, with a veined black marble bowl on a stone base). The nave is an impressive space, the bays divided by lofty pointed arches of rustic brick, pierced with smaller arches for the passage aisles. The perimeter walls are also brick faced up to dado height. Otherwise the wall surfaces are plastered and painted white, apart from the roof purlins, which are of pre-stressed concrete and picked out in an ochre red.  There is a black and white chequerboard floor throughout. At the west end the gallery over the narthex is placed in a pointed arched recess. On the west wall, close to the former baptistery (now Lady Chapel) on the north side, the foundation stone with Latin inscription is inset above the brick dado. The tower over the sanctuary acts as a raised lantern. On either side, the shallow transepts serve as Blessed Sacrament Chapel (north) and organ chamber (south, the non-functional organ pipes forming a decorative display).

Apart from the benches and the (relocated) font, the church retains few original 1960s furnishings. The sanctuary furnishings are described above, and include a modern altar previously at Birmingham Cathedral. The Blessed Sacrament chapel includes a new tabernacle and above this, set within an arch, an unusual stone carved tympanum of folded arms carrying wheat sheaves with vines, symbolising the Eucharist (unknown provenance). Stained glass in this chapel is semi-abstract in quality, by Jane Campbell, c.2000. Towards the west end, the original baptistery gates survive in the Lady Chapel. Statues in the nave include the Sacred Heart, a signed work by Ferdinand Stuflesser, woodcarver of Ortisei, Italy.

Diocese: Birmingham

Architect: Desmond Williams & Associates

Original Date: 1963

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Not listed