Olton - Holy Ghost and Mary Immaculate

St Bernard’s Road, Olton, West Midlands B92

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A stately and well-detailed interwar essay in Early Gothic by G. B. Cox, echoing in some respects his earlier church at Acocks Green. The interior spaces are impressive, and retain many early features of note. The original roof was destroyed by a fire in 1970, but was carefully and accurately restored. Adjoining the church is the diocesan seminary, built for Bishop Ullathorne in 1873 from designs by Dunn & Hansom, and now housing a religious community.   

In 1871 Bishop Ullathorne, concerned that Oscott College was not being run as a seminary strictly on the model prescribed by the Council of Trent (that is, educating clerical and lay students separately) acquired a 42-acre site at Olton with a view to opening a diocesan seminary, dedicated to St Bernard. Ullathorne chose as architect Edward Joseph Hansom, then newly entered into partnership with Archibald Dunn of Newcastle. It opened in 1873. The first rector was the Rev. Edward Ilsley, who succeeded Ullathorne as Bishop of Birmingham in 1888, and quickly decided to close the seminary. The secular seminarians moved back to Oscott, which ceased to be a lay school in 1889. The Olton buildings were acquired by Capuchin Friars of the English Province, and dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. A public chapel was formed in a wide corridor, the ‘cloister’ wing, and in 1890 the cemetery was consecrated.  

The present church was designed by G. B. Cox of Birmingham. The foundation stone was blessed by Archbishop McIntyre on 21 April 1926 and the church was opened by Archbishop Williams on 12 November 1929.

In 1930 a pulpit was erected in the church, given by the parishioners in memory of Fr John Mary, founder here of the Pious Union of the Holy Ghost. Stations were also installed (reframed in 1971). In 1932 an organ was installed in the loft over the sacristy (it was later moved to the west gallery, and then back again to its original position in 1966). In 1939 the Lady altar was installed, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the arrival of the Friars. In 1944 the sanctuary communion rails were erected, and work started on the Sacred Heart altar.

In 1955 the corridor wing was enlarged to form a parish hall.

In 1970 the church was damaged, and the timber nave roof destroyed by fire. It was restored and reopened within fifteen months, with a full-width addition at the west end.

The Capuchins left in 1981, and since then the parish has been served by priests of the Society of the Sacred Heart of Betharram, an institute of consecrated life established in 1832.

The church was consecrated on 4 October 1990.

A large Early French and Early English Gothic design of 1926-9 by G. B. Cox, red brick with stone dressings and Westmorland slate roofs. The plan is similar to that for Cox’s earlier church at Acocks Green (qv), which was described by the architect as ‘a new departure from the traditional nave-and-aisles type of church plan’, designed with a view to giving every member of the congregation a clear view of the high altar and pulpit. As at Acocks Green, the bays of the nave alternately project, providing external rhythm and modelling, and internal recesses for shrines and side altars.  On plan the church consists of a wide aisleless nave with two projecting bays on either side, a long sanctuary with side chapel giving off to the south, and a northern Lady Chapel. Sacristies and a tall campanile are attached to the southern side chapel. At this point the building connects to a corridor (adapted and extended in the 1950s to form a parish hall) which leads to Dunn & Hansom’s former seminary buildings to the south.

At the west end of the church is a low narthex, added in 1970-1, also in red brick. Above this, a five-light west window with cusped tracery and a stone frieze below bearing carved shields with the coats of arms of the Franciscan order etc. Stone banding at the springing of the window arch and in the gable give a horizontal emphasis. The corners are angled (echoed also in the modern narthex addition below), and the theme of blocky angularity continues in the projecting bays at the sides. Towards the east end of the nave and in the long sanctuary and side chapels, the bays are marked by attached brick buttresses with stone gabled caps. The low Lady Chapel continues the theme in a miniature form. The south wall of the sanctuary is also the ‘east wall’ of the side chapel, for the community, and is therefore more richly treated with a two light central window, and single light windows on either side with buttresses. In the gable, a statue of the Virgin and Child in a canopied niche. In contrast, the east end is plainly treated, the brickwork relieved only by a high level circular window in the canted bay. The chapel built for the Friars returns to the south, with paired lancet windows (triple in the south end gable). Alongside this is a blocked opening, indicating an intended second storey for the link to the 1873 building, and alongside this is the campanile, octagonal and in two stages. The upper (belfry) stage is more enriched, and is surmounted by a copper pyramidal cap.

Inside, the nave is one wide space, designed to maximise visibility of the high altar and pulpit. At the west end is a gallery, its front carved with shields bearing representations of the Passion. Side chapels and shrines are placed within tall arches in alternating bays at the sides, and the window bays in between have similar blind arches encompassing the lancet windows. The walls are plain plastered, the architectural dressings white stone and the waggon vault Oregon pine. Pilasters mark the bay divisions, continued upwards by transverse timber arches, but interrupted at the springing by carved wooden angels bearing shields. These and the nave roof were entirely renewed after the fire in 1970. The north (Lady) chapel gives off at the eastern end of the nave, through low paired openings with columns and stiff-leaf capitals. On the opposite side is a door to the sacristy and above this an open organ gallery. A wide Gothic chancel arch leads to a timber groin vaulted ‘crossing’, off which the large chapel designed for the Friars leads to the south. This chapel also has open bays at the upper level, intended to connect with the friary. Back in the main space, beyond the chancel is the short sanctuary, housing the high altar, with a more elaborate timber vault and a circular window with a cusped quatrefoil. 

Furnishings of note include:

  • The original high altar and tabernacle in the sanctuary (1932);
  • Marble sanctuary floor;
  • Marble communion rails to sanctuary (1944);
  • Nave pulpit, given in 1930 by parishioners;
  • Marble Lady Chapel altar (1939, photo lower left) with opus sectile figures. The roundels in the frontal bear portraits of Pope Pius IX (who defined the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1854) and Duns Scotus (a medieval Franciscan of Merton College, Oxford, who defended the doctrine);
  • The windows in the Lady Chapel were donated by the family of the architect, G. B. Cox;
  • In the south chapel, a figure of Our Lady in an enriched carved timber aedicule, and good solid oak furnishings;
  • In the nave, the multi-gabled, white marble altar of the Franciscan saints, with opus sectile figures, 1930, in memory of Clara Anna Thorpe;
  • The benches in the nave date from 1970-1, replacing those of 1932 which were destroyed in the fire. Underneath the benches the floor is woodblock; in the circulation areas it is stone with marble edgings. 

Diocese: Birmingham

Architect: Harrison & Cox

Original Date: 1929

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Not listed