Speke - St Ambrose

Heathgate Avenue, Speke, Liverpool 24

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The church of St Ambrose is one of the best 20th century churches in the Archdiocese. The austere character of the building’s exterior belies the refined nature of the interior, where the quality of light and space complements its advanced liturgical design. The building has been little altered since it was erected in 1959-61, and houses a number of furnishings and works of art of high quality.

Speke was planned in the 1930s as a self-contained industrial suburb, which was intended to attract new manufacturers to Liverpool, and provide employment for workers  whose  jobs  were  at  risk  from  the  decline  of  the  port.  The  projected population was 55,000, with shops, schools, recreational and community facilities, all set out to a formal plan. The first houses went up in 1938, and by 1953, a total of 5,700 houses had been built. This was the year that the first church of St Ambrose was  built.  By  1955  the  population  had  reached  21,000,  and  with  continuing expansion, the present, much larger, church was erected in 1959-61, the old church being converted to serve as the parish centre. The momentum, however, was not maintained, and by the 1970s big job losses, combined with a lack of social and community infrastructure, had caused Speke to become one of the most deprived wards in the country.

The church was built in 1959-61 and designed by Alfred Bullen of Weightman and Bullen. It is described in Pevsner as the best building on the Speke estate, and is one of few buildings within the settlement that succeed in making a clear and positive statement. The plan is a rectangle of ten bays by seven bays, with a tall campanile placed centrally and attached by a low three-bay narthex. The slender tower, which has an open belfry at the top, is 26.5 metres high and is surmounted by a 3.4 metre high cross. The concrete frame construction is expressed throughout, and the nave has a clerestory formed of concrete arches, with a raised flat roof set back from the face of the building. On the (ecclesiastical) north and east sides are flat roofed elements containing the chapels and sacristy; like the campanile, they are clad in rock faced pale coloured stone.

The interior is particularly impressive. The tall space is lit solely from the clerestory, where light pours through the arched frames and is reflected downwards from the white painted tunnel vaults of the ambulatory. The flat roof is panelled with giant perforated nailheads and hovers above the surrounding vaults. Lower vaults lead to the narthex, side chapels and the Lady Chapel, which is situated behind the high altar. The liturgical arrangements were advanced for their time (pre-Vatican II), and allowed for a processional way around the full perimeter of the interior, and an altar placed forward of the east wall and facing the congregation.

Originally the ceiling was painted blue, rather than two shades of brown, as now, and the blockwork infill to the wall surfaces was unpainted. Few other changes have occurred since the church was built. At first the free-standing piers were not faced in marble, but since this matches the marble of the sanctuary, it must have been part of the original intention. The furnishings were designed by Weightman and Bullen, and include the high altar formed from a great slab of Cornish granite, the matching tabernacle, a marble lectern and the tub-like font incised with zig-zag ornament (this latter has been moved from the baptistery). The pews and furniture too are contemporary, and the fine organ is prominently sited over the west doors. 

The stained glass is of outstanding interest, particularly the two windows in the Lady Chapel by Patrick Reyntiens (not mentioned in the recent Buildings of England). They are dated 1976, and feature the Marian shrines of Lourdes, Fatima and the Rue du Bac in a figurative, cartoon-like style. The glass in the narthex (by an unnamed artist) depicts the Sacraments. In the Lady Chapel is a painting of the Virgin and Child of 1961 by J. Faczynski, and the striking ceramic Stations of the Cross are made by A Kossowski. Carved wooden statues of St Peter and St Joseph occupy two of the chapels. A third, of St Ambrose, has been displaced from his chapel by an inferior depiction of Our Lady of Fatima, and now stands a little uncomfortably by the exit.

Diocese: Liverpool

Architect: Weightman & Bullen

Original Date: 1959

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not listed