Bow - Our Lady and St Catherine of Siena

Bow Road, London E3

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A plain Gothic Revival church built for the Dominican Sisters by Gilbert Blount. The church was later extended by the addition of a nuns’ choir to the south. The church suffered war damage and the nave was reconstructed in facsimile. Several important original or early furnishings survive, including the high altar and reredos designed by Blount, and the east window by Hardman. The church and former convent are prominent features in the local conservation area.

In 1866, the Dominican Sisters of Walthamstow were sent by Archbishop Manning to teach at Bow. Alfred House in Bow Road became St Catherine’s convent, and they built a church. The foundation stone for this was laid by Manning on 20 July 1869 and the church was opened by him on 9 November 1870. The architect was Gilbert Blount (1816-76) and the builder Mr Perry of Stratford. It is likely that the church originally included a small south transept chapel for use of the nuns. However, this is shown only in outline on the plan in the V&A (E.488-1975). Of the two sacristies at the liturgical east end, one was for the use of the nuns.

In 1882, Blount’s pupil and assistant Alfred E. Purdie (1843-1920) added a large (liturgical) south transept as the nuns’ choir (now Lady Chapel) (figure 1) and further sacristies. It seems likely that he also created what is now the Sacred Heart chapel north of the sanctuary and used to be the nuns’ altar, visible from the south transept. (The chapel is not shown on Blount’s drawings in the V&A.)

In 1923, the Dominican sisters departed for Stone (Staffordshire) and the church was transferred to the diocese. In 1943, the nave and the major part of the former convent were damaged by a bomb. The nave was rebuilt as a copy of the original, architect J.E. Sterrett (according to the parish priest only the roof had to be replaced, but Evinson states that the whole nave had to be rebuilt.) The church has been very little reordered: the metal altar rails (see figure 2) have been removed and the Sacred Heart altar moved from a north chapel (now lobby to sacristy) to the northeast chapel which formerly contained the nuns’ altar and the entrance to the old sacristy.

Following the departure of the nuns, the convent adjoining the church became the presbytery (the tall brick building with crow-stepped gables left of the church in the photo top right). Around c.2000 a new presbytery was built on the opposite (west, liturgical north) side of the church (far right in photo top right). The old presbytery (part of the former convent) was converted by Gerald Murphy Burles Newton into seven self-contained flats (planning permission was granted in 2002).

The remainder of the convent’s buildings included a boarding school (to the right in the photo top left) fronting the street (now shops), and an industrial laundry to the rear. The latter was sold to the local Borough and is now occupied by the Bow Arts Trust (as the ‘Nunnery’). A Victorian classroom building behind the church – presumably for the poor school, rather than the boarding school – was converted into a church hall (the single-storey building on the far left in the top right photo).

The church actually faces north. This description uses conventional orientation, i.e. as if the altar was at the east.

The church was built in 1869-70 and extended in 1882. The nave or part of it was reconstructed after bomb damage in 1943. There are several small-scale twentieth-century additions, such as the toilets off the south transept, the confessional in the angle of nave and south transept (both rendered), the lean-to confessional to the north, and the flat-roofed brick corridor linking the sacristies and the new presbytery. The materials are Kentish ragstone with Portland stone dressings, and a slate roof. The church is longitudinal in plan with a south transept, the original sacristies at the east, later sacristies at the northeast, and a northwest porch.

The gabled west front is framed by angle buttresses with a shorter stepped buttress in the centre. The narthex is lit by a row of six lancet windows with hood moulds. Above is a large wheel window with female heads in small roundels on either side, flanked by canopied niches with statues of saints. (On Blount’s drawings and in older postcards in the parish archive the niches are empty. The statues probably date from the post-war restoration.) In the apex of the gable, below the gable cross, is a vesica-shaped relief of Our Lady. The west front of the northwest porch has a niche with a statue of Our Lady above the main door.

The narthex is below the organ gallery, supported on two columns between three shallow pointed arches. The stair to the gallery is at the southwest corner. The organ by Norman, Hill & Beard came from Holloway Prison. The west window has a stained glass panel in the central multifoil depicting the Sacred Heart (c.1950s). (The cusps of the central multifoil are rounded rather than pointed as in Blount’s drawing for the window in the V&A, which may be due to the reconstruction.) The gallery front probably dates from the reconstruction, as it is less solid on Blount’s drawings, with a pierced balustrade and angel corbels.

The aisleless, six-bay nave has an open, arch-braced roof, reconstructed after war damage. (The details of the struts above the collar beam vary from those in Blount’s drawings.) The north wall of the nave has a door to the porch with a small rose window above at the west, two tall lancets and three shorter ones. (On Blount’s drawings at the V&A, the north wall has four tall lancets, which may have been shortened for the later additions, like the lean-to confessional.) At the east end, two pointed arches lead to a small lobby (the former Sacred Heart chapel) with doors to confessionals (now used for storage) and the sacristy. The south wall has a door with a small rose window and four tall lancet windows above. At the southeast corner of the nave are a door to a confessional and an arch to a small porch to the south transept. (The latter was created in place of a second arch or door, of the same size to that leading to the confessional - as visible in figure 2.) The timber font is modern.

On either side of the chancel arch are canopied stone niches with statues of St Joseph and Our Lady. Below them are statues of St Anthony and St Patrick. The five-sided stone and marble pulpit is set against the north side of the chancel arch. Compared to figure 2 it has been moved slightly to the west. The three-bay chancel is narrower than the nave and has an elaborate wooden rib vault. The corbels and capitals in the sanctuary and northeast chapel are elaborately carved with foliage and angels. The elaborate reredos was designed by Blount and made by Farmer & Brindley (installed 1874). Four canopied niches flanking the monstrance throne and the alabaster tabernacle have statues of St Dominic, St Hyacinth, St Catherine of Siena and St Rose of Lima. The frontal of the high altar depicts the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes. The five-light Decorated east window was made by Hardman in 1901 and depicts Our Lady flanked by St Peter, St Catherine, St Thomas and St Patrick. The stone forward altar has some blind tracery and is modern.

Three pointed arches on two polished Aberdeen granite columns lead into the Sacred Heart chapel to the north, facing towards the nuns’ choir (and which on the original plans is just a passage between the sacristies and the nave and in 1926 was a small Rosary chapel). The flat roof with skylights is supported by timber transverse arches on corbels. A door to the sacristy at the north is blocked. A central painted wooden altar has a statue of the Sacred Heart by Mayer of Munich. This was originally placed at the east end of what is now the lobby to the sacristy (described by Evinson as ‘north transept’). It was moved when in its place an arch was opened to the north chapel. On either side of the altar are shallow niches with hood moulds - possibly former windows blocked by the sacristy extension - which now hold statues of angels. The chapel also contains two sections of stone and marble altar rails. Beside the arch to the west is a marble plaque to the Rev. W. O’Brien (parish priest 1921-26).

On the south side of sanctuary, two pointed arches with a central red sandstone cluster column (not granite as in Pevsner) open onto the south transept. A rather bare-looking space, it was accessed from the convent at the east (opening now blocked) or later from the lobby in the angle to the nave where figure 1 shows a semicircular feature. The ceiling is canted and boarded. The south window has six cusped lights. To the west are three two-light windows. At the south is a glazed timber screen below a gallery. Behind this is the corridor with the gallery stairs, a blocked door to the convent at the east and the toilets at the west. Other furnishings in the transept include a crucifix and a shrine to Our Lady.

The nave seating consists of benches, from the 1990s refurbishment (Irish Contract Seating). The narthex, central alley, and part of the transept have Victorian tiled floors, as do the sanctuary and the Sacred Heart chapel. (Evinson describes those in the sanctuary as the ‘original Staffordshire tiles’.) Other areas have herringbone woodblock floors. The Stations of the Cross are conventional modern reliefs.

Diocese: Westminster

Architect: Gilbert Blount; A. E. Purdie

Original Date: 1869

Conservation Area: No

Modifications: 1882

Listed Grade: Not listed