Highgate - St Joseph

Highgate Hill, Highgate, London N19

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A large Italian Romanesque design with a prominent dome, built for the Passionists. The interior is richly decorated with wall paintings, oil paintings, side altars and the baldacchino and high altar under the dome.  St Joseph’s Retreat, the house for the community, is attached to the east end. The church is a dominant feature of the local conservation area and, due to its elevated position, is highly visible from Highgate Hill, nearby Waterlow Park and further afield.


In 1858, the Passionists bought the former Black Dog Tavern, converting the ground floor to a chapel and the first floor into accommodation for the community. E. W. Pugin provided a sketch for a church which was rejected due to cost. (This apparently gave rise to the myth that E. W. Pugin did in fact build the first church. Cf. Cherry & Pevsner, Evinson, Hyland); this was in fact built to a design by John Bird of Hammersmith (1861, completed 1863). The monastery, by F. W. Tasker, was begun in 1857 and executed in stages. In 1880, the church was redecorated by Albert Vicars.

In 1888, the first church was demolished and temporarily replaced by a tin church, in order to make way for the present church. The corner stone was laid on 24 May 1888 and the building opened on 21 November 1889. The church is in the Italian Romanesque style and was built to commemorate the Jubilee of Pope Leo XIII. The architect was Albert Vicars (whose work is usually Gothic), with Brother Alphonsus superintending the work.

In 1947, the organ of 1898 by William Hill & Sons was installed, as a memorial to parish members who had died in the Second World War. It replaced an organ of 1862 by Messrs Mechlin & Schütze of Brussels

In 1996, planning permission was granted for new gutters and downpipes for the dome (Rees Johns Bolter Architects). In 2001, planning permission was given for the construction of a single storey extension adjacent to the Lady Chapel to provide toilet facilities (Rees Bolter Architects). The following year, an amended proposal was approved, to include toilet facilities and also a meeting room and new boundary wall and railings to Highgate Hill.


The church actually faces northeast. This description uses conventional liturgical orientation

  • The windows in the      west gable are in fact a stepped arcade of five lights, not four.
  • The two pilasters      at the east end are Ionic, not Corinthian.
  • Above the door to  the repository (the original baptistery) at the northwest is a painting of      St Mary Magdalen and the crucified Christ (attributed to Lord Leighton).      Another painting in the north aisle depicts the Holy Family.
  • In the north aisle   is a chapel with a large pieta on a timber altar with timber rails,      erected by Thomas Rock in memory of his son John (died 1871).
  • The Lady Chapel has   a plain marble altar and rails with a marble reredos with mosaic scenes of      the Annunciation and Coronation on either side of a Carrara marble statue      of the Virgin (Evinson: post-war, Cherry & Pevsner: 1897, by Porter of   Fulham). At the east end of the chapel is a large modern timber sculpture      of St Dominic Barberi (John O’Rourke, 1999).
  • The Stations are   large painted oblong reliefs by F. Devriendt (installed 1886).
  • The northeast   chapel dedicated to the Passionist saints has a painting of the St Paul of      the Cross (by M.A. Laby) framed by an Ionic aedicule with a broken and      open segmental pediment.
  • The forward altar  of marble and sandstone was erected in 1964 by Gerald Murphy of Burles      Newton & Partners. The matching ambo was installed a few years later      in memory of Sylvester Ijoma Oti (died 1988).
  • The wall paintings by  Westlake between the clerestory windows depict the Mysteries of the Rosary      (Evinson: figures of saints). The sanctuary wall paintings are by C.      Langlin.
  • There is a fine  silver sanctuary lamp.
  • The Sacred Heart   chapel at the southeast has a matching aedicule reredos to the other side      chapel, and similar rails. On the south wall is an oil painting, possibly      depicting the Agony in the Garden.
  • The marble rails and elaborate altar of St Michael’s Chapel in the south aisle were      reputedly exhibited at the Paris Exhibition (Evinson: of 1889, Cherry      & Pevsner: of 1900). Beside the altar is a marble portrait plaque to      Rev. Michael Watts Russell (died 1875), in whose memory the chapel was      erected. The reliquary is said to have been designed by Cardinal Wiseman.
  • The Martyrs Chapel in the south aisle also has a marble altar and rails, as well as an oil      painting of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.
  • The square stone  font with chamfered corners has carvings of the Baptism of Christ, Christ      and the Children and the Dove of the Holy Spirit.
  • The organ of 1898  (installed 1947) was listed at grade I in 2007 by the British Institute of      Organ Studies, as a rare example of an instrument by William Hill &      Sons in its original condition.
  • Several shallow   niches in the south aisle used to be confessionals and their timber      screens have been removed. (At the time of Rottmann’s visit in c.1926      there were ten confessionals in the church.)
  • The chancel arch is   framed by large statues of a bishop and St Joseph. Another large statue of      St Anthony is in the south aisle.
  • Three clerestory   lights on each side are filled with stained glass: the Crucifixion on the      south and the Holy Family to the north.

Diocese: Westminster

Architect: Albert Vicars

Original Date: 1888

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Grade II*