Saffron Walden - Our Lady of Compassion

Castle Street, Saffron Walden CB10

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Converted in the early years of the twentieth century from a late medieval barn. The early twentieth-century additions are somewhat in the manner of Leonard Stokes. Early twenty-first century additions include the addition of a low tower and a rich and colourful sanctuary reordering. The interior retains the exposed medieval frame, much altered  and  restored,  and  some  artworks  of  note.  

Mass centres were established in Saffron Walden from 1887-93 (served from Ongar) and 1898-1906 (from Bishop’s Stortford). A mission was founded and a resident priest  appointed  in 1906.  For  a  sum of  £1500  Fr Charles  Rose Chase,  a  former Anglican clergyman, acquired The Close, a late medieval house on the corner of the High Street and Castle Street, whose curtilage included a late medieval barn/outbuilding. This was adapted to serve as a church, initially served by priests of the Diocesan Missionaries of Our Lady of Compassion, subsequently the Catholic Missionary Society, which had been established by Fr Chase. The parish was erected in 1918.

The Missionary Society continued to provide priests until 1918, when the newly- formed Diocese of Brentwood took over. In 1930 the Spanish Vincentian Fathers took charge of the parish, and remained until 1948. During their time, probably in about 1935, the present presbytery was built alongside the church.  The Close had been sold in 1920. A former laundry building in its grounds, which had been used as a parish hall, was later sold by its  new  owners  to  the Pentecostal Church,  but it  was  re- acquired by the parish in 1999.

Significant alterations in 2004-05 included the addition of a tower, giving the church much greater townscape prominence, and cloister, linking the church and presbytery. Internal reordering and improvements also took place. The architect was Mike Hibbs of Hibbs & Walsh Associates, with Anthony Delarue Associates responsible for the redesign of the sanctuary. The extended and reordered church was consecrated by Bishop Thomas McMahon on 15 September 2006. 

The church is orientated north-south but this description follows conventional liturgical orientation, i.e. as if the altar faced east.

The core of the church is a timber-framed barn, probably of sixteenth-century date although the list description says it is eighteenth century. This is externally clad in black stained weatherboarding , with a half-hipped tile roof and a timber cupola with leaded ogee roof and a decorative iron finial, of apparent eighteenth-century date, on the main ridge towards the east end. The windows are early twentieth-century casements with diamond leaded quarries. At the west end of the church is a lower red brick  addition,  originally  the  baptistery,  with  Perp  window  and  banded  stone detailing. Alongside this is the original entrance bay, the doorway (which is now blocked and replaced with a window) flanked by pilasters, with a stone tablet and swept parapet above.  The architect for these additions has not been established, but the work is somewhat in the manner of Leonard Stokes. Against this is the red brick square tower of 2004-05, short (of two stages), with a cambered arched window at each level, parapet and pyramidal spire. A ramped approach on the other side of the entrance gates alongside this leads into the new entrance lobby, which also forms a timber-framed and glazed link with the adjoining inter-war presbytery (photo upper right).

The interior space is dominated by the exposed, and highly restored, timber frame of the former barn/outbuilding. Its five bays form the nave and sanctuary, off which give a low south aisle, sacristies to the east, and a low former baptistery, now nave extension, to the west.   The timber frame has a queen post roof, jowled posts and straight through braces, with plaster infill panels. There is a plaster ceiling at collar level. There is a range of three two-light timber casement clerestory windows with leaded lights to the north and south, while that to the east has a cross casement. The floor is of York stone slabs in the nave and aisle, with hand-made Norfolk pamments in the sanctuary; these finishes are from 2004-05.

Furnishings of note include:

•    A  medieval  corpus with traces  of  polychromy on a modern painted  cross hanging from the tie beam at the entrance to the sanctuary;

•    In the second bay from the east, on the south side, a fine war memorial, influenced by Edward Burne-Jones and Symbolists such as Puvis de Chavannes, drawn on paper, by F. R. Gadsby, an assistant to Christopher Whall (1922, photo bottom left);

•    In similar vein, in the equivalent position on the north side, a framed coloured drawing of the Crucifixion by Edward Frampton, on loan from a parishioner;

•    The cross itself, the coloured reredos, stone altar and tabernacle with it tall, Gothic  limewood  canopy  all  belong  to  the  2004-05  reordering  of  the sanctuary, carried out by Anthony Delarue. The altar is of Clipsham stone, with  a  Portland  stone  mensa.  The  reredos  is  made  from  reconfigured elements  of  an  altarpiece  from  a  redundant  church,  acquired  from  the Anglican Diocese of Norwich. The canopy is partly gilded, and surmounted by a Pelican;

•    The oak eagle lectern was purchased by the parish in 2004-05, provenance not established;

•    Octagonal stone font, c1850, from the redundant Anglican church of St Peter at Birch, near Colchester. The restored riddel posts and curtain behind it are by Howell & Bellion;

•    Stained glass in the east window, the dove of the Holy Spirit descending, of 2004-05;

•    Stained glass window at the west end (ex situ?), St Cecilia

•    In the Lady Chapel at the back of the church, a small Gothic shrine to Our

Lady, from the Servite house at Oxford;

•    In the cloister overlooking the garden are a Pietà carved in wood, also from the Servite House in Oxford, a blue glass roundel depicting the Annunciation and an early Victorian stained glass panel of the Crucifixion.

List Description:

Stable, now church. C18, largely rebuilt 1907. Timber-framed, weatherboarded, rendered plinth. Half hipped main roof and baptistery roof have red clay plain tiles, aisle and vestry slated. Old brick walls incorporated at NW corner. 5 bays, E bay now vestry, formerly 2 storeys, floor now removed. Open timber cupola with leaded ogee roof and decorative iron finial. C20 internal stack to E end. S aisle, baptistery to W end, brick porch of 1907; E extension with monopitch roof later C20. Queen post roof. Frame with jowled posts, straight through braces; much altered, partly missing. Plaster infill. Later ceiling at collar level. Range of three 2-light timber casement clerestory windows with leaded lights to S, that to E with cross casement. Similar 2- light casement to N. Later C20 casements elsewhere. Formerly the stables of The Close (qv), converted to a RC church in 1907.

Diocese: Brentwood

Architect: Anon.; Hibbs & Walsh Associates for recent work

Original Date: 1600

Conservation Area: Yes

Modifications: 1906, 2004

Listed Grade: Grade II