Bristol - St Bonaventure

Egerton Road, Bishopston, Bristol BS7

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A large town church in thirteenth-century Gothic style, built at the start of the twentieth century for the Franciscans by Pugin & Pugin. The architecture has an appropriate Franciscan austerity, with a tall and stately interior. The historic sanctuary furnishings have not survived post-Vatican II reordering, but the church retains a number of furnishings of note. With the adjoining former friary building (also by Pugin & Pugin) it occupies a prominent position in the local townscape. 

The Franciscan Order was invited to return to Bristol by Bishop Clifford in 1889. Friars Minor from Forest Gate (East London) arrived and purchased the current site, which was formerly part of Shadwell Farm, later that year. A school (since replaced) was built in 1890, incorporating a chapel. In this was baptised in 1891 William Joseph Slim, the wartime commander and later Governor General of Australia. The friary building was built next, in 1891-2; the report of the laying of the foundation stone in The Tablet stated:

The part now undertaken is intended to contain porch, hall, reception rooms, porter's room, study, library, and friars' cells and cloisters, which will in the future be continued to form the quadrangle. The total length of the portion now under consideration will be 108 feet, and the width 33 feet. The style of the friary will be domestic Gothic of the 15th century, but rather severe in style, in order to be in accordance with the Franciscan rule. The building will be of local stone, with dressings of Bath stone. The first contract is being carried out by Messrs Wilkins and Sons, Bristol, the architects being Messrs. Pugin and Pugin of Westminster. 

Pugin & Pugin had been architects for the Franciscan church and friary buildings at Forest Gate, and the firm was employed similarly here. The builders were again Wilkins & Sons. The church is in thirteenth-century Gothic style, possibly referencing Bristol Greyfriars, built at Lewin’s Mead from 1250 (dissolved in 1538). Work started on the present church in July 1900, and the building was opened by Bishop Clifford on 14 March 1901. The furnishing of the sanctuary followed as funds permitted. The high altar was designed and built by one of the friars, and three stained glass windows depicting Franciscan saints were fitted at the east end in 1906, designed and made by Alexander Booker (then active in Bruges). Following a bequest, the west end (western bay of nave and aisles, baptistery and porches) and the confessionals, sacristy, belfry and Lady Chapel were added in 1907-09. 

In 1923 a pietà was installed in the church as a memorial to the parish dead of the First World War and in 1927 the hanging rood was installed at the chancel arch. A parish hall was built in 1932 and on 13 June 1936 the completed church was consecrated by Bishop Lee. In preparation for this a new high altar and reredos in Early Christian style designed by John Bevan FRIBA was installed (figure 2).

The church is actually orientated west-east, but this description follows conventional liturgical orientation, i.e. as if the altar was to the east.

A large town church in plain thirteenth-century Gothic style, built for the Franciscans from designs by Pugin & Pugin in 1900-01, with additions by them of 1907-09. It is attached to the slightly earlier (1891-2) friary, also built from designs by Pugin & Pugin, this in a late medieval domestic style. Both buildings are built in rock-faced local stone with Bath stone dressings and slate roofs. The church consists of a nave with side aisles, south porch and sanctuary with flanking chapels. 

In keeping with Franciscan austerity, the church is largely devoid of sculptural enrichment, this reserved for a panel bearing the Franciscan coat of arms over the main entrance. (There is also a life-size statue of St Bonaventure over the entrance to the former friary).  Simple hood moulds are placed over the entrance doors at the west front and north porch. The western entrance is flanked by trefoil-headed lancets, while above this the west end of the nave is lit by tall triple lancets, stepped over the coat of arms. At the northwest corner, asymmetrically balancing the south porch, is the former baptistery, with canted end. The nave and aisles are under a continuous roof, the five aisle bays consisting of wide triple arched openings followed by two gabled bays with larger three-light windows, these with Decorated tracery. The flat east end of the chancel has triple lancets, as at the west end.

The doors and side porch lead into a narthex area, from which original chamfered and panelled doors incorporating leaded glass lead into the church and (off to the liturgical north side) the former baptistery. Steps lead down to the nave (a ramp has been provided from the former baptistery). Above, a western organ loft has an openwork timber gallery front pierced with quatrefoils etc. (there is no organ in the gallery). The nave has a woodblock floor, while the sanctuary is carpeted. The walls are plastered, and the nave ceiling has a scissor-braced timber roof, the trusses rising from wall posts sitting on stone corbels. The nave arcade is of five bays, with moulded arches springing from octagonal piers. The overall effect of the interior is tall and stately. Diagonal struts spring from the rear side of the nave columns to support the lean-to timber aisle roofs. Confessionals with their original panelled and glazed doors give off the north aisle. At the west end, the former baptistery (north side) and approach to the stairs to the gallery (south) are separated from their respective aisles by twin moulded arches, each with a central column. The sanctuary is marked by a plain moulded chancel arch, from which hangs a suspended timber crucifix, installed in 1927. The sanctuary furnishings (panelling to east wall, altar, ambo, seating) are of pale oak, recent in date. However the fine east window remains, with depictions of St Bonaventure, St Elizabeth of Hungary and St Clare (1906, by Alexander Booker, detail at figure 3). This is the only stained glass in the church.  

Other furnishings of note include:

  • The altars in the side chapels, stone with plain marble insets, probably mid-twentieth century and of almost Art Deco character; the south chapel is now the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, and incorporates the tabernacle from the Bevan high altar
  • A fine polychrome statue of Our Lady over the altar in the Lady Chapel
  • An affecting polychrome pietà in the south aisle, installed in 1923 as a memorial to the parish dead of the First World War
  • The baptistery retains its metal gates but is now a repository. The font (probably of c. 1909) has now been moved to a position close by, at the western end of the north aisle. It is of Bath stone, with an octagonal bowl with diamond marble insets, on a circular moulded stem and square base.
  • The nave seating consists of simple chamfered benches, probably early twentieth century in date.

In 1963 the parish hall was replaced by a large new social club, Greyfriars, and in 1974 a new primary school replaced that of 1890 on the adjoining land. The church was reordered by Austin Winkley of Williams & Winkley, London in 1975, when the Bevan high altar and reredos were removed. However, the tabernacle from this altar was set up on the Lady altar, to create a new Blessed Sacrament Chapel. New sanctuary furnishings were provided, including a replacement font, but these have not survived subsequent reordering. The original font was transferred from the baptistery to the southeast porch, where it served as a stoup; it is now back in the church.

In 1980 the Franciscans handed the care of the parish over to the diocese. The friary became a presbytery and offices (for Cafod and Life). The church was redecorated and new lighting installed in 1997; a crypt chapel dedicated to St Therese of Lisieux was opened at the same time. Parish returns at this time show a Sunday congregation of about 1100; by 2013 this figure had halved, but the congregation remains one of the largest in the city. 

Diocese: Clifton

Architect: Pugin & Pugin

Original Date: 1901

Conservation Area: No

Modifications: 1907-09

Listed Grade: Not listed