Bristol - St Gerard Majella

Talbot Road, Knowle, Bristol BS4

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A prominent and well-detailed church built by Pugin & Pugin for the Benedictines in 1909, with high quality furnishings and a high degree of completeness.  

In 1908 Bishop Burton invited the Redemptorists to establish a new mission at Knowle, then developing as a southern suburb of Bristol. This was dedicated to the eighteenth-century Redemptorist lay brother Gerard Majella, canonised by Pope Pius X in 1904. A place of worship was set up in a shop in Jubilee Road. However, the Redemptorist congregation soon withdrew and the mission was handed over to the Benedictines of Douai, who at that time also ran the Chipping Sodbury mission (qv). It was they who acquired the present site, and built a church designed by Pugin & Pugin to seat 700 (builders Stephens, Bastow & Co.). Building was rapid; Bishop Burton laid the foundation stone on 20 March 1909 and the church was ceremonially opened by the Bishop, in the presence of the Abbot of Douai, on 11 December in the same year. A tower and presbytery were shown on the architects’ drawings but not built. To start with the priest lived nearby, a situation which continued until the present presbytery was built in the 1950s.

Dom John Benedict Horrigan was the first resident priest, inheriting a large debt which was slow to pay off. Nevertheless, through parish bazaars and other means he gradually succeeded in furnishing the church. By 1912 the glass in the east window, the font, the Stations of the Cross and St Gerard’s shrine had all been donated. The altar in the south (St Benedict and Holy Souls) chapel was commissioned by Mrs Yates Sturges of Chipping Sodbury in memory of her husband Richard in 1924. According to the parish history, it was designed by Frank Moore Jr ARIBA and made by Boulton of Cheltenham; the inlaid panels were made in Florence. Fr Horrigan died in 1922 and in 1925 the high altar was installed in his memory by his successor, the Rev. James Murty. This too was designed by Moore, with the stonework by Martyn & Co. of Cheltenham and mosaic work made in Venice.  The Lady altar followed in 1929, built to commemorate the silver jubilee of Fr Murty’s ordination. 

The parish was handed over to the diocese by the Benedictines in 1935. A parish hall was built behind the church in 1937 (drawings by Roberts & Willman of Taunton, dated February 1937, are in the Diocesan Archive). In 1951 the Rev. Joseph Sutton became parish priest; he built the presbytery in 1953-4, in the same stone as the church, to a simplified version of Pugin & Pugin’s original design. He also replaced the original iron and timber altar rail with the present stone rails and replaced the stained softwood pulpit with a new one of oak (both in place by 1959). The church was consecrated on 29 April 1959 as part of its golden jubilee celebrations. After the Second Vatican Council a timber forward altar was introduced, replaced in the 1980s by a stone altar and lectern matching the style of the original high altar. In the 1990s the crypt under the sanctuary was renovated and fitted up as a parish room. 

The church is a Decorated-cum-Perpendicular Gothic design by Pugin & Pugin, built of rock-faced, coarsed Pennant stone with Bath stone (Monk’s Park) dressings and Westmorland slate roof coverings. Cast iron hoppers bear the date of the building, 1909. The church is conventionally orientated, and on plan consists of an aisled nave with the aisles continuing as side chapels to a short sanctuary. At the west end a canted baptistery projects to the south and a porch to the north. The land slopes steeply from west to east, allowing for the creation of a ‘crypt’ (parish room/store) below the sanctuary. Confessionals and sacristies are attached to the north side.

The gabled west front has two tiers of lancet windows, paired in the middle, with attenuated trefoils in the tracery. Below the paired central window is a canopied niche containing a statue of St Gerard Majella, with skull and crucifix. The entrance porch is to the left (north), with the granite foundation stone set in at low level, while the baptistery is to the right (south). Each projection incorporates carved quatrefoils with Benedictine shields and emblems. The side elevations accommodate the steep drop in the land. Window openings are flat-topped, with Perpendicular tracery; there are triple openings in each aisle and clerestory bay, and in the aisles the bay divisions are marked by stepped buttresses. To the east, the bluff wall of the sanctuary incorporates a door to the crypt at the lower level. Above, the sanctuary and side chapels have circular windows with Geometrical tracery. 

From the entrance porch, paired arches with a central column lead into the north aisle (and, on the other side, from the south aisle into the baptistery). In the former are a fine holy water stoup, marble and mosaic in a pink marble Gothic surround, installed after the First World War in memory of the parish dead. Above this is a Della Robbia-style roundel of the Virgin and Child framed by a wreath. In the baptistery, the font remains but the gates have been removed in recent times. Between these, a gallery extends along the west end of the nave, with an enclosed narthex area below. The gallery front is of timber with open geometrical patterning and contains an organ which came from Malvern College, according to the parish centenary history in 1927 but according to the BIOS National Pipe Organ Register made in 1930 by John Nicholson of Worcester (http://www.npor.org.uk/NPORView.html?RI=K00900).

The nave is of six bays (excluding the narthex/gallery bay), with a moulded arcade springing from cylindrical piers.  Hoodmoulds are placed over the arcades, and a sill band below the clerestory, the latter broken by timber wallplates which sit on carved stone corbels and rise up to a timber waggon roof with moulded subdivisions. Beyond the tall and wide chancel arch, the sanctuary is similarly roofed.

The church is richly furnished. There are three Gothic altars, all of the 1920s. In the sanctuary, the high altar was installed in 1925 as a memorial to Dom. J. Horrigan. According to the parish centenary history it was designed by Frank Moore ARIBA, with the stonework by Martyn & Co. of Cheltenham and mosaic work made in Venice. In the reredos, mosaic panels depict six angels playing musical instruments, in the style of Fra Angelico (detail at figure 4). The altar has four pairs of stout octagonal columns with carved capitals and spandrels, the latter incorporating the arms of St Edmund King and Martyr, a representation of the Trinity and the arms of St Edmund’s Abbey at Douai. Above the altar is a tabernacle and monstrance throne, to the left an aumbry, and to the right a carved stone piscina. The earlier (1924) altar in the south (St Benedict and Holy Souls) chapel was also designed by Frank Moore, with stonework by Boulton of Cheltenham. It has fine opus sectile panels made in Florence depicting SS Benedict, Richard, Elizabeth of Hungary, Mary Magdalene, John and Sebastian. The altar in the north (Lady) chapel dates from 1929, and has inset panels in the style of Della Robbia: the Blessed Virgin Mary flanked by representations of the Annunciation and the Nativity. Its designer and maker have not been established.

The stone altar rails (late 1950s) to the sanctuary and side chapels remain in situ, with their metal gates, those in the middle incorporating open lozenge panels with the Agnus Dei and Pious Pelican. The stone forward altar and ambo in the sanctuary date from the 1980s, their detailing modelled on that of the high altar. In the nave, the oak pulpit is a late 1950s replacement for the original softwood one, and the open-backed pews with chamfered ends and rolled tops appear to be original or early. The flooring beneath the pews is boarded timber, while the circulation areas are paved in terrazzo. In the aisles, the Stations of the Cross are framed painted panels, in situ by 1912, as was a painting of St Gerard in the north aisle, with Gothic alabaster surround, and the stained glass in the east window, depicting St Benedict and St Gerard adoring the Sacred Heart. A window in the south chapel, to the memory of Richard Yates Sturges (d. 1910), depicts the Day of Judgement, with the donor kneeling, and in the south aisle is a window to Catherine Barry. The identity of the designers/makers of these windows, which are all of good quality, needs to be established.   

Diocese: Clifton

Architect: Pugin & Pugin

Original Date: 1909

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not listed