Bristol - St Nicholas of Tolentino

Lawford’s Gate, Easton, Bristol BS5

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One of the oldest Catholic churches in Bristol, built in large part to cater for Irish refugees from the Great Famine arriving in Bristol in the late 1840s. It was built in stages between 1850 and 1873 from designs by Charles Hansom. The church was dramatically reordered and extended in 2006-7. With the former presbytery, it make a positive contribution to the Old Market Conservation Area. 

In 1847 William Ullathorne, then Vicar General of the Western District, acquired the site of the present church, which lay in an area of extreme poverty with many Irish Catholic refugees from the Great Famine. The mission was entrusted to the Irish Augustinians and their first priest was the Rev. Nicholas O'Donnell. Charles Hansom provided a design for a church of which only the nave was built at first, opening in 1850. A school was added in 1854. The Augustinians handed over the mission to diocesan clergy in 1856. North and south aisles were added to the nave, probably in the early 1860s and presumably to Hansom’s designs. The chancel, Lady Chapel and a sacristy were added and a presbytery built shortly after the appointment of Canon Septimus Coxon in 1872, again possibly to Hansom's designs. The church was finally consecrated in 1895. The dedication is unusual; St Nicholas of Tolentino was a thirteenth-century Augustinian friar and mystic.

The late-nineteenth-century appearance of the church is shown at figure 1. In 1965-6 the church was reroofed and refitted by Ivor Day & O’Brien, with some alterations to the sanctuary and the rebuilding in larger form of the south porch. A more dramatic and far-reaching reordering was carried out in 2007-9 to the designs of O'Leary Goss. The church was in effect turned around, with a new main entrance at the former sanctuary end. The nave was divided in two and its western part screened off and floored over to provide a two-storey hall. The sanctuary was set against the new partition wall and new furnishings were commissioned from Malawi. All this was made possible by the sale of adjoining land, now developed by the same architects as Saint’s Court, including a new presbytery. The old presbytery has been converted to a parish office and meeting rooms. The project was awarded a Bristol Civic Society Environmental Award. 

Charles Hansom's church is in thirteenth-century Gothic style. The plan comprises a nave with southwest spirelet, north and south aisles with cross-gables, chancel and northwest chapel. The walls are faced with local Pennant stone with Bath stone dressings; the roofs are covered in slate. The west end of the nave is now part of a hall and the main window is blocked. At the southwest corner is an octagonal tower with a belfry and stone spirelet. The south aisle originally had three cross-gables and a projecting southwest porch; the aisle has been enlarged and the roofs extended, repeating the triple gabled form in a modern idiom, over a screen wall in matching stone.  The north aisle has five cross-gables with two-light quatrefoiled windows. The chancel has a tall four-light traceried window, with a lower northwest Lady Chapel under its own pitched roof.

The original internal arrangements have been considerably altered in the recent re-casting of the accommodation. The church now comprises three bays of the former nave, with arcades of moulded pointed arches resting on octagonal stone columns with moulded capitals. The clerestory has paired trefoiled windows. The tall open timber roof has scissor braces and two tiers of purlins. Openings have been made in the original outer walls of the south aisle to enlarge the internal space. A tall pointed arch with chamfered jambs leads to the former chancel, which has a boarded waggon roof, a triple sedilia on the south side and triple stilted arches on the north side to the Lady Chapel. A new main entrance to the church has been formed in the east wall below the window. The altar is now set against the newly-inserted west wall between the church and the hall which occupies the west end of the former nave. Surviving nineteenth-century fittings include the stained glass in the east window and Lady Chapel and the Lady Chapel altar and reredos. Modern fittings include a total-immersion font with mosaic surround in the former chancel and the modern altarpiece carving.

Diocese: Clifton

Architect: Charles Hansom; O'Leary Goss

Original Date: 1850

Conservation Area: No

Modifications: 1860s, 1873; 2007-9

Listed Grade: Not listed