Glastonbury - Our Lady St Mary of Glastonbury

Magdalene Street, Glastonbury, Somerset BA6

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A Gothic Revival design built at the onset of the Second World War on a site opposite the medieval Abbey, as a successor to the ancient shrine of our Lady of Glastonbury. The canonically crowned statue of Our Lady (by Philip Lindsey Clark) is the focus of the annual pilgrimage to Glastonbury.

In 1886 the French Order of Missionaries of the Sacred Heart established a school at Tor House, Glastonbury. The chapel and school buildings were designed by Fr (later Canon) A. J. C. Scoles, who also drew up (unexecuted) plans for a new mission church. On 12 September 1895, the first major pilgrimage to Glastonbury in modern times was held, leading to the revival of the shrine in the twentieth century. (The Missionaries left Glastonbury in 1913.) In 1907, the Sisters of Charity of St Louis established a convent in Magdalene Street, Glastonbury, at a building called The Priory. (The convent closed in 1984.) In 1922, a proposal for a temporary chapel for the town was rejected by the bishop, as the future of the convent and its chaplain (the former superior of the Missionaries, Fr. P.L. Martin) was not considered sufficiently secure. In 1926, the stables adjoining the convent were converted to a chapel (demolished in 1938 for the present church). Two years later, a sculpture of the Madonna and Child was commissioned for the church from Eric Gill; this failed to find a place when the present church was built, and was later moved to the Catholic cemetery; more recently it has been put on display at Glastonbury Abbey.

The present church was designed by J. H. H. Willman of Roberts & Willman, Taunton. The foundation stone was laid in 1939 and the church was opened by the Bishop of Clifton on 2 July 1940. It was consecrated in 1941. The historic shrine of Our Lady of Glastonbury was restored in July 1955, when a statue of Our Lady of Glastonbury carved by Philip Lindsay Clark was blessed by the Apostolic Delegate, the Most Rev. Gerald O’Hara. Ten years later, on 4 July 1965, the statue was canonically crowned by Archbishop Igino Cardinale, Apostolic Delegate, at a ceremony held in the Abbey grounds. Its original timber crown was replaced by a crown made from items of gold donated by parishioners. (Only the Vatican can issue a Papal bull of Canonical Coronation.) At various times, proposals for the extension of the church have been put forward, for example during the incumbency of the Rev. J. Sheehan (1948-52) and more recently in form of a projected apse (undated plans by Whitmarsh-Everiss & Smithies of Bristol in the Diocesan Archive).

Today, a pilgrimage to the Shrine takes place every summer, in the revived medieval tradition. A number of architectural drawings survive in the Diocesan Archives for temporary sanctuary structures for open air services, such as that constructed in c.1957 in Convent Field, off Street Road (Whitmarsh-Everiss & Smithies). About twenty years ago a hall and garage were added to the rear of the church. 

The church faces west. This description follows conventional liturgical orientation, i.e. as if the altar was at the east.

The church was built in 1939-40 to designs by J. H. H. Willman of Roberts & Willman, Taunton. The plan is longitudinal, with a narrower sanctuary and shallow transepts. The materials are rock-faced stone with ashlar stone dressings. The roof is covered in Roman tiles. The west elevation has a giant recessed arch framing three lancets and a circular window over the entrance. Below the small west gable is a circular window with cusped mullion and transom. The buttresses flanking the elevation have gabled niches with statues of St Dunstan and the Blessed Richard Whiting, the last Abbot of Glastonbury. The side elevations have tall lancet windows, with alternate windows under cross gables, and shallow transepts with twin lancets.

The four-bay nave has concrete transverse arches. There is an organ gallery at the west end above the narthex. The octagonal stone font stands near the nave’s southwest corner. The tall chancel arch is flanked by smaller arches into the side chapels. The sanctuary rails are of timber with an integral timber pulpit, while the rails to the chapels are of wrought iron with timber handrails. As the most decorative part of relatively plain interior, the sanctuary is the focus of the church. The crowning ceremony of 1965 also involved the reordering of the sanctuary (see figure 3). Behind a plain forward altar of stone is an elaborate reredos consisting of a lower panel whose pattern evokes the wattle and daub of the Saxon shrine at Glastonbury, above which is a colourful tapestry. This tapestry, depicting the Glastonbury martyrs, St Dunstan and legendary saints connected with Glastonbury, was designed by Brother Louis Barlow OSB of Prinknash Abbey, and was made by Edinburgh Weavers (1965). In the centre of the reredos is the tabernacle on a corbel and above it the statue of the Virgin made in 1955 by Philip Lindsay Clark, based on an image from the Abbey’s seal. The back panel and pitched roof over the statues again evoke the wattle and daub pattern. The three east lancets have stained glass depicting the Crucifixion. The side altars have plain stone altars, statues and circular stained glass windows (depicting the Sacred Heart and the Virgin Mary). There is a painting of the Blessed Richard Whiting by parishioner Tony Wheeler (1957) in the south transept. The Stations of the Cross are fine square reliefs carved in stone. The nave has a woodblock floor; that of the sanctuary is of cork. 

Diocese: Clifton

Architect: Roberts & Willman

Original Date: 1940

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not listed