Whitchurch, Bristol - St Bernadette

Wells Road, Whitchurch, Bristol BS14

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A 1960s church of highly distinctive construction and design, with a double hyperbolic paraboloid roof evoking the form of a tent. This was (until the opening of Clifton Cathedral) the most striking demonstration in the diocese of the Catholic Church’s post-Vatican II embrace of modernity. It is a landmark on one of the southern approached to Bristol. 

Whitchurch grew before the Second World War with the planned expansion of the airport. After the war, in 1958, a school was built to serve this side of the city, dedicated to St Bernadette (that year being the centenary of the apparitions at Lourdes). The school hall was used as a Mass centre until the present church was built for the Rev. Joseph Sutton in 1967-8, to serve a new parish comprising Whitchurch, Hengrove and Stockwood. The church and presbytery were built from designs by James Leask of Kenneth Nealon, Tanner & Partners. The church was designed to seat 300, with room for forty more and an organ in a gallery. It is square on plan, with a distinctive double hyperbolic paraboloid roof, evoking the form of a tent and was (until the opening of Clifton Cathedral) the most striking demonstration in the diocese of the Church’s post-Vatican II embrace of modernity. The foundation stone was laid on 7 June 1967, and the church was opened and blessed by Bishop Rudderham on 5 June 1968. The main contractors were Wilkins & Coventry Ltd of Bristol, and the contract figure for the church and presbytery was £55,895. The construction is well documented by photographs on the parish website.

A parish hall was built in 1975. In 1982 a suspended figure of the Risen Christ by Frank Roper of Penarth (1914-2000, erstwhile collaborator of George Pace) was added in the sanctuary; it now hangs in the church porch.  

The church was built in 1967-8 from designs by James Leask of Kenneth Nalon, Tanner & Partners. It is square on plan, arranged on a diagonal, with the sanctuary in one corner, an entrance porch with gallery over in the opposite corner, and with an L-shaped seating arrangement. The dramatic roof is formed of four hyberbolic paraboloid shells of reinforced concrete, cast in situ; the covering is a shiny aluminium-faced bitumen. The raised parabola over the sanctuary is glazed, and from its central peak rises a slender metal cross. Deep square gutters run around the perimeter of the roof, which at some points is barely 2m from the ground, and concrete shutes discharge into wide channels cut into reinforced concrete flying buttress on two sides. The curtain walls are faced externally with hand-made brick and the windows are of hardwood and aluminium. The roof sweeps up to a peak at the entrance, below which the narthex is primarily glazed. Steps of purple engineering brick lead up to the entrance, in which the church dediction is placed in original lettering on the transom over the hardwood entrance doors. 

A slate foundation stone is set within the wall of the narthex, which also contains triangular corbelled holy water stoups, brick with metal lining. A metal alloy figure of the Risen Christ by Frank Roper of Penarth (1982), which previously hung over the sanctuary, is now placed within the narthex area.

The main interior has not been inspected, and the photographs above are taken from the narthex, which is publically accessible. From these, it can be discerned that the sanctuary and seating remain in their original form, with the altar rails in situ. The stone altar is of table form, the leading edge of the mensa bearing the inscription THIS IS MY BODY WHICH IS GIVEN FOR YOU. The tabernacle is in the corner behind the altar, raised on several steps. Opposite the sanctuary, near the entrance, the red brick font is placed in a sunken baptistery; like the church, it is square and set on the diagonal, its tent-like suspended cover evoking the roof form above. Natural lighting is discreet, coming from the raised parabola over the santuary and from a concealed clerestory running around the perimeter. The walls and at least the lower part of the ceiling are faced in white roughcast.  

Last updated: 29.11.17.

Diocese: Clifton

Architect: Kenneth Nealon, Tanner & Partners

Original Date: 1968

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Grade II