Sheffield - St Catherine of Alexandria

Burngreave Road, Burngreave, Sheffield, S35

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A large and well-detailed Italian Romanesque design of the interwar period, well encapsulating the confidence and triumphalism of Catholic expansion at that time. The building takes full advantage of its favourable siting (on land given by the Duke of Norfolk) and has a richly furnished interior, with marble baldacchino and other sanctuary furnishings of note. 

The mission was founded by Canon Walshaw from St Marie’s, Sheffield, to serve the growing northern suburbs of Burngreave and Pitsmoor. A site in Andover Street was given by the Duke of Norfolk, where a stone-built school with an upper room fitted out as a chapel was built from designs by Hadfield & Son, opening in 1876. A presbytery was built alongside this shortly afterwards, again at the expense of the Duke of Norfolk. The congregation soon outgrew the school-chapel, and the Duke gave a site in Burngreave Road for a larger, permanent church. In the meantime, a freestanding temporary chapel was built on the existing site in 1884, again from designs by Hadfield & Son.

It was not until 16 July 1925 that Bishop Cowgill of Leeds laid the foundation stone for the present building, built at the instigation of the Rev. (Canon) John White on the Burngreave Road site. This was a substantial basilican design by C. E. Fox & Son of Halifax, and was opened by Bishop Cowgill on the feast of St Catherine, 26 November 1926. A presbytery was built behind the church in Melrose Road soon afterwards. The old chapel remained in school use until 1974, when a new school was built in Firshill Crescent.

The fine sanctuary furnishings were added in 1936, when the altar (containing relics of St Theophilus and St Victoria) was consecrated by Bishop Poskitt of Leeds. Also designed by C. E. Fox, the baldacchino, marble panelling and altar rails and gates were made by W. H. Fraley of Birmingham, with ‘inlaid choir stalls of a beautiful Romanesque design’ by L. Conray of Sheffield. After describing the newly-completed furnishings, the Jubilee Memento of 1936 triumphantly proclaimed (pp. 16-17):

The splendour and majesty of Rome has thus been brought to the people of Sheffield, replacing and making reparation for the desecrated and spoliated Gothic splendours of Abbeys such as those of Rievaulx, Jervaulx and Fountains, and perpetuating a great Christian tradition AD MAJORAM DEI GLORIAM.

In 1950 a baptistery/war memorial chapel was built off the north aisle and in 1951 the church was consecrated. A parish hall was built in 1962, on the site of a house next door which had been acquired about twenty years earlier. The next major alterations to the church took place after the Second Vatican Council, in about 1970, when the high altar was slightly shortened and brought forward from under the baldacchino. The choir stalls were removed and the sanctuary levels changed. Further minor alterations took place in 1985, and in 2008 a major programme of repair and refurbishment took place under the architects John Hill Associates. The cost of £750,000 was offset in part by the sale of the 1962 parish hall site.   

The church was built in 1925-6 from designs by C. E. Fox and Son. It is a large Italian Romanesque basilican design consisting of aisled nave with western narthex and gallery, second north aisle (war memorial chapel and baptistery, 1950) and apsidal sanctuary with side altars placed at the end of the aisles. Confessionals give off the south aisle at the west end, and a tall campanile is placed at the southwest corner. The church is built of red brick laid in Flemish bond, with painted stone or concrete dressings. The aisles are flat-roofed and there is a shallow pitched roof over the nave and sanctuary.

The church is set back and raised above Burngreave Road over a high retaining wall which doubles up as a dramatic ramped approach. The west front incorporates a large wheel window, symbol of the martyrdom of St Catherine of Alexandria, the ‘rim’ of the wheel incorporating marble bands and mosaics. Below this is a shallow arcade within the thickness of the wall and below this the large rectangular-headed entrance, with moulded surround and enriched cornice. On either side of the entrance are mosaic roundels, St Theresa to the left and St Catherine to the right. The foundation stone is set low into the wall. Arched windows with moulded surrounds light the end walls of the aisles; these (and most of the windows) have been secondarily glazed for protection and insulation, rendering the openings somewhat bland in appearance. At the southwest corner, the square campanile rises in three stages, with a single opening at the first stage, paired openings at the second, and triple openings at the belfry stage. It is topped by a dentil cornice and a shallow pyramidal roof. On the north side, the war memorial chapel and baptistery addition is complementary in style and materials, with a canted western projection with copper roof for the baptistery. On the south side, the aisle and clerestory windows are arched and moulded; lower sacristies and offices give off the aisle. 

A side entrance at the base of the campanile gives access to a stair to the choir gallery. The main west entrance leads into a vestibule under that gallery, with arched openings giving onto the main space. The five-bay arcade of the nave is carried on black marble columns with plain square bases and white marble capitals, carved in Byzantine style in low-relief. The nave and sanctuary are under one coffered ceiling, while the aisle roofs are groin vaulted, with pilaster responds. The east end was fitted out in 1936 from designs by the architect, with marble work by Fraley’s of Birmingham and still impresses despite post-Vatican II reordering. The main focus is the giant baldacchino in front of the apse: four massive veined marble columns with Byzantine capitals carry a large open-arched canopy with a central figure of Christ the King; the underside is coffered and the whole canopy painted and gilded. Originally placed beneath this and with an integral gradine (figure 1), the high altar has a panelled marble front; it has been cut down slightly and brought forward. The bronze tabernacle is now placed on a matching plinth in the apse. At the back of the sanctuary, the east wall and the apse are lined with panelled marble and inlays crowned with a mosaic frieze and a dentil cornice of Connemara marble. At the entrance to the sanctuary, the marble altar rails and bronze gates remain in situ, with red marble balustrades, inlaid supports and a capping of rich grained Connemara marble. 

The rest of the church and its furnishings can be described more briefly. There are two side altars giving off the sides of the sanctuary and the ends of the aisles, the Lady altar to the north and the Sacred Heart to the south. The Lady altar is the richer, of coloured marble and mosaic and set within an apsidal recess. Both are now shrines rather than altars, with statues. Windows contains tinted glass of blue, red, yellow and green, incorporating crosses. The church retains its original bench seating in the nave, with chairs in the aisles. The floors are all now carpeted. Confessionals give off the south aisle with their original timber doors. Modern glazed doors give off the north aisle to the baptistery and war memorial chapel, where a marble font with oak cover is placed in the canted bay at the west end. The chapel has a coffered ceiling and a plain altar and curtained reredos. Statues in the church including a stone figure of St Catherine of Alexandria, which came from the 1876 school-chapel and is now placed near the bottom of the gallery stairs in the tower area.      

Diocese: Hallam

Architect: C. E. Fox & Son

Original Date: 1926

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not listed