North Hinksey - Holy Rood

Folly Bridge, Abingdon Road, Oxford

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Holy Rood has been described as ‘a landmark in English Catholic ecclesiology’. Built soon after, and evidently inspired by Maguire and Murray’s St Paul’s, Bow Common, the church is advanced in its liturgical planning and houses a considerable number of furnishings of high quality.

The church was endowed by Fr Reginald Schomberg (d.1958), who entrusted Fr John Crozier, the priest serving the North Hinksey parish, with responsibility for finding a site for a church for Oxford Catholics living south of the river and I adjoining villages. In 1959 a site was acquired off the Abingdon Road, between the late eighteenth century Grandpont House and Brasenose College playing fields.

The church was designed in an advanced liturgical style, before the reforms of Vatican II. The architect Gilbert Flavel (an Anglican) was chosen for his sympathetic attitude towards the new liturgical thinking. Fr Crozier had admired Flavel’s restoration of St Michael at the North Gate, and his London College of Divinity at Norwood. Fr Crozier had also travelled widely on the Continent, ‘studying church design in relation to the liturgical revival’ (Crozier, p.1). In 1958 he was much impressed with James Gardner’s British Pavilion at the World’s Fair in Brussels, ‘which I thought would make an admirable church on a riverside site. Like Coventry Cathedral however it was oblong, whereas the new liturgy seemed to demand a building in the round or square. Each of the three towered segments of the Pavilion was a square. An enlarged replica of a segment could form the basis of a church, in a style bringing out the symbolism of God’s tent among men” ’ (ibid).

The church was built at a cost of £35,000 by Bartlett Brothers of Witney, and dedicated by Bishop Holland on 16 December 1961. It was consecrated by Bishop Worlock on 5 February 1962.

In 1963 the contents of Eric Gill’s chapel at Piggotts, Buckinghamshire, were given by Gill’s daughter to Fr Crozier. A small stone carving of Christ on the Tree of Life was installed above the tabernacle at Holy Rood while other furnishings went to St Thomas More, Boar’s Hill.

The plan of the church consists of an octagon set within a Greek Cross for the main worship space, with ancillary spaces at the corners making up an overall rectangular plan. The Blessed Sacrament chapel is placed to one side, outside the rectangle.

There is a glazed central entrance, its cruciform glazing subdivisions evoking the dedication. On either side are single storey, flat roof elements housing ancillary functions. The main double-height worship space rises up behind, with central raised top lighting with a pitched broach roof clad in copper sheeting. The debt to the contemporary St Paul’s, Bow Common (1958-60) is evident. The walls of the church are clad in pale brick, overlaying a steel frame construction.

The entrance doors lead into a narthex/baptistry, with ancillary rooms giving off to left and right. At the centre of this narthex/baptistry is a large granite font, the polished inside sufficiently large to allow for total immersion. It is incised with the lettering FONS VITAE AETERNAE, by Kevin Cribb, the son of Laurie Cribb, an assistant to Eric Gill. Fr Crozier wrote that ‘the calm and simple dignity of Gill’s art harmonizes with the new architecture, so the artists were as far as possible drawn from his school’ (Crozier, p.1). Cribb also carved the cornerstone on the left hand side of the entrance into the main body of the church.

The main worship space is octagonal in plan, enclosing a roof structure arranged in the form of a Greek Cross. The sanctuary is placed at the liturgical east end, and not (as at St Paul’s Bow Common) at the centre of the building; however, the altar is and always was well forward of the east wall. The free-standing benches were originally raked at the sides to face towards the sanctuary. The Blessed Sacrament Chapel is located to the right hand side of the main seating area, in a low single-storey space, the only area with stained glass windows. The floor of the narthex, nave and chapel is of black and white linoleum squares, producing a chequerboard effect. At the liturgical west end of the main worship space is a gallery housing a large new organ.

The church is notable for the quality of its furnishings. The altar, like the font, is of granite and inscribed with lettering by Kevin Cribb: DUX VITAE MORTUUS REGNAT VIVUS (Life’s champion slain, lives and reigns for ever). Hanging over this is a giant circular corona. This and the other metalwork (bronze Pantocrator on east wall behind the altar, Theotokos (also bronze, based on a Romanesque relief in York Minster) on the wall near the Blessed Sacrament chapel, the tabernacle in the Blessed Sacrament chapel, the ciborium, chalice, sanctuary lamps, altar cross and candlesticks are all by Michael Murray.

The Blessed Sacrament chapel has two abstract stained glass windows by Charles Ware based, according to Fr Crozier, on designs from Chartres Cathedral. Over the altar is Gill’s beautiful small stone carving of Christ and the Tree of Life. The chapel also contains inscribed tablets commemorating Fr Schomberg (by Cribb) and Fr Crozier.

Diocese: Portsmouth

Architect: Gilbert R. S. Flavel

Original Date: 1961

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Not listed