Birkenhead - Holy Cross

Hoylake Road, Birkenhead, Cheshire CH41

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The last of F. X. Velarde’s churches to be built in his lifetime, and said to have been his personal favourite. In the design, Velarde combines historical and modern forms in a highly individual and inventive manner. The building contains a rich variety of materials and fittings, including   extensive   areas   of   decorative   mosaic   tiling,   metalwork screens and original pews. Although vacant and vulnerable to damage at the time of writing, the building remains largely  unaltered as  an important example of a post-war Roman Catholic church.

The parish of Holy Cross was formed in 1928 with the increasing transfer of population from the central and docks areas of Birkenhead to the North End. Mass was first said in the Catholic chapel at Flaybrick Cemetery on the slopes of Bidston Hill. In 1929 a semi-permanent church was erected with use of voluntary labour, to be followed by a school in 1931.

In the 1950s, land on Hoylake Road, which had been set aside for a library, was acquired from the Town Council for a new church, and F. X. Velarde was appointed architect. The foundation stone was laid in October 1957, and the church opened in June 1959. In recent years the church has closed and the buildings and site have been offered for sale by the Diocese. No solution for its future has yet emerged.

Holy Cross is the last church to have been designed by Velarde and built in his lifetime (Our Lady of Pity at Harlescott, Shrewsbury, qv, was completed after his death),  and  is  typical  of  his  highly  personal  late  style.  It  consists  of  a  spacious narthex, flanked by an attached baptistery and tower, with nave and apsidal-ended sanctuary beneath a single pitched roof. Externally, each of the elements is individually expressed: the narthex as a cube clad in white Portland stone, bearing tall pinnacles; the campanile of brown brick with a stone-clad bell stage and green copper roof; and the baptistery a smaller white block with a conical-topped circular lantern. The curved brick walls of the sanctuary are echoed in the apsidal end of the chapel that projects from the south wall of the nave. The building is founded on piles bearing on bedrock, with load-bearing brick walls and a mix of reinforced concrete flat roofs and tiled pitched roofs supported on steel trusses.

The deeply recessed west doors open into the narthex, which is decorated in a grid of grey and white mosaic tesserae with gold quatrefoils and crosses. The ceiling has a diamond pattern that was originally painted yellow and navy blue (now white and gold). Aisles to each side lead to the tower and baptistery; in the latter black and red mosaics in a diagonal pattern with symbols of the Holy Trinity in gold mosaic line the walls. A wide round-arched opening leads into the nave which is flanked by an arcade on white and gold mosaic-faced columns without capitals. This continues as an ambulatory behind the sanctuary. The spandrels and lower part of the nave wall is

clad in travertine, and the surface above is of fluted plaster. Natural light floods in from windows set high in the sanctuary and low in the aisles, which, reflected in the polished travertine, gives the interior a sense of serenity.  Originally fluorescent tubes were concealed behind the cornice line of the travertine cladding, and would have emphasised the fluting of the plaster linings to the nave walls above. The main floor is a grey vinyl tile, terrazzo for the sanctuary, and the nave ceiling is decorated with alternate squares in two shades of blue, separated by gilded mouldings.

On the north side of the sanctuary is a children’s room, separated by a glazed screen and a light metal grille. This is balanced on the south side by the choir and organ gallery. The sacristies radiate around the ambulatory beyond. An archway from the south side of the nave leads into the Lady Chapel, which is lined in intense blue tesserae as a background to mosaic figures of Our Lady and Child accompanied by angels, made by Carters of Poole. The high altar is of concrete, with built-in fittings for frontals, two of which were made by the nearby Lee Tapestry Works and are now in the Williamson Art Gallery and Museum. The lectern is of forged steel, which like the other metalwork in the church was made locally to Velarde’s design. The original pews remain. The Stations were incorporated from the old church. No reordering was carried out to conform to the Vatican II liturgy, apart from the removal of the steel altar rails. The font has been relocated to St Michael’s, Woodchurch.

Diocese: Shrewsbury

Architect: F. X. Velarde

Original Date: 1959

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Grade II