Birkenhead - St Michael and All Angels

New Hey Road, Woodchurch, Birkenhead, Wirral CH49

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One of the first Vatican II-inspired churches in the Diocese, designed to focus the attention of all who entered on the central altar. Its design was also a response to the need to provide a landmark at the end of a long axial avenue through the centre of the planned settlement of Woodchurch. The form of the building with its open plan, high tent-like roof clad in aluminium, and horizontal base of ribbed concrete was a bold and innovative statement that symbolised the progressive spirit enshrined in the new liturgy. The interior is generous and spacious, lit from above so that the light source is concealed, whilst the finishes – natural  timber,  quarry  tiles  and  white  painted  plaster  –  provide  a simple and dignified spirituality. The fittings and furnishings, also simple and bold in character, complement the building and remain largely as designed.

The parish of St Michael and All Angels was founded to serve the Catholic community of Woodchurch and Prenton in 1952, and for the first four years, the Mass was said at the chapel of Landican Cemetery. After the opening of the school buildings at Woodchurch in 1956, the school hall became the centre of parochial activity until the opening of the church in September 1965.

The building was awarded an RIBA Bronze Medal in 1967.

The church was designed by Richard O’Mahony of the F. X. Velarde Partnership, and was commissioned in 1962. The site of the church at the end of a wide avenue almost one mile long through the planned settlement of Woodchurch, led to the concept of a building with a certain dominance, placed symmetrically on the axis of the avenue. The presbytery had already been constructed, and this also had an influence on the placing of the building.

Dominance is achieved by the lines of the great tented roof, which springs from the four corners of the nave in a series of folded planes that culminate in a point above the altar. The roof, which is steel framed and clad in sheet aluminium, rises to a height of 26 metres and is louvred on the west face to throw light onto the sanctuary below. A horizontal slot in the east face of the roof casts light into the Blessed Sacrament chapel. The enclosing walls are of ribbed reinforced concrete, with the roof lifted above a horizontal clerestory to provide a sensation that it is floating.

The main entrance as seen from a distance appears as a wide opening in the solid concrete wall. It leads into a narthex that stretches the full width of the church, and is subdivided into spaces connected by a lateral enfilade.

On entering the church, attention is centred on the altar, set in a spacious sanctuary and lit from above. The congregation gathers on three sides of the altar, the main nave, and two transepts of unequal size, one used by the choir, and the other now a day chapel. Behind the sanctuary, and separated by a textured concrete screen within inset glass blocks is the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, whose altar supports the tabernacle. The tabernacle, which is of silver, was designed by the late F. X. Velarde, and was made so as to be clearly visible on entering the church.

The altars, font and lectern are constructed of Mourne granite, with polished tops but left matt on the vertical surfaces. A black brick tower to the west of the day chapel, framed by glazed slots in the roof, was intended to act as an organ loft, but the organ was never built. Instead a nineteenth century organ in a discordant Gothic organ case was introduced in the 1990s.

Since completion, the building has not been significantly altered. Originally the font was situated in the baptistery at the west end of the nave, where it stood below an octagonal concrete shaft that projected light down onto the basin. It has since been moved to the side of the sanctuary and the baptistery has been converted into a repository.  The  entrance  doors  have  been  replaced in upvc. The  lighting  was originally recessed into the ceiling, but this has been replaced with surface mounted fittings that are more obtrusive. A Celtic Payer Chapel has recently been created out of a former storage area.

The church was designed to accommodate 650 people, and is the largest Catholic church in Wirral. The contractors were Mohin of Bebington, and the cost excluding fees was £75,000. All the sanctuary and sacristy furniture and fittings were designed by the architect and cost a further £6,900.

Internal finishes  are  restricted  to  white  painted  plaster  and  concrete,  varnished timber and brown and blue quarry tiles. Characteristic of Scandinavian design, these give the interior a serious and dignified sense of spirituality, which is amplified by the subtle luminosity.

Diocese: Shrewsbury

Architect: Richard O’Mahony of F. X. Velarde Partnership

Original Date: 1965

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not listed