Bull Bay Road, Amlwch, Anglesey LL68 9ED
Image copyright Alex Ramsay
Image copyright Alex Ramsay
A landmark modern church with an innovative structure of parabolic arches, built in 1932-37 to the designs of Giuseppe Rinvolucri. Described in the Buildings of Wales as a ‘piece of Italian architectural daring’ and noted in the list entry for its experimental design and as a ‘powerfully expressive religious building’, this is one of the most distinctive Catholic churches in Wales. Having been closed for a number of years due to deterioration of the concrete structure, the church was restored and reordered in 2011.
In the early twentieth century the few Catholics living in the vicinity of the small port town of Amlwch had to travel to Holyhead, Bangor or Beaumaris for Mass, a considerable journey with each approximately fifteen miles away. In September 1922 the first Mass centre was opened in the town, in a converted stable to the rear of the Dinorben Hotel and served from Beaumaris. Between 1930 and 1933 a temporary chapel was established in the shooting lodge on the Marquess of Anglesey’s estate.
As the number of Catholics began to increase, thoughts of building a permanent church began to be considered and a site just outside the town was purchased. The Italian architect Giuseppe Rinvolucri (who had settled in Conwy) was appointed and work on the foundations began in 1932. The contractor was John Mayers Sons of Chester. Percy Iball of Rhyl was appointed foreman and was entrusted with building the reinforced concrete and brick structure of the church walls and roof, the front stonework and steps. The stone was sourced locally. The stonemason Mr Roberts, the joiner Mr Williams and other labourers were all local men. By early 1935 the stone walls of the lower part of the building (the hall) had been constructed.
The church, dedicated to Our Lady Star of the Sea and St Winefride, was blessed and opened by Bishop McGrath of Menevia in 1937. Its original appearance had the west front with a smooth concrete upper stage with a raised inscription in Welsh over the star window, NODDA NI SERREN Y MOR (Protect us, Star of the Sea).
In January 1941 the Oblate Fathers were invited to take over responsibility for the church, and it was initially served from Holyhead. In May 1943 Fr Denis Maher OMI was appointed first resident priest, and St Joseph’s presbytery at ‘Eryl Mor’ was built, housing three clergy. The parish covered approximately 200 square miles and Mass centres were later established at Llangefni (qv), Cemaes Bay (qv), and Gwalchmai.
In 1963 a mural painting in the apse depicting Christ Crucified against a backdrop of hills was created by Gordon Wallace of Colwyn Bay. This and marbled panels around the interior are shown in the contemporary photograph. It may have been about this time that the rubble stonework of the lower part of the west front and lower side walls was rendered (shown in photo in Menevia Record, Winter 1964, p. 2), no doubt to protect the building from the elements.
In the 1990s the church was temporarily closed on account of structural concerns. It was around this time that its architectural and historical interest was officially recognised, with a Grade II* listing in 2000. In 2004 the parish priest, Fr Declan O’Keeffe OMI, was advised to close the church on a more permanent basis due to concerns over the safety of the concrete structure after many years of deterioration. In 2005 the Oblates decided to sell the building but following a campaign by architectural conservation groups, this decision was rescinded and Fr O’Keeffe began efforts to restore the building. A friends group was established to raise the funds to repair the church, and Christopher Thomas appointed project manager. An initial grant application to the Heritage Lottery Fund was unsuccessful and the original plans had to be scaled back. Eventually, thanks to the support of the OMI Trustees, Cadw, the Pilgrim Trust, the National Churches Trust, and the All Churches Trust an extensive two-phase project of work could begin. Phase one involved the replacement of the external roof coverings, making good and redecoration of external and internal walls, refurbishment of the original floors, renovation of the front and rear steps, new heating and lighting and new sanctuary furnishings. The church was reopened and rededicated by Bishop Regan of Wrexham on 1 May 2011. Phase two (renovation of the hall and installation of WCs) has recently been completed.
Taking its cue from the location and dedication, the form of the church is inspired by from the inverted hull of a boat, with the nautical theme continuing in the port hole-like windows of the hall. The Buildings of Wales (1994, p. 93) highlights the similarity of the design with the airship hangars at Orly Airport, designed by Eugène Freyssinet in the 1920s. The building is fully described in the list entry (below), and repetition is unnecessary. However, the following changes and some new and original furnishings not highlighted in the list entry may be mentioned:
Reference Number: 24455
Date of Designation: 12/12/2000
Date of Amendment: 12/12/2000
Name of Property: Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea, St Winifred
Unitary Authority: Isle of Anglesey
Street Side: N
Location: In an elevated position, set back from the N side of the A5025 on the way out to Porth Llechog (Bull Bay).
History: C20 Roman Catholic church, built in the 1930s. Designed by G Rinvolucri, an Italian architect who was originally brought to Wales as a prisoner of war. He subsequently married a local woman, and lived and worked in north Wales, specialising in Roman Catholic churches. He also designed a number of other churches in Wales, including those at Abergele, and Porthmadog.
Exterior: striking and individual Roman Catholic church which uses design elements embodying a nautical theme. The main body of the church is a high domed stressed concrete construction which has advanced ribs along its length, as the upturned hull of a boat. This is on a roughcast rendered plinth with portholes to each ‘ribbed’ bay. The entrance faces the road to the S, a dressed stone facade with raking sides, stepped up and surmounted by a plain stone cross. The main, central, entrance is reached by flanking flights of stone steps; a pointed arched doorway of 2 orders. Above the doorway is a star shaped light set within a mosaic surround. Below the main entrance, under the steps, is a square-headed doorway with flanking pointed arched windows. To the rear of the main body of the church is a flat roofed vestry accessed by a dog leg flight of stone steps with rubblestone walls; the top flight over a tall arch. A further doorway to the lower floor of the church is to the rear of the E wall.
Interior: the main entrance leads into a small vestibule with raking sides; further doorways lead into the S end of the main body of the church. The ribbing that is such a prominent feature of the exterior of the church also dominates the design of the interior; the body of the church illuminated by bands of geometrically patterned lights between the ribs. The lateral walls have marble panels which also follow the pattern of the ribs; to the top are paired panels, each with a moulded quatrefoil plaques depicting biblical scenes, plain paired panels below. The marbled panels continue at the far end of the church, raised up over round-headed doorways flanking a recess painted with a depiction of the crucifixion; star shaped lights follow the line of the domed arch.
Reason for designation: listed as a remarkable inter-war church, a highly unusual and experimental design which exploits the plastic qualities of its constructional material to create a powerfully expressive religious building.
Architect: Giuseppe Rinvolucri
Original Date: 1937
Conservation Area: No
Listed Grade: Grade II*