Alwyn Road, Bilton, Rugby, Warwickshire CV22
A plain 1959 longitudinal brick church with a tall tower, radically changed in 1992-3 into a square space dominated by a liturgical axis that includes an immersion font.
Sacred Heart occupies a V-shaped site between Ailwyn and Lime Tree Roads. The landmark tower was placed facing the diverging point at the northeast, so that the longitudinal church was originally built with the altar at the southwest. For the historical description, liturgical points will be used, but as the altar is now central, geographical compass points will be used to describe the present arrangements.
Bilton was a small village about two miles southwest of Rugby, but the gap has been filled in, especially since World War II. The Rosminians from St Marie, Rugby said Mass in the chapel at Bilton Grange, home of Capt. J. H. Washington-Hibbert, the builder of St Marie’s, who became a Rosminian in about 1850. In 1953, the Rev. James Connolly began to celebrate Mass in local houses and then a school gymnasium. The growth of housing led the diocese to create a new parish with a resident priest in 1959, by which time the church of the Sacred Heart had been built by Messrs G. W. Deeley of Coventry to the designs of E. Bower Norris of Sandy & Norris. The Rev. Dennis Horgan of St Marie’s was the driving force and he used Norris on two other new churches (cf. English Martyrs, Hillmorton, 1965).
The first Mass was on 2 August 1959, the presbytery was completed in 1960 and the church was blessed by Archbishop Grimshaw on 16 September 1961. It cost about £22,000, seating about 300 in a traditional longitudinal layout, the church being entered through the tower porch at the liturgical northwest corner, parallel to the gallery in the west nave bay.
The sanctuary occupied about a third of the overall length. Four tall narrow openings to the liturgical northeast led into a Lady Chapel, lit by three small high level windows; these all remain in the entrance link with the large rectangular window that was originally to the north of the Lady altar. The sanctuary bay was lit from liturgical north by a large rectangular window like those in the nave. All these large windows were filled with stained glass; the west and former Lady Chapel windows survive in situ, the remainder was reused in post-1992 windows. Low-level sacristies and confessionals ran alongside the liturgical south of the sanctuary and behind the altar was a small low detached hall, linking to the presbytery beyond.
In 1983, the Rev. Paul Chamberlain brought the high altar forward from the east wall onto a three-step plinth and removed the altar rails; the tabernacle was left its original mid-height recess and the font brought to a forward position. In 1991, he began a major expansion and reorientation of the church as seen today; the plans were approved by the Archbishop in 1992, the works completed in time for Christmas Midnight Mass, 1993. The church was formally opened by Archbishop Couve de Murville on 22 May 1994 and consecrated by him on 29 April 1998. The nave was expanded to the southeast, a polygonal recess built in place of the northwest nave window, the Lady Chapel turned into a link to a new entrance built to the southwest and attached to an enlarged hall. The former sanctuary was floored and the original narthex became the Blessed Sacrament chapel.
According to Fr Paul’s account (Diocesan Directory, 1995), the requirements were ‘a new sanctuary in keeping with the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council’; youth and ‘proper social facilities to share with the wider community’ and space within the church for growth. ‘Since the rite of baptism and the RCIA programme states that the Church’s preferred method of baptism is by immersion, it was decided to include a full immersion font within the building. The parish was fortunate enough to have a retired architect among its members who eventually produced a design which the parish priest and parish council felt really enhanced the building rather than just extend it’.
The 1992 coloured wash decorations were replaced with uniform off-white in 2013.
The 1959 church was built with straw coloured Ibstock brick on a plinth of heather coloured Aldridge facing brick with a felt roof. The same dark bricks were used around the larger windows. The 1992-3 extensions use similar bricks but the roofs are now tiled. The tall square tower has a three-light triangular opening in concrete to each side and its flat roof supports a tall cross. On the southeast side is the original entrance with a large bronze Christ figure above. The long roof of the 1992 nave extension now encroaches on the tower; the original nave wall began at the southwest corner. The northeast gable retains its large window and darker coloured lower wall and the northwest wall of the nave is mainly of 1959, with six high level windows, but the central large window has been replaced by a polygonal bay. The original sacristies have been extended towards the presbytery.
The southeast nave wall has been replaced by a massive beam and the roof greatly extended with two triangular dormers inserted. The new low external wall has polygonal ends with four large square windows between. The 1959 Lady Chapel survives intact, but the new hip-roofed narthex extends at right angle at its southwest end. The extended single storey hall has large patio doors facing the garden.
The complex is entered by an unmarked recessed double door from the southwest, into a narthex behind the original sanctuary wall with the hall on the right. The church is accessed through the sanctuary of the former Lady Chapel, its arcade to the former main sanctuary now filled in. The 1959 stone font is now a stoup. The original sanctuary has horizontally subdivided, the upper room as a meeting space (originally intended for youth work) and the lower area as a day chapel with three glazed triangular arches towards the church which are sound-proofed to allow for use by children during Mass. Its altar stands on re-used pieces of the 1959 altar rail.
The southwest nave wall was removed and the original longitudinal roof of concrete beams was extended on this side with similar beams in 1992 to make a square interior. The roof drops down quite low (a ‘cat-slide’ externally) and is interrupted by the two big dormer windows. The former narthex below the west gallery is now the Blessed Sacrament chapel, divided from the main space by glazed windows and its three small windows contain richly coloured glass glazed by Chris Lund Studios with Fr Paul’s design input (1993-4). The staircase to the west gallery is approached through a double door in the northeast corner. The extension to the southeast is approached through five low triangular headed arches intended to form a backdrop to the baptismal font like the healing pool at Bethesda; the brick recesses at either end of the extension form shrines to the Sacred Heart and Our Lady. The four large windows between incorporate stained glass from the 1959 windows (arranged by Aidan McRae Thomson).
The liturgical scheme locates the altar and the immersion font in front of it on a central axis between the ambo (re-using pieces of the 1959 altar rails) and the president’s chair under the crucifix. The congregation are ranged in parallel rows facing each other across this axis. The 1959 pews with pierced Gothic tracery ends were re-used, making the Fr Paul’s envisaged congregational ‘ellipses’ difficult to achieve.
The central altar is faced with large panels of hewn limestone, its rugged character intended to be reminiscent of the rock Moses struck at Meribah. It stands on a large two-step sanctuary of polished limestone that runs through to the polygonal recess where the crucifix in Italian quattrocento style (painted by Fr Paul) hangs against a black curtain. Ranged either side in six high small windows is a stained glass Creation cycle by Aidan McRae Thomson, 1998-9. In front of the altar is the cross shaped immersion font, with steps down in two opposing arms. The mosaic in the floor is by Lucy Thackeray, but those around the font were made by parishioners with her help. A rug depicting the river of life of Ezekiel was made by parishioners to sit between the altar and font during baptisms (practically to absorb the water) but is now rather fragile.
Architect: Sandy & Norris
Original Date: 1959
Conservation Area: No
Listed Grade: Not Listed