Alcester Street, Digbeth, Birmingham B12
A large town church of the 1880s in thirteenth century Gothic style by Albert Vicars, built to serve a poor and mainly Irish congregation. It is the successor to a mission church established by John Henry Newman in a former distillery. Although built to a limited budget and somewhat old-fashioned for its date, the church is a confident design, its striking spire a landmark in an area of largely light industrial character. The interior retains some furnishings of note, but has lost its original sanctuary arrangements.
A mission was founded in Alcester Street in 1849, when John Henry Newman formed a chapel seating 500 within an old distillery (a stone from this building is set into the wall of the present social hall). The brief establishments at Maryvale and St Wilfred’s (Cotton College) apart, this might be described as the first Birmingham Oratory. The congregation was made up largely of Irish immigrants, escaping the privations of the Great Famine. The Oratorians moved to new premises in Edgbaston in 1852. The Rev. John Dowling, who became the mission rector in 1859, secured for £4,000 the site on the corner of Alcester Street and Bradford Street, and the present church, a Gothic design in the Early English style seating 600, was built from designs by Albert Vicars of Vicars & O’Neill, London. The builders were Barker & Son of Handsworth. Bishop Ilsley laid the foundation stone in September 1883, and the church was opened by Cardinal Manning in 1884. The former church in the old distillery became a school (until 1938).
Fr Dowling died in 1904, and is commemorated in a brass memorial in the church. The church was consecrated by Archbishop Williams of Birmingham in 1936. In 1938 the parish passed into the care of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. A large presbytery was built in the 1950s and a new school in 1964. Post-Vatican II reordering involved the removal of the Gothic high altar and stone pulpit. The church was restored and redecorated in 2000. In 2010 the Oblates handed it over to the Archdiocese of Birmingham. The church remains the spiritual home of the local Irish community and is the focus of the city’s annual St Patrick’s Day celebrations.
The church is orientated northwest-southeast, but this report assumes conventional orientation, i.e. as if the altar was to the east.
A large town church built in thirteenth century Gothic style in 1883-4 from designs by Albert Vicars of Vicars & O’Neill, London. It is built of red brick with blue brick detailing and Bath stone ashlar dressings. The roofs are of Welsh slate. The plan consists of an aisled nave, sanctuary with side chapels, with sacristy/former presbytery giving off the south side. A larger neo-Georgian red brick presbytery of c.1950 adjoins. The asymmetrical square brick tower at the southwest corner has an octagonal belfry stage with clasping angle buttresses and an octagonal stone spire with lucarnes and brick banding. The main entrance is at the west end, but more recently a brick porch with ramped approach has been added on the south side. Windows throughout are trefoil-headed lancets, apart from the five-light west window, with lively Decorated tracery incorporating cusped roundels, and circular windows incorporating tracery over the high altar and side chapels. In the nave clerestory, trefoils are placed over trefoil-headed arches and the long lancets on the south side of the chancel (unusually) have inverted trefoils. At the west front paired entrances, each with stone gables with carved tympana and engaged columnar shafts with carved capitals. There is blue brick patterning above and below the west window. The side elevations are more restrained, with the nave and chancel under one roof, and paired openings at clerestory level, apart from a single light on each side in the western (gallery) bay. The north aisle too has paired lights, but the bays on the south side are interrupted by the porch, lean-to confessionals and the sacristy/former presbytery.
Inside, the main doors give onto a narthex with a western organ gallery over. To the southwest is the former baptistery, now a piety shop, but retaining its metal gates. The nave arcade is of five bays with circular piers and arches with two chamfers and hoodmoulds carved with the instruments of the Passion. Wall posts with angel corbels rise from clerestory level up to a timber waggon roof. There is no structural differentiation between the nave and sanctuary, but the division is marked by a painted hanging crucifix, and the roof of the sanctuary is painted with a richer scheme of polychromy (renewed, probably c.2000). Below the eastern rose window is a reredos of blind Gothic arcading, now with a red and gold scheme of polychromy. The stone Gothic high altar, with saints, canopies and high benediction throne has been removed in post-Vatican II reordering, although one of the canopies appears to have been retained in modified form to enclose the tabernacle on a shelf against the east wall. The communion rails and nave pulpit have also been removed, and the sanctuary is now rather bare, with modern furnishings (although the carved stone ambo may incorporate part of the old pulpit). Original or early stone Gothic altars survive in the Lady Chapel to north and Sacred Heart chapel to the south; in these areas the walls have been painted with stencil monograms (probably c.2000). The nave benches are likely to be the original ones, with solid backs and shaped chamfered ends. Confessionals with their original doors give off the south aisle. Stained glass exists only sparingly at the east and west ends. The large painted Stations are possibly continental in origin. Near the southwest corner (close to the original baptistery) is a brass memorial to Fr Dowling (d.1904), founder of the mission, his kneeling figure bearing a model of the church.
The church occupies, as it always has done, a poor, inner city and (light) industrial setting. With its spire it is something of a local landmark. It forms part of a complex with the social hall, large presbytery and two car parks.
Geoff Pick on geograph.org.uk – licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence.
Architect: Albert Vicars of Vicars & O’Neill
Original Date: 1883
Conservation Area: No
Listed Grade: Not Listed