Building » Birmingham (Bristol Street) – St Catherine of Siena

Birmingham (Bristol Street) – St Catherine of Siena

Bristol Street, Birmingham B5

A notable circular design, capturing the spirit of renewal at the time of the Second Vatican Council. While the plan has contemporary resonances (Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, Leyland etc.), the domed design also harks back to earlier twentieth century precedents. Other signs of continuity are the tall campanile and the re-used furnishings.  The church is a successful blend of innovation and tradition, with a good and little-altered interior, and is of civic and townscape importance in the context of the post-war replanning of Birmingham.

A mission was established by Bishop Ullathorne in Horsefair in 1869 and entrusted to the Rev. (later Canon) Edward Fenn, looking after a mainly Irish population. To start with, a room over a stable in Bristol Street served as a chapel. The upper room of a school in Windmill Street was then used, until the nave and aisles of a permanent church, a Gothic Revival design by Dunn & Hansom of Newcastle, were built in 1874-5. A chancel, ambulatory, Lady Chapel and sacristies were added to this in 1893, from designs by Cossins & Peacock, and in 1896 a presbytery added. In 1909 a northwest tower with an octagonal belfry and a squat stone spire followed. It included fine wood carved Stations of the Cross by de Metz of Munich and stained glass by W. J. Wainwright (1855-1931), who started his artistic career as an apprentice in the workshop of John Hardman. Later additions included a Hardman window depicting the Assumption of Our Lady, installed during the time of the Rev. Bernard Cusworth (parish priest 1931-48).

Plans by the City Corporation to build an inner ring road, requiring the demolition of St Catherine’s, were first mooted in the late 1930s, but with the onset of war were shelved. However, they were revived in 1949, when a compulsory purchase notice for the church and presbytery was served by the Corporation. The church was leased back to the parish while compensation was negotiated and the road plans developed. The Rev. Robert Nicholson, parish priest, considered asking E. Bower Norris to prepare designs for a new church, but was persuaded by a parish committee to appoint a younger architect, and in 1961 plans were drawn up (under the Rev. Patrick Maguire) by Bernard James of Harrison & Cox. However, it was not until 1963 that the present site was finally obtained. The foundation stone was laid by Auxiliary Bishop Humphrey Bright on 6 May 1963. The school in Windmill Street was closed and work began on a new primary school in Great Colmore Street, behind the new church and presbytery.

Progress on the new church was sufficiently advanced for the first Mass to be said on 20 December 1964, and the completed church was blessed by Archbishop Cardinale, Apostolic Delegate on 30 April 1965. The main contractors were J. J. Gallagher & Co of Birmingham. The church was built to a galleried circular plan, comfortably seating 1000, and with room for 80-90 in a separate Blessed Sacrament/weekday chapel. Stained glass and Stations of the Cross from the old church were incorporated in the new building, which was consecrated by Archbishop Dwyer in 1971.


The church was built in 1963-5 from designs by Bernard James of Harrison & Cox of Birmingham (main contractors J. J. Gallagher & Co., Birmingham). It was built at the time of the Second Vatican Council, and in its planning great emphasis was laid on the importance of the active participation of the laity in the Mass. The church is circular on plan and has a tall, slightly tapering campanile incorporating at the lower level an outdoor preaching balcony with canopy. These two elements are linked by a narthex. The altar is placed at the centre of a circular sanctuary. The placing of the congregation behind the altar was not favoured, and so a large chapel occupies the segment of the circle behind the sanctuary. The narthex is placed on the main axis of the church, connecting to the campanile and a presbytery. The building is clad in pale brown brick laid in Flemish bond, apart from the wall face over the narthex entrance, which is clad with panels (against which is placed a crucifix). Expressed cast stone or reinforced concrete piers divide the bays of the circular drum of the main body of the church. The congregational (internally galleried) area is externally denoted with plain brickwork (with inset crosses in some bays) and a high level clerestory. Other bays have tall rectangular-headed windows, set in reconstituted stone or concrete surrounds. The church is crowned with a shallow copper dome.

Entering the narthex, a former baptistery gives off to the left, at the base of the tower. This is now a kitchen and meeting room, but retains its original bronze gates incorporating a dove and stylised representation of water (these and all the decorative metalwork by Gunning & Sons of Dublin). The main body of the church is circular, with an ambulatory with gallery over running about two thirds around the perimeter, affording a clear and close view of the sanctuary from both levels. The gallery is supported on rectangular concrete piers, which continue up as the bay divisions at the upper level. Above this is a clerestory and the roof, with ribs converging towards a central top-lit glazed octagon. The sanctuary retains its original marble forward altar and floor (by W. H. Wilkinson & Griffiths Ltd, Bordesley Green), tiled cancellae and altar rails with bronze stanchions. Originally the Blessed Sacrament was placed in the chapel to the rear, but now the tabernacle is placed behind the altar with a dark reredos and flanking veined marble panels. Placed behind a wrought iron screen behind the altar (and over the chapel) is the organ, built in 2007-9 by Chris Kearl and James Andrews, replacing one of 1926 that had been brought from the old church (on the BIOS Organ Register). The floor of the nave is of hardwood blocks, and the original curved benches (by Wickham-Blackwell & Co., Hampton-in-Arden) are arranged in banks around the sanctuary (now with some modification around the relocated font). Under the gallery the walls are faced with vertical stained boarding, in which are set the Stations of the Cross, large rectangular carved and painted wooden panels by de Metz of Munich, brought from the old church. To the left of the sanctuary are three large windows incorporating glass from the old church (Christ and the symbols of the Evangelists, Agnus Dei, censing angels etc.), reset here and augmented with semi-abstract coloured glass by John Hardman Studios. A stained glass depiction of the Assumption is similarly reset in the three windows of the side chapel (originally Blessed Sacrament, now Lady Chapel).

Heritage Details

Architect: Harrison & Cox

Original Date: 1965

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not Listed