Building » Bishop’s Stortford – St Joseph and the English Martyrs

Bishop’s Stortford – St Joseph and the English Martyrs

Windhill, Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire CM23

A handsome Italianate church built in 1906 for the Redemptorist order, along with a monastery incorporating Windhill House, a property of sixteenth-century origin. The church is now served by secular priests, and the monastery buildings are in separate ownership and use. The church occupies a prominent position near the town centre, close to the medieval Anglican parish church (with which it shares a church hall). The church retains many furnishings of note, some of them paid for by the builder of the church, Fr Oliver Vassall-Phillips, as well as more recent items from the former chapel at Hare Street. 

In 1900 the Redemptorist priest Fr Oliver Vassall-Phillips arrived in Bishop’s Stortford, having been encouraged by Cardinal Vaughan to establish a mission either there or in Hitchin. Fr Vassall-Phillips (1857-1932) was an Etonian and Catholic convert, who had joined the Redemptorist order in 1880. A former public house in Portland Road was acquired to serve as a monastery, and in the back yard a tin tabernacle was built (or relocated, having been acquired second-hand for £300) to serve as a church, opening on 7 November 1900.

In 1903, Windhill House, a property with five acres, was bought at auction for £3,100, along with a neighbouring property, St Katherine’s (£1,850). Windhill House was a timber framed house of sixteenth or seventeenth-century origin, with later additions and alterations. The site was well placed at the centre of the town, close to the Anglican parish church. The building of the church, on the site of St Katherine’s House, was funded by Fr Vassall-Phillips, through an inheritance. Built in Italian basilican style from designs by E. Doran Webb, the foundation stone was laid on 13 July 1904 by Archbishop Bourne and the church consecrated by Auxiliary Bishop Fenton on 19 June 1906 (not by Archbishop Bourne as stated on the inscription over the side entrance; he was unavailable for the consecration, but carried out the official opening the day after).

The new monastery was a two-storey building linking the church and Windhill House. It had a brick frontage, with stone mullioned casement windows, similar to the design that survives at the rear.  The present ‘Georgianised’ appearance, rendered and with sash windows, may date from after 1952, when the monastery was repaired and rebuilt in part after being severely damaged by fire. The list entry (below) states that this part of the building is eighteenth century, but it appears to be entirely early twentieth-century in date (with an attic storey added in 1934), and is presumably by E. Doran Webb.

In 1965 a new parish hall was built on land to the rear of the church, from designs by Gerard Goalen. This was extended by the addition of a clubroom in 1972.

In the 1970s radical proposals for internal reordering were drawn up by Austin Winkley (plans in presbytery), but these were not implemented and instead the church was more modestly reordered in 1975. In 1994 the Redemptorists left and since then the parish has been served by diocesan priests. The monastery buildings were sold; the monastery building immediately alongside the church is now the offices of the Town Council, while Windhill House (‘The Old Monastery’) is now offices. More recently, Goalen’s parish hall was demolished and the site sold for redevelopment. On 23 October 2010 a new parish centre, built jointly with the Anglican parish of St Michael’s, was opened by the Rt Rev. George Stack, Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster and the Rt Rev. Dr Alan Smith, Bishop of St Albans. Known as the Windhill Churches Centre, the accommodation comprises two halls, two kitchens, two offices for clergy and six meeting rooms. The £1.3m project was managed by Barker Associates of Manuden.

Since it was surveyed for Taking Stock in 2013, the church interior has been redecorated in a bright polychrome scheme with blue vaulting, new pendant lighting installed, the nave floor relaid in marble with underfloor heating, the font relocated and items brought here from the chapel at Hare Street (former home of Mgr Robert Hugh Benson and subsequently used by Archbishops of Westminster as a country retreat until its eventual sale).


The building is orientated roughly north-south, but in this description conventional liturgical orientation is used, i.e. as if the main altar was to the east. The plan consists of aisled nave with side chapels, western narthex (formerly incorporating a baptistery), short transepts and an apsidal sanctuary with Lady Chapel to south and sacristy to north. A fairly plain and short tower, faced with rough stone blocks, is placed over the sacristy; it is more prominent in views from the garden than it is in views from the street. It has round-arched louvred openings at the belfry stage and a pyramidal tile roof. An attached polygonal stair turret has a lead ogee roof. Otherwise, the building is faced in red brick laid in English bond, over a rough stone plinth, apart from the main west front of the nave, towards Windhill, which is faced with ashlar over the plinth. Here, paired Ionic pilasters frame a large stone crucifixion relief, with an open pediment above. The main pedimented entrance is placed centrally, with an inscription over, ‘In this place shalt thou find peace’. The brick end walls of the aisles on either side have swept parapets with stone cornices and copings, and shorter Doric pilasters at the corners. A secondary entrance to the left (within the early twentieth-century monastery addition) has a round-arched doorway with keystone and carved spandrels (Redemptorist insignia and the emblems of Edmund Bonner, last pre-Reformation Bishop of London) and an inscription recording the consecration of the church (see above). Alongside the south aisle is a side passage, and the wall here is simply treated with plain brick over a rough stone plinth; there are two small single-light openings to the Lady Chapel. At the east end, the windowless apsidal sanctuary is externally articulated by Ionic ashlar pilasters placed on the stone plinth. The clerestory windows of the nave are not prominent in external views; they have moulded and eared surrounds. Swept parapets mark the junction of the aisle and sanctuary/Lady Chapel.

The main entrance leads into a vestibule which formerly housed the baptistery. The flanking vestibule spaces are now given over to piety stalls. They are separated from the main body of the church by a handsome arcaded screen with attached fluted Doric columns and arched openings with cherub keystones. Above this is the organ/choir gallery with balustraded front. The main space of the nave consists of four bays, with a plaster groin vaulted ceiling with painted bosses. In each bay on either side is a clerestory window with eared architrave surround. The classical arcades of the nave have Doric pilasters marking the bay divisions, and stucco cherubs in the spandrels, bearing ribbons incorporating the names of English Catholic martyrs of the Reformation period. In the western bay there are panels with stucco cherubs, also recording English martyrs. The groin vaulting continues into the sanctuary, where it is painted with gold stars; the sanctuary has an apsidal termination. The aisles are semi-domed, the walls between the bays pierced with segmental headed openings; apsidal recesses give off the aisles for side altars. There are short transepts by the entrance to the sanctuary, connecting with the sacristy (northeast) and apsidal Lady Chapel (southeast).

The main furnishings of note are:

  • The columnar baldacchino over the high altar, of Carrara marble. This and the marble lining to the sanctuary walls were given by Fr Vassall-Phillips. The marble domed four-column tabernacle survives on the high altar gradine, while the mensa was brought forward to allow for westward celebration in 1975 – but remains below the original canopy.
  • In the apse is a copy of the famous painting of our Lady of Perpetual Succour in the Redemptorist church of S. Alphonsus Liguori, Rome.
  • Handsome high-backed timber sanctuary stalls were installed as a First World War memorial.
  • Balustraded marble altar rails surviving in part (the central section and gates now removed, probably c1975).
  • A marble ambo, possibly built from elements of the nave pulpit, previously located against the first pier on the north side and removed c1975.
  • A marble font, its wide bowl with cherubs on four sides, columnar stem and octagonal base. After the Second Vatican Council this was moved from its original position in the baptistery at the west end (where the hook for raising the font cover survives in the vaulted ceiling) to the sanctuary. More recently it has been moved again, to the north transept.
  • The Lady Chapel has a segmental barrel vault and an apse lined with marble panels with mosaic decoration in the vault, rood figures on a gold background. According to the parish history, the architect’s original intention was for the vaulting and spandrels of the nave and sanctuary similarly to receive mosaic decoration but, as at Westminster Cathedral (no doubt an influence) this has not been realised.
  • There are two stained glass windows in the Lady Chapel by Paul Woodroffe (1875-1954), dating from 1906. That to the east incorporates medieval glass, said to be from St Michael’s church, and donated by the Sisters of Mary, who taught at the school attached to the mission from the earliest days. That to the west was given by Major John Angus Edmund Skeet, an early supporter of the church, in memory of his maternal ancestors, the Wilby family.
  • The apsidal recesses giving off the aisles were each intended to have side altars and each has a marble kerb at the entrance. Only one was designed and fitted up from designs by the architect – that at the west end on the south side. This was dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows and incorporates an oil painting on that subject at its centre. Donated by Mr and Mrs Harman Grisewood, the altar is of green marble with inset lighter panels, a surround with Doric columns and a broken pediment and curved balustraded rails in front.

The other apsidal recesses are, on the north side, working from west to east:

  • St Joseph’s shrine, similar in design to the altar of Our Lady of Sorrows, but in timber, incorporating a low relief panel of the saint in the centre, completed in 1959.
  • Shrine to St Clement Hofbauer (1751-1820), who helped to establish the Redemptorist Congregation in northern Europe; a simple timber altar with Gothic detailing and plain reredos panel with a framed oil portrait of the saint.
  • Sacred Heart shrine, with a disconcerting painting of ‘the searcher of hearts’, commissioned in 1909, and a wooden tabernacle which is said to be of seventeenth or early eighteenth-century date.

On the south side, from the east (after Our Lady of Sorrows):

  • Shrine to St Gerard Majella (1726-55), Redemptorist and patron saint of mothers, simply furnished with a wooden statue of the saint on a pedestal.
  • Altar and furnishings brought from Mgr Hugh Benson’s Chapel at Hare Street (photo above)

  • In the south ‘transept’ is a shrine to St Theresa of Lisieux (1873-97), set up in 1937.
  • In the north ‘transept’, previously an enclosed area, a framed oil painting of the Holy Families of Jesus and John the Baptist, in Nazarene style, hangs over the sacristy door and on the north wall is a copy of Botticelli’s roundel painting of the Madonna and Child with Eight Angels.
  • The balustraded front of the choir gallery at the west end is topped with large gilded busts of the four medieval Doctors of the Church. On the wall, a display of fake organ pipes conceals loudspeakers.
  • Alongside the gallery, by the side entrance to the north, is a plain classical marble wall monument to  Fr Vassall-Phillips, who died at sea in 1932, and a marble monument to Redemptorists serving the mission and parish over the years.
  • The nave seating consists of modern benches, replacing the original chairs shown in older photographs.
  • The Stations of the Cross are large polychrome pieces in quatrefoil frames, brought here from the 1900 church.

Text amended and new photos added by AHP, 24 April 2024

List description (church and monastery)


Early and late C17, C18 and early C20 range of buildings. Painted and red brick, stone, red tile roofs. Two and a half storeys. East building, formerly Windhill House. Late C17 front to early C17 timber frame, rewindowed C18. Dutch style square hipped roof. North front to street has 4 ground floor and 3 first floor sash windows. East elevation is 5 bays divided by deep plain pilasters. Central door, sash windows, modern dormers. Garden elevation, early C20 rebuild with 2 storey canted window bay. Interior has fine Jacobean oak well staircase with open work panelling and balustrade. Plastered beams with running patterns. C18 two storey centre building. Sash windows and canted window bay on west, adjoining arched door to church.

Church on west. 1906 by Doran Webb Italian Renaissance style. Two storeys. Street facade, stone with red brick curved aisle walls on rough stone plinths. Paired Ionic pilasters to sides of centre block, with open pediment and first floor crucifix relief. Central ground floor pedimented door. Interior has groin vaulted nave, apsidal ended. Semi-dome aisle chapels divided by segmental doors. Pilasters to walls. Stucco cherubs and mottoes in aisle arch spandrels. Four column tabernacle over altar. Apsidal ended Lady Chapel with rich painted and mosaic decorations at south-west.

Listing NGR: TL4857021314

Heritage Details

Architect: E. Doran Webb

Original Date: 1904

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Grade II