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 new church hall). The church retains many internal fittings of note, some of them paid for by the builder of the church, Fr Oliver Vassall-Phillips. 

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 here or in Hitchin. Fr Vassall-Phillips (1857-1932) was an old Etonian and a 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 £3100, along with a neighbouring property, St Katherine’s (£1850). Windhill House was and is 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 procession into the church on the day of consecration is illustrated at figure 1. To the left of this photograph can be seen part of the new monastery, a two-storey building linking the church and Windhill House. The photograph shows a brick frontage, with stone mullioned casement windows, similar to the design that survives at the rear (photo top right).  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.   


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 (photo upper right) 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 (to the left) 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).

Heritage Details

Architect: E. Doran Webb

Original Date: 1904

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: II