The Avenue, Braintree, Essex CM7
An elegant free Gothic design built just before the onset of the Second World War, largely funded by Dr Richard Courtauld of the local textile firm. The architect in charge was James O’Hanlon Hughes, working with Geoffrey Webb as liturgical consultant. Sadly, Webb’s ‘liturgical altar’ and ciborium were removed in post-Vatican II reordering.
A Mass centre was established at Braintree in 1890, served from Witham. The first church opened in 1892. A resident priest arrived in 1897, when a second temporary church was opened in the Franciscan convent at Bocking; this was duly replaced by J. F. Bentley’s present convent chapel in 1899. The parish was canonically erected in 1918.
The site of the present church was purchased with £1,500 raised by the parish priest, Fr Coghlan, who died in 1935. Dr Richard Courtauld of the local textile firm gave £5,000 towards the building of a church and presbytery, while the parishioners paid for the furnishing. The architects for the new church were James O’Hanlon Hughes and W.E.F. Johns, with Geoffrey Webb acting as liturgical consultant. The builders were Messrs Fowler & Hewitt of Chelmsford. Building started in October 1938, the foundation stone was laid on 11 February 1939 and the church was opened by Bishop Doubleday on 31 August 1939. Reputedly this was the last church to be opened anywhere in Europe before the onset of the Second World War. The presbytery was built in 1953, and the church was consecrated in 1954.
The original fitting out was of some interest. Geoffrey Webb (1879-1954), who acted as liturgical consultant, was an architect, stained glass artist and writer; he was the nephew of the architect Sir Aston Webb and a pupil of the stained glass artist C. E. Kempe. According to his obituary in The Builder, Webb’s publication The Liturgical Altar (1938) ‘is the best introduction to the altar according to the Roman rite…It is indispensable for anyone who is going to design an altar for a Roman Catholic church. He adhered to the modern rubrics scrupulously, but avoided the decadent traditions of the altars of the counter-reformation and other modern counterparts’. Peter Anson (who illustrated the Braintree altar in his Fashions in Church Furnishings) credited Webb with the introduction to Catholic use of the so-called English altar, with riddel posts and curtains, hitherto adopted only in High Anglican churches. Over the Braintree altar Webb designed a simple wooden ciborium, with a flat canopy. Three years earlier at St Thomas More, Seaford in Sussex (another collaboration with James O’Hanlon Hughes) he had designed a ciborium with an arched canopy. He also designed the high altar for another Hughes church, St Edmund of Canterbury at Beckenham, Kent (1937-8). Sadly, none of these has survived post-Vatican II reorderings.
The church is orientated west-east, but in this description conventional liturgical orientation is used, i.e. as if the altar faced east.
The church is a clean and simple, free reinterpretation of Perpendicular Gothic, faced in brick laid in Flemish bond, with stone dressings and a shallow pantile roof. Cruciform on plan, it consists of a wide aisleless nave, transepts and short square ended sanctuary. There is no tower, but a short copper-clad fleche over the crossing. The west front faces towards The Avenue and has a central (unused) doorway in a Perp surround, surmounted by a three-light window with curvilinear tracery. There is a pair of stone bands just below the springing of the window arches, and these bands continue around the building, the lower band broken by the side windows to the nave (which have metal subdivisions and are quite classical in character) and to the transepts and sanctuary (more conventionally gothic, with curvilinear and Perp stone tracery).
The main entrance is at the west end on the south side. This leads into a small narthex area, separated from the main space by an open timber screen. The nave is a single, wide space, with plastered walls painted white and a segmental barrel vaulted ceiling. The sanctuary and transepts are similarly barrel vaulted; where they converge, the crossing is groin vaulted. The general effect is light and airy, half classical and half gothic, evocative of a New England interior in its simplicity. The south transept is infilled at the lower level to form a sacristy, with organ and choir gallery over. The sanctuary furnishings are post-Vatican II, replacing Webb’s altar and ciborium, and are not of special note. On the north wall of the sanctuary is the foundation stone, nicely lettered, and recording Courtauld’s beneficence. The benches for the congregational seating are plain.
The church contains stained glass of note. The four-light east window is by Webb (1944), the gift of local U.S. service personnel. The three-light west window is a fine design of the 1960s, its full-blooded colour in great contrast to the genteel good taste of Webb’s work. This is in memory of Fr Walsh, parish priest, who had overseen the building of the church, and who died in 1965. The artist/studio has not been established; it looks like it might be the work of Harry Clarke Studios. In the north transept (east side) is more glass by Webb (Our Lady and angels) and (on the north side) a three-light window donated by the local Polish community in 1966 to celebrate a thousand years of Christianity in Poland. On the north side of the nave, the St Patrick window of 1998 is in memory of Fr David Chapman (signed Cox & Barnard).
Amended by AHP 03.04.2023
Architect: James O’Hanlon Hughes and W.E.F. Johns, with Geoffrey Webb
Original Date: 1939
Conservation Area: Yes
Listed Grade: Not Listed