Garth Road, Builth Wells, LD2 3AS
A small brick church in late Arts and Crafts Romanesque style, built in 1951-2 under the supervision of (and reflecting the ideas of) the parish priest, Fr J. B. O’Connell, a distinguished liturgical scholar. The building is well-detailed, architecturally modest and of traditional character, and has high quality fittings and furnishings.
In the early 1900s there was no Catholic priest or church in this part of central Wales. A succession of visiting priests provided occasional ministry until the arrival of Fr Patrick Kane, a Jesuit, who took up residence in Llandrindod Wells in 1907. Mass was offered in Builth Wells from 1936, initially in a room in the Crown Hotel which was made into a chapel. In about 1944 the chapel and mission were taken over by Fr (Canon) J. B. O’Connell, a distinguished liturgical scholar with an active interest in the arrangement of churches. In 1956, together with his fellow writer and liturgist Fr James Crighton of Pershore and Archbishop Grimshaw of Birmingham, O’Connell attended the International Congress on the Pastoral Liturgy at Assisi, where Pope Pius XII was the keynote speaker. In the early 1960s he attended the Second Vatican Council as a ‘peritus’ or expert observer. O’Connell’s best-known published work is probably The Celebration of Mass: A Study of the Rubrics of the Roman Missal, which was published in 1956, but he also wrote Church Building and Furnishing: The Church’s Way, which was published in both Britain and America in 1955 and widely distributed. The latter work was principally a detailed examination of the rubrics governing church building and furnishing, and while it was not dogmatic about style, and was open to the idea of architectural innovation, it reflected the writer’s view (and the view of the Vatican) that innovation should be tempered by tradition. O’Connell cited the Council of Trent, ‘that nothing disordered may meet the eye, nothing distorted and confused in execution, nothing profane and unbecoming, since sanctity befits the house of God’ (quoted in Proctor, p. 17). Central to this was the commissioning of high quality artefacts and fittings, and the avoidance of mass-produced ‘ecclesiastical kitsch’.
Although Builth was a very large parish in 1950 it had only a small Catholic population, but thanks to a legacy from the Vicar General Mgr George Nightingale £6000 was made available towards the cost of building a new church. A site was acquired on the edge of the town and a design was commissioned from the architect T. Edmund Rees of Merthyr Tydfil. The builders were Messrs F. Morris of Hereford. The foundation stone was laid by Bishop Petit on 16 July 1952 and the church, dedicated to Christ the King, was opened on 21 May 1953.
The Builth church is not particularly original or ground-breaking in its plan and general arrangement but is notably well-detailed; presumably Fr O’Connell closely oversaw the building work. The original arrangement of the sanctuary is illustrated in O’Connell’s book on Church Building; it had an ‘English altar’ of the type popularised by J. N. Comper and Percy Dearmer, with a dossal, riddle posts and timber canopy. This area has been reordered (most recently in 2003, when a stone altar was installed for the fiftieth anniversary of the church’s consecration). The original altar has been pushed back against the east wall, but the altar canopy remains, and generally the interior appears little altered since the 1950s.
The church is built in a modern round-arched style which has been described as a marriage between Arts and Crafts and the Romanesque. The plan comprises a wide aisleless nave with a west porch, sanctuary and flanking flat-roofed sacristies. The walls are of pale red brick laid in Flemish bond, while the overall pitched main roof is covered in pantiles. The wide gabled main west front has a projecting porch with a pitched tiled roof and a round-arched central doorway with three orders of brick arches. The porch is flanked by pairs of small round-headed windows and set in the wall above is a stone crucifix, somewhat in the manner of Eric Gill, carved in relief with the inscription REGNAVIT A LIGNO DEVS (God has ruled us from a tree – a phrase from the hymn Vexilla Regis, written by Venantius Fortunatus in the sixth century in honour of a relic of the True Cross). A receipt preserved in the parish archives shows that the crucifix was carved by Francis Leech of Layton & Leech, stonemasons of Cambridge. It is not clear if Leech was also the designer.
Both the porch and the main front have sloping side buttresses which produce a battered profile. The side walls of the church are divided into four bays by sloping brick buttresses with 2/3/3/3 small-round headed windows in each bay. The main roof has deep eaves carried on tiled kneelers at either end. The side walls of the sanctuary and sacristies also have pairs of round-head windows; the east end wall is blind.
The interior is a single wide space with a wood parquet floor, plain plastered walls and a curved overall ceiling. At the northwest corner is the baptistery, with a wrought iron railing enclosing a small octagonal stone font. The riddel posts from the original high altar have been relocated to this area. At the east end the small sanctuary is raised one step above the main level. Above the original high altar and the modern forward altar is an oak canopy with a gilded dove set beneath. A shallow projecting stone piscina is set into the wall on the right hand side. The small stone forward altar dates from 2013. All the windows are clear glazed with small rectangular leaded panes. The furnishings and woodwork generally are of high quality. The carved and painted Stations of the Cross are by Dame Werburg Welch OSB, a disciple of Desmond Chute and Eric Gill (more information here). The confessional in the northwest corner and the statue of Christ the King over the high altar were made by the woodcarver Charles Victor Gertner of Hereford for the previous chapel (his work can also be seen at Ledbury and Weobley, qqv), and the two oak statues of St Joseph and the Virgin Mary flanking the sanctuary were carved by Francis Leech. The church retains its original chairs and oak draught lobby at the entrance.
Architect: T. Edmund Rees of Johnson, Richards & Rees
Original Date: 1953
Conservation Area: No
Listed Grade: Not Listed