Westgate Street, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, IP33 1QG
A handsome Greek Revival design of the 1830s, with a stone frontage and built alongside a presbytery of the 1760s. This incorporates at the rear a small chapel, the oldest post-Reformation place of public Catholic worship in East Anglia. The 1830s church has a good and little-altered interior, including a rare example (in a Catholic church) of box pews. It has recently (2014) been sympathetically redecorated and reordered.
In 1633 the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) established a college in Bury St Edmunds, and for a short time during the reign of James II ran a house, chapel and boys’ school within the bounds of the abbey ruins. This came to an end with the Glorious or Protestant Revolution of 1688, but the Jesuit presence in the town resumed in 1755, with the arrival of the Rev. John Gage SJ. He was the son of Elizabeth Rookwood Gage, heiress to the Coldham estates and founder of the mission-house at Coldham Cottage (qv). In 1762 Fr Gage built a house in Westgate Street, with a small (and still then illegal) chapel to the rear. In 1791, following the second Catholic Relief Act, the chapel was licensed for public worship.
The present church was built alongside the presbytery in 1836-7, by the Rev. Joseph Tate SJ. The architect was Charles Day of Worcester, the builder a Mr Newnham and the approximate cost £9,400. The church was dedicated on 14 December 1837. It was fitted out with box pews, for which rents were charged, and a school was established in the large crypt below the church (replaced by a separate school building in the presbytery grounds by 1881; in 1919 the crypt became a parish hall). In 1876 the interior was elaborately redecorated to the designs of the Rev. I. C. Scoles SJ, with a painted representation of the Ascension in the apse, by Robert Park of Preston.
In 1929 the Jesuits withdrew and diocesan priests assumed care of the parish.
Several notable enrichments were made by the Rev. Bryan Houghton (parish priest 1954-69). These included the importation in 1959 of several marble items from nearby Rushbrooke Hall, prior to the demolition of that house in 1961. In 1960 Fr Houghton commissioned (and personally paid) the German sculptor Maximilian Leuthenmayr to create a shrine to St Edmund, incorporating a painted wooden statue of the saint which had been donated in 1887. This was an extraordinary Baroque-style confection, remarkable for its date. Leuthenmayr’s billowing carved shroud backdrop was surmounted by an eighteenth century wooden carving of God the Father, by the renowned Rococo sculptor Ignaz Gunther. God the Son was in the form of a processional cross, the corpus of Florentine Renaissance provenance, and the representation of the Holy Spirit was newly carved by Leuthenmayr. The shrine was removed after Fr Houghton’s resignation in 1969 (in protest at the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council), but the statue of St Edmund remains.
Fr Houghton also replaced the timber altar with a marble sarcophagus altar, previously a garden feature in a house in Guildhall Street; suitably adapted and augmented, it was consecrated by Bishop Parker of Northampton in 1965.
Under Fr Harry Wace (parish priest 1977-82) the eighteenth century chapel behind the presbytery was incorporated into the church as the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, and ramped wheelchair access was formed at the side of the church.
In 2014 the church was reordered and redecorated under the direction of architect Charles Brown (whose practice of Brownhill Hayward Brown had also restored the contemporary and almost identical church built by Charles Day for the Jesuits at Hereford). The sarcophagus was sold at auction, but other parts of the 1965 altar were incorporated in a new smaller altar, consecrated by Bishop Alan Hopes on 28 April 2014. Improvements to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel and crypt were also made around this time.
The list entry (below) summarises the main features, but there are some notable omissions. The following points can be added (the church is orientated north-south, but this description assumes conventional liturgical orientation, i.e. as if the altar was to the east):
Catholic church. 1837. By Charles Day of Worcester; in Grecian style. Red brick with a stone-faced facade. 3 bays. A projecting central entrance portico with 2 tall fluted Ionic columns in antis is approached by a flight of stone steps. Plain red brick to sides with a stone cornice band and a row of 5 diamond-leaded attic windows in recessed reveals. INTERIOR: the surround to the main entrance was a marble fireplace, a composite piece, with doors belonging to the 2 altar surrounds of c1735, which were originally doorcases. All these features came from Rushbrooke Hall in 1959. The pilastered interior, remodelled in 1877, has a partly glazed and deeply coved panelled ceiling with rosettes. The short sanctuary is behind a screen of 2 Ionic columns. To the west of the church is the apsidal Blessed Sacrament Chapel. This was originally built as a private chapel and formed part of the adjoining Presbytery (qv) but was formally licensed for Roman Catholic worship in 1791, later falling into disuse. It was linked to the church and re-dedicated in 1979. A Lombard frieze surrounds the walls, which are rendered. A contemporary crypt runs below the whole of the church and is fully used for community activities. 2 red brick arcades of shallow rounded arches support the upper floor. On the north side 3 arches are blocked; they contain reset early C19 gravestones commemorating some of the Jesuits who were responsible for the C18 and early C19 organisation of the Roman Catholic congregation in the Bury St Edmunds area.
Formerly known as: No.21 St Edmund’s House WESTGATE STREET. House. Built 1760/61 for Fr John Gage S.J. and used continuously since as the Presbytery for the adjoining Roman Catholic Church of St Edmund (qv). Red brick with plaintiled roof and a wood modillion eaves cornice. EXTERIOR: 2 storeys, cellar and attics. 5 window range: sashes without glazing bars in plain reveals with flat gauged arches. 3 gabled dormers with 2-light single bar casement windows. 2 gable end chimney-stacks. A recessed central 6-panel door within a wood doorcase with panelled reveals, panelled pilasters and a frieze with a central keystone and pediment. A small 2-storey one-bay extension at the west end has a single sash window with a single vertical glazing-bar in a flush cased frame to each storey. A rear wing on the east, now linked with the adjoining church, was built as a private chapel but was formally licensed for public Roman Catholic worship in 1791. INTERIOR: retains many original features. Cellar, brick lined with a high timber ceiling. Ground storey rooms are panelled with ornate plaster cornices and internal window shutters with sunk panels. 6-panel and 4-panel doors. A fine dog-leg stair has vase-on-reel balusters, enriched bracketed open strings and ramped and wreathed handrails. An attic room at the east end of the house has original C18 framing and rafters exposed. The chapel has a galleried upper storey at the north end which still forms part of the house.
(Rowe J: The Story of Catholic Bury St Edmunds, Coldham, etc.: bury St Edmunds: 1980-: 12).
Architect: Charles Day
Original Date: 1837
Conservation Area: Yes
Listed Grade: Grade II*