Nantgarw Road, Caerphilly, CF83 3FB
A Vatican II-era church by Thomas Price on a plan designed to facilitate full and active participation in the liturgy. Architecturally it owes something to the churches of Basil Spence and Gerard Goalen. The interior was re-ordered in 2002, with the introduction of a number of artworks by Caroline Mackenzie. The site was originally given by the Marquess of Bute, and is well located between Caerphilly Castle and Morgan Jones Park.
There was no regular Mass held in Caerphilly until 1913, although the Fathers of Charity (Rosminians) at St Peter’s in Cardiff did occasionally offer Mass at the Market Hall. In 1913 the first resident priest was appointed, the Rev. Alfred Cuthbert Knight; he was a Rosminian, who had been responsible for the building of a number of churches in the area. He resided at Pwllypant House, where two rooms with a sliding partition were used as a chapel.
On 14 October 1913 there was a huge explosion at the Universal Colliery in Senghenydd, about four miles north of Caerphilly; 440 men were killed, including about 40 from the Catholic community. Soon afterwards a Catholic chapel was established at Senghenydd, appropriately dedicated to All Souls (Senghenydd became an independent parish in 1929; All Souls church is now closed and has been converted to flats, called Sanctuary Court). Fr Knight was followed by a number of Breton Benedictines under the leadership of the Rev. Paul Saillaur. They were recalled to France in 1921, at which point the Rev. Norbert James was appointed parish priest. He took on the lease of the temporary school in Trethomas, a corrugated iron building in Navigation Street, to serve as a Catholic church. Fr Alfred Winsborough succeeded Fr James in November 1930 and set about establishing a permanent church in the centre of Caerphilly. He closed Pwllypant House, took up residence in a local hotel and rented Virginia Hall, a dance hall, for use as a temporary Mass centre. In time he was able to purchase a site opposite Caerphilly Castle on Nantgarw Road, but in the event exchanged this with the Marquess of Bute for a three-acre site intended for part of what became Morgan Jones Park. Lord Bute also presented The Grove, a house within the castle grounds (which was demolished and the materials used for the construction of the church) and arranged for local unemployed men to work on the restoration of the castle, which was described in The Tablet as ‘the largest medieval ruin in Europe’. It was reported that 92% of the population of Caerphilly were unemployed at this time; their labour was also used for the building of the church, which seated 400, and a parish hall and school. Archbishop Mostyn of Cardiff opened the church, dedicated to St Helen, on 28 April 1934 (the park opened in the same year).
The first church was in use for thirty-one years before being replaced by the present building, designed by Thomas Price of F. R. Bates, Son & Price to seat 450, which was opened by the Archbishop of Cardiff on 3 September 1965. The contractors were Messrs Cyril Williams. The church was designed on modern liturgical principles, to facilitate active participation in the liturgy, with a wide and fan-like arrangement of seating arrangement on three sides of the sanctuary. An early photograph shows the original appearance of the sanctuary, with communion rails and gates and an altar placed forward of the east wall (but not yet allowing for celebration of the Mass versus populum), with suspended canopy above.
In 1999 the church was reordered, with the addition of a number of furnishings by the artist Caroline Mackenzie.
The building is broadly T-shaped on plan, with tapering sides that allow for concentration of seating around three sides of the altar. It is of steel framed construction, with walls of painted render over brick. It has a sprawling, shallow pitched roof, a flat-roofed entrance porch with baptistery at the front and sacristies to the rear. The windows are tall slit windows with aluminium frames, staggered and side-lit on either side of the sanctuary. A recent metalwork dedication sign beside the entrance bears the name St Helen’s and a cross with Lamb of God detail.
The interior is broad and light, with the steel framing exposed. There are clear and red leaded glass panels throughout, with angular lead patterns typical of Price’s work. The focus is on the sanctuary, with seating arranged on three sides and the staggered windows of the transepts directing light towards it. The sanctuary is stepped and semi-hexagonal. The altar is of aggregate marble and has a textile frontal designed by Caroline Mackenzie. Beyond is a carved stone pillar tabernacle (also by Mackenzie) incorporating four shapes symbolising the four elements; its gilded door has a low relief repoussé-work image of the Risen Christ and the Burning Bush. The pillar tabernacle is set beneath a gabled timber canopy (the original canopy over the altar does not survive). Either side are two carved oak reliefs depicting (from left to right) the Nativity, Three Women and an Angel at the Empty Tomb, the Grievers, and the Good Samaritan, all by Mackenzie.
On axis with the altar, the baptistery retains its original metal gates but is now used as an office. Price’s font, of aggregate marble and incorporating a mosaic with Holy Spirit motif, is now on the presbytery lawn. To the south is a Lady Chapel and to the north a Sacred Heart chapel, now used for children’s liturgy. The Lady Chapel has a modern wooden statue of Our Lady set on a plinth and a large modern painting by Kate Seymour, Natalie Gordine, and Kelly Hoggins entitled The Soul (installed in 2000). There are a number of banners, including one from All Souls, Senghenydd.
Architect: F. R. Bates, Son & Price
Original Date: 1965
Conservation Area: No
Listed Grade: Not Listed