Building » Chester (Upton) – St Columba

Chester (Upton) – St Columba

Plas Newton Lane/Newhall Road, Plas Newton, Upton, Chester CH2

A striking post-war church suburban church, built at the time of, and serving the new liturgical needs of, the Second Vatican Council. Fittings of note include a baptistery window by Unger & Schulze. Some of the external materials have not stood the test of time or have been replaced.

A Mass Centre was opened at Upton village hall in 1939, served by the Salvatorian Fathers from Christleton. After the end of the war, people from Boughton, Newton and Francis Street were rehoused in Blacon, Newton Hall and Plas Newton as part of city-wide Development Plan, increasing the Catholic population of the area; the village hall proved too small. Canon Francis Murphy from St Werburgh led fundraising for a new chapel-of-ease in the 1960s. A large site at the corner of Plas Newton Lane and Newhall Road was acquired, and a new church designed by the architects L. A. G. Prichard, Son & Partners. The design embodied the ideals of Vatican II, with no seating more than fifty feet from the altar. It was designed for 675 people. The foundation stone was laid in September 1964 by Canon Murphy, and the 115 ft spire lowered into position in December 1964. The first Mass was on 19 December 1965, and the church was officially opened in 1966 by Bishop Grasar. St Columba was the third new Catholic church to be built in Chester after the Second World War.

The presbytery at 1 Newhall Road was an existing house, bought by Canon Murphy in 1971. Plans for a larger house were never realised. The parish hall was opened in 1978; it was built by the Manpower Services Commission under the supervision of Don Griffiths of Prichard & Partners.


St Columba’s is a striking modern church in a distinctive style, with an interior influenced by post-war Scandinavian design. A timber spire and copper cross create a landmark feature on Plas Newton Lane. The church is orientated with the sanctuary to the northwest, but for this description this will be referred to as the liturgical east end. Externally, the walls are clad with clay tiles, but with fair-faced Flemish bond brickwork to the porch and large expanses of glazing in steel frames. The plain east elevation is rendered and painted, and has an unresolved appearance. The roof finish was originally copper-coloured felt but this has been replaced with plain mineral felt, except to the entrance porch. A pyramidal timber spire and copper-covered cross rise to 115 feet high; the spire has also been re-covered. The west elevation contains the principal entrance with stepped entrances to two double doors flanking the baptistery window below a pitched roof; the porch is set below a pitched roof with clerestory lazing beneath the eaves. The north and south elevations are identical and consist of large areas of steel-framed glazing and tile-clad walls; the steel was inserted in 1986 following the failure of the original soft-wood framing. Flat roofed sacristies are built against the east wall.

The internal appearance of the church was described at its opening: ‘four [pine] laminated portal frames supported against a reinforced concrete rear wall forming a fan shaped plan. At the intersection of the portal frames with the wall, a laminated timber ring beam supports a timber spire…The sanctuary is situated beneath the spire at the node of the fan shape…The narthex, situated centrally, supports a timber framed gallery accessible from a winding, free standing, staircase, enclosed by a brick wall  rising  through  the  gallery,  which  will  eventually  be  surmounted  by  a  pipe organ…’ (Shrewsbury Diocesan Yearbook 1966). The plan of five bays forms a pentagon, with two small, plain chapels flanking the altar. Access is provided from the west porch entrance which forms a narthex with fair-faced brick walls and a timber and glass screen to the main church; and from the east by original timber double doors between the altar and chapels. A circulation area behind the altar has been converted into a weekday chapel. The sanctuary is raised on a dais. The organ and choir gallery is fronted with pine boarding. The ceiling is finished with Columbian pine boarding and the floor is laid with linoleum tiles. The sanctuary floor was originally boarded but now has a carpet covering. The original underfloor heating system was replaced by gas-powered heating after proving inadequate. The main altar is of Kilkenny and white perlato marble, and the font of polished limestone, made by Earley Studios of Dublin. Many of the original bronze sanctuary fittings were made to the designs of Ray Carroll by M. H. Gill of Dublin, but some – such as the altar rails – have been replaced. The seating is arranged in a semi-circle around the altar; freestanding bench pews of afromosia (teak) hardwood, made by F.H. Kenny of Dublin. The only glazing to survive from the original church scheme is small triangles of glazing on the sanctuary elevation and the dalle de verre-style baptistery window by Hans Unger & E. Schulze. Unger & Schulze ran a prominent mosaic and glass studio in London from 1960-74, and provided a large mosaic for another L. A. G. Prichard church in 1965, St Jude’s in Worsley Mesnes, Wigan. The coloured glazing depicting St Columba, Christ and the apostles was added in 1986.

Heritage Details

Architect: L. A. G. Prichard, Son & Partners

Original Date: 1963

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not Listed