Building » Chester – St Werburgh

Chester – St Werburgh

Grosvenor Park Road, Chester, Cheshire CH1

A large stone-built church in French lancet Gothic style, and an early work by Edward Kirby. An intended tower and spire were never built, but the church nevertheless makes a prominent and worthy contribution to the city centre conservation area. The picturesque contemporary presbytery is also by Kirby. The high, uninterrupted interior volume of the church is most impressive and despite a major reordering in the early twenty-first century, a number of internal features of note remain.

A church and presbytery were built in Queen Street, Chester in 1799 by the Rev. Thomas Penswick (later Vicar-Apostolic of the Northern District). This elegant structure with a Doric portico is illustrated at figure 1. It was in this church that in 1847 Daniel O’Connell, campaigner for Catholic Emancipation, was laid in state, enroute for burial in Ireland. A school was built behind the church in 1854.

By  the  1860s  the  Catholic  population  had  outgrown  the  late-eighteenth  century chapel, and a site for a new and larger church was offered near Grosvenor Park by the brothers Michael and John Harnett. Plans were drawn up by Edmund Kirby and the foundation stone laid by Bishop Brown on 15 October 1873. The church was ready for use by the end of 1875, and was solemnly opened by Bishop O’Reilly of Liverpool on 13 July 1876. Much of the cost of the church, and the adjoining presbytery, was met by members of the Harnett family.

The building was completed in stages. A proposed tower and spire (figure 2) were never  built, but  in 1904  two  sacristies  connected  by  an  ambulatory were  added, followed in 1913-14 by two western bays, the west front and entrance narthex, from Kirby’s designs. In 1926 a new high altar and reredos were installed. The church was consecrated in 1936 after a scheme of internal redecoration had been completed.

The first post-Vatican II liturgical reordering was fairly modest, involving the bringing forward of the 1926 high altar, separating it from its reredos. This is the appearance shown in figure 3. A  more radical reordering  took place in 2002-03 (architect David Ireland of Hulme Upright Manning), when the sanctuary was extended forwards into the nave and a timber screen built behind it, obscuring from view the 1926 high altar (which was pushed back and reunited with its reredos). A new forward altar was introduced, designed to be in sympathy with the character of the church. The St Werburgh’s screen was relocated to form a shrine in the north aisle. The organ was removed from the south aisle, and the War Memorial chapel restored. The pipes of the new organ (a reconditioned 1926 instrument by J. J. Binns, acquired from Queen’s Park church in Glasgow)

The  external  appearance  of  the  church  is  adequately  described  in  the  list  entry(below). However, the interior is not described in any detail.

The main entrance doors at the west end lead into a narthex, added from Kirby’s designs in 1913-14 (there is a foundation stone with the date 3 August 1913).   The narthex contains good Arts and Crafts stained glass windows of 1936 by Trena M. Cox (1895-1977), including one commemorating the beatification of John Plessington, who was arrested and executed in Chester as a consequence of Titus Oates’ Popish Plot. There is also a plaque to St John Plessington in the narthex. The main space consists of a nave and aisles of four bays and an apsidal sanctuary with flanking chapels. The nave arcade has alternating round and octagonal sandstone pillars with foliate capitals. Above is a boarded wagon roof with trusses having stop-chamfered ties and octagonal posts. There is a cusped arch sanctuary truss with timber tracery, from which hangs a large crucifix marking the holy year of 1933 (1900 years since the Crucifixion). The sanctuary roof has a light timber ribbed vault following the apsidal form of the east end and tall lancet windows. There are also tall lancets at the west end, and shorter lancets in the aisles and clerestory (where they are paired).

The high altar of 1926 is large but simple in its design, with a marble front and wide stone reredos, the detailing picked out in gold. The central tabernacle is a fine piece of Arts and Crafts workmanship (photo bottom left). This altar is currently obscured by a timber screen, installed as part of the 2002-03 reordering. The new forward altar in the sanctuary is a modern Gothic sandstone and marble piece, which along with the seating has been designed to be in keeping with Kirby’s interior. The pulpit (given by Patrick Collins in 1894) was returned to its current location in 2002-03.

There are further altars in the flanking chapels; that to the north (Blessed Sacrament Chapel) is a fine Gothic design, probably by Kirby, of painted stone, richly carved with a Pelican in its Piety on the frontal and angels flanking the monstrance throne in the centre of the reredos. The altar in the south (War Memorial) chapel is plainer and more solemn, of red sandstone, with a central panel carving of the pietà. Both chapels retain their communion rails, while those running across the front of the sanctuary were removed as part of the 2002-03 reordering.

The font is now placed at the east end of the north aisle in a semi-formal baptistery area with moveable seating; it is of drum form, supported on marble stub columns and incorporating carved pierced quatrefoils with carved scenes. Also in the north aisle is the shrine to St Werburgh, formed in this position in 2002-03.

The congregational seating consists of plain pine benches. At the west end of the nave is a new timber gallery housing the huge reconditioned Binns organ of 1926, brought here in 2004 after restoration by George Sixsmith & Son. The stained glass windows behind the organ came from another Kirby church, St Laurence’s Birkenhead, after that church was demolished.

Heritage Details

Architect: Edmund Kirby

Original Date: 1875

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: II