Building » Dereham – Sacred Heart and St Margaret Mary

Dereham – Sacred Heart and St Margaret Mary

London Road, East Dereham, NR19 1AS

A modest, vaguely classical design of 1951 by Donovan Purcell, somewhat altered and extended, and with some furnishings of note.

The church lies approximately north-south, but for this report, liturgical compass points will be used, i.e. the altar at the east.

Five Catholics are recorded in East Dereham (as it used to be known) in 1834, when it would have been in Costessey parish. It is probable that priests visited the town, but in 1911 the Motor Mission led by Mgr Benson held a series of popular lectures in the Corn Hall that resulted in a number of converts. Fr Gray, the priest at Fakenham began celebrating Mass in private houses and from 1912 in the club room of the Bull, until the latter was taken over by the Army in World War I. An oratory was established in a room in the postmaster’s house until Fr Gray bought a triangular piece of land, the Children’s Recreation Ground, between London Road and Commercial Road to the south of the town centre. A timber temporary church was provided by the Guild of Ransom and opened by Bishop Carey-Elwes of Northampton on 21 July 1925, consecrated to The Sacred Heart and Margaret Mary.

In 1932 a statue of the Sacred Heart was erected at the western point of the site. By then the church was already beginning to leak, and in 1940, Fr Ketterer (based at Wymondham) asked A.S.G. Butler, architect of the 1928 church at Wells-next-the-Sea (qv) to design a new church for Dereham and another at Wymondham; however Bishop Leo Parker did not want to pursue either, on grounds of cost. The timber church virtually ceased to be used by 1949, with Mass being celebrated in the Assembly Rooms. The Wymondham architect Donovan Purcell was asked by Fr Cowin to design new churches for Dereham and Wymondham (and later at Diss and West Earlham) and work began at Dereham in October 1950 with the demolition of the 1925 church.

The red brick and copper-roofed church was opened on 23 September 1951 by Bishop Leo Parker. It cost £5,000, seated 150 and was designed to be capable of extension. Purcell designed a small, simple vaguely classical building, the three recessing arches of the west (and only) doorway being the most decorative feature (removed in 1984). The sanctuary was paved in Clipsham stone and the apse plastered with a view to future mural painting.

Fr Cowin and his successors continued to reside at Wymondham until a presbytery was built in 1976 by Michael Reavey, a parishioner. This was partly funded by the sale of land on the west side of the plot with planning permission for three houses. It had originally been intended as the site of a parish hall; the ground floor of the presbytery came to be used for small meetings instead. The Revd Peter Marsh was the first resident priest, with responsibility for a large parish that included RAF Swanton Morley.

In 1968, the wooden altar (possibly originating in the timber church) was removed from the east wall and a freestanding concrete altar installed, made by the Mid-Norfolk Concrete Co. Ltd. from a design by Conal O’Donnell, Surveyor to Dereham Urban District Council. In 1975, the sanctuary and central passageway were carpeted and the altar rails removed (they now stand at the front of the nave benches), but the north pulpit remained. The church was consecrated by Bishop Alan Clark on 24 September 1976 (the first to be consecrated in the new Diocese of East Anglia).

In June 1983 the Revd Philip Shryane asked Julian Limentani of Marshall Sisson Architect to design a western extension; MAR Builders of Dereham began work in July 1984 and on 7 December it was opened and blessed by Bishop Clark. It cost £40,000 and consisted of a pitched roof single-storey narthex reaching under the west gallery which could be opened to the church, with a southwest porch and WC and kitchen. The flat-roofed northwest sacristy and confessional room matching the porch was added in 1996, also from designs by Limentani, and blessed on 25 June.

The copper nave roof towards Commercial Road was re-laid in 1986 and by now the pulpit had been removed and the sanctuary had three steps. On 29 April 1998 the church was re-opened and blessed by Bishop Peter Smith after internal refurbishment, which included a new organ in the west gallery, a 200-year-old crucifix mounted on a cross in the sanctuary arch and the placing of a vertical folding blind behind the arch to enable the church to be used for social events (removed c.2010). Dalle de verre glass was placed in the round window of the porch at the Millennium. The present decorative scheme is by the Revd John Barnes, c.2010, who also installed the hanging lights.         


The whole church is built of the same red brick with copper pitched roofs and felt flat roofs, with metal windows to the 1951 church and timber windows to the west extension. The apse roof has a copper gutter and downpipes. The 1951 aisleless nave has four bays marked internally by the steel frames cased in timber. The interior is well lit by nine-pane windows with a central opening section, glazed with slightly tinted glass. The windowless apsidal sanctuary has a broad round arch with a glazed strip behind it giving natural light to the altar. A cast concrete piscina now sits in the north apse wall, but 1951 photographs show it in the same position to the south of the altar. Two semi-circular concrete shelves emerge from the centre of the apse, the smaller upper shelf for the tabernacle. These belong to the 1969 reordering.

The narthex is somewhat dominated by ceiling beams that seem to stop in mid-air, without any vertical support. They are actually boxed-in steel joists now connected to the horizontal steel joist above them, inserted into the original west wall in 1984. They support the west gallery, now accessed by a staircase in front of the northwest nave window, suggesting the staircase originally ran against the solid west wall. The casement windows of the extension have stone surrounds: that to the 1996 northwest room is possibly re-set from the north wall of the 1984 work.

The 1984 southwest porch had a large round window copying the 1951 window in the west gable, but is now glazed with solidly coloured dalle de verre blocks of glass in roughly-finished concrete. In front is a statue of St Margaret Mary standing on a Gothic Cosseyware column, donated in 2001 for the Silver Jubilee by the Sisters of the Visitation, who had lived and worked in the parish. The wooden Stations of the Cross were brought from Italy by Canon McBride in 1981. The furnishings are of wood, including the small font. 

Heritage Details

Architect: Donovan Purcell

Original Date: 1951

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not Listed