Hill Street, Douglas, Isle of Man
Together with the Ramsey church, St Mary of the Isle is one of only two registered (listed) Catholic structures on the Isle of Man. When built in 1859, it expressed the confidence of the island’s Catholic community. An impressive work by Henry Clutton, a leading ecclesiastical architect of the mid-nineteenth century, with important twentieth-century furnishings by Giles Gilbert Scott, and containing other significant art works, it is a building of major interest.
The first permanent Catholic church, St Bridget’s, was built in 1813 on the outskirts of Douglas. It was a modest building, and with a growing number of Catholics taking up residence and holidaying on the island, it had become necessary by 1850 to find a larger and more central site. Land was eventually purchased in Athol Street, and Henry Clutton was appointed architect. The foundation stone for St Mary’s was laid in 1857. It provoked considerable opposition: The Manx Sun considered in ‘an aggression’, and lawless mobs caused damage so that it became necessary to erect a high wall around the site to afford security for worshippers. In 1862, metal grilles were placed on the windows to protect them from breakage. The church was opened on 4 August 1859.
The presbytery, also designed by Clutton, was built in 1860. Sinnott, Sinnott & Powell added the single-storey extension built against the west wall of the church to provide extra confessionals and a mission library. In 1889 the same architects introduced the timber ceiling over the nave. Clutton’s design left the muscular roof trusses exposed, but this was found wanting both thermally and acoustically. The organ gallery was extended in 1874 to make room for a larger organ, although this was removed in the 1920s when the existing organ was installed. A number of enhancements were made under the direction of Giles Gilbert Scott, beginning with the High Altar in 1910, and continuing through the 1920s. In 1930, a former auction room in Myrtle Street adjoining the church was acquired and converted to a parish hall. Various alterations and improvements have been made to it over the years.
In 2023 St Mary’s was made co-cathedral for the Archdiocese of Liverpool. A co-cathedral can be designated when, as here, a single diocese spans two civil jurisdictions. The designation followed the raising of Douglas to city status in 2022.
Clutton’s design for St Mary’s draws on the early Gothic of northern Germany. It was intended to provide an unforgettable image when viewed on the approach down St Mary’s Hill. Here the apse of the church thrusts forward to the street frontage between two tall towers that were both to have been terminated by Rhenish Helm spires. That one tower was finished with a flat roof and the other with a saddleback roof was presumably the result of financial stringency, but the architectural effect was undeniably compromised. Nonetheless, the composition of church and presbytery is very impressive. The church is built of local stone, with dressings of red sandstone shipped over from Whitehaven. The side walls are plain and sheer, punctuated by five tall lancets, with four more in the west gable. Above those in the gable is a large rose window. The roof slope over both nave and aisles runs uninterrupted.
The church is approached through a gateway in the surrounding boundary wall, fitted with iron gates designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, installed in 1915. A pathway leads to the southwest porch. Between the twin doors of the porch is a statue of the Virgin. The muscular character of the exterior is expressed internally by the tall arches of the arcade with their vigorously carved stiff leaf capitals. These are of Caen stone, but have regrettably been painted. The ceiling of Swedish red pine was installed in 1889 to mask Clutton’s exposed trusses. The sanctuary and chapels are very different in character, and were designed by Giles Gilbert Scott. He introduced the spectacular high altar of verde de prato marble with its gilded angels, and the triptych carved with the figures of Manx saints. Above the triptych is a filigree carved tree of Jesse. The sanctuary walls were later lined in marble, and the stained glass windows of Christ’s miracles are by Hardmans and date from 1950. The bronze altar rails are by Scott and were introduced in 1922; they are a memorial to those who lost their lives in the Great War. Further reordering occurred in 1970 and 1975 to accommodate changes in the liturgy, including the moving forward of Scott’s altar and the introduction of a platform and nave altar.
To each side of the sanctuary are huge stone statues of the Virgin and Child and the Sacred Heart carved by Theodore Phyffers and dating from 1861. Like the capitals they have unfortunately been painted. The Lady Chapel altar is by Scott and was made by Farmer & Brindley, the reredos is carved by Stuflesser. The Sacred Heart altar, together with the marble lining to the walls of this chapel dates from 1951 and were designed and made by Fenning and Company of Hammersmith. Statues at the west end of the church of St Anthony and St Joseph contained in niches designed by Scott were also probably carved by Stuflesser. The large wooden crucifix on the north wall was carved by Phyffers in 1859.
A note on the War Memorial, by Mr Michael Statham
The Memorial for the First World War in St Mary’s is one of only two known memorials in Catholic churches which were designed by Giles Gilbert Scott and made by W. Clarke of Llandaff. The other is in St Paul’s, Liverpool.
In April 1923 Clarke’s were commissioned by G. Gilbert Scott to make a tablet commemorating those parishioners of St Mary’s Roman Catholic church, Douglas, Isle of Man who fell in WW1. This included photographing the finished article in their workshop. The job was completed by the second week of June.
The Day Book record indicates the tablet was constructed of Hopton Wood stone. Sid Pollard worked on the slab, which took 44 hours and also made copper stays which took an extra 4 hours. Dare was responsible for the inscription, which took him 157.5 hours. A mason spent one hour erecting the tablet in the workshop for photographing. Day works, materials and expenses came to £22.10s.7d. and the final bill was £29.17s.0d. representing a profit of about 24.5%. The account and receipt were sent to
Rev. Dean Crookall, at St. Mary’s church. The tablet is mounted on a backing stone in an alcove on the left as you enter the church by the main door.
Taking Stock is grateful to Mr Statham for this additional information.
Entry amended by AHP 6 November 2023
The church is a registered building, the Isle of Man equivalent of listing. Further information at: https://www.gov.im/media/632387/0500197regbldstmaryschurch.pdf
Architect: H. Clutton
Original Date: 1857
Conservation Area: No
Listed Grade: Other