Building » Dunstable – St Mary

Dunstable – St Mary

West Street, Dunstable, Bedfordshire

An ambitious design of the early 1960s, built from designs by Desmond Williams & Associates at the time of the Second Vatican Council, and in some respects anticipating the architectural and liturgical developments which were to flow from the Council. However, unlike comparable examples such as Weightman & Bullen’s slightly earlier church at Leyland, Lancashire and Frederick Gibberd’s slightly later Cathedral at Liverpool, the altar was placed on axis with the entrance, and not centrally. The church is little altered, and contains a number of furnishings of interest. The interior is a dramatic space, oversailed by an 80 ft span roof of 600 banded aluminium pyramids. The church slightly predates the convent chapel at Clapham, Bedfordshire, another circular design by Williams.

In 1927 the establishment of a parish in Dunstable was entrusted by the Bishop to the Spanish Congregation of St Vincent de Paul, based at Potters Bar. Before that, local Catholics had to travel to Luton or Leighton Buzzard to attend Mass. In 1935 a small red brick Gothic church dedicated to the Immaculate Conception was built. This church survives as part of the present parish hall.

The present church was built in 1961-4 from designs by Desmond Williams & Associates of Manchester, at a cost of £72,000. The builders were R. Willis & Son. Work started late in 1961 and the completed building was opened and blessed by Bishop Parker on 15 March 1964. The church was built to accommodate a maximum of 800 people, including provision for about 120 in the large gallery.


According to the brief accounts in the Catholic Building Review 1965 (p.166) and 1964 (p.128), the circular form of the design was driven by the L-shaped site, in which the church sits at the intersection, and by the desire to ensure that the congregation was as near as possible to the sanctuary. The planning of the church did not envisage a central altar, but an altar and sanctuary at one end of the axis, allowing for westward celebration.

The construction is of loadbearing brick piers supporting steel roof trusses with a distinctive aluminium tetrahedral ceiling. This consists of 600 aluminium pyramids in alternating bands of blue and white, bolted together to span 80 ft and slung below the steel roof trusses.  Above this, the roof construction is of copper on diagonal boarding, with the shallow roof rising up to a central copper spirelet. An aisle or ambulatory encircles the main worship space, with cambered openings piercing the paired brick piers which run around the perimeter and which carry the roof. In the wider space between the paired piers are segmental brick bays pierced  by  small  slit  windows,  while  in  the  narrower  space  are  long  windows containing coloured stained glass. Over the aisle and below the roof is a continuous clerestory, originally intended to house stained glass but retaining its original clear glass.

The main entrance is in the centre of three deeper bays facing towards the approach, marked by a cantilevered canopy of three segmental bays over the doors. From the entrance narthex or lobby,  stairs  lead  off from left  and  right to  the gallery.  The narthex is flanked on either side by bays containing a chapel and baptistery.   The sanctuary is on axis with the entrance and retains its original polished marble floor, high  altar  raised  above  a  series  of  steps  with  mosaic  inlaid  crosses  etc  and  the lettering ADORO TE DEVOTE, and communion rail. Behind the altar is a high openwork metal screen, to which a large crucifix is fixed.  There is similar ironwork in the entrance to the baptistery, there augmented by two carved and gilded doves, representing the Holy Spirit. The baptistery has been turned into a bookshop and repository,  and  the  floor  levelled,  leaving  the  base  of  the  font  concealed  by  the inserted floor. The font is also of white marble, with an inset mosaic panel of St John the Baptist. The maker of these original fittings has not been established, but stylistically they bear the hallmarks of the work of Earley & Co. of Dublin. The patterned black and white floor of the nave and the benches, arranged in banks facing towards the sanctuary, are original.

List description (the church was listed in 2020, following Taking Stock)


Summary: A Roman Catholic parish church of circular plan constructed between 1962 and 1964 to designs by Desmond Williams OBE.

Reasons for Designation: The Roman Catholic Church of St Mary, Dunstable, constructed 1962-1964 to the designs of Desmond Williams is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons: Historic interest: * it is an early example of the impact of the Liturgical Movement on church design and anticipated the reforms adopted in the Second Vatican Council; * as an important early work in the career of Desmond Williams, an architect notable for his innovative church buildings at a time of great change in ecclesiastical architecture. Architectural interest: * for its innovative circular form and layout; * for its intact interior, including good quality bespoke furnishings and a highly unusual tetrahedral ceiling.

History: In the late-C19 and early-C20 the Roman Catholic Church in England was growing. That expansion entailed the construction of a large number of buildings serving the religious and social functions of the Catholic community. Until 1927 practising Catholics in Dunstable would travel to nearby towns to attend services. In that year the Bishop of Northampton granted a petition for Mass to be said in Dunstable under the leadership of the Congregation of the Mission, commonly called the Vincentians. The new parish, dedicated to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, constructed its first church in 1935 in what has become the Parish Social Centre to the south-east of the present church. The former building survives but has been very heavily altered. As the town grew significantly after the Second World War plans were drawn up for a bigger building in 1961 and the foundation stone of a new church was laid on 29 April 1962. Leo Parker, Bishop of Northampton, blessed and opened the building on 15 March 1964. The new church, dedicated to Our Lady Immaculate, had cost £72,000 and was built by R Willis and Son. The new building, designed by Desmond Williams, is circular in plan. The internal layout places the altar in front of the congregation, rather than at the centre as was the case at ground-breaking churches of the Liturgical Movement in church design (for example, Keith Murray and Robert Maguire’s Anglican church of St Paul, Bow Common, Grade II*, 1958-1960; or Frederick Gibberd’s design for the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King in Liverpool, Grade I, 1962-1967). Williams’ work was nevertheless at the forefront of new design and draws the congregation together around the altar, anticipating the emphasis on greater communality in worship that lay at the heart of the major reforms of the Second Vatican Council (particularly the 1963 Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy). The liturgical arrangement at Dunstable is very similar to some highly significant later churches, most notably the Roman Catholic Cathedral at Clifton (1969-1973, Grade II*). Alongside the new church a contemporary presbytery and offices were constructed, and a later hut was built to the north of the church adjacent to a (2000) Garden of Remembrance. The church has not been heavily altered since its completion, though the baptistery has been re-purposed as a shop. Desmond Williams and Associates designed a number of modern churches, including the Roman Catholic Church of St Augustine, Manchester, 1966-1968 with a notable reredos by Robert Brumby (Grade II), the Roman Catholic Church of St Dunstan, Birmingham, 1966-1968 (Grade II), and the Roman Catholic Church of St Michael, Penn, Wolverhampton, 1967-1968 (Grade II). Desmond Williams worked with Arthur Facebrother before setting up his own practice in Manchester, which in around 1970 amalgamated with W and J B Ellis to become Ellis Williams Architects (still in practice today). Williams’ work was recognised with an OBE in 1988.

Details: A Roman Catholic parish church of circular plan constructed between 1962 and 1964 to designs by Desmond Williams. MATERIALS: the structure of the church is of load-bearing brick and concrete, with walling in red-brown Fletton bricks and stained glass. The roof is of steel trusses covered in copper and asphalt. The interior features ironwork, and joinery of pine and laminated tropical hardwoods. PLAN: the church is organised around a circular worship space with twelve projecting segments forming petal-like bays around its circumference. To the south east three full-height bays extend further outwards and are combined to form an entrance foyer with a baptistery and chapel at either side. Stairs from the foyer lead to a gallery which cantilevers into the worship space. An ambulatory runs around the perimeter of the worship space cutting archways through brick piers to create a continuous path. Behind the altar the ambulatory ramps upwards and connects with the sacristy and boiler room in a single-storey projection to the north of the church.

EXTERIOR: the exterior is divided into twelve bays separated by full-height stained glass recesses with rectilinear multi-coloured panes. Set back above these bays is a plain-glazed clerestory beneath a copper roof that rises gently to a needle-like spirelet topped with a Celtic cross. The principal entrance is at the centre of three projecting bays. Three modern replacement doors are accessed under three segmental concrete hoods to access the foyer. Above the hoods is the coat of arms of Leo Parker, Bishop of Northampton at the time of the opening of the church, either side of which is a narrow window and five further windows are above. Most other bays have ten slit windows arranged across four rows. The three bays at the north-west are not separated by glazing and connect to a single-storey projection with plain windows and a doorway at the top of a small cantilevered flight of concrete steps.

INTERIOR: the worship space consists of four polygonal ranks of pews in good quality pine with open backs and upholstered kneelers on hinges. The bench ends follow the geometry of the benches and each has a cross in relief at the uppermost corner. The nave floor, which has developed large cracks, is original and is laid in diamond patterns of grey and white tiles. Axially positioned opposite the entrance and in front of the pews is a wide polygonal sanctuary with a communion rail of cruciform brass stanchions and a dark marble top. The sanctuary steps are terrazzo and lead to a large white marble altar inlaid with gold mosaic tiles reading: ADORO TE DEVOTE. Iron openwork behind the altar supports a large crucifix and allows views of the only bay to have stained glass in the narrow slit windows. The whole worship space is unified by a sound-absorbing ceiling of 600 aluminium pyramids in 18 shades of blue and white radiating in concentric rings from a Greek cross in a boss at the centre. Williams’ design for the ceiling evokes medieval fan vaulting, especially that of the chapel at King’s College, Cambridge. Within the ambulatory there are two confessionals clad in tropical hardwood with plain interiors. To the east of the narthex is a baptistery entered through a screen of iron openwork of the same design as the reredos and lectern, on which hang two carved doves. The baptistery, now a shop, retains a round font in fine white marble carved with a pattern of squares that echo the stepped square recess in the floor (now covered) and a suspended wooden square of the same proportions that hangs from the ceiling. The font is supported on a square shaft with a mosaic figure of St John the Baptist on the front and water on the back.


Websites: Taking Stock, accessed 24/01/2020 from

Other: “The Catholic Church of Our Lady Immaculate, Dunstable” booklet produced for the solemn blessing of the church, March 1964; Historic commentary from Desmond Williams supplied by the Diocese of Northampton; Information supplied by the applicant

Heritage Details

Architect: Desmond Williams & Associates

Original Date: 1964

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Grade II