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 and 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, and is shown in the photograph top left in about 1965, juxtaposed with the new church.

The present church was built in 1961-64 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.

The parish continues to be served by the Vincentians, Irish rather than Spanish since 1957.

According to the brief accounts in CBR 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 load-bearing 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.

Heritage Details


Original Date: 1964

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Not Listed