Building » Durham – Our Lady of Mercy and St Godric

Durham – Our Lady of Mercy and St Godric

Castle Chare, Durham, Co. Durham DH1

The church is dramatically positioned on a raised site close to Durham city centre, and its design takes full advantage of this. It was built in the 1860s to meet the expanding Catholic population in the city, including navvies coming to build the nearby railway viaduct. Built from designs by E. W. Pugin, it was extended by Pugin & Pugin in the early twentieth century. A fire in the 1980s destroyed the roof, but many internal furnishings of quality survived, including the fine high altar of 1914 and some good stained glass. The church is a landmark in the Durham City Conservation Area.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the church of St Cuthbert had become inadequate to meet the needs of a growing Catholic population in the city, driven in part by the arrival of navvies arriving in 1857 to work on the nearby railway viaduct. In 1858 Provost Platt, Vicar General, purchased the present site ‘on an eminence in the heart of the city’ (NCC, 1988), for £1,800. About the same time a site on the opposite side of Framwellgate was acquired for an elementary school. Sisters of Mercy from Sunderland were placed in charge of this, with their convent established in the former Wheatsheaf Inn.

Plans for the church were prepared by E.W. Pugin, son of A. W. Pugin, and architect of additions at Ushaw College. The foundation stone was laid by Bishop Hogarth on Whit Monday, 1863 and the church was opened by the bishop on 15 November 1864, when Dr (later Cardinal) Manning preached. The new church was dedicated to Our Lady of Mercy and St Godric; the latter was a popular saint in the Middle Ages who died at Finchale, Co. Durham in 1170, where a Benedictine priory was later built. At first the church was served from St Cuthbert’s, but a first resident priest arrived in 1868; the Sisters of Mercy then left their convent, which became the presbytery.

The church having no burial ground, St Bede’s Cemetery was opened at nearby Red Hills in 1866, with a chapel and lych-gate built in the following year (the cemetery is now closed).

Fr Robert Thornton arrived in 1894 and set about raising funds for new junior and infants’ schools, which opened in 1898. Inside the church, additions from about this time included the font and tabernacle (in memory of Fr Jones, Fr Thornton’s predecessor), a stained glass window in the side wall of the Lady Chapel depicting the Coronation of the Virgin (from a bequest of 1895 from Thomas Madden), and an organ (1895).

In 1897 Sisters of Mercy from Newcastle took over the running of the school, moving back into the convent, with the priest moving into the adjoining house (after 1919 Tenter House became the presbytery).

E.W. Pugin’s original designs for the church had included a tower and spire, but it was not immediately possible to build these. The church originally consisted of just the five-bay nave and aisles. Fundraising for its completion began in 1906 and plans were drawn up by Pugin & Pugin, successor practice to E.W. Pugin. A contract was let in July 1908, and the tower was completed for the solemn re-opening on 27 October 1909. It appears likely that the east end was built at the same time; this has seven gables, each surmounted by a stone cross.

The interior continued to be enriched with new fittings. In 1913-14 stained glass windows were installed in the baptistery by the widow of Edward Gannen, and in 1914 a marble and alabaster high altar was erected by Canon Thornton in memory of his parents, incorporating the earlier tabernacle (the altar is probably by Pugin & Pugin, but this has not been established). The alabaster altar rails may also date from this time. In 1923 a stone war memorial was unveiled outside the church, and electric light was installed in the church.

Canon Thornton died in 1934; the Lady Chapel was redecorated and panelling and a screen erected there in his memory.  Soon afterwards, the organ was moved from the gallery to the nuns’ chapel, and the sanctuary enlarged, with the altar rails moved forward and a new pulpit and stalls fitted; this work was completed in 1936. In 1937 new Stations of the Cross were blessed by Bishop McCormack. The church was consecrated by Bishop Cunningham on 23 September 1959.

On 13 January 1985 the church was damaged by fire. Jack Lynn, architect, directed the restoration, with steel trusses replacing the original timber roof. Externally, the roof was rebuilt in its original form, clad with Westmorland slates from the recently-demolished church of St Patrick, Sunderland. Inside, the steelwork was concealed by a groin vaulted plaster ceiling, offering improved acoustics. The sanctuary level was raised by about one foot. The high altar, which had escaped damage, was retained (it had already been separated from its reredos in a post-Vatican II reordering) and the pulpit adapted to form a lectern, with some elements incorporated in a new presidential chair. The Canon Thornton memorial screen between the sanctuary and Lady Chapel was removed and the alabaster altar rails reset in front of the reredos and tabernacle at the east end. Improvements were also made at the west end, with the enclosing of the underside of the gallery to form a ‘cry room’. A new sacristy, heating, lighting and accessible WC were installed.


The list entry  (below) adequately describes the exterior of the church. There is one correction: the tower was added in 1908-09, not 1909-10. The list entry does not suggest that the apsidal sanctuary was added at this time, but early photographic evidence suggests that it was – this would benefit from further research.

The church was listed soon after the fire of 1985, and the list description of the interior is brief. As stated, it has plastered walls, pink granite columns (of polished pink Aberdeen granite) and sandstone ashlar dressings. The five-bay arcade has two-centred arches on round columns with ballflower capitals and dripmoulds. Above this is a clerestory with circular windows with cinquefoil tracery, and a modern plaster groin vaulted ceiling springing from plain square corbels.  The eastern bay of the nave has paired clerestory windows, separated by columnar wall shafts with angel corbels. To the east of this is a short canted apse, with large two light windows over the alabaster reredos of 1914. The former Lady Chapel lies to the south of the sanctuary, now separated off to form a parish room. At the west end of the nave, E.W. Pugin’s gallery survives, with an organ above and the underside enclosed to form a narthex.

The main fittings include:

  • An elaborate painted and gilded stone high altar ensemble of 1914, probably by Pugin & Pugin. The reredos is now separated from its altar, and has inset marble panels, painted scenes from the life of St Godric and polychrome statues of St Robert of Newminster, St Thomas of Canterbury, St Anne and St Godric. Alabaster gradine and tabernacle surround, with tabernacle of c1895. Immediately in front, masking the scar from the relocation of the altar, are reset alabaster communion rails, with others in front enclosing the apsidal east end. The alabaster altar, now brought forward, has an arcaded frontal with inset angles flanking a central Agnus Dei, on gilded background. 
  • Lectern and presidential chair, incorporating elements from the pulpit of 1936.
  • Stone font of c1895 with circular bowl supported on four polished red marble columns, relocated from the baptistery to the nave, minus its base.
  • Plain deal pews in the nave.
  • The Buildings of England mentions a paschal candlestick, possibly by Hardman (not seen).

Stained glass:

  • In the apse, the central window depicts Our Lady and St Mary Magdalene’s apparition to St Godric, with a representation of Finchale Priory in the tracery. The window to its left contains figures of St William of York and St Ralph, ninth century Bishop of Bourges, in memory of the Very Rev. Dr William Fletcher (d. 1856) and the Very Rev. Ralph Platt, the first two Provosts of the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle. The inscription under Fr Platt records that he ‘commenced the building of this church [and] completed the first portion of it’.  In the tracery above is a representation of Hexham Abbey. The right hand window contains representations of St Cuthbert and St Bede, with Durham Cathedral in the tracery. The windows are not signed. 
  • In the adjoining former Lady Chapel, Coronation of the Virgin, c1895, in memory of Thomas Madden, d.1895. Unsigned, in the style of Burlison & Grylls.  Also good glass in the east window, depicting St Joseph, Our Lady, St Anne (?) and St Elizabeth (?).
  • In the former baptistery at the west end,  two pairs of windows given by the widow of Edward Gannen c 1913.
  • The clerestory windows have pale coloured glass belonging to the 1980s restoration.

List description


Roman Catholic parish church. 1864 by Edward Welby Pugin; tower 1909-10 by Pugin and Pugin. Coursed squared sandstone with ashlar plinth and dressings; roof destroyed by fire. West tower; nave and chancel with north aisle and east apse. Gothic style. 4-stage tower has north door: 9 panels with mouchette-traceried overlight in 2-centred moulded arch; tall transomed windows above have 2 lights with dagger tracery; 2 tall slits above these; top stage has tall paired belfry openings with cusping below trefoil top lights. Set-back buttresses with offsets; niche in north-west angle has statue of saint. Floor strings; top arcaded corbelling to pierced parapet with large corner pinnacles. Paired aisle windows under cinquefoil clerestory lights; easternmost 2 are larger and under gables with elaborate cross finials; similar gables over 2-light windows of 3-sided apse; linking moulded coping has gargoyles. Stepped continuous sill string. Interior: plaster; pink granite columns and sandstone ashlar dressings. 5-bay arcade has 2-centred arches on round columns with ballflower capitals. Dripmoulds. Roof missing and interior damaged by fire at time of survey.

Heritage Details

Architect: E. W. Pugin; Pugin & Pugin; Jack Lynn

Original Date: 1864

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Grade II