Building » Durham – St Cuthbert

Durham – St Cuthbert

Old Elvet, Durham, Co. Durham DH1

One of the oldest Catholic churches in the diocese still in use for regular worship. The building slightly predates Catholic Emancipation (1829) and although not large is an expression of resurgent Catholic confidence. As with Bonomi’s bigger and later church at Sunderland, the style is Perpendicular Gothic and the interior essentially Georgian, being a single, galleried volume. The presbytery was built at the same time, while the west tower was added in the 1860s. The church and presbytery make a notable contribution to the Durham City Conservation Area, and lie close to Bonomi’s earlier neoclassical assize and gaol buildings. 

There were Catholic Mass centres in and around Durham throughout the penal times. After the accession of the Catholic James II,  the Jesuits built a chapel in the city, but this was burnt down by a mob at the time of the Revolution of 1688. In 1717 two Jesuits bought 44-45 Old Elvet, to serve as a residence with private chapel. There was also a chapel served by secular priests at 33 Old Elvet; the area was known as ‘Popish Elvet’. From 1795 to 1821 the Vicar Apostolic of the Northern District, William Gibson, lived at the Elvet secular mission with Thomas Smith, his auxiliary and successor. In the 1820s the two congregations combined and a new church with attached presbytery was built, served by secular clergy, at the east end of Old Elvet. This was designed in Perpendicular Gothic style by Ignatius Bonomi, who in 1809-11 had been architect of the neoclassical Assize Court and prison, opposite the site of the future church. Work began in April 1826 and the church was opened by Bishop Smith, Vicar Apostolic of the Northern District on 31 May 1827 amidst great ceremony (a Mozart Mass sung by fifteen musicians from Madame Tussaud’s exhibition and theatre).

Although Catholic church building had been legal since 1790, building projects were often greeted with local hostility. This seems not to have been the case with St Cuthbert’s, despite the clearly-declared function of the building and its prominence – testament to the long-established nature and tolerance towards Catholicism in the city. Bonomi’s original plan was for a church whose internal measurements were seventy feet in length, thirty feet in width and thirty feet in height.

Early descriptions of the church refer to two galleries and to a gallery around three sides of the interior. Soon after his appointment in 1868, Canon Edward Consitt removed the galleries except for that at the west end. He also installed a reredos, carved by Moody of Durham, and a rood, the carved figures coming from Munich. He added a Lady Chapel on the south side of the church and, most significantly, built a west tower.

In about 1903 the church boundary wall was rebuilt by Fr William (Canon) Brown and ornamental iron gates installed at the church entrance. Inside the church, Canon Brown oversaw the introduction of an alabaster high altar, replacing the previous timber one and allowing the church to be consecrated on 20 July 1910.

In 1926, alterations were carried out in the entrance area, with a new tiled floor and a central entrance replacing twin doors. Stations of the Cross were installed and the sanctuary given a new parquet floor.

Post-Vatican II reordering in 1973-4 saw the moving of the font to the back of the church, and the enclosure with a double glazed screen of the former baptistery to form a ‘crying room’. The altar rails were removed and the alabaster high altar brought forward and reduced in size. More recently, a reconciliation room has been formed under the gallery on the south side. New furnishings have included small stained glass windows in the narrow lancet windows in the reconciliation room by Fenwick Lawson, who was a parishioner (from a design by Benedict Holmes, who died aged 16, c1990); another on the north side at the west end (to George and Agnes Finnigan, d. 1987, by Mike Davis; and, in the sanctuary, an oak ambo in memory of Kate Miller by Fenwick Lawson (1995), with an incised design of the Dove of the Holy Spirit descending.

A school was built in 1845 behind 33 Old Elvet. This became the University Catholic Chaplaincy in 1963 and more recently has been sold. A small building at the back of the church and presbytery has been updated to serve as a parish hall and the University Catholic Chaplaincy. In September 2012 the running of the parish (and of the chaplaincy) was entrusted to the Dominicans.


The church and presbytery are described in the list entry, below. Further information is given above.

The list entry states that the presbytery has an older core; the interior has not been inspected, but all the documentary evidence suggests that it was built from scratch by Bonomi. It gives the designer of the Lady Chapel window as H.M. Bennett of Newcastle, presumably a misprint for H.M. Barnett.  The Harry Clarke window depicts St William of York, St Cuthbert (holding the head of St Oswald),  St Bede and Blessed Thomas Percy (leader of the Elizabethan Rising in the North).

List description


Roman Catholic Church and Presbytery. 1826-7 with west tower and north-east Lady Chapel added in 1869. Designed by Ignatius Bonomi. Church of worn sandstone ashlar, presbytery of snecked sandstone, both with slate roofs and rubble rear walls. Church Perpendicular style: nave, tower, short sanctuary, with northern Lady Chapel. Tower of 3 stepped stages with hollow-chamfered and moulded Tudor-arched west door with large flat-headed, traceried windows above and small single bell openings in top stage. Corbelled parapet and pyramidal roof with painted finial and vane. 4-bay nave with stepped buttress bay divisions and west angle buttresses; north side plain with entrance in 3rd bay. South side has paired, tall, pointed, traceried, transomed windows but for westernmost bay which has a slit window below the gallery. All windows under hoodmoulds. Projecting sanctuary bay on south side entirely filled by large 4-light, square-headed, traceried transomed window; pent extruded, porch below with Gothic glazed windows. Parapet with roll mouldings continuous above 3-storeyed, 2-bay presbytery to south-east: Chamfered cross casements on ground and first-floor; projecting 2-storey canted bay on south front.

Church interior has west gallery and sanctuary panelled with traceried, Gothic woodwork with pierced parapets to side boxes, rood and reredos. The Lady Chapel has stencilled dado and east window by H.M. Bennett of Newcastle. Carved marble mensa and carved stone font; repewed in C20. 4th bay from east on south side of nave has 4-light window by Harry Clarke. Interior of Presbytery not inspected but probably has older core.

Heritage Details

Architect: Ignatius Bonomi

Original Date: 1827

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Grade II