Building » Harlow – Our Lady of Fatima

Harlow – Our Lady of Fatima

Howard Way, Harlow, Essex CM20

  • Image copyright Alex Ramsay

  • Image copyright Alex Ramsay

A striking modern church by Gerard Goalen, notable for its dalle de verre stained glass by Dom Charles Norris and for being one of the earliest churches in England to be influenced by the Liturgical Movement.

The church was the first ecclesiastical commission for Gerard Goalen (1918-1999), an architect trained at the Liverpool School of Architecture who in the early 1950s was employed with the Harlow New Town Development Corporation. Frederick Gibberd’s masterplan for the New Town had received ministerial approval in March 1949. Churches were identified as playing an important part in the life of the new community, and sites were allocated to all the main denominations in each of the new neighbourhoods. Our Lady of Fatima is located in the major thoroughfare now known as Howard Way. Fr Francis E. Burgess, a priest of the Canons Regular of the Immaculate Conception, had been put in charge of the new parish in 1953. Goalen was recommended to him by Gibberd and Fr Burgess found in Goalen an architect who shared his passion for modern design and liturgical reform; at Liverpool, Goalen’s thesis project had been for a modern pilgrimage church, inspired by Auguste Perret’s church of Notre Dame at Raincy, near Paris (1922-3), a design he showed to Burgess.

Goalen produced a floor plan in 1953 and full designs in 1954. A model of the new church was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1956. Goalen’s design was informed by his researches and travels on the continent, where he visited notable examples of advanced liturgical design. As well as Notre Dame de Raincy, he took inspiration from Karl Moser’s St Anthony, Basel (1926), another church notable for its skeletal frame of exposed concrete and large areas of coloured glass. Our Lady of Fatima was one of the earliest examples in England of a church designed according to the principles of the liturgical movement, which sought to bring the priest and congregation closer together, allowing for full and active participation of the laity in the liturgy. On his continental travels, Albrecht Dietz’s and Bernhard Grothe’s St Mauritius in Alt-Saarbrücken, Germany (then under construction), showed Goalen the possibilities of moving away from a traditional longitudinal plan in favour of more intimate and less hierarchical forms, again with exposed concrete structure and large areas of glass. He was also strongly influenced by the churches of Rudolf Schwarz, with their emphasis on the altar placed amidst the faithful. At Harlow, Goalen adopted a T-shaped plan, with the altar placed at the crossing and seating arranged around this on three sides in the nave and transepts.

The presbytery and parish hall were built a few years before the church, from designs by Messrs Sperry & Starczewski. The foundation stone for the church was not laid until December 1958. 60% of the wall space was to be covered with glass, but the choice of glass maker was not made until quite late in the process, after building work had started. In January 1959, Fr Burgess visited the studio of Dom Charles Norris at Buckfast Abbey, where Norris was developing the modern French technique known as dalle de verre, using one inch thick slab glass set in concrete. The technique had been pioneered by Pierre Fourmaintraux (1896-1974), who came to England in the 1950s and was from 1956 chief glass designer for James Powell & Son (later Whitefriars); he is said to have taught Norris the technique. Harlow was Norris’s first venture with the technique, and is possibly the first major UK example of its use. The nave windows depict the Tree of Jesse and the Marian apparitions at Fatima, Portugal (in 1917) while the transept windows depict the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary.

The church was designed to seat 500, and the contract sum, as reported in the Catholic Building Review (1960), was £48,500 (Fr Burgess received considerable financial help from his parents). Other furnishings of note are described in the list entry (see link below).

After completing Our Lady of Fatima Goalen was able to set up his own independent architectural practice. He submitted designs for the completion of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, and although unsuccessful in this, his Harlow design indirectly influenced the winning design – in the congregation at the solemn opening Mass in 1960 was Frederick Gibberd, and Archbishop Heenan of Liverpool later recalled (in his autobiography, ‘Crown of Thorns’, 1974) that ‘Mass was a new experience for Gibberd, a Congregationalist. He found himself wondering about liturgy and ritual. Suddenly he remembered the competition for Liverpool Cathedral […] After Mass he hurried home and told his wife he intended to shut himself in his room until he had produced plans…’

The church was consecrated by Bishop Thomas McMahon of Brentwood on 25 March 1985. In 2001 it was closed due to safety concerns and in 2003 it received an EH/HLF grant for the conservation of the concrete window frames. The church was reopened following conservation works in December 2005.

Entry amended by AHP 03.08.2023


In July 2023 the church was upgraded to II*, with a revised and expanded list description. See:

Heritage Details

Architect: Gerard Goalen

Original Date: 1958

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Grade II*