Rothamsted Avenue, Harpenden, Hertfordshire AL5
A late, refined essay in Perpendicular Gothic by the prolific Catholic architect F. A. Walters. The tower is in the Hertfordshire idiom, being square and short, with a needle spire. Inside, the church is richly furnished from Walters’ designs, with stone carving by Earp & Hobbs and stained glass by Burlison & Grylls, A. A. Orr and others. The church lies within the Harpenden Conservation Area, close to the medieval parish church of St Nicholas.
In 1905 a corrugated iron chapel was opened in Rothamsted Avenue, to minister to the small band of Catholics in Harpenden. This was served by priests from St Albans; the intention was that a permanent church would follow as numbers and funding allowed. In 1919 Fr Bernard Longstaff was appointed first resident priest, and his first action was to acquire a house in Kirkwick Avenue to serve as the presbytery. In 1920 he brought a community of Dominican nuns to Harpenden, who established a convent and school. He then secured the purchase of the land adjoining the presbytery for the building of a permanent church. In 1923 Harpenden was formally erected as a parish, and a fund was opened for the building of the new church. The designs of at least two architects – not named in his parish history – did not find favour with Fr Longstaff, who had clear ideas about what sort of church he wanted, until the well-known and like-minded Catholic architect F. A. Walters (who had recently completed additions to the chapel at St Edmund’s College, Old Hall Green) was asked to prepare designs in 1927. ‘He at once seemed to recognise what was wanted in style, and material, and he has succeeded in creating a really beautiful church, dignified and graceful in design and a masterpiece of construction’ (parish history, 29).
The foundation stone was blessed by Cardinal Bourne on 4 August 1928 and the church was solemnly opened by the cardinal on 26 September 1929. The cost of the church was about £20,000; construction was supervised by Mr Eric White, from Walters’ office, and the contractors were J. Longley & Co. of Crawley, Sussex. Walters designed all the major furnishings: high altar and reredos, pulpit, Lady Chapel altar and baptistery. The stone carving was by Earp & Hobbs of Lambeth and the oak screen in the Lady Chapel by Messrs Longley & Co. Over time the church was enriched with stained glass by T. H. (‘Harry’) Grylls of Burlison & Grylls and Arthur A. Orr and F. D. Humphreys and others. A second-hand organ was acquired for the organ gallery overlooking the sanctuary. Free of debt, the church was consecrated by Cardinal Hinsley on 28 May 1936.
In 1975, reordering by Francis Bartlett involved changing the sanctuary levels to allow the altar to be separated from its reredos and brought forward, relocation of the pulpit from the nave to the chancel arch, and the removal of the gates and a section of the communion rail. The organ and choir were relocated to the gallery at the west end, and the organ gallery enclosed. In 1989 Winkley & Associates prepared plans for the remodelling of the sacristy area at the east end (ground and first floor), and for the relocation of the font from the baptistery to the west end of the nave, with a new spiral stair from the baptistery to an enlarged organ gallery in the tower.
More recently, a much more radical scheme has been implemented (although having relatively little final impact on the appearance of the church). This has involved the excavation of the nave and the creation of new meeting rooms and other facilities in a new undercroft below the church, reached externally via new steps outside the church at the west end, and internally from a lift in the tower area. A new oak woodblock floor has been laid, incorporating underfloor heating, and the benches reinstated. New glass entrance doors and an extended gallery with glass frontal have also been installed in the tower area. This work, for which the contract sum was £669,000, was completed in 2011; the architects were Kyle Smart Associates of Sewell, near Dunstable, in conjunction with Linda Tait of Tait Design Ltd, Harpenden.
The church is orientated north-south, but this description follows conventional liturgical orientation, i.e. as if the altar were at the east end.
The church is in Perpendicular Gothic style, and consists of a western tower with baptistery to the north and flush porch to the south, aisled nave (its western bay wider and with a taller arch, forming flush transepts), sanctuary with Lady Chapel to the south and sacristies to the east, the latter reached by a passage on the north side of the sanctuary (originally with organ loft over). The church is externally faced in Bath stone, laid in random courses, with slate roofs (described in the parish history of 1936 as ‘Cornish green and brown slates’). The total internal length is 97 ft 6 ins and the width 42 ft, while the height of the nave is 31 ft.
The 50 ft tower is in the Hertfordshire style and is of three stages. It has corner buttresses with offsets, that on the right (south) incorporating the foundation stone. The entrance doors are flanked by carved figures of St Thomas More and St Nicholas in canopied niches. The second stage of the tower has two two-light windows with Perp tracery flanking a central figure of Our Lady in a canopied niche. The third (belfry stage) has two two-light cusped openings with louvres. Above the embattled parapet is a copper-covered spire topped by a weathercock with cross keys (symbols of St Peter). A porch with aide door gives off the south side of the tower. Protruding in front of the tower are the new glass panels marking the sides of the stone stairs down to the facilities in the undercroft. At the sides of the church, the aisle windows are each of two lights, with Perp tracery, while the taller gabled bays (transept and former organ loft on north side, transept on south side) have three-light windows. At the east end there is a high five-light window, with the sacristies below.
Inside, the tower area is as recently remodelled, with lift down to the undercroft, and new screen doors to the tower, incorporating an etched glass design. The main space of the nave consists of a three-bay arcade with octagonal Bath stone piers and arcade, and a coved and panelled ceiling with moulded ribs and cornices, all in unvarnished pine. The wall surfaces are plastered and painted. At the transepts the arcades are taller and the timber ceiling over the crossing rib vaulted. The chancel is higher than the nave, and has two two-light clerestory windows on the south side and one on the north, as well as the high five-light east window. The timber ceiling is similar to that in the nave, but shallower in profile.
The church is relatively unaltered and retains its chief liturgical furnishings, designed by the architect but in some cases adapted. The church feature of the interior is the high altar and reredos (now separated), made by Earp & Hobbs. They are of Seaton stone, with the mensa and some other trim of black marble. The altar frontal has a richly-carved central panel of the Agnus Dei and blind traceried panels at the corners. In the reredos, the original super-altar has traceried panels with emblems of the Passion. Placed upon this at the centre, the tabernacle has a metal repousse door, gilded with enamels. Above this, the reredos covers the entire east wall up to the window; it has a central monstrance throne with a tall canopy, flanked on either side by saints under canopies: from left to right, Saints Lucy, Owen, Leonard, Helena, Bernard and Agnes. Above them is an embattle cornice.
The communion rails survive only in part. They are also in Heaton stone, with Hoptonwood marble top and are ornamented with panels depicting the emblems of the Blessed Sacrament. On the south side is an inscription requesting prayers for the donors, E. St G. Mivart and M. Mivart (possibly related to St George Jackson Mivart, the Catholic biologist whose theories about evolution found favour neither with his adopted Church nor with the Darwinists). On the north side is the (relocated) pulpit, of Seaton stone, with four traceried panels and high relief carvings of the emblems of the Evangelists.
An oak Gothic screen divides the Lady Chapel from the south aisle. The Lady Chapel was erected by Mrs Stowell in memory of her husband, Lt. Wilfrid Stowell, killed in action in 1918. Like the high altar, the Lady Chapel altar is of Seaton stone, with a black marble mensa and trim. At its centre is a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, flanked by St Anne and St Joachim, all under rich canopies and crowned by a cornice.
The baptistery, at the west end of the north aisle, was fitted out from a legacy of over £2,000 from Mrs Emily Upperton (d. 1928). It retains its wrought iron, painted and gilded gates and marble floor. However the font is now at the west end of the nave, where it also serves as a holy water stoup, and an enclosed stair to the organ loft (accessed from the tower area) has been formed within the former baptistery area. The relocated font is also of Seaton stone, octagonal in form, on a marble step. The bowl is supported by angels with traceried panels, the centre one depicting the Baptism of Christ.
The subjects for the stained glass windows were chosen by F. A. Walters, and several were installed before his death in 1931:
In the aisles, a series of two-light windows depicting the English Martyrs. Starting on the north side, working from east to west:
In the south aisle, from east to west:
At the west end:
The other furnishings most worthy of note are the Stations of the Cross, high relief polychrome panels executed in composition by the Belgian sculptor Alois de Beule (1861-1935) and original to the church.
The church, gate piers and railings were listed Grade II in 2017, following Taking Stock. List description at: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1430712
Architect: F. A. Walters
Original Date: 1928
Conservation Area: Yes
Listed Grade: Grade II