Broad Street, Hereford, HR4 9AP
Image copyright Alex Ramsay
A fine neoclassical design by Charles Day, its design loosely based on the Athenian Treasury at Delphi, built for the Jesuits in 1837-9. The church contains many furnishings of note, and has been sensitively restored. It makes a powerful contribution to the Central Conservation Area.
Catholic observance continued in and around Hereford throughout penal times. In 1626 George Berrington OSB and George Hanmer SJ, ‘two Romish priests who do lurk near Hereford’, managed to evade capture. However, John Kemble was not so lucky; falsely implicated in the bogus Titus Oates plot, he was executed at Widemarsh Common, Hereford in 1679. Kemble is one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales canonised by Pope Paul VI in 1970; one of his hands is preserved as a relic in the present church. This is the successor to a chapel in Broad Street, built or adapted from an existing house by the Rev. William Horn SJ, former chaplain to the Monnington family of Sarnesfield. Purportedly on the site of a pre-Reformation convent, this was licensed ‘as a public chapel or place of worship for the exercise of the Popish religion’ in October 1791, very soon after the building of public places of Catholic worship was sanctioned by the Second Catholic Relief Act.
The present neoclassical church, dedicated to the great Jesuit missionary St Francis Xavier, was built in 1837-9 by the Rev. Richard Boyle SJ. Along with the adjoining presbytery, it was built from designs by the London architect Charles Day, and is almost identical to Day’s contemporary church at Bury St Edmunds (also for the Jesuits). The foundation stone was laid on 19 September 1837 and the church was opened on 7 and 8 August 1839, when High Mass was sung by the Rt Rev. Peter Baines, Vicar Apostolic of the Western District (and a keen promoter of classical architecture, unlike A. W. N. Pugin, who likened the church to ‘a pagan temple’ and a ‘Catholic concert hall’).
The church was served by the Jesuits until 1857, when it was passed to the Benedictines from Downside. In 1889 it was restored through the generosity of Mr John Lambe. In 1919 the Benedictines of nearby Belmont assumed responsibility for the parish, and in 1920 a new Lady altar was consecrated, the gift of Mrs Stewart in memory of her husband. The church was returned to the Archdiocese of Cardiff in 1953, and then back again to the Belmont Benedictines in 1992. By this time the Archbishop had decided that a new church on a new site north of the Wye was needed, one which would have space also for a presbytery, parish hall and (something lacking on Broad Street) a car park. A ‘For Sale’ sign appeared outside the church, generating a campaign against closure, spearheaded by the Friends of St Francis Xavier’s. Helped by several generous grants, the church was reprieved and carefully restored (1997-8) and redecorated and reordered (2002-3) under the direction of Peter Brownhill of Brownhill Hayward Brown Architects.
The church is a neoclassical design of 1837-9 by Charles Day of London, loosely based on the Athenian Treasury at Delphi. It has a narrow street frontage, with an imposing Greek Doric portico in antis, of two fluted columns with steps between, flanked by piers and supporting a triglyph entablature and shallow triangular pediment topped with a gilded cross. The church is of brick or timber framed construction, faced in yellow-ochre painted stucco, under a hipped slate roof. The triglyph frieze continues around the north elevation, facing towards the garden of the adjoining presbytery, with blind windows with raised eared architraves below. A later nineteenth century sacristy connects this side of the church with the presbytery.
Tall panelled entrance doors lead into a vestibule with modern glazed doors, on either side of which elegant spiral stone staircases lead up to a western choir gallery. The worship space is a single rectangular space with perimeter pilasters siting on a dado placed at the same height as the pews and a coffered ceiling. The richly polychrome decorative scheme dates from 2002-3, and was informed by investigation of historic paint layers. Natural light comes from above, largely from a dome within a raised rectangular skylight over the sanctuary.
The chief focus is the marble and gilt high altar, placed between two giant Ionic columns, its tabernacle with pillared drum and surmounting dome based on that by Bernini in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel at St Peter’s basilica, Rome. Kelly gives the designer as Fr George Jenkins SJ. In front of this, the ‘big six’ candlesticks on the gradine were the gift of Robert Plowden of Rotherwas. Flanking either side of the sanctuary are side altars, that to the right a marble Lady altar of 1920, above which the relic of St John Kemble is displayed in a gilded and glass reliquary case. Above this is a fresco of the Virgin Mary within a patterned geometrical surround. This and a corresponding mural of St Francis Xavier above the left hand altar are said to be the work of Robert Taylor, portrait painter. Placed around the sanctuary on corbels are four polychrome statues: the Sacred Heart, St Peter, St Joseph and the Virgin and Child. A brass lamp hanging over the sanctuary was the gift of Mrs Isabella Rogers, former sacristan. The sanctuary was enlarged in the recent reordering to allow for a forward altar, with the painted oak communion rails reinstated at the same time.
The handsome nave seating consists of oak benches with scrolled ends. The large high relief Stations of the Cross lining the walls of the nave are somewhat Romanesque in style and are modelled in stucco; they were designed by a Belgian artist and were exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851. At the west end is a small and somewhat incongruously gothic font, below a parish wall memorial. In the gallery is a digital organ, replacing one given in 1850 and enhanced in 1889, played many times by Sir Edward Elgar but removed in the 1980s.
Roman Catholic Church. c1839, by Charles Day. Stucco; leaded roof, with dome to rear. Greek Doric portico of 2 fluted columns supporting entablature with triglyphs on frieze, returned to sides. INTERIOR: ornate, with decorated plaster ceiling and lightwell; spiral staircase to balcony; fine alter with Ionic marble columns. HISTORY: church contains the hand of the Martyr John Keble who was hanged at Widemarsh Common in 1679.
Presbytery. Probably c1839. Brick; slate roof; brick end stacks. 2 storeys; symmetrical 3-window range: 6/6 sash in advanced bay, flanked by tripartite 2/2: 6/6: 2/2 sashes; gauged brick flat arches; stone cornice and parapet. Central entrance: 4-panel door and overlight with glazing bars, under moulded pediment hood on scrolled and fluted consoles, and moulded pilasters; flanked by similar sashes and arches. To right, single-storey wing with 8/8 sash flanked by 2/2 sashes, under gauged brick flat arches, band and simple pediment. Listing NGR: SO5094639901
Architect: Charles Day
Original Date: 1839
Conservation Area: Yes
Listed Grade: Grade II*