Building » Highbury – St Joan of Arc

Highbury – St Joan of Arc

Highbury Park, London N5

A large post-war church built just before the Second Vatican Council. In the opinion of The Buildings of England this is ‘one of Islington’s best post-war churches’. The broad five-bay nave has transverse parabolic arches with a roof of exposed rafters and purlins. There are several original and historic furnishings, as well as a series of stained glass panels. The bell tower has landmark value.

A convent of Discalced Carmelites was established in 1918 at 64 Highbury Park, where the first services in the area were held. A temporary church was built nearby in Kelross Road (east of Rosa Alba Mews) for 140 people in 1920 and opened on 13 October that year. This was possibly the first church to be dedicated to St Joan of Arc, who was only canonised on 16 May 1920. This temporary church was extended in 1925. The Sperati family gave a house to be used as a presbytery.

The Carmelite convent closed in about 1953 after the buildings suffered war damage, and the site became the location for the present church. The architects Walters & Kerr Bate produced several alternative designs, including a more historicising stone-faced church without tower (1955) and a design with a fan-shaped auditorium and a northwest tower (c.1956). The final designs are dated April 1959.

Work on site started in October 1960. The foundation stone was laid by Cardinal Godfrey on 30 May 1961, St Joan of Arc’s feast day. The church was blessed by the parish priest, Fr Tollemache, on 19 April 1962 and officially opened by Bishop Cashman on 23 September 1962. The builders were Whyatt Builders of Streatham. The church was not provided with a permanent altar, this being the time of the Second Vatican Council, when the future direction of the liturgy was not yet clear. The temporary church became the hall in 1962 but has since been replaced by a modern Community Centre. In 1965, the presbytery was completed by Walters & Kerr Bate, the final stage after the church and school.

For the consecration on 14 June 2001 by Cardinal Cormac Murphy O‘Connor, Ned Campbell, designer and parishioner, designed a new altar (made by Ormesby of Scarisbrick), tabernacle stand and internal ramp (constructed by Gormley Marble) at the northwest. At the same time, the church was refurbished and the northwest nave arch was closed by the installation of a large semi-circular sunburst window.


The church is faced with brown Dutch bricks, and the window dressings are of Bath and Clipsham stone. The nave and side chapel have a pitched roofs covered in tiles, while the aisles have copper roofs and the sacristies at the east and southeast have a flat roof. The plan is cruciform, of a nave with passage aisles, a northwest tower, transepts and a northeast side chapel.

The west elevation is nearly triangular as the roof slopes continue down to just above the north and south entrances. The central portion with the west window is slightly recessed. Seven short lancets light the ground floor, with seven lancets above to the gallery. Like all windows in the church, they have concave triangular window heads, a device which Walters & Kerr Bate also used in other churches, such as St Catherine Labouré, Woolwich (1961). (Evinson describes the windows as ‘neo-Perpendicular’.) Above the upper row is a triangular window, divided by two central mullions which structure the whole window, with the outer mullions continuing to the window frame and the middle mullions terminating half-way.

The tower just east of the northwest corner of the church has diagonal buttresses which support a copper-clad pyramidal roof. The finial of the tower was apparently the first radioactive lightning preventer in England. Between the buttresses are windows below long vertical openings with bell louvres. The tower holds one bell, cast by the Whitechapel foundry.

The narthex at the west end has a small stained glass window of St Joan of Arc, originally from a demolished school chapel. Glass doors lead to a flight of steps and a curving ramp (Ned Campbell, c.2001) down into the nave, with holy water stoups set into the balustrades. A plinth at the northwest has a memorial stone to Fr Bert Veal (died 2005) as well as a perspex statue of St Joan of Arc by Arthur Fleischmann (1962) and a smaller statue of the saint. The organ gallery above slightly projects into the nave with the organ pipes (J.W. Walker & Sons Ltd, 1963) arranged on either end of the gallery front.

The broad five-bay nave has transverse parabolic arches with a roof of exposed rafters and purlins. Above the collar-beam, the arch is cut away, exposing a kind of queen-post construction. An arcade of semi-circular arches with grooved soffits rises straight from the ground to divide the nave from the narrow passage aisles. The lean-to aisles have exposed rafters and transverse quadrant arches. The interior walls are plastered apart from the stone windows. The easternmost bays of the aisles have built-in confessionals, with statues of Saints Anthony, Jude, Patrick and (Padre) Pio.

The northwest nave arch is filled with modern glass (c.2001) depicting a sunburst. Each aisle and clerestory bay has a window of seven lights with two small panels of stained glass depicting ecclesiastical symbols (A.E. Buss of Goddard & Gibbs, 1963, forty four panels in the whole church).

The north transept has a three-light window and a plain timber altar with statues of St Theresa and St Martin de Porres. The apex of the Lady Chapel’s exposed roof is painted with a band of golden stars on a blue background, with blue and gold patterns on the cornices. It has a large seven-light window to the sanctuary, enabling it to be used as a children’s chapel. It is also used as a weekday chapel, with a forward altar. The Lady altar of cream and Belgian black marble was reputedly the main altar in the Carmelite convent on this site. A statue of the Virgin with the Child (Ferdinando Stuflesser, Ortisei) is placed behind the tabernacle. The piscina to the south is decorated with blue and gold mosaic.

The two-bay sanctuary has two windows of four lights, again with two stained glass panels. Placed on either end of the green marble sanctuary steps are two ambos of Ancaster stone, the northern one with the foundation stone. The straight east end is enlivened by a canted screen similar to a triptych with an inset gold mosaic piscina. The tabernacle stand and the altar are of stone and marble (Ned Campbell, c.2001), replacing two timber altars. The Gothic octagonal stone font at the southeast probably dates from the temporary church.

The walls of the former baptistery (now a side chapel) at the southwest are decorated with fibreglass reliefs depicting angels and children and the hand of God (in memory of L.G. Parisi, who died in 1966). On an altar at the west end are statues of St Joseph the Worker (Ferdinando Stuflesser), the Sacred Heart and the Virgin Mary. To the east is a window of three lights. The Stations are unframed reliefs in the style of Burns Oates (1960s).

Heritage Details

Architect: Stanley Kerr Bate of Walters & Kerr Bate

Original Date: 1962

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not Listed