Building » Ipswich – St Mary

Ipswich – St Mary

Woodbridge Road, Ipswich, Suffolk, IP4 4BD

The site of the oldest post-Reformation place of Catholic worship in Ipswich, developed from a small chapel of 1827 which was enlarged and given a Gothic remodelling in 1838. This became a parish hall in 1976 when a larger church, built behind it in 1960 as a convent and school chapel, became the parish church. The site is of considerable historical interest and some architectural interest, but the disparate elements do not cohere particularly well. The current church has a good interior but is undistinguished externally and has no townscape presence.

According to a local tradition, a Catholic chapel was fitted up in the Ancient House (Sparrowe’s House), Buttermarket, during the civil war. During the reign of the Catholic James II a chapel was set up in the nearby house of Anthony Milton (now demolished).

The modern Catholic mission at Ipswich originated in 1793, when Abbé Louis Pierre Simon arrived, a religious refugee from the French Revolution. He was given lodgings and a room to say Mass in the home of Miss Margaret Wood in Silent Street. At the end of the revolutionary wars Abbé Simon went back to France to settle his affairs, before returning to Ipswich, where he purchased a house and five acres in Albion Hill (Woodbridge Road), on the eastern outskirts of the town. Here he turned one room into a temporary chapel until local objections– this being a staunchly Protestant town – had been sufficiently overcome to allow a small chapel to be built next to the house. Dedicated to St Anthony, this was consecrated on 1 August 1827 by Dr Walsh, Vicar Apostolic of the Midland District.

The circumstances being more propitious, this chapel was considerably enlarged just over ten years later. The original structure formed the transepts of the new church, which faced onto Woodbridge Road. The additions were in lancet Gothic style, and stylistic similarities with the church of St Lawrence, East Donyland, Essex (1837-8) suggest this was the work of William Mason of Ipswich (Colvin and Bettley). Built entirely at Abbé Simon’s expense and dedicated to St Mary, the enlarged building was opened by Dr Walsh on 10 October 1838. Abbé Simon died in 1839 and Margaret Wood in 1841; both are commemorated in marble monuments in the 1838 church.

The church was then served by priests from Stoke by Nayland and Bury St Edmunds until 1854, when Fr Kemp from Stoke by Nayland settled in Ipswich. In 1860 the Sisters of Jesus and Mary from Lyons were invited to Ipswich by Dr Amherst, Bishop of Northampton; they established an orphanage in 1861, and later an elementary school and a boarding school. Additions were made for the Sisters by George Goldie, who had built a chapel for the Benedictine nuns at East Bergholt in 1858-9 and also prepared the designs for the town centre church of St Pancras (qv), which at first was administered jointly with St Mary’s. They became separate parishes in 1919.

Between the wars the Sisters acquired the nearby house of Holmewood to extend the school facilities, and in 1960, the centenary year of the Sisters at Ipswich, a new convent and school chapel was opened, built from designs by Purcell & Johnson. In 1976 the parish acquired this chapel to serve as the parish church, and the 1827/1838 church became a parish hall.

In 1988 the porch area of the 1960 church was extended, with a large repository WCs and a glazed screen with views into the church. In 1996 the school moved away, and the site was redeveloped with new housing, involving the demolition of most of the school buildings. One of these adjoined the liturgical west end of the church, and its removal required the redesign and reconfiguration of that end. A ramped approach to the church was also created. This work was carried out between 2003 and 2005; the architects were Wearing, Hastings & Norton of Norwich (Ipswich Borough Council planning website). The Sisters of Jesus and Mary still maintain a presence, and the convent buildings alongside the parish hall were refurbished in 2013. 


Both the original church (now parish hall) and the present church are described here. They are respectively orientated north-south and south-north, but this description assumes conventional liturgical orientation, i.e. in both cases as if the sanctuary were to the east.

The 1827/1838 church

The original church faces onto Woodbridge Road. It is faced in white gault brick on the two most public elevations (west and south), while the north (towards the presbytery) and rear elevations (including the transepts, representing the original church) are faced in red brick. The roofs are of slate, with terracotta ridge tiles. The west front to Woodbridge Road is lively, with a projecting porch with steeply gabled buttresses, corner buttresses which continue upwards as tall obelisk finials, and blind and stepped lancet openings with hoodmoulds. On the south elevation the bays are marked by stepped buttresses, with one lancet window per bay (all but one of the window frames now renewed in uPVC). The north elevation is plainer and mostly obscured by a single-storey link to the presbytery. The brickwork on the lower part of the east elevation is painted, and set against it are a modern polished marble headstone to Abbé Simon and older headstones to Margaret  Wood and a Louisa Bianchi. In the corner of the former south transept and sanctuary is a statue of Our Lady, erected by the Sisters ‘in gratitude for protection’ in two World Wars (inscription).

The plan is cruciform, originally consisted of a wide aisleless nave, short transepts (with the altar of the 1827 church in the north transept) and a short sanctuary. The interior has been considerably altered to facilitate its current use as a parish hall, with a new timber floor and suspended ceiling, the latter obscuring the original roof and some of the architectural detail. Nevertheless it is still possible to discern the remains of the original (Classical) reredos in the north transept, and the Gothic reredos of 1838 at the east end. The marble Classical monument to Abbé Simon is mounted on the south wall of the nave, and that to Margaret Wood on the north wall. There is also a stained glass window of Our Lady of Czestochowa, installed by the local Polish community shortly before the building closed for worship.

The 1959-60 church

This is located behind the original church, separated by a small yard area. It is built of pale brick, with a shallow-pitched roof clad with metal sheeting. It consists of a four-bay nave and a narrower sanctuary of one bay. The bays divisions are marked by brick buttresses, the recessed wall faces between with continuous strips of five clerestory lights under segmental heads, with opaque glass and uPVC frames renewed in 2019. Below the windows the bays are enlivened by a pattern of projecting red brick headers. Flat-roofed single storey sacristies lead off both sides of the eastern bay of the nave. That to the north has a large attached memorial to deceased Sisters of Jesus and Mary on its east elevation. The sanctuary is lit by taller triple lights, also segmental headed, while a large cross is placed against the windowless east wall. At the west end, a modern ramp leads up to the gabled entrance bay and ancillary facilities added in 1998. The remodelled west end of c.2003 is vaguely classical, of brick and render, with a slightly projecting central bay. The curious design creates a screen effect, concealing (from the liturgical west at least) the rather muddled assemblage behind. 

At the main entrance, a stained glass window over the door is by Jim Budd of Kington, Herefordshire. This leads into the spacious narthex area, with doors giving off to the ancillary accommodation. A wall-mounted plaque records the centenary of the Sisters and the building of the chapel. After the muddle of the exterior and its various accretions, the internal space is calming and coherent. It is a single, aisleless volume, with a lightweight roof structure. The layout reflects the building’s original dual-purpose function as a convent and school chapel, with the nuns’ stalls arranged along the sides of the nave in collegiate fashion, and benches in the wide central space originally for pupils. The stalls and panelling are of Afrormosia and sycamore wood, while the benches are of oak and the woodblock floor of the nave of African mahogany. Stations of the Cross are placed on the panelling over the stalls, the panelling continuing at the west end, above which an organ gallery has pipes prominently built into its front.

At the east end a wide segmental chancel arch leads into the short sanctuary, which is raised on two steps and side-lit. The east wall has a slight curve on its inner face, with slender pilasters and an entablature of Derbyshire alabaster, the latter inscribed with the Sisters’ motto LAUDENTUR SEMPER JESUS ET MARIA (Praised forever be Jesus and Mary). The forward altar is of table form, of Ashburton marble from Devon, while the sanctuary floor is of polished Portland stone with a skirting of grey Italian marble. Furnishings from the old church include a crucifix behind the altar, and two pew fronts, which appear to be the old communion rails.

Heritage Details

Architect: William Mason

Original Date: 1838

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not Listed