Heol y Dderwen, Llangollen, LL20 8NR
As a church that has been converted from a shop by voluntary labour working under the direction of its cultured parish priest, Holy Cross has local value and interest. It also has architectural value deriving from the pleasure of stepping from a traditional shopping street into its quiet and simple interior, and from the unusual quality of its craftsmanship.
With the evacuation of families from Liverpool to North Wales during World War II, Llangollen saw an increase in its Catholic population. As a result the town, together with Chirk, was established as a parish and Fr Patrick Shannon was appointed as the first priest. Initially Fr Shannon held Masses in a room at the Grapes Inn, then in 1947 he bought a small site on the lower slope of Castle Hill and built a wooden chapel for £350. In reference to Valle Crucis, the nearby Cistercian abbey founded in 1201, it was named the chapel of the Holy Cross. The chapel was only ever seen as a temporary building, but Fr Shannon died in 1956, and it was left to his successor Fr Cyril Schwarz to create a permanent replacement. In 1957 the resourceful Fr Schwarz bought a former hardware shop in Oak Street at the heart of the town, together with a small warehouse at the rear and a house alongside. Work began to convert the property in 1958, carried out by volunteers, with Fr Schwarz acting as foreman. The Mold architect Frederick Roberts and contractor E. Marshall of Marshall Bros of Liverpool gave their time free of charge. On average 25 men worked on the building in any week, many during the late afternoon and evening after completing their day jobs. They laid 32 tons of concrete and 9,000 bricks. The Cefn stone altar weighing one ton was cut out of a disused stone quarry discovered by Fr Schwarz, with the consent of the owner.
The opening took place on 27 August 1961. After celebrating Pontifical High Mass at the wooden chapel on Castle Hill, Bishop Petit of Menevia led a procession through the town ‘ … accompanied by a blaze of colour of Papal Knights of the Holy Sepulchre and St Gregory in their resplendent uniforms followed by clergy and religious and thousands of his flock’ (The Universe).
Today the parish priest resides at Ruabon and serves three churches (Chirk, Llangollen and Ruabon). The church at Ruabon belongs to the Church in Wales, and is not included in this review.
The conversion scheme from shop to church involved opening up the interior to form the nave, and taking down the back wall and extending it to create the sanctuary. Most of the first floor, the rear staircase and internal walls were removed, leaving galleries to the north and west, which are reached via a staircase in the northwest corner. To the south at gallery level is a projecting balcony with a doorway leading directly from the first floor of the house so as to provide a kind of oratory for the priest.
The sanctuary is raised up by four steps and is illuminated by indirect lighting from above. In response to the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), it was decided that rather than moving the altar forward, the sanctuary should be extended back by a metre – knocking down and rebuilding the rear wall, a project once again carried out by volunteers. The internal fitting and furnishings are simple but exceptionally well crafted. The crucifix on the east wall is set against a plain reredos of figured wood that acts also as a tester. The balconies are also faced in wood, and fitted with hand-forged rails with openwork, scalloped and spiral decoration. The pews are of oak and the floor is pine parquet. A reliquary set into the east wall includes a fragment of the true cross inset in a silver cross. Within the small sacristy, which is down some steps to the right of the sanctuary is an interesting timber door incorporating oak panels, two of which include crests, one carved and the other painted. The carved panel has the motto Auxilium Meum a Domino (My help from the Lord) and the painted one Primum quaerite Regnum Dei (Seek first the Kingdom of God). While their origin is not known, they appear to date from the nineteenth or early twentieth century, and may represent the crests of Welsh bishops.
It seems that the treatment of the street frontage was a subject of some debate at the time of the conversion. Since it stands in a street of traditional shopfronts, it was decided to give it a modest presence. Indeed the only clue to the building’s identity is the simple crucifix and the seven sacramental symbols inscribed into the metal fascia above the doorway. The brick wall below this is recessed with central doorway flanked by windows, and above is a band of windows with stone mullions that light the west gallery. The wall is otherwise pebbledash rendered in the local manner.
Architect: Frederick Roberts (conversion)
Original Date: 1958
Conservation Area: Yes
Listed Grade: Not Listed