Building » Monmouth – St Mary

Monmouth – St Mary

St Mary Street, Monmouth, NP25 3DB

Possibly the oldest post-Reformation public place of Catholic worship in the Archdiocese of Cardiff, built soon after the passing of the Second Catholic Relief Act in 1790. The church was extended in 1838 and again in 1870-1, the latter from designs by Benjamin Bucknall. Bucknall’s work involved the demolition of the cottages behind which the church had been originally discreetly located, and the construction of an Italian Gothic red sandstone tower, a landmark in the core of the Monmouth Conservation Area. Typically for churches of the post-Relief Act period, the interior is plain, and contains a number of furnishings and relics of note, particularly those associated with St John Kemble, a local martyr, to whom this is a place of pilgrimage.

There were many in the Monmouth area who remained loyal to the Catholic faith during penal times, supported by recusant families such as the Vaughans at Courtfield, the Gunters at Abergavenny and the Jones/Herbert family at Llanarth. Indeed, in the 1640s there were more Catholics in Monmouthshire (as a percentage of population) than in any other county in England or Wales. Missionary priests working in the area included John Kemble and David Lewis, both put to death in the wake of the Titus Oates plot (1678-81) and canonised by Pope Paul VI in 1970 as two of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. The present church contains several relics of St John Kemble, and as such is a place of pilgrimage.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, Mass was being said in Monmouth in an upper room at the Robin Hood Inn in Monnow Street (as recorded by a blue plaque on that building). The landlord was Michael Watkins, who in 1791 was (along with William Sharrock OSB, later Vicar Apostolic of the Northern District) a signatory to a petition set up for the building of a public chapel. This was permitted by local magistrates subject to the usual conditions of the (then recently-passed) Second Catholic Relief Act: that the building should not have a tower or spire, should not be prominent in public views, and that worshippers should enter the building singly rather than in groups. The church was therefore located discreetly behind a row of existing cottages on St Mary Street, entered via a passage. The chapel was completed in 1793. It therefore has claims to be the oldest post-Reformation public Catholic chapel in the present Archdiocese of Cardiff, although the chapel at Llanarth (where Bishop Sharrock was chaplain) may be earlier. The architect for the Monmouth chapel is said to have been a Mr Millward of Gloucester and the builder the above-mentioned Michael Watkins (Derricott, 16). The building was ‘little more than a spacious room, with an altar at the east end’ (early description, cited in Derricott, 16).

From 1836-51 the Monmouth mission was served by the Rev. Thomas Burgess, later the second Bishop of Clifton. He undertook ‘completion in 1838 of the sacristy with burial vault and a pleasant staircase to an upper room, and galleries around the chancel’ (op. cit, 17). The galleries presumably originally led through to galleries on either side of the nave. In 1847 Fr Grafton, a Franciscan, was buried in the vault.

Fr Burgess was succeeded by his nephew, the Rev. Thomas Burgess Abbot, whose long incumbency lasted until 1894. He enlarged the church, with additional bays at the west end and a western tower, finally giving the church a worthy street presence and requiring the demolition of the cottages in front. This took place in 1870-1 under the direction of Benjamin Bucknall, an admirer of the work of the French architect and theorist Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, whose influence can be discerned in the design of the tower and belfry. This builders were Messrs Levick and Sketch. A new school was built behind the church at the same time (this does not survive; footings of a stone wall which might have belonged to the building were uncovered during landscaping works in 2001).

There followed various internal alterations and improvements, including donation of a confessional by the Royal Monmouthshire Militia in 1875 (made by William Simmons, builder of Monmouth), redecoration in 1876, and further donations from the RMM in 1885 (brass sanctuary lamp) and retiling of the baptistery (1888). The unusual font is probably contemporary with this retiling. Enrichment of the sanctuary took place in the 1890s, including embellishment of the reredos by the artist G. Willis Pryce, but this work is now lost.

The church underwent a major renovation in 1923 (cost £2,000). In 1953 a painting of The Presentation in the Temple (by E. G. Gainsford, 1854) which had hung above the high altar was replaced by the present crucifix, made by a Polish sculptor (the painting was sold in c.1992). In 1957 a stone altar replaced the previous wooden altar and reredos. The church was redecorated in 1961, with a new wooden floor in the nave replacing raised pew platforms and tiled alleys. In the late 1960s, following the Second Vatican Council, a new stone forward altar was installed in the sanctuary, the sanctuary carpeted and the tabernacle moved to its present alcove.

The church and the adjoining presbytery were listed Grade II in 1974. Further repairs and reordering to the church took place in 1992-4, when the former Lady altar was relocated to the gallery over the sanctuary and the pulpit dismantled (its pedestal now supporting a statue of Our Lady). The central part of the communion rail was removed and the sanctuary carpet replaced by a timber floor finish.

In 2009 the church and presbytery were refurbished under the direction of Tim Pitt-Lewis, architect and parishioner. Accommodation for the parish priest was provided on the upper floors of the presbytery, while the ground floor was refurbished and extended to provide meeting rooms, with a chairlift giving step-free access to the church. The main contractor was Anthony Davis of Abergavenny. Archaeological investigations carried out at this time revealed evidence of a blocked door in to the nave predating its extension, and a medieval cottage below the presbytery.

Following a diocesan review in 2013, the parish’s formal link with St Mary and St Michael, Llanarth was severed, and Monmouth was given charge of St Frances of Rome, Ross-on-Wye (qqv).


The exterior of the building is described in the list entry (below). The east elevation (described as ‘not seen’ in the list entry) is pebbledashed, with two large sash windows with pointed arches and stone surrounds, the windows with gothick glazing.

The interior is, as the list entry states, very plain, but this is not unusual for Catholic churches of this period, which have an almost Nonconformist character. The church possesses a number of furnishings and relics of considerable interest. Non-fixed items include the twelfth century Monmouth Crucifix (now housed in the National Museum of Wales), a fourteenth century processional cross and the early sixteenth-century Monmouth chasuble, with Opus Anglicanum embroidery work. Fixed furnishings not mentioned (or mentioned only briefly) in the list entry include:

  • A sixteenth century oak table/altar, at which St John Kemble celebrated Mass at Pembridge Castle, now stands on the north side of the nave, towards the west end of the church. It is in the form of two superimposed oak benches, originally allowing for quick dismantling in times of danger. The reredos, with linenfold panelling, is said to come from the oak bed on which died Matthew Pritchard OFM (1669-1750), Vicar Apostolic of the Western District. These disparate elements were conjoined by Fr Thomas Abbot in the nineteenth century. On the altar are placed a reliquary and various other historical items associated with St John Kemble (see top right photo at head of this report).
  • Previously located oppose the Kemble altar, the former Lady altar is now in a gallery over the sanctuary. It consists of a seventeenth century oak chest, with carved front of panels with diamonds and rosettes, and a later (nineteenth century) gothic reredos.
  • There are three stained glass windows: a Raphaelesque Virgin and Child on the south side of the sanctuary, c.1840, designer unknown, brought here from the c.1840 R.C. Chapel of Coedanghred, Monmouthshire, which was demolished in 1924 (Newman, 399); a composite Victorian piece on the south side of the nave, incorporating angels, cherubs and putti, of late Georgian character, possibly from the same source; and the Incredulity of St Thomas on the north side of the nave, late nineteenth century, by John Hardman & Co.
  • The baptistery was repaved with encaustic tiles in 1888, and possibly from the same time is the iconographically unusual font, with the serpent of Eden wrapping around the stem.
  • The timber confessionals at the west end date from 1875 and were donated by the Royal Monmouthshire Engineers Militia, as recorded by an inscription around the top. They were made by William Simmons of Monmouth.
  • The list entry states that ‘there is said to be a staircase of 1837’. This presumably refers to the narrow stair from the sacristy to the first floor room at the liturgical east end, which has a turned columnar newel, plain stick balusters, closed string and moulded hardwood handrail.

List descriptions


Reference Number: 2354
Building Number:
Grade: II  
Status: Designated  
Date of Designation: 15/08/1974  
Date of Amendment: 10/08/2005  
Name of Property: Church of St. Mary R C  
Unitary Authority: Monmouthshire  
Community: Monmouth  
Town: Monmouth  
Locality: Monmouth  
Easting: 350941  
Northing: 212887  
Street Side: NE  
Location: Part of a group in the important residential street leading south-east from the parish church.  

History: 1792-3 and 1870-1. One of the earliest Roman Catholic churches to be built in Britain after such buildings were first legally permitted following the Catholic Relief Act of 1778, and the oldest church in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cardiff. Established by Michael Watkins, the then landlord of The Robin Hood Inn (qv Monnow Street). Originally a small room hidden behind cottages as the law did not allow a visible church until 1829. This church was altered in 1837, but became too small so the cottages were demolished in 1870 and the church extended by Benjamin Bucknall with completion in 1871.  

Exterior: Street elevation of coursed red sandstone rubble with Bath stone dressings and Welsh slate roofs. Plain Gothic style of a North Italian influence. Three bay front with central entrance set forward in the base of the tower. The double plank doors are recessed within a pointed Venetian Gothic arch with attached half-columns with stiff-leaf capitals. The door is flanked by 2-light windows in ashlar frames, dripmoulds over. Above the door is a window of paired tall lancets. Above this the projecting tower is supported on paired pointed arches. Open bell stage with paired openings with central colonette of Lombardic type facing in each direction, two bells. Dentil cornice, bell-cast rectangular spire, coped gable on either side of the tower. The side elevations are rendered, but clearly show the two builds with two windows of 1871 at the street end and three of 1793 to the rear, continuous roofline. The Bucknall windows are 2-light with cinquefoil heads, the earlier ones are pointed headed sashes. East elevation not seen.  

Interior: The interior is very plain with a corniced ceiling and a triple sanctuary arch, now a small apse flanked by doors, but it contains an interesting font with a serpent in alabaster probably of 1888, and also relics of Father Kemble of Welsh Newton executed at Hereford in 1679. Medieval crosses and vestments, including one made from Mrs. Gladstone’s court dress. There is said to be an 1837 staircase.  

Reason for designation: Included for its special interest as an important historic building with definite character in the Monmouth town centre and as the earliest Roman Catholic church in Cardiff Diocese.  


Reference Number: 2355
Building Number: 26  
Grade: II  
Status: Designated  
Date of Designation: 15/08/1974  
Date of Amendment: 10/08/2005  
Name of Property: St. Mary’s Presbytery  
Address: 26 St. Mary’s Street  
Unitary Authority: Monmouthshire  
Community: Monmouth  
Town: Monmouth  
Locality: Monmouth  
Easting: 350945  
Northing: 212869  
Street Side: NE  
Location: Part of a group in the important residential street leading south-east from the parish church.  

History: Late C18 or early C19, probably very near to 1800 and possibly built as two pairs since Nos. 26 and 28 have their doorways on the outside and Nos. 30 and 32 on the inside. This house is the Presbytery of the Church of St. Mary adjoining, and may always have been. It seems to be shown as such on the 1835 John Wood map.  

Exterior: Built of brick, but Nos. 26 and 32 are pebble-dashed and Nos. 28 and 30 are rendered and painted, Welsh slate roof. Three storey double depth terrace. Six over 6 pane sash windows, with keystones and voussoirs except for No. 28. No. 30 had a ground floor shopfront at listing in 1974, but this is now replaced by two windows. No 32 roughcast with a modern porch. Six-panel doors, Nos. 26, 28 and 30 have fan transoms over doors, and flat hoods supported on brackets, No. 32 has a modern canted hood. M-roof running parallel with the street, the front slope appears to have been altered, heightening the front wall, stack in between Nos. 26 and 28 and on outside walls of Nos. 30 and 32. Rear elevation shows sash windows with 6 over 6 panes to No. 26, a large late C20 dormer to No. 28, gabled late C20 rear wings to Nos. 30 and 32.  

Interior: Interior not seen at resurvey, but simple late-Georgian detailing is known to survive inside.  

Reason for designation: Included for its special architectural interest as a late C18 or early C19 terrace of four houses of definite character in the Monmouth town centre.  

Heritage Details

Architect: Millward of Gloucester (1792-3); Benjamin Bucknall (1870-1)

Original Date: 1793

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Grade II