Folly Bridge, Abingdon Road, Oxford
Holy Rood has been described as ‘a landmark in English Catholic ecclesiology’. Built soon after, and evidently inspired by Maguire & Murray’s St Paul’s, Bow Common, the church is advanced in its liturgical planning and houses a considerable number of furnishings of high quality.
The church was endowed by Fr Reginald Schomberg (d.1958), who entrusted Fr John Crozier, the priest serving the North Hinksey parish, with responsibility for finding a site for a church for Oxford Catholics living south of the river and in adjoining villages. In 1959 a site was acquired off the Abingdon Road, between the late eighteenth-century Grandpont House and Brasenose College playing fields.
The church was designed in an advanced liturgical style, before the reforms of Vatican II. The architect Gilbert Flavel (an Anglican) was chosen for his sympathetic attitude towards the new liturgical thinking. Fr Crozier had admired Flavel’s restoration of St Michael at the North Gate, and his London College of Divinity at Norwood. Fr Crozier had also travelled widely on the Continent, ‘studying church design in relation to the liturgical revival’ (Crozier, p.1). In 1958 he was much impressed with James Gardner’s British Pavilion at the World’s Fair in Brussels, ‘which I thought would make an admirable church on a riverside site. Like Coventry Cathedral however it was oblong, whereas the new liturgy seemed to demand a building in the round or square. Each of the three towered segments of the Pavilion was a square. An enlarged replica of a segment could form the basis of a church, in a style bringing out the symbolism of God’s tent among men” ’ (ibid).
The church was built at a cost of £35,000 by Bartlett Brothers of Witney, and dedicated by Bishop Holland on 16 December 1961. It was consecrated by Bishop Worlock on 5 February 1962.
In 1963 the contents of Eric Gill’s chapel at Piggotts, Buckinghamshire, were given by Gill’s daughter to Fr Crozier. A small stone carving of Christ on the Tree of Life was installed above the tabernacle at Holy Rood while other furnishings went to St Thomas More, Boar’s Hill.
The plan of the church consists of an octagon set within a Greek Cross for the main worship space, with ancillary spaces at the corners making up an overall rectangular plan. The Blessed Sacrament chapel is placed to one side, outside the rectangle. There is a glazed central entrance, its cruciform glazing subdivisions evoking the dedication. On either side are single-storey, flat-roofed elements housing ancillary functions. The main double-height worship space rises up behind, with central raised top lighting with a pitched broach roof clad in copper sheeting. The debt to the contemporary St Paul’s, Bow Common (1958-60) is evident. The walls of the church are clad in pale brick, overlaying a steel frame construction.
The entrance doors lead into a narthex/baptistry, with ancillary rooms giving off to left and right. At the centre of this narthex/baptistry is a large granite font, the polished inside sufficiently large to allow for total immersion. It is incised with the lettering FONS VITAE AETERNAE, by Kevin Cribb, the son of Laurie Cribb, an assistant to Eric Gill. Fr Crozier wrote that ‘the calm and simple dignity of Gill’s art harmonizes with the new architecture, so the artists were as far as possible drawn from his school’ (Crozier, p.1). Cribb also carved the cornerstone on the left hand side of the entrance into the main body of the church.
The main worship space is octagonal in plan, enclosing a roof structure arranged in the form of a Greek Cross. The sanctuary is placed at the liturgical east end, and not (as at St Paul’s Bow Common) at the centre of the building; however, the altar is and always was well forward of the east wall. The freestanding benches were originally raked at the sides to face towards the sanctuary. The Blessed Sacrament Chapel is located to the right hand side of the main seating area, in a low single-storey space, the only area with stained glass windows. The floor of the narthex, nave and chapel is of black and white linoleum squares, producing a chequerboard effect. At the liturgical west end of the main worship space is a gallery housing a large new organ.
The church is notable for the quality of its furnishings. The altar, like the font, is of granite and inscribed with lettering by Kevin Cribb: DUX VITAE MORTUUS REGNAT VIVUS (Life’s champion slain, lives and reigns for ever). Hanging over this is a giant circular corona. This and the other metalwork (bronze Pantocrator on east wall behind the altar, Theotokos (also bronze, based on a Romanesque relief in York Minster) on the wall near the Blessed Sacrament chapel, the tabernacle in the Blessed Sacrament chapel, the ciborium, chalice, sanctuary lamps, altar cross and candlesticks are all by Michael Murray.
The Blessed Sacrament chapel has two abstract stained glass windows by Charles Ware based, according to Fr Crozier, on designs from Chartres Cathedral. Over the altar is Gill’s beautiful small stone carving of Christ and the Tree of Life. The chapel also contains inscribed tablets commemorating Fr Schomberg (by Cribb) and Fr Crozier.
List description (the church was listed in January 2020. The churchyard wall is separately listed)
Roman Catholic Church dating to 1961 designed by Gilbert Flavel.
Reasons for Designation: Holy Rood Church, Abingdon Road, Oxford, built in 1961 to the designs of Gilbert Flavel, is recommended for listing at Grade II for the following principal reasons: Architectural interest: * as a largely intact example of a 1960s church designed to meet the changing worship practices of the period; * for its carefully considered interior, with high quality, designed fixtures and fittings, many of which are original. Historic interest: * illustrative of the proliferation in post-war churches, to serve the increasing number of Roman Catholics in England in the post-war period, designed to the principles of the Liturgical Movement.
History: Holy Rood Church was endowed by Father Reginald Schomberg (1880-1958), who entrusted Father John Crozier, the North Hinksey parish priest, to find a site for a church for Oxford Roman Catholics living south of the river, in the Hinkseys, Boards Hill and Kennington. In 1959 a site was acquired off the Abingdon Road, between Grandpont House and Brasenose College playing fields. The architect Lawrence Dale initially submitted a design for the church in 1958 in the Renaissance style. However, Father Crozier had studied church design in relation to the Liturgical Movement during his travels abroad and had admired James Gardener’s British Pavilion at the World Fair in Brussels in 1958, part of which he believed could form the basis of the church. The Liturgical Movement was central to church construction during this period. It caused a radical reassessment on how churches should reflect the new way of celebrating the Word of God. It focussed on the Eucharist, and the relationship of the congregation to each other and to God. This movement was ultimately accepted by the Roman Catholic Church through the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), although its importance was evident as early as 1947 with Pope Pius XII’s 1947 Mediator Dei et Hominum and the 1955 De musica sacra encyclical. By the mid-1950s architects were starting to seriously explore centralised and circular church plans, moving away from traditional longitudinal plans. By 1962, the Catholic Herald published a list of more than a dozen British churches conforming to this plan form, which were recently completed or being planned. In light of this movement and its architectural effects, in 1959 Gilbert Flavel was chosen to design the church due to his appreciation of the changing liturgical tradition and his previous work for the London College of Divinity at Norwood. His design took inspiration from the contemporaneous St Paul’s, Bow Common (1958-1960) by Maguire and Murray (UID 1241881), particularly externally. Construction of the site began on Michaelmas (29 September) 1960, costing £35,000. It was constructed by Bartlett Brothers of Witney and was dedicated by Bishop Holland on 16 December 1961. It was consecrated by Bishop Worlock on 5 February 1962. In 1963 the contents of Eric Gill’s chapel at Piggotts, Buckinghamshire, were given by Gill’s daughter. A stone carving of Christ on the Tree of Life was installed above the tabernacle in The Blessed Sacrament Chapel.
Details: Church built 1960-1961 to the designs of Gilbert Flavel. MATERIALS: steel framed construction with yellow stock brick walls externally, rendered internally. The roof is surmounted by a glass, steel and copper helm roof lantern. PLAN: the church is broadly rectangular in plan within which is set an octagonal worship space. The triangular corners are used as further spaces for the sacristy, storage, reception room and lodge, with an entrance hall on the western side which includes the font. The Blessed Sacrament Chapel is set off to the right of the main worship space, outside of the main rectangular plan. EXTERIOR: the exterior is formed of yellow brick, laid in Sussex bond. The western (front) elevation is formed of a central double height section, within which is the entrance hall/narthex and church, with two single storey ancillary areas, broadly triangular in form on either side. Both the single storey and double height elements have flat roofs, with a glazed steel and copper helm roof lantern surmounted by a cross rising from the centre of the double height roof. A rectangular, glazed, double-height entrance sits centrally within the main elevation, projecting slightly. A large blue and white metal cross divides the glazing and the set of two double doors. A further two sets of two small rectangular windows are situated on either side of the main entrance forming a clerestorey. The two ancillary areas have two steel-framed windows on either side of the main entrance. The north elevation is blank save for a long rectangular window which illuminates the altar and a projecting single storey, flat-roofed room currently used as storage. The east (rear) elevation is entirely brickwork with a raised Greek cross. The south elevation comprises a projecting, rectangular, single storey element which forms The Blessed Sacrament Chapel. This is illuminated by two stained glass windows. On the right hand side of this is the triangular, single storey sacristy, which is lit by a single window. Above this is a further long rectangular window which illuminates the altar. To the left of the chapel is another single storey, triangular ancillary space, used as an office and storage, which is lit by a further steel framed window. INTERIOR: the entrance doors lead directly into the narthex, with ancillary spaces to the left and right (reception room, kitchen, WCs, and administration and storage respectively). At the centre of the narthex is a large circular granite font on a square base. ‘FONS VITAE AETERNAE’ is incised around it. It was carved by Kevin Cribb, the son of Laurie Cribb, an assistant to Eric Gill. The main body of the church is accessed through glazed double doors behind the narthex. The sanctuary is placed directly opposite the main entrance with a series of three wooden steps leading up to it. The altar sits forward of the east wall with a bronze statue of the Christ of the Cosmos (pantokrator) by Michael Murray hanging high on the eastern wall behind it. The altar is made of granite and inscribed with lettering by Kevin Cribb: ‘DUX VITAE MORTUUS REGNAT VIVUS’. Above the sanctuary is the corona, also by Michael Murray. This symbolises the twelve gates of Jerusalem, with the lights symbolising the twelve apostles. To the left and right behind the altar are doors leading to a storage area and the sacristy respectively. To the right of the nave is the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. This rectangular, single storey space is illuminated by abstract stained glass windows by Charles Ware. The pews face forward to a small altar placed directly against the wall. On the wall above the tabernacle and altar is the Holy Rood statue carved by Eric Gill. Commemorative tablets to Father Crozier and Father Schomberg hang on the south wall. The free-standing benches in the nave were originally set at an angle at the sides to face towards the sanctuary, but now largely face forward. An organ is located to the left of the sanctuary within the nave. To the right, between the sanctuary and the Blessed Sacrament Chapel hangs the theotokos, a bronze replica of the Romanesque Relief of Our Lady and the Christ child in York Minster which was damaged in the Reformation. It was created by Michael Murray, based on evidence published in Eric Maclagan’s British Academy lecture. The bronze Stations of the Cross hang on the walls of the nave, lit by conical lights. To the left of the entrance is the corner stone with the inscription ‘1961’ and ‘HUIUS ECCLESIAE / LAPIDEM ANGULAREM / IECIT + RR DD / THOMAS HOLLAND / EPISCOPUS ETENNAE’. To the right of the entrance is a spiral staircase to a choir gallery fitted with further pews for the choir and an organ.
Architect: Gilbert R. S. Flavel
Original Date: 1961
Conservation Area: Yes
Listed Grade: Grade II