Park Avenue North, Abington, Northampton
A large post-war church in basilican style by Sebastian Comper. Building economies of the time and the parish’s stretched resources prevented the full realisation of Comper’s plans, but the design is nevertheless of some scale and quality, due in no small part to the guidance and interest of the parish priest. The interior has an austere and dignified character, its white painted brickwork enlivened by a number of furnishings of note, including a fine statue of the Virgin by Comper, and Stations of the Cross by Anthony Foster.
The parish was created in 1947, to serve the growing population on the east side of Northampton. The town’s population grew from 25,000 in 1850 to over 100,000 in 1945 and yet Catholics were still only served by one church, the cathedral. In 1927 a site in the former village of Abington at the corner of Park Avenue North and Birchfield Road had been acquired, but economic depression and then war delayed the construction of a church, and the site was let to allotment holders.
During the war and for a short while afterwards Mass was said in the parish hall of the Anglican church of St Peter and St Paul. In 1946 an army hut was acquired to serve as a temporary church, and a property at 68 Ashburnham Road purchased for use as a presbytery (this was sold in 1951 when the present presbytery next door to the church at 22 Park Avenue North was acquired). The first Mass in the rebuilt army hut (made to look a little less temporary by the addition of a brick front and porch) was offered on 1 May 1947.
In 1949 the parish priest Fr (later Canon) Eric Miles Phillips asked Sebastian Comper FRIBA to prepare designs for a permanent church. Fr Phillips had spent some time at Downside Abbey as a monastic novice, and would have been familiar with the work there of Sebastian’s father, Sir Ninian Comper. Under the guidance of Fr Phillips, Comper prepared designs for a large basilican church, inspired by S. Francesco in Ravenna, which Fr Phillips had visited in 1950. The original designs were for a larger church with a nave of nine bays and a western bell turret and spirelet, but the cost was such that the plans had to be scaled down. The bell turret and spirelet were omitted and the nave reduced to five bays; this was however intended only as a temporary expedient, and the east end was cheaply built to allow for the future completion of Comper’s design. A licence was obtained for construction to start in July 1952, with Weston & Underwood the contractors, and the new church was opened on 11 February 1954. The temporary church was retained as a sacristy and store.
In 1957 a set of Stations of the Cross by Anthony Foster, a pupil of Eric Gill’s, were acquired by the parish. In 1959 a statue of St Gregory by Michael Royde Smith (who had also worked with Gill at Ditchling) was placed in the aedicule over the main entrance. In 1980-81 a new parish centre was built on the south side of the church, from designs by Seely & Paget. The old army hut was taken away and a car park created at the east end of the site. Also in the 1980s the chairs originally provided for congregational seating were replaced with benches. The church was consecrated on the Feast of St Gregory the Great, 2004.
A large church in basilican style, 1952-4, by J. S. Comper, faced in rustic Fletton bricks laid in Flemish bond with reconstituted stone dressings, copper roof (dating from 1970; some parts retain the original felt). The wide west front facing toward Park Avenue North has two flat broad pilasters on either side of a triple arched porch in antis with unfluted Tuscan columns. Above the porch is an aedicule containing a statue of St Gregory, carved by Michael Royde Smith in Flasham stone in 1959, and above this a large circular/wheel window below the shallow gable, which has a moulded stone cornice and corbels. At the lower level, two arched windows to either side of the main entrance, lighting the baptistery (to the south) and an office (to the north). The flank elevations consist of seven bays separated by pilaster strips, with one arched window per bay in the clerestory and aisles. The aisles have almost flat copper roofs. At the east end on the north side a projecting sacristy occupies the last two bays, and on the south side there is a low flat roofed addition and the 1980-1 parish hall giving off the aisle, the latter in a darker red brick, with a pyramidal felt roof. The east elevation has no windows and is faced in common Fletton bricks, this originally being intended as temporary. There is a felt roof to the semi-circular apse, and a boiler house and ugly modern heating ducts attached to the east wall of the north aisle.
The interior combines Classical and Early Christian elements, and was described by Pevsner in 1973 as ‘unsuccessfully eclectic’. A more favourable analysis would cite Sebastian Comper’s father’s stylistic mantra of ‘unity by inclusion’. The interior is light and lofty with white painted (originally limewashed, intended to be plastered) brickwork and a woodblock floor to the nave. The nave is of five bays, with octagonal columns and arches of reconstituted stone; the nave and aisles have flat roofs with stressed concrete beams and asbestos panel infilling. At the west end of the south aisle there is a former baptistery behind iron gates, given by Canon Phillips in 1977. The font is now relocated to the east end of the north aisle, and the originally sunken floor of the baptistery has been levelled. There is an office in the corresponding location at the west end of the north aisle. Between these, a narthex/organ gallery projects into the nave, with convex re-entrants, stone window and door surrounds and classical balustrade, and above this a tall arched organ chamber recess. At the east end there is a plain semi-circular arch to the apse, with the sanctuary projecting forwards of the arch.
There are a number of furnishings of note. Most worthy of note is the statue of Our Lady mounted on the east wall of the north aisle, designed by Comper in 1950 and based on a French fourteenth century piece in the Victoria & Albert Museum. However, it also clearly also displays the influence of his father’s statue of the Virgin at Downside. It was carved in pine by a Mr Davison of James Walker, church furnishers, while the infant Jesus and the Virgin’s crown were the work of Mr Wigram, an artist in Comper’s workshop. At the east end of the south aisle is a timber statue of the Sacred Heart, given by the Weston family, the builders of the church. Along the walls of the aisles is a set of low-relief stone stone Stations of the Cross by Anthony Foster, a pupil of Eric Gill’s, and clearly influenced by Gill’s Stations at Westminster Cathedral (although on a much reduced scale). These were given to the church in 1957. They were set into the wall and slightly modified by Michael Royde Smith at a later date.
Other furnishings include:
Architect: J. S. Comper
Original Date: 1954
Conservation Area: No
Listed Grade: Not Listed