Building » Norwood (Upper) – The Faithful Virgin (Virgo Fidelis)

Norwood (Upper) – The Faithful Virgin (Virgo Fidelis)

Central Hill, Norwood, London SE19

A convent chapel of 1871 built in memory of Thomas Grant, first Bishop of Southwark. It forms part of a large and significant complex of convent and school buildings by William Wardell, George Goldie and Edward Goldie. The chapel is long and thin on plan, and has an impressive interior with some furnishings of note (although suffering from a drastic reordering in the 1970s). The complex is of high townscape merit, and is on Croydon Council’s local list.

A  mission was established in Upper Norwood in 1842, with Mass said in a Temperance Hall (the nearest church being St George’s, Southwark). In 1848 nuns of the Society of the Faithful Virgin came from La Delivrande in Normandy to establish an orphanage, mainly for Irish refugees who had settled in the area in the 1840s. The founder of the Order was Henriette de Forestier d’Osseville, an aristocrat born in 1803 who had established the Congregation at the ancient Marian shrine at La Delivrande in 1831, following a miraculous cure of her sister from a life-threatening illness.

After a brief stay in Sydenham Grove, and with the help of the Count d’Osseville (father of Henriette, or Mother St Mary as she now was), in 1849 the nuns acquired the Upper Norwood estate of Park House (latterly Park Hotel). The house was a substantial mid-Georgian villa on a site dating back to the sixteenth century. This was renamed St Mary’s Lodge and housed the convent, presbytery, chapel, day school and orphanage.

Even such a substantial building as this was unable to serve all these purposes adequately and as soon as funds permitted, work started on the  building  of permanent convent buildings further up the hill, to the east. The first new range to be built was the west range, built from designs by William Wardell. This has at its centre a slightly asymmetrically-placed tower with a tall canted entrance bay with a steep roof. As built, this range included a ground floor chapel, opened in September 1857 by Cardinal Manning, with Bishop Grant in attendance. The chapel was divided down the middle by a screen, with the nuns on one side and the children and lay congregation on the other.

In 1862 a north range was added at right angles to the Wardell range, from designs by George Goldie. This housed the Virgo Fidelis day and boarding school for the higher education of girls.

The present convent chapel is a continuation of the north range and was built in 1871, probably from designs by George Goldie (The Buildings of England incorrectly gives a date of c1880 and attributes the design to Edward Goldie). It was built as a memorial chapel to Bishop Thomas Grant, who had died at the English College in Rome during the First Vatican Council in 1870. Bishop Grant had been a frequent visitor to the convent and orphanage, and at his request he was buried next to his friend Fr M. D. Vesque, the convent chaplain, in the cemetery. The chapel cost £7,000, and benefactors included Cardinal Manning, Bishop Dannell (Grant’s successor as Bishop of Southwark), the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk, the Fathers of the London Oratory, Lord Petre as well as many other Catholic notables. It was opened by Bishop Dannell with Cardinal Manning also present. The chapel had a long narrow nave, with seating for the community arranged parallel to the sides in collegiate fashion. The laity were originally accommodated in the north transept.

In 1881 a convent range was added at right angles to the chapel,  i.e. opposite Wardell’s range and extending south from the south transept. The Buildings of England gives Edward Goldie as the architect for this.

The final, south range (St Theodosius’s wing), which not quite encloses the fourth side of the quadrangle, was added in two phases, in 1908 and 1928. The architect for these additions has not been established, but their design follows that of the earlier ranges and Edward Goldie (who died in 1921) seems a likely candidate.

The chapel was enriched with fittings over time. Here is the description from the Crystal Palace District Advertiser, 8 August 1924:

‘Entering the church, the first object that attracts our attention is an almost-life-size statue of the Sacred Heart […] Above this statue, which is raised and stands at the pillar which divides the north transept from the chancel, is a magnificent crucifix, which was erected as a memorial to Father Morel. 1 A shrine of our Lady of Lourdes is to the right ; further to the right a shrine of St Joseph; and smaller images of Mary with the infant Jesus, and of St Anthony of Padua are in corner niches. The baptismal font is to the right of the entrance door. Pictured Stations of the Cross hang on all the walls. By St Joseph’s altar is a stained glass window as a war memorial […] This north transept is set apart for the parishioners and the general public; a gallery spans a large portion of its space to provide more seating accommodation […] The south transept has latterly come into use also for the congregation. Above it is the nuns’ gallery hidden by a graille; and on the gallery hangs a fine picture of the Visitation.

The chancel provides a sanctuary large enough to provide full facilities for every detail of full ceremonial, and for this the church is supplied with rich altar vessels and with very elaborate vestments and banners made by the clever fingers of the nuns. The altar, as all the church, is of stone, its front panel being a very beautiful carving of the Entombment of Christ. The tabernacle […] is of Carrara marble […] A baldacchino rises above the tabernacle and holds a crucifix […] The reredos is fourteenth century in character, the panel pictures being treated in the manner of Fra Angelico. By the altar are two images of adoring angels […] The chancel windows give in stained glass very beautiful representations of the Dedication of the Virgin Mary, the Annunciation, the Crucifixion and  the  Assumption.    A  sanctuary  lamp  of  huge  size  hangs  at  the  entrance  to  the sanctuary […]

The nave of the church is reserved for the community and for all those who are under their care. It has its choir stalls and benches arranged as in a monastery. Shrines of the Sacred Heart and of Mary the Faithful Virgin face the nave at the bottom corners of the chancel. The Stations of the Cross here are modelled in high relief. There is a choir gallery at the west end wherein is the organ; and here again the Faithful Virgin is honoured by two pictures of Our Lady’.

In more recent years the chapel has been leased to the Archdiocese as  a parish church. A major reordering took place in c1978 (architects Francis Weal & Partners, London). Most of the old sanctuary furnishings were removed, although the stained glass windows and the statues of the Virgin Mary and the Sacred Heart were allowed to remain. A new forward altar was introduced, closer to the nave. The rear of the sanctuary was left bare, the intention being that this area should be left available for additional seating on Sundays and feast days. The north transept was partitioned off with a glazed screen to provide an area for parents with small children, and for new sacristies. Above this a reinforced concrete mezzanine floor was provided to provide a club room.


The parish church of the Faithful Virgin is an integral part of the convent and school complex, but this description focuses on the church.

The church was built in 1871 as a memorial to Bishop Grant. It occupies the eastern end of the northern range of a complex of convent buildings, begun in 1857. It is in a plain Decorated Gothic style, built of London stock brick with Bath stone dressings under a Welsh slate roof. On plan it consists of a long aisleless nave, sanctuary with canted  apse and north and south transepts. The nave is of eight bays, with the entrance in the first bay (from the west). The entrance is altered, with modern doors and a flat wooden canopy. The bays are separated by stepped brick buttresses with stone offsets and within each bay is a window of two lancets with large round sexfoils in the arches. East of this, giving off the sanctuary, are projecting transepts with a slightly lower ridge line, lancets in the clerestory, and with lean-tos housing sacristies etc on the west side. The south elevation of the transept (towards Central Hill) has stepped buttresses at the corners and a central porch with a cross on the gable. Above this are two lancets and a large round window enclosed within a Gothic arch. The main gable is also surmounted by a cross. The exterior of the chancel is of somewhat Rogueish design, with stepped buttresses at the angles and windows consisting of pointed heads with Geometrical tracery of sexfoil circular lights.

The entrance leads into a modern lobby formed below the western gallery. The eight-bay nave is 170 ft long and 36 ft wide, with a roof height of 45 ft at the ridge. The walls are plastered and painted white (with yellow in the chancel). The rafter and purlin roof has principals with arched braces springing from stone corbels and wall posts and leading up to a central tie beam and crown post. There is no structural separation between the nave and sanctuary, but in the sanctuary coved plaster ceilings follow the line of the arched braces, creating an entirely different effect. Paired Gothic arches with a central circular pier and elaborate carved capitals separate the chancel from the transepts. Here angel corbels support the wall posts for the sanctuary roof. The roofs of the transepts are similar to that of the nave but only that of the north transept is readily visible (the south transept having been enclosed and subdivided in c1978).

An original organ gallery remains at the west end of the nave (the underside enclosed in more recent times). The organ has not been inspected, but the review on the Norwood Society website states that it is a fine Willis organ. At the upper level are four arches connecting with the first floor accommodation to the west. There is also a nuns’ gallery in the north transept, with a grilled front, linking to the convent range.

The church has lost many of its historic furnishings, but survivals of note are:

  • The life-size polychrome plaster statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, crowned, standing on an octagonal painted Gothic pedestal on the left hand side of the entrance to the sanctuary. This has the stamp of Mayer & Co. of Munich and was donated in 1878 by the orphans
  • A corresponding statue of the Sacred Heart on the right hand side of the sanctuary entrance
  • The four stained glass windows of the sanctuary, depicting the Dedication of the Virgin Mary, the Annunciation, the Crucifixion and the Assumption; the first of these signed by F. W. Cole of Stained Glass Artists Ltd
  • The  fine  polychrome,  high  relief  Stations  of  the  Cross,  in  Gothic  wooden frames
  • A large crucifix attached to the west wall of the nave at high level, possibly that previously in the chancel (memorial to Fr Morel)
  • In  the  entrance  to  the  sacristies/south  transept  a  stained  glass window depicting St Michael the Archangel, in memory of Major Awdry Vancour from the Royal Flying Corps, shot down accidentally by allied forces on 16 July 1918.
Heritage Details

Architect: George Goldie

Original Date: 1870

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not Listed