Building » Olney – Our Lady Help of Christians and St Lawrence

Olney – Our Lady Help of Christians and St Lawrence

West Street, Olney, Buckinghamshire

A church of some architectural interest, as much for the bold reconfiguration carried out in 1990 as for the original Edwardian design. As a group the buildings make a positive contribution to the Olney Conservation Area although lying just outside the conservation area boundary.

In penal times Catholicism was kept alive in the area by the Throckmorton family of Weston House at Weston Underwood, two miles southwest of Olney. The estate was sold in 1898 and the chapel largely demolished soon afterwards. The mission was transferred to Olney and various temporary arrangements for Mass were made in suitable halls. In 1900 the site in West Street was purchased following receipt of donations, including one of £1,000 from Sir William Throckmorton. In the same year the exiled French Sisters of the Congregation of the Holy Ghost of St Brieuc moved to Olney and, in 1903, opened a school and convent in West Street, next door to the church site. An architect (possibly William Hull of Northampton) was engaged to design a permanent church, which was opened in 1906. Although the first church was described as ‘temporary’, it is evident from the description in The Olney Advertiser for 24 November 1900, that it was built of stone. This first church appears to have been oriented north-south, with the altar at the southern end, against the presbytery wall. The presbytery is dated 1899 and identified as ‘St Mary & St Lawrence’. The four-bay church was a gabled building attached to the north wall of the presbytery, the area now the liturgical northwest area of the present church. At some time later, perhaps in 1906 (the date given for the opening of the permanent church) the church was made L-shaped with a canted apse (the present sanctuary) to a chapel at right angles to the original building. In 1936 the nave was extended northwards, making the church a T in plan. This church was dramatically enlarged in 1990 with extensions to the east (liturgical west), northwest and southwest, making the body of the church into a large square with a narthex and a side chapel. The architect for this work was Anthony New.


The altar faces west but for the purposes of this description all references to compass points will assume a conventional eastward orientation. Description is further complicated by the fact that the earlier church had the altar facing south. Built of rock-faced stone, ashlar and yellow brick with Welsh slate roofs. As is evident from the history the church has grown and been altered over at least three principal building campaigns. What remains of the original building is the party wall to the presbytery and part of the original (liturgical) north wall of the church, now part of the west wall of the re-oriented church. This is the one bay of wall to the left of the porch. The canted sanctuary may too be part of the original church or an early addition. It is of brick and has two Gothic lancets with quatrefoils in the tracery. The next oldest surviving part of the church is the south extension, including the Lady altar. This was the (liturgical) west extension of the earlier church and has a large three-light window with Perpendicular Gothic tracery. This (originally liturgical west wall, now liturgical south wall) has an offset gabled bellcote rising from one corner. The 1990 reconstruction turned the orientation through 90 degrees with the canted apse becoming the sanctuary. The main roof was raised, with lean-to extensions to either side. Externally these are treated with small plain square aisle windows and glazing to the east walls above. The new west gable is also glazed. The 1990 west porch is gabled with two broad entrances and a glazed window with triangular head, arranged symmetrically. The gabled southwest porch is an addition of 1937, with a shafted Gothic doorway and a bust above under a canopied niche. This depicts St Lawrence and is by Lindsey Clark, possibly Philip Lindsey Clark (1889-1977) who trained with his father R. Lindsey Clark in Cheltenham before going to the City and Guilds and Royal Academy Schools in London. In the 1930s he turned increasingly to religious art and was influenced by Eric Gill. Bust of the Virgin and Child on a corbel between the west doors.

Whilst the exterior is somewhat disparate, owing to the incremental evolution of the building, the interior is impressively spacious and works well as a single volume. Big laminated arched trusses span the nave, with four tiers of purlins supporting the exposed rafters. The glazed areas of wall to either side of the sanctuary and above the west gallery provide a well-lit interior. The curved trusses at the north and south transept-like projections have a cruck-like quality. The stone Gothic arch to the sanctuary anchors the interior and contrasts with the general modernity of the interior.  The  west  gallery  over  the  narthex  or  porch  has  a  glazed  screen  and  is accessed by a metal spiral stair. The seating is principally open-backed benches arranged in a horseshoe plan, dating from the 1990 enlargement. Lady Altar with a painted statue of the Virgin and Child. The main altar dates from 1990 but incorporates polished marble colonettes from the former altar. The most important artwork of the interior is the stone relief Stations of the Cross. They date from the 1930s and are by Lindsey Clark in a style strongly reminiscent of Gill. Photographs predating the 1990 remodelling show paintings of angels above the altar, part of a painted scheme by Michael Clark, some of which might survive under later repainting.

Heritage Details

Architect: William Hull (unconfirmed); Anthony New

Original Date: 1906

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not Listed