Building » Oxford (Oratory) – St Aloysius

Oxford (Oratory) – St Aloysius

Woodstock Road, Oxford, Oxfordshire OX2

Oxford’s oldest surviving Catholic church of modern times, built by the Jesuits in the 1870s and replacing a small chapel of 1793. A French Gothic-inspired design by J. A. Hansom, it has been embellished over the years, mainly with furnishings by Farmer & Brindley, whose large reredos is of particular note. The parish is now served by the Oratorians.

In 1793, the Jesuits opened a small chapel dedicated to St Ignatius in St Clement’s (demolished in the 1960s). In 1859, they surrendered responsibility for the mission to the Diocese of Birmingham. At this point, a larger church was urgently needed. In 1864, Bishop Ullathorne asked John Henry Newman if the Oratorians would take over the Oxford mission. Over the next few years, various sites were bought and Henry Clutton prepared plans for a new church in the Byzantine style. In 1866, Rome gave permission to erect a Congregation of the Oratory in Oxford. However, in 1867, the project foundered due to opposition.

In 1871, the Jesuits asked to take over the mission again. The current site was presented by Lord Bute and J. A. Hansom was commissioned to design a church. Despite a bequest from Baroness Weld for £7,000, funds were tight and the church had to be built in brick instead of stone. The foundation stone was laid on 20 May 1873 by Bishop Ullathorne, who opened the church on 23 November 1875. The builders were G. Myers & Son of Lambeth, A. W. Pugin’s builders. The furnishings were installed over the next few years, for example the high altar (1876), the reredos (1878) whose statues arrived over the next few years, and the pulpit (1888). In August 1878 the presbytery was completed by William Wilkinson, a local architect. Gabriel Pippet painted the interior of the church with a decorative scheme (since painted over).

In 1907, Hartwell de la Garde Grissell died and bequeathed his collection of relics and vestments to the mission (the baptistery was adapted to hold the collection). In 1925, no. 23 Woodstock Road, the house in front of the church, was demolished and an arched screen built. In 1954, the Jesuits ‘de-cluttered’ and simplified the interior, including the removal of most statues and pictures and the painting of the walls with grey emulsion paint (including marble surfaces, the reredos and the wall paintings by Pippet). In 1966, the altar was moved forward and the church consecrated by Bishop Cleary. In 1971 the Grissell collection was largely dispersed. In 1973, Stations from the Holy Child Convent in Cherwell Edge were installed.

In 1981, the Jesuits withdrew from the parish, leaving it in the hands of diocesan clergy until the Birmingham Oratorians took over in 1990. In recent years, parts of the church have been restored and plans are underway for the next phases.

List description

Church (amended in 2016, following Taking Stock)

The Roman Catholic Church of St Aloysius, built in 1875 with Joseph Hansom as architect.

Reasons for designation

The Roman Catholic Church of St Aloysius, built in 1875 with Joseph Hansom as architect, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:

* Architectural interest: an arresting design in French Gothic style by the prominent Roman Catholic church architect Joseph Hansom, its prominent rose window and stair turret creating a dramatic entrance elevation within the narrow plot;

* Historical: founded and run by the Jesuits, the church has long been an important centre for Catholic worship, and has associations with Cardinal Newman and the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins;

* Interior: despite the loss of painted decoration, the lofty interior with its pointed tunnel vaulted roof and tall clerestory windows remains largely intact, and retains interesting C19 and early C20 fixtures and fittings, including those by Farmer & Brindley, Hardman of Birmingham, and Gabriel Pippet;

* Group value: the church forms a historical group with the adjacent presbytery, also listed at Grade II, with the buildings of Somerville College standing immediately to the north, and with other listed buildings on Woodstock Road.


Following the Catholic Relief Act of 1791, permission was obtained by Father Charles Leslie for a public chapel in Oxford; Fr Leslie was an ‘Ex-Jesuit’ (the Society of Jesus having been suppressed in 1773). Leslie had acquired a house in the suburb of St Clements, and in 1793 Mass was celebrated in the stone chapel of St Ignatius constructed behind the house (demolished in the 1960s). The chapel was administered by the Jesuits (re-established in 1801) until 1859, when responsibility for the mission in Oxford was surrendered to the Diocese of Birmingham. A larger church was urgently needed, and in 1864 Bishop Ullathorne asked John Henry Newman, the founder of the Oratory in Birmingham, if the Oratorians would take on responsibility for the Oxford mission. In 1866 permission was given by Rome for the establishment of a Congregation of the Oratory in Oxford, and a number of sites were proposed for the new buildings, with Henry Clutton being engaged to prepare plans for a church in the Byzantine style. However, in 1867, the project foundered due to opposition, and in 1871 the mission was returned to the Jesuits.

A bequest of £7,000 from Jane Charlotte Winterbottom (Baroness Weld) and the gift of the site behind the Woodstock Road by Lord Bute made the building of the new church possible. The design for a church to seat 400, with potential for expansion up to 800, was commissioned from James Aloysius Hansom, an architect distinguished particularly for his work for the Catholic Church. The builder was G Myers and Sons of Lambeth, a firm best known for working with A W Pugin. The foundation stone was laid on 13 April 1873, and the church opened on 23 November 1875. Funds being insufficient for a stone building, brick was used instead, and the church was gradually furnished thanks to donations in the subsequent years: the high altar was put in place in 1876, and the reredos in 1878, with its statues installed over the next few years, whilst the interior of the church was painted with a decorative scheme by Gabriel Pippet (1880-1962). The presbytery (listed at Grade II) designed by William Wilkinson was erected in 1878. In 1890 a boys’ school was built to the south of the church; this has since been enlarged and is now the parish centre. The Relic Chapel was created in 1907 in the adapted baptistery to hold the collection bequeathed by Hartwell de la Garde Grissell. The church contains a number of memorials to figures associated with the church, notably Gerard Manley Hopkins who was curate in 1878, and Cardinal Newman, who preached at St Aloysius in 1880, from the church’s original wooden pulpit. In 1925, no. 23 Woodstock Road, the house standing in front of the church, was demolished, and the arched entrance screen with relief carving by Pippet was erected. The church was modernised in 1954, with the interior being painted over, and many of the statues and paintings being removed. In 1966, in response to the understanding that the Second Vatican Council required the celebrant to face the congregation, the altar was brought forward. The Grissell collection of antiquities and relics was dispersed and destroyed in 1971, and the chapel returned to its former use as a baptistery. However, in recent years, parts of the church have been restored – including the Relic Chapel, which now contains relics from the Carmelite convent at Chichester – and there are currently (2016) plans for the next phases of restoration.

In 1981 the Jesuits withdrew from the parish, leaving responsibility for St Aloysius with the Diocese of Birmingham. In 1990 the running of the church was taken over by the Birmingham Oratory, and in 1993 the Oxford Oratory was established as an independent congregation, with the priests being involved in diverse ministries such as, at Oxford, school, hospital and prison chaplaincies, as well as the more traditional parish ministries.


Roman Catholic church. 1875 by J A Hansom; the builder was G Myers and Sons of Lambeth. The church is in a French Gothic style.

MATERIALS: yellow brick laid in Flemish bond, with some red brick, including a band of red brick to the west end, and stone dressings. The roof is slated, above a brick dentil cornice.

PLAN: the church has a longitudinal plan with an aisled nave, having an apsidal sanctuary and side chapels. The church set on a west/east alignment, with the church being entered from the east, and the sanctuary being to the west. The following description follows conventional liturgical orientation.

EXTERIOR: the west elevation is dominated by a large rose window with plate tracery, set within a pointed-arched recess; below is a blind arcade of pointed arches with triangular arches above. To the north corner is a polygonal stair turret with a conical roof above a stage of lancet windows. The church is entered through a gabled porch, with an archway of three orders; the tympanum originally held a statue of St Aloysius, replaced with a statue of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, following vandalism. In the other principal elevations of the church are regularly spaced shallow offset buttresses; between are the paired pointed windows of the clerestory with trefoil tracery; on the south side these are above the above the projecting sacristy and side chapels, and on the north side above the blank wall enclosing the north aisle. A stone arch filled with brick, to the west end of the north elevation, has been taken as evidence to suggest that Hansom had planned an extension to the church.

INTERIOR: the five-bay nave has a pointed tunnel vault with timber panelling. Set in a constricted site, the church is lit by tall clerestory windows. Pointed arches separate the nave and aisles, the arcades having square piers with colonnettes of red marble and black marble, with stiff leaf capitals, whilst between the arches slender engaged shafts of black marble rise to the roof; there are further colonnettes flanking the clerestory windows. The black marble is simulated in much of the church, though that used in the sanctuary is real. At the north-east end of the nave, attached to the north-east pier, is the stone and marble pulpit of 1888, with figures in trefoil-headed niches, by Farmer & Brindley. The nave retains its carved wooden pews with quatrefoil panels. The sanctuary has recently been restored, and is now decorated with coloured paintwork and gilding, following the original scheme. The sanctuary is separated from the nave by marble altar rails forming an arcade of Caernarfon with foliate capitals; the gates are iron with brass plates cut with the ‘IHS’ monogram and with fleur-de-lys. The lower part of the sanctuary is floored with geometric tiling; the upper part is timber, the two being separated by low marble walls with iron railings decorated with scrolling foliate brass. At the east end of the sanctuary, in the former place of the altar, is a stone tabernacle shelf. The reredos (1878 by Farmer & Brindley) curves around the east end of the sanctuary, with 52 niches holding statues of saints in two registers on either side of the canopied monstrance throne. Above is a row of angels holding banners bearing the word ‘Sanctus’, and below the apse windows are twenty roundels (extending beyond the apse) with busts. Below the reredos, to north and south, are credence tables, each resting on a single marble column and set within an arched recess. At the centre of the sanctuary is the black marble altar given by Lord Bute in 1878 and moved and shortened in 1966. The choir stalls are carved with ‘IHS’, and ‘ADMG’ (‘Ad maiorem Dei gloriam’ – the Jesuit motto, meaning ‘For the greater glory of god’). Between the sanctuary and side chapels are traceried stone screens. The Lady Chapel, to the south, recently restored, contains a marble altar brought in 2007 from St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and a statue of the Virgin Mary by Mayer & Co of Munich, given in 1876; the glass in the chapel is by Hardman of Birmingham. The Sacred Heart Chapel, to the north, contains a timber altar and reredos, carved with blind tracery and formerly painted (possibly by Pippet, who provided the lost painted decoration of this chapel circa 1902); the Sacred Heart statue by Mayer & Co, now placed on the reredos, replaces a painting, but was originally within the chapel. There is a small piscina in the south wall. In the south aisle, the eastern chapel was originally dedicated to St Joseph, but in May 1992 was redecorated in honour of St Philip Neri, the founder of the first Oratory in Rome; a copy of Guido Reni’s painting of St Philip hangs above the altar. To the west is the Relic Chapel, recently restored, including the painted decorative scheme by Hardman of 1907; the wrought iron screen comes from the Carmelite convent at Chichester. The chapel contains a statue of St Aloysius Gonzaga, replacing the original. At the west end of the south aisle is the small shrine to John Henry Newman, installed in 2010. The Stations of the Cross, designed by Basil Champneys, are carved in alabaster, and were brought from the Convent of the Holy Child Jesus, Cherwell Edge. Also in the south aisle are a war memorial and an alabaster memorial tablet to Philippa Fletcher (d. 1914), both with relief carving by Pippet. In the narrow north aisle is a shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes, installed in 1954. At the west end of the church, beneath the organ gallery, are two 1977 murals by E Percival, depicting St Edmund Campion and St Aloysius Gonzaga. The stone font is lavishly carved, with a canopy of ogival arches sheltering animated scenes in high relief from the Old and New Testaments. The engraved marble holy water stoup was given by the Paravicini family in memory of Fr Gerard Manley Hopkins.

SUBSIDIARY FEATURE: The church forecourt is entered from Woodstock Road through an archway with low flanking walls dating from 1925. The archway has a triangular top with offset buttresses to either side. The arch itself is pointed, with two orders resting on corbels; above is a Crucifixion relief by Gabriel Pippet, with the words ‘SANCTUS IMMORTALIS MISERERE NOBIS’ (‘Holy immortal one, have mercy on us’). In 1987 the opening was widened, with the lower part of the inmost order being removed, and the archway corbelled out. The wrought iron gates, dating from 1991, correspond with low railings with twisted uprights which complete the flanking walls.

This List entry has been amended to add the source for War Memorials Register. This source was not used in the compilation of this List entry but is added here as a guide for further reading, 30 October 2017.

Books and journals

Bertram, J (author), St Aloysius Parish, Oxford. The Third English Oratory, a brief history and guide, 1793-2000, (2000)

Pevsner, N, Sherwood, J, The Buildings of England: Oxfordshire, (1974, 2002), 289


Oxford Oratory website, accessed 12 January 2016 from

War Memorials Register, accessed 30 October 2017 from


The Architectural History Practice Limited: Churches in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Birmingham: An Architectural and Historical Review Prepared for English Heritage and the Archdiocese of Birmingham (2015)



Presbytery to the Roman Catholic Church of St Aloysius. 1877-8, by William Wilkinson of Oxford. Yellow brick with Bathstone dressings and some red brick diapering. Gabled roof with stone coping, reclad in concrete tiles. Brick lateral stacks, one with stone shafts.

PLAN: Large presbytery with side entrance facing church forecourt to the left and principal rooms on the road front. Victorian Gothic style.

EXTERIOR: 3 storeys. East front: asymmetrical 4-window range in two gables; the right with three windows on the ground floor and canopied niche serving as a corbel to the lateral stack above, in the gable; the left with a buttress between the two ground floor windows; 2-light [first floor right 3-light] pointed arch windows with transoms, the ground and second storeys with quatrefoil-pierced tracery and hoodmoulds, the ground floor with continuous hoodmould; two more stringcourses above. Left-hand south return is entrance front facing the church forecourt; asymmetrical; large lateral stack with buttress, canopied niche and brick shafts; gabled portal at centre with moulded pointed arch, integral oriel above and tall stair window to right; gabled bay to left with 2 and 3-light Gothic windows with transoms. Set back on left a lower 2-storey wing.

INTERIOR: not inspected.

SOURCE: Buildings of England, page 289.

Listing NGR: SP5107507017

Heritage Details

Architect: J. A. Hansom

Original Date: 1875

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Grade II