Coalway Road, Penn, Wolverhampton WV3
A notable circular design by Desmond Williams & Associates, designed to accommodate post-Vatican II liturgical needs. The church has a number of artworks and furnishings of note, and is little altered. It is an important local landmark.
The parish, formed from that of St Mary and St John (qv), was erected in 1923, when the first Mass was celebrated in the Carmelite chapel of Penn Fields on 7 July. In 1924 a site was purchased for a church-cum-hall which was built from designs by G. B. Cox and opened on 10 April 1926 (Scarisbrick says Pentecost Sunday 1927); this still serves as the parish hall.
The present church was built in 1967-8 (foundation stone 7 June 1967, opened by Archbishop Dwyer 28 September 1968). The architects were Desmond Williams & Associates and the main contractors Jenks Builders Ltd. The circular shape was chosen in part because it suited the site conditions (having to work with an existing presbytery and church/hall). The church was built to seat 600-650 (including the gallery), and to serve the post-Vatican II liturgy, with a freestanding altar, separate tabernacle, font in the sanctuary area, no fixed altar rails, and all the seating within forty eight feet of the celebrant. A number of notable artworks were incorporated.
The church is built on a circular plan, faced with loadbearing brown brick and with steel roof beams. The walls are tall and are punctuated by projecting parallel strips of brick which frame thin, full-height panels of abstract stained glass. The recesses inside the church for shrines, confessionals etc. are expressed externally between the projecting strips of brick. On the right-hand side is a hollow bell tower (i.e. the face towards the road is open). On top of the church are what the architects called ‘reversed clerestories’, that is, triangular projections which are glazed on the inward-facing edge and which create an unusual and dramatic effect internally.
The church is entered through a large lobby area and immediately presents a striking, tall, circular space. The wall faces are of bare, dark brown brick punctuated by the window strips. Light floods in from the reversed clerestories around a central suspended crown of deeply folded fibrous plasterwork and which has triangular top light in its centre. There is a gallery over the entrance with seating and the organ. The seating arrangement, in a fan-shape, was planned by the architects so that no one would be more than forty eight feet from the altar.
Fittings of note include the figure of St Michael over the main entrance, an extraordinarily delicate and ethereal work in wrought bronze by Sean Compton. Inside, he was also responsible for the suspended crucifix of resin bronze and the fine Madonna and Child of resin copper. The massive relief panel behind the altar of the semi-abstract Cross and Crown of Thorns is by Robert Brumby. The abstract stained glass is by Bronwen Gordon of the Wolverhampton College of Art. The stone font appears not to be the original one.
List description (the church was listed Grade II in 2016, following Taking Stock)
A Roman Catholic Church built in 1967-8 to a design by Desmond Williams & Associates (with Anthony Ward as job architect), including artwork and furnishings by Robert Brumby, Sean Compton and Bronwen Gordon.
Reasons for Designation: The Roman Catholic Church of St Michael, Coalway Road, Penn, Wolverhampton, of 1967-8 by Desmond Williams & Associates (with Anthony Ward as job architect), is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons: *Architectural interest: it is a good example of a modern Roman Catholic church of the late 1960s, displaying interesting architectural detailing and use of materials; *Plan-form and layout: its layout reflects the post-Vatican II liturgical reforms and is an early example in reflecting changes in the rite of baptism; *Internal fixtures and fittings: it contains a number of good quality bespoke fixtures and fittings and artwork with a good level of artistic interest;*Intactness: the church has survived unaltered and remarkably intact.
History: The Church of St Michael was built in 1967-8 to designs by Desmond Williams & Associates, with Anthony Ward as job architect. Jenks Builders Ltd were the main contractors. The church is situated in a suburb of Wolverhampton characterised by early-C20 semi-detached housing. It was to be built set back from the road on a tight plot between an existing Roman Catholic Parish Hall of 1924 by George Bernard Cox of Harrison & Cox Architects of Birmingham, and a presbytery (1920s). The Ordnance Survey map of 1937 shows a small hall (also from the c1920s, now no longer there) to the south of Cox’s Parish Hall, which is marked as the Church of St Michael, suggesting it was used as such until the completion of the new church. The new, much larger, drum-shaped church was built to seat 600-650 (including the gallery) and to serve the post-Vatican II liturgy. Circular in plan, it had a freestanding altar with adjacent open sanctuary with font, a separate tabernacle, no fixed altar rails and fan-shaped seating in the nave, close to the celebrant. Art works and fittings were commissioned by the artists Sean Compton (crucifix and Madonna), Robert Brumby (reredos and font) and Bronwen Gordon (stained glass windows). Desmond Williams & Associates designed a number of modern churches, including the Roman Catholic Church of St Augustine, Manchester, 1966-8 with a notable reredos by Robert Brumby (listed Grade II) and the Roman Catholic Church of St Dunstan, Birmingham, 1966-8 (listed Grade II). Desmond Williams worked with Arthur Facebrother before setting up his own practice in Manchester, which in c1970 amalgamated with W & J B Ellis to become Ellis Williams Partnership (still in practice today).
Details: A Roman Catholic Church built in 1967-8 to a design by Desmond Williams & Associates (with Anthony Ward as job architect), including artwork and furnishings by Robert Brumby, Sean Compton and Bronwen Gordon. MATERIALS: brown brick with a steel roof frame. PLAN: a circular plan with a narthex and U-shaped tower attached to the north, a projecting chapel to the south-west and a rectangular sacristy attached to the south-east. EXTERIOR: the walls of the tall, drum-shaped building are punctuated by projecting narrow buttresses framing slim, full height windows, with the internal recesses for shrines and confessionals fully expressed externally by further strips of brick. The irregular, flattened and channeled cone-shaped roof, clad in lead, has a reversed clerestory. Behind the low, flat-roofed narthex to the north side of the church is a tall U-shaped open bell-tower. Attached to the wall above the entrance is a wrought bronze figure of St Michael by Sean Compton. The narthex has a later added flat-roofed walkway attaching it to the adjacent parish hall (not of special interest).The plain, single storey sacristy attached to the south side of the church has a flat roof with three large windows to the rear. INTERIOR: the dark brick internal walls to the nave are pierced by narrow, full height abstract stained glass windows by Bronwen Gordon in strong shades of blue, purple, yellow, red, orange and green. Recently heating panels have been introduced, fixed on a rail along the entire length of the internal wall. The cast reinforced concrete ceiling, resembling a large paper folded canopy, is suspended from the roof and has a deep circular light well. The nave is divided into a fan-shaped seating area facing a raised, U-shaped chancel. Behind the stone table altar the reredos is formed by a large, full height abstract ceramic relief by Robert Brumby. A resin bronze and timber crucifix by Sean Compton is suspended above the altar. Immediately to the right of the altar is an open, circular shaped sunken sanctuary, with a stone font by Robert Brumby at the centre and an abstract bronze relief to the front. It is believed to be one of the earliest examples of the use of a completely open area for baptism set right next to the altar, as opposed to the tradition of a font near the narthex or one set within a separate baptistery (Proctor, 2014). A photograph of 1968 in the Catholic Building Review shows a different font, suggesting the current is not the original one. However Proctor (2014) states that Brumby confirmed that the current font was designed by him at the time. It is possible that when the 1968 photograph was taken that the font had not been completed yet. Attached to the wall above the adjacent, recessed Lady Chapel is a resin copper Madonna and Child by Sean Compton. A further three recesses along the walls house the confessionals with flush vertical timber doors. Both the sacristy and narthex retain most of their original fittings and fixtures, most notably the bespoke timber built-in furniture. In the corner of the narthex a (later inserted) door opens to an open string concrete winder stair in the tower, allowing access to the suspending concrete gallery with further seats and raised organ.
Books and journals: Birmingham Diocesan Directory, (1969), 227-8; Proctor, R, Building the Modern Church: Roman Catholic Church Architecture in Britain, 1955 to 1975, (2014), 207-8; Scarisbrick, J J (editor), History of the Diocese of Birmingham, 1850-2000, (2008), 187; Catholic Building Review, Southern Edition, (1965), 124-5; Catholic Building Review (Southern edition), 1961-1963, (1967), 110; Catholic Building Review (Southern edition), 1961-1963, (1968), 107-11. Other: Anon., Solemn Blessing and Official Opening of St Michael’s Church Wolverhampton…Saturday 28 September 1968 (1968); The Architectural History Practice Ltd: Churches in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Birmingham – An Architectural and Historical Review, prepared for Historic England and the Archdiocese of Birmingham (2015)
Architect: Desmond Williams & Associates
Original Date: 1968
Conservation Area: No
Listed Grade: Grade II