Building » Penzance -The Immaculate Conception of Our Lady

Penzance -The Immaculate Conception of Our Lady

Rosevean Road, Penzance, Cornwall

The westernmost Catholic church in the country, described soon after its construction as ‘the best ecclesiastical fabric in the Diocese of Plymouth’. A large church built in the Perpendicular Gothic style in 1843, its west front is a lively composition of considerable sophistication. Inside, the most noteworthy features are the fine timber roof over the main space, and the granite and serpentine high altar designed by Joseph Hansom. The south aisle was added later and the north aisle remains unbuilt.  

A first, unsuccessful, attempt to establish a mission to the small and mainly Irish Catholic population of Penzance was made in 1837. Then in 1839 The Rev. William Young, who had built or rebuilt churches at Baldoyle and Kinsaley in his native Ireland, arrived at Lanherne, the ancient Catholic centre in Cornwall, and began ministering to the small and scattered population in the area. In 1840 he settled in Penzance, initially using a former schoolroom in Morrab Place as a home and very small chapel. In 1841 he purchased a site in an expanding residential area on the eastern edge of the town, where in July of that year the foundation stone of the present church was laid. The architect for the church is not known; a correspondent in The Tablet (18 December 1848) described it as ‘constructed from a design of Mr Pugin’, prompting A. W. N. Pugin to respond (The Tablet, 8 January 1848) ‘I have enough bad things of my own to answer for, I do not wish to have those perpetrated by others attributed to me’. Pugin was being ungenerous; built of dressed Penryn granite, the Gothic design is of considerable sophistication.

In the course of the construction of the church, the restless Fr Young moved on to Bodmin, leaving the mission in the care of Fr William Daly of the Dublin Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Although the aisles were not yet built, the church was solemnly opened on 26 October 1843, led by the Archbishop of Marseilles, Eugene de Mazanod, Superior of the Oblate Fathers. A school was established in the small crypt below the nave, served by Oblate sisters.

Disaster struck early in the life of the church when Fr Daly went off to Derbyshire and entered into a mortgage contract for the purchase of Ashbourne Hall, offering the Penzance church and its fittings as collateral. He was unable to keep up his payments and in 1852 the Oblates were forced to depart while the church was advertised for sale at public auction. The loss of such an important new church, described at the time as ‘the best in the Diocese of Plymouth’, was unthinkable and so the newly-consecrated Bishop Errington, first Bishop of Plymouth, bought back the church, fixtures and land for the sum of £905.  He did this despite the fact that the annual development fund for the whole of the diocese totalled a mere £150. A national appeal was therefore launched to clear the debt, which was finally paid off in 1863.

In 1858 Canon Shortland was put in charge of the mission. He was a convert from Anglicanism, and after his priestly ordination in 1855 went to Plymouth, where he was made a canon in 1856.  He was a man of private means, and after his move to Penzance was able, with the help of others, to refurnish the church (since all the fittings had been sold by the Oblates to meet their debts) and set about enlarging it. No doubt while at Plymouth, Canon Shortland had made contact with Joseph Hansom, architect of the Cathedral, and in 1868 a new high altar of polished granite and serpentine was made for the church, designed by Hansom and given by Sir Paul Molesworth, a Catholic convert and benefactor.

In 1869 Canon Shortland built the presbytery at the bottom of the church garden, at his own expense. In the same year a south aisle was added to the church, housing a sacristy and Lady Chapel, with a lofty extension for the schoolroom below. Built from a gift of £250 from Mr John McAlister, this was more cheaply built than the original church, of irregular blocks of local pink Castle granite rather than dressed Penryn granite. It has the hallmarks of a local builder rather than an architect’s hand. The Lady Chapel was subsequently adorned with stencil decoration by ‘John Powell of Bristol’ (note on file in Diocesan archives), again at the expense of Mr McAlister. In 1880 Powell also decorated the sanctuary, early photographs of which show much stencil decoration and statues in canopied niches on either side of the east window. Presumably John Powell of Bristol was John Hardman Powell, nephew of John Hardman junior and son-in-law of A. W. N. Pugin. In 1884 an organ built by George Tucker of Plymouth was provided at a cost of £300, John McAlistair meeting £100 of the cost. The organ gallery was also presumably built at this time.

In 1892 Fr Thomas Courtenay gave part of the garden of the presbytery for the building of a school, built in the following year (and surviving to the east of the church). The school was initially served by sisters of Notre Dame, Bordeaux. About the same time a statue of Our Lady was installed in the niche over the main entrance, the work of Mr James Scott. In 1903 a new font was installed.

Significant changes were made to the church after the appointment in 1935 of Fr George Cantell. Chief amongst these was the erection of a great baldacchino over the high altar in advance of the centenary of the church in 1943, necessitating the blocking of the east window. Hansom’s tabernacle canopy was removed and placed over a statue of the Sacred Heart against one of the pillars on the south side of the nave. After the war the now Canon Cantell went to Falmouth, where he also made significant changes (q.v). He later became administrator to the Cathedral, where he oversaw much making good of wartime damage.

The sanctuary was further reordered in 1982, when Canon Cantell’s baldacchino was removed, along with the altar rails, and the east window reopened. Hansom’s high altar was left in situ, with its tabernacle canopy reinstated, and a forward altar was introduced in front of this, with an extraordinary tent-like baldacchino supported on wooden posts (since removed).  More recently the canopy over the tabernacle has again been removed, and is apparently in store. About this time, the reopened east window was reglazed with coloured glass in abstract patterns. More recently three new stained glass windows by the Hardman successor firm Goddard and Gibbs were fitted in the south aisle at the time of the 150th anniversary (1993).

In recent years much work of repair and restoration has taken place, including major roof and rainwater works, the installation of comprehensive heating systems for the church and crypt, along with improvements to facilitate disabled access. There are current plans to ‘complete’ the church by the addition of a north aisle and the development of the crypt areas for new sacristies and parish facilities.

The building is fully described in the list entry (the church was listed in 2014, following Taking Stock).

Text amended by AHP 17.02.2023

List description


Summary: Roman Catholic Church in the Perpendicular Gothic style. Built in 1843, the south aisle was added in 1869. Late-C19 and C20 alterations. The early-C20 link corridor connecting the north side of the church with the presbytery, the mid-C19 presbytery, and the late-C19 former school are excluded from the listing.

Reasons for Designation: The Church of the Immaculate Conception is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons: * Architectural interest: for its highly competent and sophisticated west façade in the Perpendicular Gothic style; * Date: an early example of a Catholic church in the Gothic style; * Materials: an interesting and successful use of contrasting masonry to the external elevations; * Interior: despite the loss of original fixtures, it retains an impressive, high-quality scissor-braced and hammerbeam roof, as well as a mid-C19 altar by J A Hansom and an organ (1883) by George Tucker from a later restoration.

History: In 1840, Fr William Young from Dublin settled in Penzance and purchased the site on which the Church of The Immaculate Conception of Our Lady was built. The foundation stone was laid in 1841, and although the aisles were not yet built the church was opened on the 26 October 1843 by Archbishop of Marseilles, Eugene de Mazenod, Superior of the Oblate Fathers. A school was established in the crypt below the nave, served by the Oblate sisters. In 1852 the Oblates were forced to leave the church whilst it was advertised for sale by public auction. This was due to the incumbent, Fr Daly, using the church and its fittings as collateral for a mortgage contract for Ashbourne Hall, Derbyshire, for which he was unable to keep up the payments. The newly consecrated Bishop Errington, first Bishop of Plymouth, bought back the church, fixtures and land for the sum of £905. This was paid off by 1863 through a national appeal and the sale of the church fixtures and fittings. In 1868, the altar of polished granite and serpentine was made for the church, designed by J A Hansom. In 1869, the south aisle was added, housing a sacristy and Lady Chapel, and providing an extension to the schoolroom in the crypt. John Hardman Powell was appointed to adorn the Lady Chapel with stencil decoration and he subsequently decorated the sanctuary in 1880 with stencilling and statues in canopied niches on either side of the east window. The organ, built by George Tucker of Plymouth, was installed in 1883. In 1892 a statue of Our Lady, by James Scott, was installed in the niche over the main entrance to the west end of the church. In 1903 a new font was installed. Following the appointment of Fr George Cantell in 1935, a number of changes were made to the church, most notably to the east end. These included the erection of a baldacchino over the high altar which necessitated the blocking of the east window. Hansom’s tabernacle canopy was removed, as was Powell’s stencil decoration and canopied niches, as well as the reredos. Historic photographs suggest that the altar was raised on three steps at this time. In 1982, the baldacchino was removed and the east window reopened. The tabernacle canopy was reinstated and a forward altar was introduced in front of Hansom’s altar, with a tent-like baldacchino supported on wooden posts, (since removed). The altar rails were also removed and the altar to the Lady Chapel was replaced at this time. At the time of inspection (2013) the east window had been re-glazed with a stained glass window designed and made by Pugin, Hardman & Powell of Birmingham. The chancel steps had been re-ordered with plans for inlaid encaustic tiles to the treads, and two encaustic tile panels to the chancel floor. The walls have been repainted with a polychromatic design and the organ has been moved forward and fully restored (2009/10). The presbytery was built by Canon Shortland in 1869 to the north of the church and by the early C20 it had been extended to the east and a link corridor had been erected between it and the church. A school was erected in 1893 in the south-east part of the presbytery garden which was initially served by the sisters of Notre Dame, Bordeaux. There are plans to convert the former school to five apartments.

Details: MATERIALS: it is constructed of dressed Penryn granite. The east elevation and south aisle are constructed of random blocks of Castle granite. PLAN: orientated approximately west to east and consists of the nave with the chancel to the east end, and the organ and organ gallery to the west end. The south aisle has a Lady Chapel and sacristy to the east end. The crypt is now used for storage, with the church hall beneath the south aisle, formerly a school classroom.

EXTERIOR: the west end comprises a central, recessed, four-centred arched entrance approached by steps, with low relief carved quatrefoils and mouchettes in the spandrels. Above the entrance is a niche with crocketed canopy which contains a statue of Our Lady by sculptor, James Scott, above which is a rose window. To the apex of the gable is a belfry with diagonal buttresses with crocketed finials and a stone cross. The central and outer bays of the west elevation are framed by offset buttresses; those to the outer bays with crocketed finials. To the outer bays are paired lancet windows with Y-tracery under hoodmoulds. To the clerestorey of the north and south elevations are seven pairs of lancet windows under hoodmoulds. To the north elevation the plaster infilled arcading to the unbuilt north aisle is visible and the bays are separated by buttresses. The south aisle is constructed of Castle granite which is rendered on the west elevation. The bays are separated by buttresses and the Y-tracery windows are granite apart from the two at the east end which are timber. The windows of the crypt are visible to the south elevation. The east elevation is dominated by the large stained glass window of four lights divided by a central transom with Y-tracery above. To either side is a blocked rectangular opening beneath which are niches: the one to the left has a statue of St Peter and the one to the right has a statue of St Michael (c1937).

INTERIOR: internally the walls are plastered and have recently (2013) been repainted in polychrome fashion. Beneath the cill of the east window, the chancel walls are faced in terrazzo, and there is dado panelling to the north arcade to which the original pews were fixed, (now removed). The nave and chancel have a hammerbeam and scissor-braced timber roof supported on corbels with angel heads beneath; pendants hang from the hammerbeams. The roof to the south aisle is of lean-to rafters. To the north and south are tall, perpendicular arcades with moulded four-centred arches with clustered columns and capitals. Colonettes and hoodmoulds frame the east and clerestorey windows.

FITTINGS: the high altar (1868), designed by J A Hansom, is made from polished granite with inlaid decoration in serpentine. The organ (1883), by George Tucker, is raised on a gallery approached by a flight of stairs on the south side with Gothic timber balusters and timber handrail. The gallery is faced with panels incorporating quatrefoils. To the south aisle are two (1869) stained glass windows probably by Hardman and three (1993) stained glass windows by Goddard and Gibbs. The east window (2011) is by Pugin, Hardman & Powell of Birmingham and includes the depiction of eighteen saints, Christ the King and three angels.

SUBSIDIARY FEATURES: attached to the north side of the church is an early-C20 link corridor connecting the church with the presbytery. The presbytery was built in 1869, and extended in the early C20. To the north-east of the church is the former school, built in 1893. The link corridor, presbytery and former school are excluded from the listing.


Books and journals: Woodhead, S , Illustrated Guide to the Catholic Churches of the Diocese of Plymouth, (1992), 164-5; Dowling, D, ‘Catholic Life’ in Father William Young: An Apostle In Penzance, (October 2004)

Other: ‘Misfortunes of Penzance: Appeal to Catholic Charity’ by George, Bishop of Plymouth (5th September, 1853); The Architectural History Practice Limited, Churches in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Plymouth: An Architectural and Historical Review, September 2009.

Heritage Details

Architect: Not established

Original Date: 1843

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Grade II