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 Fr 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 of the church is not known; built of dressed Penryn granite, it is a design 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. Pugin, thus suggesting another tantalising link between Pugin and Penzance. 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 re-ordered 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 (mercifully 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. 

Heritage Details

Architect: Not established

Original Date: 1843

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Not Listed