Abbey House Drive, Romsey, Hampshire
Built as the sisters’ chapel of La Sagesse Convent, at the heart of a large complex of conventual buildings. It is a distinctive and attractive building by W. C. Mangan, a well-crafted amalgam of Romanesque, Byzantine, Arts & Crafts and touches of vernacular revival.
The religious order of Les Filles de la Sagesse, which translates as The Daughters of Wisdom, was founded in La Rochelle, Brittany, France in 1715. The Daughters of Wisdom established an orphanage and school at Abbey House, Romsey in 1891. The first Mass to be said in Romsey in modern times was on 27 June 1891 in what later became the senior staff room at the convent. The first convent chapel of 1892 was a converted outbuilding to which a sacristy was added in 1895. A convent and an orphanage were built in 1896 by the architect Philip Wilkinson, as south and east wings to the early nineteenth-century Abbey House.
In 1927 the convent attracted international attention when one of the nuns, Sister Gerard, was reported to have received a cure for her tuberculosis through the intercession of Blessed Louis de Montfort. This led to the canonisation of the order’s founder in 1947. The first floor room in the 1896 east range in which the miracle was reported to have taken place became a shrine, and a statue of St Louis was erected in front the building.
During the twentieth century, the convent complex expanded with numerous additions, most of which have been demolished since. The convent has now closed.
The church was originally dedicated to Our Lady of Ransom and formed part of the parish of St Edmund’s, Southampton. In 1927, the dedication was changed to St Joseph. The architect was Wilfrid Clarence Mangan and the main contractor was J. Rigby of Preston, Lancashire. The church has been variously dated to 1913 and 1928. A parish history says 1913, as the church was dedicated that year, but 1928 appears to be the more likely date as the original drawings are included in a bundle of building control documents for that year. Sister Gerard’s cure in 1927 may have prompted the building of a new church in 1928 and the change in dedication to St Joseph. The building control records include undated drawings signed by Mangan (the name of his brother, James Henry Mangan, also appears on the drawings). The building control application includes details of buildings on the site by the local architect William Comley-Roles, who had worked in the office of Sir Edwin Lutyens. Comley-Roles may have made the application on behalf of Mangan, and may indeed have supervised construction.
The east end was reordered in 1969 when the altar was brought forward and raised. The building was reroofed in 2001. The original gallery stair has been removed. During the 2012–14 works to Abbey House, a twentieth-century extension to the liturgical north side of the church was removed and any damage made good.
The church is a two-cell, aisleless structure in a round-arched style freely combining elements of Romanesque, Byzantine, Arts and Crafts and vernacular architecture. It is built of red brick under a large, sweeping clay-tiled roof. Below the round-arched windows are recessed brick panels in various patterns. The lowness of the walls emphasises the scale of the roof. The nave has four bays. The three western bays of the side elevations have pairs of round-arched windows with tiles laid edge-on as voussoirs. On the north side, the fourth bay has a small chapel in form of a short transept with three stepped windows. On the south side, the fourth bay is occupied by a prominent porch with a doorway of four brick orders in the arch surrounded by long, edge-on tile voussoirs. The roof overhangs the front of the porch and has bargeboards bearing the words ‘AD JESUM / PER MARIAM’, the motto of the founder of the Order, St Louis Marie de Montfort (whose statue stands in the courtyard in front of the main convent house and the chapel). The nave has two triangular louvred openings on each side near the roof ridge, as well as two modern skylights to the west. The chancel is externally plain. It has a hipped roof which is lower than the nave roof, a lunette window under a triangular gable to light the east end, two triangular dormers to each side and an eastern door giving access to the sacristy. A short flat-roofed bay on each side between the nave and the chancel has three stepped windows.
The interior is dominated by a tall roof of hammerbeam construction (now reinforced by iron tie-rods) with a collar and, above this, a collar post with struts. The roof brackets rest on carved stone corbels. Ventilation grilles in the ceiling take the form of crosses in a circle. The walls are plastered and whitened above a red brick dado. There is a west gallery, fronted by a low timber balustrade with diagonal bracing in the panels. The round-arched motif is continued in the carved stone arches to the chancel, its flanking spaces and the north chapel. The chancel arch is broad and has three-quarter round responds with decorated cushion capitals. The arch is embellished with a trail of foliage; the north chapel arch is similarly treated but is supported on carved corbels. The sanctuary is raised on three steps, two of which were inserted in 1969, and is embraced on three sides by the sacristy (northeast), the bishop’s room (east) and a confessional (south). The east window takes the shape of a Diocletian or thermal window, with the arch and two mullions carved with interlacing foliage.
The stone high altar is set on a series of short, black marble shafts. It has carved capitals and a carved frieze of vine leaves and grapes, matching that in the reredos. The reredos is tripartite, with the divisions mirroring those of the east window above. The four supports are carved in diaper pattern, while the vine and grape frieze at the top has the inscription ‘HIC EST FILIUS / MEUS DILECTUS’. The top frieze is supported by eight small angels. Four of which are in the central bay whose frieze divides and forms a circle, mirroring the shape of the cylindrical copper and brass tabernacle below. The tabernacle bears the inscription ‘SANCTUS SANCTUS SANCTUS’ and its door has a relief of a bunch of grapes in an oval frame. Above the chancel arch is a crucifix with flanking statues of the Virgin May and St John. The altar in the north chapel is made of wood; behind this are placed large statues of St Louis and the Blessed Virgin Mary. The benches are moveable and have openwork ends. Plaster Stations of the Cross (by La Statue Religieuse, Paris) set within Romanesque arched frames hang on either side of the nave. The windows throughout the church have decorative leading with chevron patterns and clear and light green window glass. At the centre of the east window is a circle with the dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit. The internal doors in the church also have decoratively leaded glazing. The inner south porch door and the doors formerly leading to the convent have full-height areas of glazing, while the doors on either side of the sanctuary have glazed circles in the upper part of the door. The holy water stoups near the south entrance are plain stone bowls with canted corners and carved crosses.
Entry amended 27.12.2020, based on a report prepared by AHP in 2014
Architect: W. C. Mangan
Original Date: 1928
Conservation Area: Yes
Listed Grade: Not Listed