Street, Shefford, Bedfordshire
Image copyright Alex Ramsay
Shefford was the focus of Catholic continuity in Bedfordshire during the eighteenth century, and a chapel was built here as soon as it became legal to do so. Part of that building is said to survive behind the present church, which dates from 1882-84 and was built from the designs of S. J. Nicholl at the expense of Mrs Yolande Lyne-Stephens, a major benefactor of building projects in the Diocese of Northampton. The church occupies a town centre location and with its contemporary adjacent presbytery and the former boys’ home forms a cleverly planned and important group of historic buildings at the heart of Shefford Conservation Area. The church interior is richly furnished and little altered, with a particularly stunning stone reredos on the east wall.
Catholicism was more or less extinguished in Bedfordshire by the end of the eighteenth century, apart from in a few pockets, chief amongst which was Shefford. There had been recusant households in the county at Chawston Manor, Houghton Conquest, Turvey Park and Weston Underwood. Throughout penal times, the Throckmorton family at Weston Underwood had a resident priest, and it is likely he that served the small Catholic community which survived in the Shefford area (about twenty were noted by Bishop Challoner when he visited Shefford in September 1742). They were generally served by itinerant ‘riding’ priests, although resident priests are recorded on and off from 1738. A small chapel was built in the High Street after the passing of the second Catholic Relief Act in 1791, discreetly located behind a property belonging to a local Catholic family named Nodding. In 1830 there were about 200 Catholics in the Shefford area, and the little chapel, dedicated to St George, remained the only Mass centre in the county until 1874.
In 1869 a home for poor Catholic boys, dedicated to St Francis, was established at Shefford by the Rev. Canon Collis. The buildings bear the dates 1879 and 1884 and are in an attractive domestic Queen Anne Revival style, an early use of this style. They were probably designed by S. J. Nicholl, a pupil of J. J. Scoles, and paid for by Mrs Yolande Lyne-Stephens of Lynford Hall, Norfolk, a former ballerina who had married a banker and member of Parliament, and who as a widow came into enormous wealth. She paid for her estate church by Henry Clutton at Lynford Hall, as well as the large Dunn & Hansom church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs at Cambridge (at one time in the 1890s considered as a possible new cathedral for the diocese). She also paid for the Bishop’s residence at Northampton, as well as the buildings at Shefford.
Canon Collis revived the life of the mission, and the congregation soon outgrew the old chapel. The present church and adjoining seminary were built in 1882-84, from designs by S. J. Nicholl, and at the expense of Mrs Lyne Stephens. They were built on the site of the earlier chapel, although a part of the old building is said to survive in the sacristy at the rear of the present church. The foundation stone of the present Gothic Revival church, dedicated to St Francis of Assisi, was laid on 4 October 1882, the 700th anniversary of the birth of St Francis. At the same time the Bishop opened a small diocesan seminary next door (this closed in 1908). The church opened on 8 July 1884. The attached presbytery was built at the same time as the church, but has a domestic, loosely Queen Anne design; there is a carved scroll over a first floor window bearing the legend ‘St George for England’.
In 1975 the boys’ home was closed, and the buildings have now been sold and converted to residential use.
The building is orientated north-south, but this description follows conventional liturgical orientation i.e. as if the altar faced east. The building is described fairly fully in the list description, below. Additional points are:
Attached to the rear of the church is the small sacristy, incorporated within a larger two storey brick building with a tiled roof and gablet, formerly associated with the boys’ home, and now providing parish facilities on two levels.
Roman Catholic church. Designed by S J Nicholl of Kentish Town, erected at expense of Mrs Lyne-Stephens of Lynford Hall, Thetford, Norfolk. Opened 1884. Red brick with ashlar dressings. Clay tile roofs. Church is oriented N-S, with altar to S end. Rectangular plan overall, consisting of nave and chancel, the latter with narrow aisles formed by 2-bay arcades within structure. In C14 style. Nave: N (road) gable has large pointed-arched 4-light window with cusped flowing and panel tracery. 3-light ogee window to apex. Stone coping to gable, with crucifix finial. To LH side is slightly projecting 3-stage bell-cote. To ground floor is pointed arched doorway, recessed within higher pointed archway with traceried spandrels. Central stage has canopied niche with figure of St Francis, flanked by single lights. Gabled top stage almost entirely in ashlar, has ogee headed niche with statue of Virgin and Child. Nave also has windows to W and E in similar style. Chancel: has windows to W and E, similar in style but with 4-centred arched heads. The pointed-arched arcades have rather slender columns.
Interior: reredos, approx. 9 metres high, is in ornate High Gothic style, of carved stone including alabaster and marble, and has figures of saints within crocketed canopied niches. Arcades have foliate capitals. Nave has half-height cedarwood panelling with carved and painted Stations of the Cross inset at intervals. Carved stone pulpit to SE corner of nave in High Gothic style. High Gothic carved stone Lady Altar to SW corner of nave, the Virgin and Child partly gilded. Stained glass to Lady Altar window, and to windows in nave W and E. NE of nave is octagonal font with crocketed wood spire cover. Angular wagon roofs to nave and chancel, timberwork to nave plain and open, that to chancel infilled, with painted and gilded angels and bosses. Gallery to N end of nave.
Kelly’s Directory of Beds, Hunts and Northants, 1885, pp 107-8). Listing NGR: TL1426039011
Presbytery belonging to Roman Catholic Church of St Francis of Assisi. 1884 by S J Nicholl, for Mrs Lyne-Stephens of Thetford, Norfolk. Red brick with ashlar dressings. Clay tile roof with decorative ridge cresting. 2-room plan, 2 storeys and attics. To LH is 2 storey and attics gabled bay, partly hung with fish scale tiles, the gable rendered. Ground and first floor of this bay have triple sash windows, attic has single sash. To RH side first floor has paired sash windows with plaque above: “St George for England”. RH attic has hipped dormer with sash. Glazing bars only to attic windows and top part of first floor windows. 6 panel door to RH, flanked by single lights and surmounted by decorative carved panel showing shield with St. George cross. To LH corner of house is niche containing statue of St. George.
Listing NGR: TL1425039010
Architect: S.J. Nicholl
Original Date: 1884
Conservation Area: Yes
Listed Grade: Grade II*