West Street, Sittingbourne, Kent ME10
A compact Gothic Revival church of 1901-02 by a local architect William Leonard Grant, which retains most of its original furnishings. The design of the west front is based on that of the medieval church of St Mary, Nun Monkton in Yorkshire.
In 1881 Mass was first offered at Sittingbourne by Fr Moynihan, priest at Sheerness, in a house near the railway station. In 1892 Bishop Butt secured a site on the Rock Estate which was then being developed for a mission in Sittingbourne, on which a school building with chapel and a presbytery were to be erected. An anonymous Irish army pensioner had donated £50 for the establishing of a mission in the area between Chatham and Gravesend. With this sum, a loan could be raised. R. A. Boase drew up plans for the present presbytery and a school-cum-chapel behind. The latter was a large hall with a gallery and a screened-off sanctuary. It cost £700 and Mass was first said on 20 November 1892. The parish school, St Peter’s, was opened shortly afterwards. (The building survives as the O’Sullivan Centre.)
As the congregation continued to grow, the first mission priest, Fr Eugene O’Sullivan, launched a building fund for a new church in 1899. The congregation was poor and so he made numerous international appeals. The foundation stone was laid by Bishop Bourne on 26 June 1901 who put the church under the patronage of Blessed (St) John Fisher. In March 1902 Fr O’Sullivan placed the cross on top of the tower. The church was opened and consecrated on 27 August 1902, after Fr O’Sullivan had requested a delay which would allow him to clear the outstanding debt. The architect was William Leonard Grant and the builder Mr E. Bishop, both of Sittingbourne. The stonework was by Messrs Millen & Christfield. Grant consulted Dr Francis Grayling, a local physician and expert on Gothic architecture, about the design. The west front was based on that of the medieval church of St Mary at Nun Monkton, North Yorkshire. The organ was built by Mr H. Fagg of Canterbury.
In 1905 a chime of eight bells was installed, cast by Felix Aerschodt of Louvain. During the First World War, the mechanical ringing device was abandoned and the chime converted to manual ringing. From 1926 to 1976 the parish was in the care of the Calced Carmelite Friars. In 1933 Mrs Steadfast presented the church with a hanging rood, probably made in Oberammergau. In 1938 the Carmel Hall was built for £3,000 on a site to the rear of the church. The architect was R. W. Waite and the builders were Messrs G. Bowes & Son of Milton.
During the 1940s, Fr Bonaventure Fitzgerald installed a new organ, the side altars and two stained glass windows. In 1958 the land between the Carmel Hall and the O’Sullivan Centre was purchased (it is now used for car parking). A new infant school was built on a new site in 1964, followed by the junior school completed in 1976. Since then, the old chapel and school building has been used as a second parish hall. In 1976 the Carmelites returned the care of the parish to the Diocese. In the 1970s, chairs in the church were replaced by benches, in an attempt to make the best use of the small nave. Around the same time, the font was moved towards the sanctuary. (It has since been moved again to the west.)
Between 1976 and 1982, the church was restored by Anthony Swaine FSA FRIBA. This included the removal of the chimney of the old heating system, the re-hanging of the bells, and the replacement of the old confessional below the gallery by a new open confessional. In 2010, the narthex and the gallery were reconfigured with a new glazed screen, and a new reconciliation room created at the southwest. The work was done by Green Tea Architects.
The church is facing southwest; however, this description uses the conventional liturgical orientation.
The church was built in 1901-02, from designs by William Leonard Grant of Sittingbourne. The materials are local bricks laid in English bond, with dressings of Bath and Caen stone. The plan is longitudinal with a west tower and a polygonal apse. There is an additional entrance via a small porch at the south. The design of the west facade is based on that for St Mary, Nun Monkton in Yorkshire. It has a recessed doorway under a gable, with three stepped lancets above. The doorway’s gable has a small statue of Christ, with two statues of bishops on either side. The short bell tower crowns the main roof gable.
The narthex below the west gallery has a reconciliation room at the southwest corner, the original octagonal font of stone and marble, and a timber spiral stair at the northwest. The glazed screen of the reconciliation room awkwardly abuts the west wall and the holy water stoup is now inside the room. The nave is of six bays, of which the westernmost is taken up by the organ gallery and narthex. Two massive buttresses support the tower above. Set against them are statues of St John Fisher (given by the Viscountess Southwell) and St Thomas More (given by the Fitzgerald family). The Stations are framed paintings.
The north side has niches with statues of St Joseph and St Theresa, as well as three stained glass windows. These depict from the west: the Baptism of Christ (1999, by John Corley, commemorating the parish centenary); St Joseph (1940s); and Our Lady of Mount Carmel (1940s). The northeast side altar is dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel (1940s); altar and reredos are of stone and marble and have a statue of the Virgin in the central niche.
The sanctuary has stone altar rails whose Breche Sanguine marble top was added later. Above is the hanging rood (1933, Oberammergau). The five-sided apse has three stained glass windows by Hardman depicting the Virgin Mary, the Sacred Heart, and St Margaret Mary. The Caen stone high altar was a gift of Miss Murphy of Cork. Its outer niches have statues of St Anthony and St Thomas of Canterbury, with relief scenes of the Resurrection and the Agony in the Garden between them and the central monstrance throne. The frontal depicts the presentation of the keys to St Peter, the Last Supper and the Washing of the Disciples’ Feet. On either side are the aumbry and piscina. The forward altar and font are modern and of timber; the former was a gift from the Sisters of the Nativity whose convent was nearby until 1993.
The southeast corner has a stone and marble altar and reredos dedicated to the Sacred Heart. Next to it is the sacristy door and the south porch with a small stained glass window of the Good Shepherd. Between is the pulpit of stone and Breche Sanguine marble, incorporating material allegedly from the tomb of Pope Cornelius (died AD253) The two easternmost south windows are circular and depict Our Lady as Mother of Consolation and Jesus in His Passion.
Architect: William Leonard Grant
Original Date: 1901
Conservation Area: No
Listed Grade: Not Listed