Building » Smethwick – St Philip Neri

Smethwick – St Philip Neri

Messenger Road, Smethwick, Sandwell B66

The mission was established by the Rev. Edward Caswall, of the Birmingham Oratory and a noted hymnographer. The present church is a brick and terracotta design of the turn of the twentieth century, built largely through the efforts of Fr Charles Ryder. The design can be described as transitional Romanesque-Gothic, the arcaded interior more successful than the exterior. The sanctuary and transepts are richly furnished in marble, stone and mosaic, either by Fr Ryder or in his memory.   

The church stands in the Soho district of Smethwick, which underwent considerable industrial expansion in the nineteenth century, following the establishment of the Soho Foundry and construction of the Birmingham to Wolverhampton canal. Between 1858 and 1861 the Rev. Edward Caswall of the Birmingham Oratory, a convert, widower and leading hymnographer, acquired land in Smethwick for a school and church. The first resident priest was the Rev. John Flanagan of the Oratory. He was the cousin of Terence Flanagan, architect of the first Oratory church (and Oratory House), and possibly also of the school-chapel that opened here in 1862. This was followed by a presbytery in 1863. Fr Caswall sold the school-chapel to the diocese in 1876, but the Oratorians kept hold of the rest of the property until 1912.

The present church was built for the Rev. Charles Ryder, the well-connected grandson of an Anglican Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry. Fr Ryder was not an Oratorian, although one of his brothers was. The architect was Alfred Pilkington of London, a pupil of Henry Clutton (who had worked at the Oratory); the builders were Barnsley & Sons of Birmingham. The foundation stone was laid by Bishop Ilsley on 14 September 1892 and the church opened by the bishop on 22 November 1893. Fr Ryder contributed significantly to the cost, but there were other notable subscribers, including Cardinal Newman and the Duke of Norfolk. Over the following decade, Fr Ryder added a porch, baptistery and chapel at the west end, the boundary wall and gates, and had the capitals of the pillars carved. In 1904 the Lady Chapel and sacristy was added, and in 1908 the Sacred Heart chapel and choir. Bishop Ilsley consecrated the Sacred Heart and Lady altars on 3 September 1908. Fr Ryder died in 1912 and is buried outside the church. In 1926 the sanctuary was refurnished in his memory.

The marble steps to the altar were completed in 1933, and in 1935 marble and mosaic roundels of Thomas More and John Fisher were installed over the doors to the confessional and sacristy, to commemorate the canonisation of these English martyrs. The church was consecrated by Archbishop Williams in 1936.

In 1949 a marble pulpit erected to the memory of the parish war dead was blessed by Archbishop Masterson. A new presbytery was built alongside the church in about 1960. The sanctuary was reordered in 1969, when the high altar was brought forward. Today the parish is in the care of the African Holy Ghost fathers.


The church is orientated roughly northeast-southwest, but this description assumes conventional orientation, i.e. as if the altar was to the east.

The building is in a transitional Romanesque-Gothic style, by Alfred Pilkington of London. It was built in phases between 1892 and 1908, but to a coherent design with consistent materials. Building was overseen by Fr Charles Ryder, who contributed significantly to the cost, and lived to see its completion before his death in 1912. The church is built of red brick with terracotta dressings under plain tile roofs. The plan (and sequence of construction) is as follows: nave, western porch, baptistery and chapel (the latter two now decommissioned), south transept (Lady Chapel) and sacristies, north transept (Sacred Heart chapel) and sanctuary. The round-arched main entrance is flanked by the apsidal side chapel and baptistery, and above this three lancet windows light the west end of the nave. The building is heavily buttressed, with chunky terracotta cornice, the overall effect perhaps a little coarse.

The interior by contrast is light, with paired stone arcades with enriched carved detail separating the nave from the side chapels. There is no structural division between the nave and sanctuary; a heavy cornice runs around the whole space, above which is a timber waggon roof. The transepts are subdivided by a further paired arcade, creating interesting and unusual spatial effects. In the nave, arched recesses occupy the lower wall space.

The sanctuary is richly furnished, the lower parts of the wall lined in coloured marble, installed with the high altar in 1926 as a memorial to Fr Ryder. The original high altar was apparently moved forward in 1969, but this was evidently done with care, and the present ‘shelf’ for the tabernacle and ‘big six’ candles against the east wall has a marble frontal incorporating Gothic detailing. Above the marble wall lining, the east wall has blind Romanesque arcading with polished marble columns and enriched carved capitals. The two-tier marble cancellae and communion rails are perhaps additions of 1933 (the description in the guide of 1936 is not clear).

The side altars are in the outer bays of the side chapels and are Gothic in style. The narrower inner bays of the transepts contain doors to a confessional (north) and sacristy (south); the walls around the doors are clad with marble and incorporate mosaic roundels of SS Thomas More and John Fisher, 1935.

Heritage Details

Architect: Alfred Pilkington

Original Date: 1893

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not Listed