Building » Southampton – Holy Family

Southampton – Holy Family

Redbridge Hill, Southampton, Hampshire

Liam McCormick was architect for many post-war churches in Ireland; In The Buildings of Ireland: North West Ulster he is described as ‘the doyen of Ulster church builders’. His design for Holy Family, achieved in close collaboration with Fr McDonald (who commissioned the building), is his only church in England. A well-composed and balanced exterior with a carefully thought out interior, informed by the emerging liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The relative austerity of the interior with all emphasis on the altar is balanced by the use of warm natural materials (avoiding the need for painting) and the luscious colours of the stained glass. Good original fittings. Minor changes in the sanctuary have to some extent compromised the architect’s intentions.

After the Second World War Millbrook was an area of planned extension. In 1957 the present church hall and social club was built (designed by Weston, Burnett & Thorne of Southampton) and used as the temporary church until the building of the permanent church in 1966 to designs by Liam McCormick. The builder was Dunning & Sons and the cost £58,000. McCormick designed many churches in his native Ireland and was a classmate of Fr McDonald, who built the church. It was reported in The Universe that McCormick sketched the design for the church with Fr McDonald ‘on the back of an envelope’, on a yacht in the Irish Sea. The church received a Civic Trust Award.


The church is well composed on a shallow slope, an irregular T-plan with the taller sanctuary at the head of the T. Almost detached slender bell tower on a podium of steps set at the liturgical northwest corner, linked to the nave by an open corridor or cloister, with a side chapel rising behind. The bell tower is effectively a slab with its thin face towards the front and with a slot in the depth of the wall in which the bell is set. Fawn brick walls with glazing largely confined to a horizontal clerestory band beneath the deep, white painted, fascia to the flat asphalt roofs, and opening into the almost totally glazed liturgical west wall. A satisfying composition of counterpoised shapes and vertical and horizontal accents. In the cloister are four mosaic panels, symbols of the Evangelists. A disabled access ramp was added in 1981.

The church is entered at the right hand end of the cloister, into a passage with the main church to the right. The impression on entering the church is of the immense volume, interrupted only by slender steel pillars, the texture of the exposed brickwork and Californian redwood ceiling and the striking light effects due to the fenestration arrangement and the stained glass. The interior is lit by full height clear glazing to the south-facing (liturgical west) wall of the baptistery, unusually placed off the sanctuary. This has the effect of bathing the sanctuary in light from windows not visible from the nave and enhanced by the use of white brick contrasting with the yellow brick used elsewhere. Almost the entire liturgical west wall of the nave is glazed and this window runs into the narrow clerestory band, with the effect that the roof seems to float, supported only by the steel pillars. The stained glass is by Helen Moloney of Dublin; from left to right it depicts the Creation, through the Fall to the Redemption, in bold blues, yellows, reds and greens.

The church was designed at the time of the Second Vatican Council. There is virtually no separation between sanctuary and nave, with the same tiled floor carried between the two. Above the altar a dropped panel in the ceiling forms a kind of subtle canopy. There is little to distract the eye from the altar, a 7½ ton block of Portland stone. Even the rood is matchstick thin, though the effect has been compromised by being moved onto the wall and onto a broader Portland stone cross designed to cover up a crack in the wall. Behind the altar, the only colour to be seen was introduced by the bright green and red of the tabernacle set into the wall, red tongues of fire surrounded by a green border inscribed Sanctus. The Holy Family tapestry dates from 1980 and introduces further colour and distraction from the altar, detracting from the designer’s conscious objective that nothing should distract attention away from the altar. There are no communion rails. The original lectern, a bronze eagle on a Portland stone pillar, praised by The Universe, has unfortunately been replaced by a wooden ambo of indifferent design. On one side of the sanctuary is the organ raised above sacristies and originally intended to house the choir gallery but, according to The Universe, this was dispensed with, as part of the liturgical reforms and the choir was located in the front pews of the nave. On the other side the sanctuary opens, without division, to the baptistery. The bowl-shaped stone font with incised lines is set within a rectangular basin. Open pews of steel with timber seats and back rests. The Stations of the Cross date from 1980.

The liturgical north wall of the nave has a glazed screen giving views into the Blessed Sacrament side chapel. The wooden altar is set in front of a painted brick wall and dramatically lit from a skylight. Spindly crucifix and tabernacle placed on and in the wall and set asymmetrically. The liturgical north wall is entirely glazed apart from the awkward placing of confessionals, which project both into the chapel and into the outside space. The glazing is to either side and carried across above them and the stained glass depicts the Holy Family and Our Lady Star of the Sea.

Heritage Details

Architect: Liam McCormick

Original Date: 1966

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not Listed