Heathgate Avenue, Speke, Liverpool 24
One of the best twentieth century churches in the Archdiocese of Liverpool. The austere character of the building’s exterior belies the refined nature of the interior, where the quality of light and space complements its advanced liturgical design. The church has been little altered since it was built in 1959-61, and houses a number of furnishings and works of art of high quality.
Speke was planned in the 1930s as a self-contained industrial suburb, which was intended to attract new manufacturers to Liverpool, and provide employment for workers whose jobs were at risk from the decline of the port. The projected population was 55,000, with shops, schools, recreational and community facilities, all set out to a formal plan. The first houses went up in 1938, and by 1953, a total of 5,700 had been built. This was the year that the first church of St Ambrose was built. By 1955 the population had reached 21,000, and with continuing expansion, the present, much larger, church was erected in 1959-61, the old church being converted to serve as the parish centre. The momentum, however, was not maintained, and by the 1970s big job losses, combined with a lack of social and community infrastructure, had caused Speke to become one of the most deprived wards in the country.
The church was built in 1959-61 and designed by Alfred Bullen of Weightman & Bullen. It is described in The Buildings of England as the best building on the Speke estate, and is one of few buildings within the settlement that succeed in making a clear and positive statement. The plan is a rectangle of ten bays by seven bays, with a tall campanile placed centrally and attached by a low three-bay narthex. The slender tower, which has an open belfry at the top, is 26.5 metres high and is surmounted by a 3.4 metre high cross. The concrete frame construction is expressed throughout, and the nave has a clerestory formed of concrete arches, with a raised flat roof set back from the face of the building. On the (ecclesiastical) north and east sides are flat-roofed elements containing the chapels and sacristy; like the campanile, they are clad in rock-faced pale coloured stone.
The interior is particularly impressive. The tall space is lit solely from the clerestory, where light pours through the arched frames and is reflected downwards from the white painted tunnel vaults of the ambulatory. The flat roof is panelled with giant perforated nailheads and hovers above the surrounding vaults. Lower vaults lead to the narthex, side chapels and the Lady Chapel, which is situated behind the high altar. The liturgical arrangements were advanced for their time (pre-Vatican II), and allowed for a processional way around the full perimeter of the interior, and an altar placed forward of the east wall and facing the congregation.
Originally the ceiling was painted blue, rather than two shades of brown, as now, and the blockwork infill to the wall surfaces was unpainted. Few other changes have occurred since the church was built. At first the freestanding piers were not faced in marble, but since this matches the marble of the sanctuary, it must have been part of the original intention. The furnishings were designed by Weightman & Bullen, and include the high altar formed from a great slab of Cornish granite, the matching tabernacle, a marble lectern and the tub-like font incised with zig-zag ornament (this latter has been moved from the baptistery). The pews and furniture too are contemporary, and the fine organ is prominently sited over the west doors.
The stained glass is of outstanding interest, particularly the two windows in the Lady Chapel by Patrick Reyntiens (not mentioned in the recent Buildings of England). They are dated 1976, and feature the Marian shrines of Lourdes, Fatima and the Rue du Bac in a figurative, cartoon-like style. The glass in the narthex (by an unnamed artist) depicts the Sacraments. In the Lady Chapel is a painting of the Virgin and Child of 1961 by J. Faczynski, and the striking ceramic Stations of the Cross are made by A. Kossowski. Carved wooden statues of St Peter and St Joseph occupy two of the chapels. A third, of St Ambrose, has been displaced from his chapel by an inferior depiction of Our Lady of Fatima, and now stands a little uncomfortably by the exit.
List description (the church was listed in 2007, shortly after the above was written)
Reasons for Designation: Highly decorative and liturgically advanced Roman Catholic Church of 1959-61 by Alfred Bullen and Jerzy Faczynski of Weightman and Bullen.
Details: Roman Catholic Church.1959-61 to the designs of Alfred Bullen of Weightman and Bullen, assisted by Jerzy Faczynski. Reinforced concrete frame clad in brown brick,with stock brick cladding to campanile. Rectangular plan with free-standing sanctuary and raised altar. Tall (84′) open linked campanile and low entrance range to north,and low range serving Lady chapel to south. Flat roofs. EXTERIOR:The frame is expressed as a segmental-headed arcade with tapered pilasters, with a higher roof to the body of the church set behind it. Glazing on all four sides at upper level only, with central panels of yellow set in clear surrounds. Campanile with three sections of blind walling and open mullions to upper section, where there is a mechanically controlled bell and which is topped by an illuminated cross; to either side are entrance doors to vestibule and former baptistry area. This has clerestory glazing with stained glass panels by Gounil and Philip Brown. INTERIOR:Terrazzo floors,panelled walls and trabeated ceiling inset with pyramidal acoustic panels,the central ones in each block incorporating lights. Processional route or ambulatory under segmental arcade behind square columns. Raised sanctuary area of marble, with stone slab altar raised up three further steps. Sanctuary and altar are in their original position, although altar renewed as a single slab in line with post Vatican II thinking; now with font and pulpit to either side. The font has been moved from by the entrance; the present pulpit was probably originally the lectern. Altar rails survive at rear. Former Lady chapel with ‘AVE MARIA’ set into floor and stained glass panels to either side by Gounil and Philip Brown. Pews on remaining three sides of sanctuary. Raised above the entrance is the organ, on axis with the altar. Stations of the cross by Adam Kossowski. Our Lady painting and triptych carving by Jerzy Faczynski, who may have been the junior architect in charge here, as at St Mary, Leyland, already listed grade II. Wall paintings behind the altar added in the 1990s and not of special interest. St Ambrose’s was built to serve the new housing estate of Speke, begun in the 1930s but largely developed in the 1950s. It claims with some justification to be the first Roman Catholic church in England completed (though not the first begun) to a rectangular plan with a free-standing altar, as Archbishop John Heenan was to recommend for Liverpool Cathedral in 1960. ‘The unique planning of the interior is likely to set a new pattern for church building in this country’, wrote”Cathedral Record” in 1961. The church was planned from the first without a choir, making such a free plan possible. It is also a rich mixture of expensive natural materials and a consciously modern exposed concrete frame, reminiscent of the Lincoln Centre for the Performing Arts, not yet built but already widely published. It is a building on an unusually broad and ambitious scale that is relatively little altered.
Sources Catholic Building Register, Northern Edition, 1961, pp.41-3 Cathedral Record, vol.31, 1961, p.160
Architect: Weightman & Bullen
Original Date: 1959
Conservation Area: No
Listed Grade: Grade II