Building » St Helier, Jersey – St Thomas

St Helier, Jersey – St Thomas

Val Plaisant, St Helier, Jersey, CI.

The principal Catholic church in Jersey, and one of the finest in the diocese. Built of Brittany granite in the French Gothic style of the thirteenth century, by a French architect for the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. The church is a major St Helier landmark and the lofty interior is vaulted throughout. The church was subjected to a major and destructive reordering after the Second Vatican Council, but retains glass and other furnishings of considerable interest. It has recently (2006-07) been the subject of an extensive and sympathetic renovation.

Until 1568 Jersey formed part of the French diocese of Coutances. It then became part of the Anglican diocese of Winchester. After the Reformation, Catholicism all but disappeared on the island, and only began to revive with the arrival of émigré clergy and nobility fleeing the French Revolution after 1789. No fewer than 2000 priests (Igoa says 3000), including five bishops, sought sanctuary in Jersey. Included amongst these was Mathieu de Gruchy, a Jerseyman and convert who became a priest in the diocese of Lucon before the Revolution. Legal Catholic worship became possible from 1793 with the passing of the Bill of Tolerance, extending to Jersey Catholics those freedoms that had been allowed on the mainland by the second Relief Act of 1791. On 15 July 1793 the Vicar Apostolic entrusted the Jersey mission to Fr de Gruchy.

However, the Jersey authorities were considerably reluctant to implement the 1791 act, and were also anxious about Catholic proselytising. In January 1794 the Courts in London published an order forbidding Catholic priests from attempting ‘to make any impression on the minds of the inhabitants in what concerns religion, also to attack the principles of the Protestant religion now established on the Island’. De Gruchy was condemned before the Courts in 1794 and, disheartened by the resistance he was encountering, he returned to Revolutionary France, where he met death by firing squad in Nantes on 28 November 1797.

Although official reluctance discouraged the building of public Catholic chapels, a number of little oratories were built in private houses after the passing of the Bill. These were served by French clergy, and all closed between 1801-03, when conditions in France eased and clergy were able to return. However, in 1803 a new oratory dedicated to St Louis was formed within a loft in Castle Street for the few remaining French Catholics (known as Les Mielles – ‘The Sandhills’). Access to the chapel was via a ladder.

The Napoleonic years saw the arrival of a considerable number of Irish manual workers engaged in such projects as the building of Fort Regent. In 1826 a chapel was built for them in Hue Street, near the French chapel, and until 1829 served by French priests. This was the first purpose-built Catholic church to be built in Jersey since the Reformation (it became the church of St Mary and St Peter, and was enlarged and rebuilt on at least two occasions; the present church dates from 1985).

In 1842 the French congregation acquired an Anabaptist chapel in New Street, and this became the first St Thomas’ church. The church could hold no more than 400 people, and it was soon apparent that this would not be adequate. Fr Volkerick, a Belgian and rector of the church from 1860-78, acquired a site in Val Plaisant and raised some £2000 for a new church and a boys’ school (a girls’ school having already been built), but he was recalled to England and the project stalled.

In 1880 there was another round of anti-religious legislation in France, and the religious orders were dissolved or forced to leave the country. Thus two priests from the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate arrived in Jersey that October, beginning a hundred years in which the Oblates, at first the French and later the Anglo-Irish branch of the order, dominated church life on the Island.

At the time of the arrival of the Oblate fathers, the number of French-speaking Catholics in Jersey had risen to 4000. The first Oblate rector was Fr Bourde, who wrote that ‘we got a good welcome from our French Catholics; and what was also much appreciated, a presbytery, church, schools, three religious communities, a parish library, an SVP (St Vincent de Paul) conference, Children of Mary, and what is more, a very good site to build a new church’. In order to move things along, Fr Bourde invited a Fr Michaux to preach at a crowded First Communion service in the New Street chapel. Fr Michaux had previously rebuilt the sanctuary of Our Lady of Sion in Lorraine, saw the problem and was persuaded to take on the task of building the new church. He sent an appeal to the wealthy Catholics of France, including the descendants of noble refugees who had come to Jersey during the Revolution, and such was the success of this that the foundation stone for the new church in Val Plaisant was laid on 6 September 1883. The architect was Alfred Frangeul of St Malo (also responsible for St Matthew’s church) and the builder was Huchet of Rennes. The completed church was opened on 30 October 1887, and was consecrated on 5 September 1893, to commemorate the centenary of the Bill of Tolerance.

In 1919 the Diocese established this mission, and all the missions on the Island, as parishes.

The church underwent a radical and destructive internal reordering after the second Vatican Council, when may of the altars and furnishings were stripped. A £1m-plus scheme of repair, redecoration and further reordering was completed in 2007 (architects Smith and Roper of Bakewell, Derbyshire).

Large church in French thirteenth century Gothic style, architect Alfred Frangeul of St Malo. Built of pink Brittany granite, with blue granite for the dressings and carved elements, clay tile roofs. Western tower and spire, flanking chapels, nave, aisles, transepts, sanctuary with flanking chapels.

Dimensions: Nave height is 60 ft to the apex of the vault, aisles 30 ft. Breadth across transepts 89 ft. Total internal length 163 ft (including 18 ft porch under the steeple). Total external length 179 ft. Tower and spire total height 196 ft.

Exterior: Tall, narrow western tower and spire, central entrance with carved tympanum of Christ appearing to St Thomas, signed by the sculptor, Louis Dupont. Inscription in the lintel: DOMINUS MEUS ET DEUS MEUS (My Lord and my God). This is surmounted by a triple lancet window with a tracery rose, tall lancets to belfry (5 bells, 2 cast by Cornille-Havard of Villedieu and 3 by Paccard of Annecy), corbelled eaves and spire with horizontal stone banding, lucarnes and finials. Chapels flanking west tower, with canted corners and stepped buttresses. Projecting entrances to western and eastern bays in each aisle; intervening five bays each have paired lancets windows, bay divisions marked by buttresses with powerfully projecting gargoyles (non-functional) at eaves level. Above this, the tall clerestory has paired trefoil lights with oculi in five bays. Projecting two bay transepts with east and west clerestory windows of similar detail to nave, octofoil rose windows to north and south elevations set within embracing blind arch. Two bay chancel with tall clerestory lights, of similar detail to nave and transepts. Side chapels and sacristies in the angles of the chancel and transepts. Design of east wall of chancel similar to that of transept end.

Interior: The nave consists of seven bays, the easternmost and westernmost narrower than the intervening five. Clustered columns of Crozannes stone attached to the nave arcades, each with a differently carved naturalistic capital, carved by a M. Bedane. Main shafts rise up to transverse arches and quadripartite ribbed vaults with moulded ribs and carved bosses; the interstices plastered brick. Large quadripartite vault over the crossing. The aisles, transepts, and chancel are all similarly vaulted. East wall of chancel dominated by blind triple arched opening surmounted by rose window. At the west end of the nave, an organ gallery supported on triple arcade with columns and carved capitals, the centre arch larger.

Furnishings: The church was subjected to radical reordering after Vatican II, at which time the white marble Gothic high altar, altars to the side chapels, oak confessionals, Stations of the Cross and other furnishings were removed. Nevertheless, a number of original furnishings survive, and others have been more recently introduced from elsewhere (along with new features). The recent redecoration of the church has reintroduced much of the polychromy lost at the time of the post-Vatican II reordering, albeit in muted pastel form.

  • The altar is placed on a raised dais of polished white marble steps, black granite risers and encaustic tile platform under the crossing. The altar is a simple design dating from the post-Vatican II reordering. Ornamental iron railings at the back of the dais, salvaged from the original communion rails.

  • The tabernacle against the east wall is on the site of the original high altar, removed in the post-Vatican II reordering. It has been introduced as part of the 2006-7 renovation, and comes from the previous church of St Mary and St Peter (J.A. Hansom).

  • The font is located at the west end of the nave and also comes from the former St Mary and St Peter’s church. It has a new (2006-7) floor setting with polished marbles in a star-shaped pattern.

  • Original but relocated clergy seating on the north and south walls of the chancel on either side of the tabernacle, with five gabled backs with inset open trefoils and topped by finials; the seats hinged, with misericords.

  • The chancel and side chapels were originally paved with ceramic tiles from Anneuil, and the transepts, nave and aisles with tiles from a Maubeuge factory. Large areas were damaged or removed in the post-Vatican II reordering.

  • The walls of the chancel were originally adorned with frescoes, and there was an elaborate and theatrical tableau of carved figures in the recessed central arch on the east wall. These were all lost when all the internal walls were replastered and many of the fittings ejected in the post-Vatican II reordering. The recent renovation has involved the introduction of grisaille wall paintings on the east wall, including figures of Our Lady and St John in the outer arches, by Louisa Humphrey. In the centre arch is a crucifixion, the nineteenth century Corpus mounted on a new cross of multicoloured pieces of glass, made by students at the local College of Further Education.

  • White marble monument to Fr Michaux in south aisle, with two sculptured angels.

  • New painted statues of archangels (Gabriel, Raphael, Michael and Uriel), placed on original carved corbels and below canopies at high level on either side of the crossing.

  • Large Portuguese tiled depiction of Fatima apparitions in the chapel north of the chancel (2006-07).

  • A large collection of nineteenth century French stained glass including:

  • Aisles: Saints by George Claudius Lavergne of Paris

  • Clerestory: by Bastard of Paris

  • Transepts: 8 lights by Champigneulle of Paris

  • Chancel: 2-light windows by the firm of Emmanuel Champigneulle of Bar-le-Duc, from designs by Marechal

  • West chapels by Champigneulle of Bar-le-Duc 

Heritage Details

Architect: Alfred Frangeul of St Malo

Original Date: 1883

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Not Listed