Building » Sunderland – St Benet

Sunderland – St Benet

The Causeway, Monkwearmouth, Sunderland SR6

A large town church of the 1880s by Dunn, Hansom & Dunn, extended in 1909. From 1900 the parish was served by the Redemptorist Order, for whom a monastery was built from designs by Charles Walker. The red brick exterior of the church is relatively austere, even forbidding in character. By contrast, the interior is very fine, with good stone carving by Boulton of Cheltenham, an intact highly enriched high altar given by C. Swinburne, and timber furnishings of high quality.

St Benet’s was the third nineteenth-century Catholic mission to be established in Sunderland, and the first to be built north of the River Wear. It is dedicated to St Benedict (or Benet) Biscop, builder of the Saxon church of St Peter at nearby Monkwearmouth. A site behind Broad Street (now Roker Avenue) was purchased, probably in 1861, by the Rev. George Dunn, chaplain to the convent alongside St Mary’s, and a school was built from the designs of A. M. Dunn in 1865. This may survive in part in the rather diminutive building now dwarfed by the later monastery buildings. The school building also served also as a chapel until the present church was built by Fr Jules de Floer, a young Belgian priest who was appointed in 1873.  It appears that there was a limited competition for the choice of architect, for designs were prepared by Charles Walker as well as by the successful architects, Dunn, Hansom & Dunn of Newcastle. The foundation stone was laid on 28 July 1888 by Auxiliary Bishop Wilkinson, who opened the completed church on 14 July 1889. The design illustrated in Building News (1888) was in the Early English style and included a tower with octagonal upper stage, prefiguring Dunn, Hansom & Dunn’s design for St Michael, Newcastle (qv). In the event, a cheaper and simpler design was adopted, capable of seating 900 or 1,000. The contractor was T. Lumsden of Jarrow, and the architectural stone carving was by Boulton of Cheltenham. Other trades and craftsmen employed are detailed below.

Fr de Floer retired in 1897 and was replaced by Canon Gillow (mission priest from 1897 to 1900), a member of the old Lancashire Catholic family of cabinetmakers. The Northern Catholic Calendar (1903) states that Canon Gillow ‘contrived to signalise his three years’ incumbency by several embellishments and additions in which his taste and judgement are well reflected’. These embellishments included the Stations of the Cross, carved wooden confessionals and probably the pulpit (which was removed in 1983).

In 1900 Bishop Wilkinson invited the Redemptorist order to take over the running of the mission. They jumped at the opportunity, their provincial writing that this would be ‘a magnificent mission centre and house of retreat for priests’ (quoted in Morris and Gooch, 235). Four priests and three brothers occupied a large new monastery building filling the gap between the church and the school, which required the demolition of the presbytery. Built from designs by Charles Walker, the monastery was completed in 1902. The builder was George Hodgson of Sunderland and the cost (which included a new heating system for the church) was £4,580.

According to the parish website, the sanctuary and side chapels were added in 1909, following acquisition of further land by the Redemptorists. The architect for these additions is not named; it could have been the successor firm of Dunn, Hansom & Fenwicke or possibly Charles Walker, who had been retained by the Redemptorists in 1902. A sacristy was built at the same time, linked to the monastery by a corridor. The high altar of 1888-9 was moved to the new sanctuary.

In 1916 the church was damaged in a zeppelin raid, with many of the windows blown out. In 1919 St Gerard’s chapel (south of the sanctuary) was dedicated as a war memorial chapel.

In 1925 a parish hall was added facing Roker Avenue. The school also continued to expand in the interwar decades. In 1953 an additional strip of land in front of the church on The Causeway was purchased; this was laid out as a garden, with a Lourdes grotto built by parishioners in 1961. A site plan in the Diocesan Archives shows the extensive parish complex as developed by 1956, with church, monastery, junior and senior schools and parish halls.

The church was reordered in the early 1980s, and the new altar consecrated by Bishop Swindlehurst on 24 March 1983. The pulpit with tall timber canopy (shown in front of the chancel arch in older photographs) and the altar rails were also removed at this time; some of the carved figures from the pulpit were incorporated into the confessionals.

In 1987 the secondary school behind the church was closed, and the site subsequently redeveloped. A new and smaller parish hall was built to the south of the church in 1993. In 2003 the interior was redecorated and the woodwork varnished. At the time of writing, the Redemptorists are in the process of withdrawing from the parish, and handing the church back to the diocese.


The church is orientated north-south, but this description follows conventional liturgical orientation, i.e. as if the altar was at the east end.

A large town church of 1888-89 by Dunn, Hansom & Dunn of Newcastle, built of red pressed bricks from Commendale, with Bath stone dressings and slate roofs.  The sanctuary, side chapels, southern sacristy and corridor link to the monastery were added in 1909, possibly from designs by Charles Walker. The style is early Decorated Gothic and the plan consists of nave with tall side aisles, crossing with transepts (originally flush with the aisles, extended on the south side in 1909), and chancel with north and south flanking chapels (1909). There is a (former) baptistery at the southwest corner.

The west door has a stone Gothic surround, with an arch of four orders and foliated ogee hoodmould rising to a statue of St Benet holding a model of St Peter, Monkwearmouth (the statue is dated 1950, replacing one which had been damaged in a World war II air raid). Below the west window is a frieze inscribed ‘St Benet Pray For Us’.  The entrance has two boarded doors with strapwork hinges and is flanked by paired trefoil lancet windows surmounted by quatrefoils. The large west window above is of six lights, with Geometrical tracery. The gabled front is framed by turrets with slated pyramidal tops. An angled return to the tall north aisle, of six bays, each with triple lancets and plate tracery, and with angled buttresses marking the first three bays and flat buttresses the next three. There is a door in the western bay with carved spandrels (‘SB’ for St Benet) and label stops, and another similar door to the north transept, with over the latter a tall two-light window with trefoils and quatrefoils. The transept has a shallow gable with stone coping. Beyond this, the later chapels flanking the sanctuary have stone parapets, and above this the sanctuary has chunky corbelled brick eaves and is lit by three-light clerestory windows of Tudor character and by a high four-light east window with Geometrical tracery, richer than that at the west end, with mouchettes rather than roundels (probably the original sanctuary window reset).

By contrast with the rather spare exterior, the interior is of great richness. The nave consists of five bays carried on compound piers, with moulded arcading (all of Bath stone, painted). Carved stone heads (again, painted) to the western bay, trefoil terminals to the intervening nave hoodmoulds and a carved angel corbel at the junction with the crossing pier. Clustered columns, carved heads and other architectural enrichment at the crossing and chancel arch, this and all the architectural carving by Boulton of Cheltenham. The sanctuary of 1909 is of four bays. Stained timber wagon roofs over the nave, sanctuary and aisles, painted timber ceilings in the transepts and side chapels.

The church is richly furnished:

Sanctuary: The 32 ft solid stone high altar remains intact at the east end, given by C. Swinburne (inscription on back), made by M. Pierre Peeters of Antwerp and installed by Belgian workmen, and relocated to the new sanctuary in 1909. Elaborately carved with a crucifixion panel over the central tabernacle, large carved panels of Moses receiving manna from heaven (right, prefiguring the Eucharist), and the Last Supper (left), angels below, carved stone brattishing above, saints at the corners, and Christ in Majesty within a quatrefoil on the altar front. The tabernacle is of solid brass, the doors guarded by two angels. Above this, the four-light east window has stained glass with figures of Saints Cuthbert, Benet, Alphonsus and Patrick, unsigned. There is timber panelling with brattishing around the east end, and fine timber screens with openwork Gothic panels on either side of the sanctuary. The altar rails and a Gothic pulpit shown in an early photograph at the church were presumably removed at the time of post-Vatican II reordering. The present forward altar dates from 1983, and is of polished stone, with an incised gilded Greek cross on the front. At the base of the sanctuary arch, on the northern side, is the foundation stone, laid by Bishop Wilkinson on 28 July 1888, with a carved and incised consecration cross over.

Lady Chapel: This gives off the east side of the north transept. Its east window is signed by Atkinson of Newcastle and depicts the Assumption; it was given in memory of Margaret J. Callahan, d. 1915.  The chapel walls were clad with polished marbles and a new altar installed in 1940, probably as a memorial to Carol Durkin, d. 1935 (brass plate on wall). On the altar is a copy of the famous icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in the Redemptorist church in Rome. Fine pewter hanging lamps in the form of boats.

South chapel: This gives off the east side of the south transept and is dedicated to St Gerard Majella, Redemptorist and patron saint of expectant mothers. St Gerard had the gift of levitation, and is so portrayed in an opus sectile panel over the altar. The glass in the window over the altar depicts St Gerard feeding the poor, and is by Atkinson of Newcastle. The chapel has coloured marble altar rails and contains statues of St Patrick and St Alphonsus, founders of the Redemptorists, and St Clement Hofbauer, who brought the order to Northern Europe. The chapel is also a war memorial chapel, and contains brass panels listing the parish dead of both world wars.

Nave, transepts and aisles: These are paved in red and black encaustic tiles, by Emley & Son of Newcastle (Building News, 1889), except for the areas below the seating, which are timber boarded. The pews are of varnished pine, with solid backs and square ends with roll moulded tops. At the west end of the nave is a fine choir gallery supported on posts with bracing, square panelled front, with a canted projection in the central bay for the choir director, all of varnished pine. The organ dates from 1900 and was originally in the centre of the gallery; it was split in 1926, with the cases incorporated into the gallery fronts at the west end of the aisles, to open up the view towards the west window. Below, the underside of the gallery has a square panelled soffit, and a timber and glazed screen and doors separate the nave from an entrance narthex and (former) baptistery. The perimeter walls of the aisles have a boarded timber dado, broken by exceptionally finely carved timber confessionals, incorporating painted Stations of the Cross in the form of large painted tableaux, which according to the parish website are copies of ones exhibited at the Vatican in the 1890s. They were introduced to the church in 1900. The timber carving of the confessionals may be by Waring and Gillow, since the then parish priest was a member of the Gillow family. Most of the windows in the aisles contain Cathedral glass with coloured borders and incorporating sacred monograms. The three-light window in the eastern bay of the south aisle is signed by Atkinson of Newcastle, and depicts the Nativity, Noli me Tangere, and Suffer the Little Children. Half of the south transept is enclosed at ground floor for a sacristy, with a gallery over with carved and painted Gothic timber frontal.  Giving off this gallery is a first floor chapel, parallel with St Gerard’s chapel. At the east end of the north aisle is a fine freestanding Gothic brass candlestand. The parish website says that a brass candlestand was given by parishioners in 1947 as a memorial to war dead; if this is it, the design is decidedly old-fashioned, although fine.

The original stone font, with open Gothic arcading around a central drum, is now located in the garden, serving as a plant holder.

Heritage Details

Architect: Dunn, Hansom & Dunn

Original Date: 1889

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not Listed