Building » Sunderland – St Hilda

Sunderland – St Hilda

Beaumont Street, Sunderland SR5

A well-detailed but routine Gothic Revival design of the early twentieth century. The building was never completed but nevertheless with the walls, gate piers and slightly later presbytery makes a positive contribution to the local scene. The interior is notable for a good set of stained glass windows by Atkinson Brothers of Newcastle. 

In 1902, the Redemptorists at St Benet’s, Sunderland built a school-chapel to serve the growing Catholic population in the Southwick area. In 1905 this was handed over to the diocese, and Fr William Smith embarked upon the building of the present church, the foundation stone for which was laid by Auxiliary Bishop Collins on 8 June 1908. Above this, on 25 August 1908 (St Hilda’s day), Fr Smith laid a fragment of wall-shaft brought from St Hilda’s Abbey, Whitby, ‘to link the present with the past and to revive the worship of a by-gone day’. The church was opened in 1909. Major benefactors included William and Mary Smith of Barnard Castle, who may have been related to Fr Smith. They and other members of the Smith family are commemorated in stained glass windows by Atkinson of Newcastle. There is very little information about the building in diocesan or other archival sources, and the identity of the architect has not been established. There is a circumstantial case for an attribution to Charles Walker, who built additions at St Benet’s about this time. However, a more likely stylistic attribution might be to Edward Kay, whose contemporary church at Langley Moor (qv) displays certain similarities, particularly in the design of the nave and aisle roofs. An intended chancel was never built.

The presbytery was built in 1912 (datestone over door) in matching materials to the church. A linked parish room, named in honour of Fr Smith and also built of complementary materials, was added in the 1980s (opened by Bishop Swindlehurst on 9 May 1985). The church was consecrated by Bishop Ambrose on 15 June 2001.


A fairly large, never completed, church of 1908-09 in Decorated Gothic style, built of rock-faced Felling stone with red sandstone ashlar dressings, under a slate roof. The plan consists of an aisled nave with western double-height transepts, south porch, northwest (former) baptistery and linked southeast sacristy. The sanctuary is within the main body of the church; an intended chancel was never built. A modern (1985) single-storey parish hall gives off the south side of the southwest transeptal projection, of similar facing materials to the church and with a steeply pitched slate roof.  To the east, a modern single storey link with felt roof connects the sacristy with the presbytery of 1912.

The west elevation of the church has a projecting porch with small statue of St Hilda within a gable niche. Above this is a large west window of five lights with curvilinear tracery. Gabled transepts project from either side of the west front, that to the north with a canted projection on the ground floor, presumably originally the baptistery. At the sides, the five bays of the aisles have short three-light windows, and the nave clerestory above two light windows, with attached buttresses marking the bay divisions. There is a gabled porch on the south side with stepped entrance on the west side. The east end is incomplete, the end wall roughly made good with pebbledash.

Inside, there is a western narthex under the gallery. On the north side, the former baptistery now houses a pieta. There is also a small shrine to St Hilda at the west end. In the gallery above, the organ is placed in the northern transeptal recess. The main body of the church consists of a nave and aisles of five bays, with compound sandstone piers with moulded cap and base, and chamfered arcade. Oversailing the nave is a timber hammerbeam roof of rather thin character. The nave pews appear to be original, placed over a woodblock floor, with a granite screed finish in the circulation alleys.

The church is notable for a good series of stained glass windows, mostly signed by Atkinson Bros of Newcastle:

  • In the five-light west window, Christ in Majesty with attendant angels and saints, 1912, in memory of William and Mary Smith of Barnard Castle
  • In the north aisle, working from west to east: Christ preaching in the temple, to James Smith of Barnard Castle (d.1900), by Atkinson Bros; Presentation in the temple, to Alice Smith, unsigned and undated, probably by Atkinson Bros; Adoration of the Magi and Shepherds, to Mary Jane Lawson of Low Cocken, d. 1899, by Atkinson Bros; The Visitation, to Elizabeth Atkinson, by Atkinson Bros; Annunciation, to Frederick Horn, d. 1884, by Atkinson Bros
  • On the south side, the first window is plain. In the second bay: James Lithgoe, d.1926, unsigned; Bay three is the door to the south porch; Bay four: Agony in the Garden, Scourging and Crowning with Thorns, in memory of John and Lucy Agnes Smith ‘benefactors of this mission’, not signed or dated, probably by Atkinson Bros (photo); Bay five contains the doors to the sacristy and confessional.

Within the south porch are three marble plaques recording the laying of the foundation stone (in English and in Latin) and the laying by Fr Smith of a piece of carved medieval stonework from St Hilda’s Abbey at Whitby (set into the wall above the plaque). In the tympanum over the door to the church is an abstract painting signed Anthony Clark, 1975.

The sanctuary arrangements are in the post-Vatican II fashion, with a stone forward altar incorporating a carved Agnus Dei in a roundel on the front, possibly from the old high altar. Modern screens separate the sanctuary from the flanking spaces. In the Lady Chapel to the north there is a timber altar with carved quatrefoils on the front incorporating monograms. The font is placed at the east end of the south aisle, and is a good modern piece, octagonal and of polished and riven Travertine marble, and a quote from Isaiah cut into the top; the wooden cover is older, perhaps re-used from the previous font. The boxy ambo and presidential chair in the sanctuary appear to be from the same hand as the font.

Heritage Details

Architect: Not established, possibly Edward Kay

Original Date: 1909

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not Listed