Building » Sunderland – St Joseph

Sunderland – St Joseph

Paxton Terrace, Millfield, Sunderland SR4

An early twentieth-century church in Romanesque basilican style, notable above all for the early use of moulded concrete blocks in its construction. It is one of two churches in the diocese built at the same time using this method. The church also has a number of fittings of note, and was sensitively reordered to mark its centenary. 

The mission, serving the west end of the town, was established in 1873, in a school-chapel which had been built by Canon John Bamber of St Mary’s Sunderland.  In the words of the Northern Catholic Calendar (1885), ‘St Joseph, the patron of the artizan and the horny-handed labourer, was chosen as the patron of the mission’. The presbytery was built by Fr Thomas Culshaw, mission priest from 1875-82, and was enlarged by Fr Thomas Joseph Smith in the 1890s (Fr Smith also built an infants’ school). His successor, Fr John Rogers, built the present church. Construction began at Easter 1906 and the church was opened on 14 October 1907. The cost was about £3600. A contemporary newspaper account reported that ‘by reason of the class of material used in its erection, it marks a new departure in the construction of ecclesiastical edifices. Instead of stone or bricks being utilised in its construction the church is built of concrete blocks. This is an American system and its adoption in the present instance is due to Mr Thos. Axtell… The first cement block EVER MADE IN THE WORLD FOR A CHURCH was made on Friday, 4th May, 1906 by the Rev. Rovers and Joseph Kinleside and is placed about the chancel arch’. The design and construction are almost identical to the church of St Mary Magdalen, Seaham Harbour (qv), built about the same time, with St Joseph’s ‘having the advantage in length’ (Northern Catholic Calendar). The NCC records that at the lunch after the opening of the church of the Seaham Harbour church ‘Mr Axtell … remarked that Mr Bentley had told him of the effective use he had made of concrete in the domes of that marvellous cathedral of his at Westminster’.

In 1925 the Flemish altar (as so described in the parish history) was installed and in 1929 a communion rail added (carved by a parishioner-architect William Dent and since removed). The church was cleared of debt and consecrated in 1938, around which time a pulpit (also since removed) and new organ were installed. In about 1960 a new stair to the gallery was installed and new statues fitted in the niches over the main entrance.

The church was reordered in 2006 by Vincente Stienlet, for its centenary. The scheme included renovation and repairs, and cost about £250,000.


The church is described in the list entry, below. Since the time of the listing, the lettering in the concrete block over the chancel arch, mentioned in the newspaper account quoted above, has been picked out in paint. The other major change to the church since the listing has been the reordering of 2006 by Vincente Stienlet. This has included extension forward of the sanctuary, on a semi-circular dais raised on two steps. The altar has been brought forward, retaining its fine enamel depiction of the Last Supper. The south chapel has been converted to a baptistery, reached by a nicely-detailed ramped stone floor; the baptistery contains a new stained glass window depicting the dove from the Ark, commemorating the centenary of the church. At the west end underside of the gallery has been enclosed to form a narthex and new entrance doors fitted.

List description


Roman Catholic parish church. 1906-7. By the parish priest, Fr Rogers, with Thomas Axtell. Moulded concrete blocks made on site; Welsh slate roof with gable copings and terracotta ridge cresting. Romanesque basilica style. Aisled continuous nave and chancel with nave and aisle apses; W aisled porch.

EXTERIOR: round-headed windows with sloping sills, 5 in panelled E apse and 3 in E aisle apses under half-conical roofs, paired in aisles and clerestory under dripstring in 7 panelled bays. W porch has similar windows, paired in aisle panels and single flanking central high round-headed door. Door surround of triple roll moulding under chamfered arch on pilasters with moulded imposts and drip string. Large rose window over door has moulded surround; statues on brackets in round-headed niches with dripmoulds flank door arch. Lombard friezes to all gables, which have copings on moulded kneelers. Pent aisle roofs; decorative ridge cresting with cross finials to nave and chancel.

INTERIOR of painted blocks shows 7-bay arcade with painted round piers except for east pair, of dark red granite, with crocket capitals and chamfered round arches with dripstring. High chancel and W arches on cross walls, with W choir gallery. Big moulded corbels support king-post roof with arch-braced collars. Sill string to clerestory. S chancel chapel has stained glass Annunciation by Atkinson Bros, Newcastle; aisle windows have round panels showing saints, set in tinted diagonal quarries; tinted glass in clerestory leaded lights. Alabaster octagonal font with shafts. Foundation stone in W porch dated 23 July 1906.

An early example of the use of moulded concrete blocks, with additional historical interest of design by parish priest with advice from Axtell, an engineer, who supervised the construction. Blocks said to have been made by the men of the parish. (Corfe T and Milburn G: Buildings and Beliefs: Sunderland: 1984-: 31).

Listing NGR: NZ3805057106

Heritage Details

Architect: Fr John Rogers and Thomas Axtell (engineer)

Original Date: 1907

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Grade II