Building » Sunderland – St Mary

Sunderland – St Mary

Bridge Street, Sunderland SR1

The mother church of Sunderland and the first Gothic Revival Church to be built in the town (now city). It is an assured essay in the early English Gothic style by Ignatius Bonomi of Durham, built soon after Catholic Emancipation and reflecting the growing confidence of Catholic church building at that time. Despite the archaeological accuracy of the exterior, the interior is a large unaisled space of late Georgian character, with a flat ceiling and western gallery. There are many surviving features of note, despite an unsympathetic post-Vatican II reordering. The creation of St Mary’s Way in the late 1960s opened up to view the flank elevation of the church, in a way never intended by its architect.   

There are sporadic records of Catholic activity in Sunderland in the eighteenth century, and in 1745 a ‘Popish Mass-house’ in Warren Street was sacked at the time of the Jacobite rising. In 1769 Fr John Bamber was administering to a small congregation in a chapel in Vince Street. After the Second Catholic Relief Act of 1791, Fr William Fletcher converted a building in Dunning Street to a chapel capable of holding 400.

In 1829, the year of Catholic Emancipation, Fr Philip Kearney arrived from Ireland and negotiated the purchase from the Earl of Durham of a site between Green Street and Bridge Street, close to the first Wearmouth Bridge (which had opened in 1796). Designs in the Early English Gothic style were prepared by Ignatius Bonomi of Durham, and the completed church, seating 1,200, was opened by Bishop Briggs (Bishop of the Northern District) on 15 September 1835.  A presbytery was built at the same time, from Bonomi’s designs, and school buildings soon followed in Pann Lane, behind the church (the school later relocated to the former Sunderland Infirmary). A convent was later built in Green Street for the Sisters of Mercy.

By 1851 it is estimated that there were more than 4,000 Irish-born immigrants living in Sunderland, by now a major ship-building centre. It was in order to accommodate the growing congregation that two side chapels were added in 1852 (Bonomi had allowed for the possibility of such additions in his design, and the form of a blocked arch can just be made out on the north side). It appears that these additions were funded by a wealthy eccentric, Miss (Lady) Peat.

In 1877 the construction of the Monkwearmouth Junction Railway necessitated a cut-and-cover tunnel beneath Pann Lane, close to the back of the church.

After the First World War a Calvary and war memorial was installed on the south side of the nave.

In 1937 an organ was acquired from the Rex Theatre, South Shields (refurbished in 1992).

In October 1939 new carved oak benches made by Robinsons of Stockton were installed, at a cost of £800. The old benches were retained in the western gallery.

In March and May 1943 the church was damaged in air raids, the main roof on the south side having to be rebuilt.  Much of the stained glass was also lost, and was replaced in 1946-47 by new glass by the Dutch firm of Jansen & Co., part of the cost being met by the War Damage Commission. [According to the parish histories of 1985 and 2003; however, the glass in the east windows is signed and dated T. C. Dickinson, London, 1946]. Jansens also redecorated the altars and the Stations. The church was consecrated by Bishop McCormack on 24 September 1947.

In 1950 the church became a listed building, an unusual accolade for a Catholic church at that time.

In 1952 the exterior was cleaned and confessionals made in Italy and new choir stalls added (no longer in situ, parts of the confessionals were re-used in the side door of the church and in the lectern).

Town centre redevelopment in the late 1960s saw the demolition of the parish hall and convent, and making good of the exposed flank elevation of the church, all associated with the building of a new ring road (St Mary’s Way). This opened up the north elevation of the church to public view. A property in Bridge Street adjoining the Grand Hotel was converted by David Brown, architect, to serve as a new parish hall, but was itself shortly afterwards demolished. Premises were then acquired next door to the presbytery (St Mary’s Parish Centre). Demolition of the Grand Hotel in 1969 meant that the western aspect of the church was now also opened up.

In 1970, six stained glass windows depicting saints and martyrs were installed in the (north) chapel of St Joseph, the gift of Miss Walker, housekeeper. They cost £1,300.

In 1982 the church was reordered to accord with the liturgical changes of the Second Vatican Council. The pulpit and altar rails were removed and a new forward altar and font introduced in the sanctuary. The altar in the Lady Chapel was removed (although its fine carved Annunciation reredos was retained), the Stations of the Cross relocated to the back of the church (they have since returned) and many statues removed. Major fabric repairs were carried out at the same time, and the church redecorated, a new heating system installed and a narthex formed under the gallery. The total cost of these works was about £130,000. The new altar was consecrated by Bishop Swindlehurst on 16 April 1982.  The church was again repaired and redecorated in 2002-03, with some minor reordering. The 2003 guide describes the present decorative scheme as ‘in the spirit of “Strawberry Hill Gothic”.


The church is described in some detail in the list entry, below. Further information is given above.

The list entry dates the side additions to 1850, when most sources give a date of 1852. It also says that the presbytery was demolished in c1980. The present presbytery, located alongside the church to the south (ritual north) is to outward appearance a building of the early twentieth century, but may be earlier in date; the Northern Catholic Calendar for 1885 (p.48) locates Bonomi’s presbytery in Bridge Street rather than to the ritual south (actual north), as stated in the list entry.  The interior of the presbytery has not been inspected as part of this review.

List description


Roman Catholic parish church. 1830-35. By I Bonomi. 1850 chapels, c1980 alteration to ritual S when attached presbytery demolished. Sandstone ashlar W front, remainder limestone rubble with ashlar dressings and some C20 ashlar; Welsh slate roof; cast-iron railings. W is ritual E. Sanctuary; N and S chapels; 3-bay nave. C13 style. Gabled W front to street has stepped buttresses with tall pinnacles flanking tall 3-light window with cinquefoil in plate tracery; stepped triple arcade above, outer arches blind and central louvred, under crocketed gable. Flanking lancets below smaller lights, under plain sloped coping. 2-stage porches at each end, with pinnacled stepped and angled buttresses, have moulded door arches with nook shafts; bands above have blind quatrefoil tracery; top stage 2-light windows with quatrefoil tracery under Lombard frieze and top blind arcaded parapet. Gable has cross finial. S elevation has lancets. E front to Back Bridge Street has central trefoil below small lancet; lancets in outer bays; paired lancets in N and triple in S chapels.

INTERIOR has W gallery on moulded cast-iron columns; inserted partition set back below. Chapels have paired double-chamfered arches on round column and attached half-columns, the N with shafts. High pointed-arched sanctuary, blind trefoil above and trefoil within, and flanking windows have nook shafts with clasping rings; hoodstring over pointed blind arches and windows. 4 confessional doors in N wall have shouldered arches with signs of the Passion carved in spandrels of chamfered surrounds under hoodstring. Panelled coved ceiling on brattished cornice and heraldic corbels. N chapel has Gothic-style reredos with high relief carved Annunciation, S chapel has E arcade. Reordered with altar brought forward; carved, painted Gothic reredos in situ. Glass in E windows signed and dated TC Dickinson, London, 1946; in N chapel vivid N window signed HM Barnett, Newcastle, commemorating Gilmore died 1867. Cast-iron railings attached to front and right return of ritual S porch: spears with trefoils on principles.

The earliest Gothic revival church surviving in Sunderland. (Corfe T and Milburn G: Buildings and Beliefs: Sunderland: 1984-: 10).

Heritage Details

Architect: Ignatius Bonomi

Original Date: 1835

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Grade II