Building » Sydenham – Our Lady and St Philip Neri

Sydenham – Our Lady and St Philip Neri

Sydenham Road, Sydenham, London SE26

A compact brick church of 1957-59 by Walters & Kerr Bate, with a landmark tower added in 1961. The interior has innovative crossing arches of reinforced concrete which facilitate an uninterrupted view of the sanctuary. Furnishings of note include the attractive pulpit, ambo and altar rails, of marble and green Westmorland slate, as well as the sumptuously decorated chapel altars.

A mission in Sydenham was founded in 1872, and the first mission priest, Fr Augustus Bethell, bought a house, ‘Clifton Villa’ at 203 Sydenham Road as a presbytery. He built a small chapel alongside it. A school opened in August 1874. Four years later Bethell bought land at the corner of Watlington Grove for a permanent church. His successor, Fr William Addis, pursued the building of the church, by the architect F. A. Walters. The new church, of a tall single-volume nave and chancel, was designed in the Gothic Revival style. It opened on 12 December 1882. However, the site had previously been a sand pit and a public sewer ran beneath the sanctuary, both of which continued to cause problems.

In 1888 Fr Martin Gifkins, bought three houses (180-184 Sydenham Road) for a school extension, and planned the extension of the church. His successor, Fr Joseph Minnett, sold Clifton Villa, the presbytery, as it was too large, and bought two houses, 37-39 Addington Grove, with the proceeds. The parish priest from 1911, Fr Hinsley, later Archbishop of Westminster, realised the long-awaited church extension, for which the foundation stone was laid on 4 Mary 1912. (This foundation stone was later incorporated into the present church.) In 1919, the parish bought Grove House, a nineteenth-century detached house with over an acre of land and a frontage of 360 feet to Sydenham Road, for £1,300. The house  had been the residence of Sir George Grove, a writer on music and editor of the Dictionary of Music and Musicians, who was also instrumental in re-erecting the Crystal Palace in Sydenham.  Grove House served as the presbytery until 1930, when it was demolished because of its bad condition and a new presbytery was built on its site. Later, adjoining pieces of land were bought.

In 1933, a 24-inch diameter bell was bought for the church, which now hangs in the current tower. In 1940, the church suffered a direct hit, which destroyed the Lady Chapel and seriously damaged the whole building, which had to be boarded up. Following further bomb damage in 1942 the church was destroyed. The school hall was used as a chapel, until the London County Council pressed for its return to full use by the school. In 1952, a hut previously used by prisoners of war was erected as a temporary church on the site of the current church hall to the east of the church.

In 1957 Fr Bovington, the parish priest, decided to build a new church beside the presbytery, rather than on the old site. After initial difficulties with the War Damage Commission over the change of site, the parish received a grant of £27,000. The same year, work started on the new foundations, which required 99 piles and a concrete raft, costing £5,000. The foundation stone was laid on 8 December 1957, and the church was opened two years later, on 5 June, by Bishop (later Archbishop) Cowderoy. The architect was S. Kerr Bate, of Walters & Kerr Bate, and the contractors were Adam Bros. of South Croydon.

A stained glass window by Goddard & Gibbs was installed in April 1959. The Stations of the Cross were donated by members of the congregation and installed in 1959. The tabernacle was donated by the Guild of the Blessed Sacrament. In 1961, the tower was added, to a simplified version of the original designs, again by Walters & Kerr Bate. The cost of the tower was £7,850. The church was consecrated on 6 July 1964.

A brick church hall was built in 1979, just to the east of the church, to replace the old timber hall. The architects were T. Houlihan and Associates, and the contractors Willett Ltd. In 1977, an organ by Mander was installed in the north transept of the church.


The church is orientated towards the northeast; however, this description follows conventional liturgical orientation.

The church was built between 1957 and 1959 to the designs by the architects Walters & Kerr Bate. The materials are Sussex bricks (described in the Catholic Building Review, 1959 as ‘grey multi-rustic facings from Sussex’) with reconstituted stone dressings and window details. The brickwork is laid in garden wall bond. The plan form is that of a traditional Latin cross, with nave, transepts and chancel, with three polygonal chapels and a sacristy in the re-entrant angles of the crossing. The crossing has a square lantern with a pantiled pyramid roof. A bell tower, also with a pantiled pyramid roof and large louvred windows, is attached to the north transept. There are two entrances, one to the west and another (now disused) at the north side of the tower. The tympanum of the latter bears a carved inscription with the name of the church. To the southwest, there are several ancillary buildings attached to the church, including a boiler house with flue and a garage. The foundation stone of 1912 was built into the north wall of the northwest chapel, while the stone of 1957 was placed in the north wall of the north transept, to the east of the tower. On the exterior of the northwest chapel is a modern crucifix.

The  west front has a  single  square  window  framed  by buttresses  and  decorative brickwork, below a gable. A flat-roofed narthex is attached to the lower part of the facade. Its central portion is rendered and painted white. The entrance doors are framed by a shallow carved portal of zigzagging bands, crosses in the corner and a coat of arms with three crowns. (The same decoration is also employed at the tower entrance.)

Inside there is a short lobby, flanked to the north by the baptistery, and on the south by a confessional, both of which are accessed from the nave. The baptistery contains the font and a panel showing the Baptism of Christ (in opus sectile with a blue mosaic background). It is railed off by a metal gate; the space is also used as a repository. The nave is three bays long, with rectangular windows (of clear and yellow panes) in shallow frames, and a dado of Buckinghamshire brown bricks, laid in garden wall bond. The walls are plastered above. It has an exposed wooden queen post roof. The benches may be the original ones of Japanese oak. The two easternmost bays on the south side give access to two further confessionals.

The crossing is supported by four wide arches of reinforced concrete. It is lit by narrow bands of windows in the lantern. From its wooden panelled ceiling hangs an incongruous glass chandelier. The three chapels in the angles of the crossing are dedicated to the Sacred Heart (in the northwest), the church’s patron saints, St Mary and St Philip Neri (northeast corner), and the English Martyrs (southwest). All three have altar rails with inscriptions, altars of coloured marbles with images of the saints in opus sectile in a mosaic setting in each reredos and frontal. The sacristy fills the corresponding, but larger, space in the southeast corner.

In the north transept is the organ gallery, with the organ of 1977 by Mander; the Great Organ being mounted on the gallery balustrade and the Positive Organ above the keyboards. Below the gallery, two steps lead into a glazed space, formerly a lobby for the tower entrance, now containing additional seating. The east wall features a reredos of the Madonna with Child (in opus sectile with a gold mosaic background), indicating that part of the space might originally have been a Lady Chapel.

The south transept contains further benches, as well as a small corner altar to St Joseph, similar in style and materials to the chapels’ altars. To the south is a large window with stained glass by Goddard & Gibbs depicting the death of St Philip Neri, with the papal arms and the arms of Bishop Cowderoy on either side.

The two-bay sanctuary with a wooden panelled ceiling has slightly curved steps, into which the communion rails, pulpit and ambo are built. All three are made of various marbles and dark green Westmorland slate, of elegantly sparse design. The pillars of the communion rails feature the twelve apostles incised with gold. Behind the high altar is a crucifix with a cantilevered tester, framed by four modern hangings.

Heritage Details

Architect: Walters & Kerr Bate

Original Date: 1957

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not Listed