Building » Truro – Our Lady of the Portal and St Piran

Truro – Our Lady of the Portal and St Piran

St Austell Street, Truro, Cornwall

A dramatic, even Brutalist design of the early 1970s, the last and the best of three churches built in the diocese by Waldo Maitland of Falmouth. The design and planning of the church evoke the dedication to Our Lady of the Portal and take full advantage of the prominent, sloping site. The interior contains a number of furnishings of note, including five abstract stained glass windows and other pieces by Dom Charles Norris of Buckfast Abbey. 

In 1845 the Falmouth Redemptorists acquired a small property in River Street as a Mass centre for Catholics in the Truro area. Fr Louis Bougenoms, a French émigré priest, took responsibility for the mission. A few years later the Redemptorists moved away and there was no provision for Catholics until 1883, when Fr John Granger, a man of considerable private wealth who had come to Cornwall for the sake of his health, built a small church and a considerably larger presbytery in Chapel Hill, from designs by the Cornish architect Silvanus Trevail. The cost of £2,000 was ‘defrayed by the incumbent.’ Fr Granger later retired to Exmouth, where he built another church. He left the Truro property to the Canons Regular of the Lateran at Bodmin.

By the 1960s Fr Granger’s church had become far too small for the growing congregation and a new site was acquired on the other side of the city, said to be near the site of the medieval chapel of Our Lady of the Portal. Construction of a new church dedicated to Our Lady of the Portal and St Piran (the Celtic missionary to Cornwall) was begun in 1972, under the direction of the Falmouth architect Waldo Maitland, who had also designed new churches at Mawnan Smith and Helston (qqv). While the design and planning of those was fairly conventional, the church at Truro has a more adventurous, Brutalist quality. The new church was opened on 17 May 1973. A parish hall and presbytery were built at the same time. In 1985, the Canons Regular entrusted the church to the diocese.


The church, presbytery and parish hall are raised above the pavement level and are built around three sides of a courtyard, reached via metal gates and a flight of steps from the street though an opening in a high rubble wall. The buildings are of masonry (presumably blockwork) construction with grey roughcast and white rendered finishes, and each element has a shallow monopitch roof clad in concrete tiles. The church occupies the eastern side of the courtyard, and has a lean-to concrete roofed narthex/link in front of it. Above this is a raised clerestory of continuous glazing lighting the interior. The rear elevation gives onto a steeply sloping side street, and has a cantilevered central section with narrow sidelights to the sanctuary area.

The entrance from the courtyard leads into a narthex, at the far end of which is the Lady Chapel, with iron gates with gold painted lettering (Our Lady of the Portal, Pray for us). The main body of the church consists of a single space with white rendered walls, with raking steel trusses and a horizontal boarded timber ceiling sloping dramatically from the high clerestory windows over the entrance down towards the sanctuary area. The roof pitches up again over the altar, and here the side cheeks have abstract stained glass panels by Fr Charles Norris of Buckfast Abbey. A timber crucifix hangs over the reconstituted stone altar, and behind this the tabernacle is placed in the recessed east wall. On either side of the altar are large painted copies of two fourteenth century Russian icons on canvas, by Lars Prag, a parishioner. That on the left depicts the Annunciation, while on the right is a copy of Rublev’s representation of the story of Abraham (Genesis 18). The narrow side windows to these areas also have stained glass panels by Fr Norris.

Two ancillary spaces give off the main space. The Lady Chapel in the southwest corner contains a statue of Our Lady suckling the infant Jesus (said to be Basque, seventeenth century) and a stained glass window by Fr Norris. The two banners of the Catholic Women’s League here were also made by Fr Norris. On the north side of the church is the recessed baptistery, top-lit and at its centre a small circular marble font on columnar pedestal, from the old church. Behind this are two paintings of angels, presumably by Lars Prag. Over the baptistry hangs a tapestry by Dr Margaret Pollard, a parishioner and benefactor. It depicts the Coronation of Our Lady with the fourteen holy helpers, copied from the shrine at Vierzehnheiligen, Bavaria. In the floor of the nave is a slate slab bearing the inscription Fons Mariae matris pastoris et agni  (The well of Mary, mother of the Shepherd and Lamb). It covers a source of spring water discovered during the building of the church. Modern nave benches and Stations of the Cross, circa 1973. On the south wall of the nave is a standard statue of the Sacred Heart which is mounted on an elaborate, gilded baroque pedestal.

The presbytery occupies the south side of the external courtyard and is of grey pebbledash render with narrow slits for windows. A crucifix by the local artist Michael Finn is fixed to the front elevation. The lower parish hall occupies the west side of the courtyard.

Heritage Details

Architect: Waldo Maitland

Original Date: 1973

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not Listed