Building » Bristol (Whitchurch) – St Bernadette

Bristol (Whitchurch) – St Bernadette

Wells Road, Whitchurch, Bristol BS14

A 1960s church of highly distinctive construction and design, with a double hyperbolic paraboloid roof evoking the form of a tent. This was (until the opening of Clifton Cathedral) the most striking demonstration in the diocese of the Catholic Church’s post-Vatican II embrace of modernity. It is a landmark on one of the southern approaches to Bristol. 

Whitchurch grew before the Second World War with the planned expansion of the airport. After the war, in 1958, a school was built to serve this side of the city, dedicated to St Bernadette (that year being the centenary of the apparitions at Lourdes). The school hall was used as a Mass centre until the present church was built for the Rev. Joseph Sutton in 1967-8, to serve a new parish comprising Whitchurch, Hengrove and Stockwood. The church and presbytery were built from designs by James Leask of Kenneth Nealon, Tanner & Partners. The church was designed to seat 300, with room for forty more and an organ in a gallery. It is square on plan, with a distinctive double hyperbolic paraboloid roof, evoking the form of a tent and was (until the opening of Clifton Cathedral) the most striking demonstration in the diocese of the Church’s post-Vatican II embrace of modernity. The foundation stone was laid on 7 June 1967, and the church was opened and blessed by Bishop Rudderham on 5 June 1968. The main contractors were Wilkins & Coventry Ltd of Bristol, and the contract figure for the church and presbytery was £55,895. The construction is well documented by photographs on the parish website.

A parish hall was built in 1975. In 1982 a suspended figure of the Risen Christ by Frank Roper of Penarth (1914-2000, erstwhile collaborator of George Pace) was added in the sanctuary; it now hangs in the church porch.


The church was built in 1967-8 from designs by James Leask of Kenneth Nealon, Tanner & Partners. It is square on plan, arranged on a diagonal, with the sanctuary in one corner, an entrance porch with gallery over in the opposite corner, and with an L-shaped seating arrangement. The dramatic roof is formed of four hyberbolic paraboloid shells of reinforced concrete, cast in situ; the covering is a shiny aluminium-faced bitumen. The raised parabola over the sanctuary is glazed, and from its central peak rises a slender metal cross. Deep square gutters run around the perimeter of the roof, which at some points is barely 2m from the ground, and concrete shutes discharge into wide channels cut into reinforced concrete flying buttress on two sides. The curtain walls are faced externally with hand-made brick and the windows are of hardwood and aluminium. The roof sweeps up to a peak at the entrance, below which the narthex is primarily glazed. Steps of purple engineering brick lead up to the entrance, in which the church dediction is placed in original lettering on the transom over the hardwood entrance doors.

A slate foundation stone is set within the wall of the narthex, which also contains triangular corbelled holy water stoups, brick with metal lining. A metal alloy figure of the Risen Christ by Frank Roper of Penarth (1982), which previously hung over the sanctuary, is now placed within the narthex area.

The main interior has not been inspected, and the photographs above are taken from the narthex, which is publically accessible. From these, it can be discerned that the sanctuary and seating remain in their original form, with the altar rails in situ. The stone altar is of table form, the leading edge of the mensa bearing the inscription THIS IS MY BODY WHICH IS GIVEN FOR YOU. The tabernacle is in the corner behind the altar, raised on several steps. Opposite the sanctuary, near the entrance, the red brick font is placed in a sunken baptistery; like the church, it is square and set on the diagonal, its tent-like suspended cover evoking the roof form above. Natural lighting is discreet, coming from the raised parabola over the santuary and from a concealed clerestory running around the perimeter. The walls and at least the lower part of the ceiling are faced in white roughcast.

List description (church listed in 2016, following Taking Stock)


Summary: A Roman Catholic church of 1967-8 date, built to the designs of James Leask of Kenneth Nealon, Tanner & Partners.

Reasons for Designation: The Roman Catholic Church of St Bernadette, Wells Road, Whitchurch, Bristol, of 1967-8 by James Leask of Kenneth Nealon, Tanner & Partners is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons: * Architectural interest: the dynamic design displays considerable architectural flair and innovation, particularly in the bold use of the hyperbolic paraboloid form. It is a building of real quality in its materials, composition and detailing; * Historic interest: it is a good example of a Roman Catholic church where design and plan form express the liturgical developments that took place after the Second Vatican Council held in 1962-5; * Interior: the innovative plan and use of light add to the interest and its fixtures, fittings and embellishments are of good quality. The impressive sculpture of the Risen Christ by Frank Roper also enhances the level of interest; * Degree of survival: the church, including the internal fixtures and fittings and embellishments, has survived virtually intact; * Setting: the church is a landmark on the Wells Road. It’s tent-like appearance and liturgical plan with the altar intervisible with the highway (as pilgrimage route) were key considerations in the design of the church.

History: The Hengrove and Whitchurch Park suburbs to the south of Bristol were developed in the interwar period and expanded following the Second World War. In 1958 a Roman Catholic school was built and dedicated to St Bernadette, marking the centenary of the apparitions at Lourdes. Subsequently, the Church of St Bernadette and presbytery was commissioned and constructed on Wells Road, overlooking the school fields. The designs by James Leask of Kenneth Nealon, Tanner & Partners were agreed with Reverend Joseph Sutton and the foundation stone was laid on 7 June 1967 by the Right Reverend Monsignor Canon Thomas Hughes, Vicar General of the Diocese of Clifton. It was designed with steep curving roofs and pointed peaks to emulate a tent-like structure, and thereby recognise the ephemeral nature of human life on this earth as well as the humble nature of traditional roadside pilgrimage structures. The internal arrangement was specified to emphasis a close relationship between the altar and the congregation, and to present an open and inclusive appearance to the wider community. The church was opened and blessed by Bishop Rudderham on 5 June 1968. The church served a new parish comprising Whitchurch, Hengrove and Stockwood. A parish hall was built in 1975 as an extension to the existing facilities located in the link tunnel between the church and the presbytery. In 1982 a suspended figure of the Risen Christ by Frank Roper of Penarth (1914-2000) was installed in the sanctuary. It was later moved to the narthex wall, facing Wells Road.

Details: A Roman Catholic church of 1967-8 by James Leask of Kenneth Nealon, Tanner & Partners. The main contractors were Wilkins & Coventry Ltd of Bristol. MATERIALS: reinforced concrete shell roofs and piers with red brick flank and rear walls in stretcher bond. The cavity walls have an inner skin of insulating blocks. There are large sections of toughened glass to the narthex. The church roofs are covered in a felt layer faced in aluminium foil. The pews, altar rails and other fittings and furniture are constructed of aluminium with hardwood (afrormosia/ teak) seating and attached kneeling rails. The High Altar is of a pale ashlar limestone and the reservation altar has a concrete top. Floor coverings include hardwood block and clay tile. The principal doors and windows to the church have hardwood frames. The large glazed sections of the porch are aluminium-framed. PLAN: rotated square on plan, orientated as a diamond or lozenge. Towards the north and south corners of the worship area are confessionals which are built out from the square plan. In the south-east quadrant is the narthex and porch. At the north of the porch is a repository and organ loft stairs, and to its south a side chapel. The east end of the narthex has a glazed wall to the worship space, with a sunken baptistery beyond and an organ loft above. The altar is on a stage in the north-west sanctuary with a reservation altar in the corner, behind the High Altar. On the edge of the stage are altar rails and to the left is a door to the vestries and sacristy. The north-east and south-west areas each have ten rows of pews and an adjoining set of confessionals. The link building* to the south and west contains the sacristy, is altered and not of special interest. Other connected buildings include a later parish hall*, the presbytery* and a detached garage*. EXTERIOR: the building is composed of curved, multi-angled and multi-pitched roofs that take the form of a double hyperbolic paraboloid rising to a central glazed vertical clerestorey with a large metal cross at the apex. The roof is carried on projecting concrete piers to three sides, in the manner of flying buttresses. These have external aluminium-lined concrete gullies and drains, channelling rainwater from the roofs. Between two of the piers, facing Wells Road, is the glazed projecting entrance front. Three engineering brick steps lead to the entrance which is arranged as four door openings (the outer two fixed). The frieze above has lettering: CATHOLIC CHURCH OF ST BERNADETTE. The porch roof sweeps forward to an overhanging peak. The red brick wall to the left has three tall openings to the side chapel. At the head of the brick walls is a horizontal strip of glazing hidden in the soffits of the eaves. The north and south corners of the church have two splayed square-section metal braces between the roof eaves and the wall, which are repeated at high level to each corner of the narthex glazing, picking up the oversailing roof. The north confessional is covered in roughcast render. The south confessional is tile hung to match the adjoining link building, which is single storey. The windows openings to the link have slate cills. INTERIOR: arranged as two seating areas at 45 degree angles from the altar with a sunken baptistery to the rear. Upper wall ledges conceal a continuous glazed strip and the broad expanse of roof above is covered in vermiculite plaster and bisected by structural concrete ribs. The tapered break between the east and west sections of the roof form a glazed clerestory. The congregational seating is made up of hardwood bench pews, aluminium-angle-framed and profiled like a right-angled bracket, and with green cloth cushioning. There is further seating by the altar and in the narthex and porch. The pew materials and design are carried through to the mullions to each corner of the narthex glazing, the two altar rails, font, side chapel and confessional fittings and other furniture that is not fixed. The altar is on an elevated stage and constructed of ashlar limestone and inscribed THIS IS MY BODY WHICH IS GIVEN FOR YOU. The reservation altar behind it has a fixed tabernacle and is over lit by a small square roof light. The confessionals are timber-clad with shrines lit by lightwells (Christ to the north and St Bernadette of Lourdes to the south). The side chapel is raised on a single step and has a plain ashlar altar against the north wall. The baptistery is lozenge-shaped, reflecting the plan of the building, and is sunk by three steps. The floor is covered in blue mosaic tiles and the brick font is a square lozenge. Above it hangs a tubular aluminium cover in the form of a hyperbolic parabola, designed to resemble the roof, which is removable. The gallery of the organ loft above overhangs the baptistery. To the north of the baptistery in the brick wall by a narthex door is an aumbrey with timber door. The interior of the porch has a brick and aluminium piscina to each side wall and the north wall has the foundation stone THIS STONE WAS LAID BY/ THE RIGHT REVEREND/ MONSIGNOR CANON/ THOMAS J. HUGHES V.G./ 7TH JUNE 1967. The left side of the stone is inscribed with a cross and A.M.D.G (Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam) above. There is a hatchway to the repository above the foundation stone. The narthex wall is plastered and on it fixed an alloy crucifix sculpted by Frank Roper of Penarth (1982). The floor is covered in square clay tiles.

* Pursuant to s.1 (5A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 (‘the Act’) it is declared that the marked features are not of special architectural or historic interest.


Books and journals: Catholic Building Review, Southern Edition, (1966), 176-7; Pevsner, N, Foyle, A, The Buildings of England: Somerset: North and Bristol, (2011), 423; Leask, J, ‘St Bernadette’s R.C. Church’ in The Architect and Building News, , Vol. 3 (5), (3 July 1969), 32-33

Heritage Details

Architect: Kenneth Nealon, Tanner & Partners

Original Date: 1968

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Grade II