St John's Street, Woodbridge, Suffolk, IP12 1EB
c1930 (from parish website)
Built in 1850 as the Woodbridge Literary and Mechanics’ Institution, the building became a Catholic church in 1930. The conversion work was undertaken by J. Arnold Crush, with new furnishings which included a fine Corinthian baldacchino over the high altar. The adjoining early-mid-nineteenth century house is now incorporated into the church, and together they make a prominent and positive contribution to the Woodbridge Conservation Area.
Following his arrival in Ipswich from revolutionary France, it is believed that Abbé Louis Pierre Simon came to Woodbridge to administer the sacraments to local Catholics, and to act as chaplain to Catholic troops garrisoned in the town. However, the first confirmed report of Catholic activity was in 1865, when the Revd Patrick Rogers, chaplain to the Benedictine nuns at East Bergholt, said Mass at the Church Street home of Dr Moore. Later on, services were held in a converted warehouse in the grounds of Gate House, which had been acquired by Dr Moore. This served until 1871, when Fr Job Wallace of St Mary’s Ipswich, a convert from Anglicanism, purchased a small piece of land in Crown Place and built a church at his own expense. Dedicated to St Thomas of Canterbury, this opened in 1872, and was served from Ipswich.
In 1919 the Revd William Cooper retired to Woodbridge. He had established the mission at Felixstowe, where he had built the church of St Felix (qv). Fr Cooper purchased Stoke House in Church Street, Woodbridge, which he offered to the Carmelite nuns of Notting Hill for the establishment of a convent. Here the artist Margaret Agnes Rope (1882-1953, her religious name Sister Margaret of the Mother of God) set up a stained glass design studio. The Revd Charles Duchemin was appointed resident priest and lived in The Thoroughfare. Many local Catholics preferred to attend Mass at the convent chapel rather than at Crown Place, and the prioress agreed to a request from the bishop that the offertory collection at the convent should go to the priest. The nuns remained at Church Street until 1938, when they moved to Rushmere village, moving on to Quidenham in Norfolk in 1948.
In 1922 Fr Duchemin was succeeded by the Revd Ernest Shebbeare, a convert from Anglicanism. He had been ordained in St Peter’s Rome, and was a lover of Romanita. He purchased a house at 29 Cumberland Street to serve as his presbytery, and was helped in his work by the Sisters of Mercy, who established a school in Castle Street in 1923 (it closed in 1941).
In 1929 the diocese negotiated the purchase for £1,200 of a building in St John’s Street. This had been built in 1850 as a lecture hall for the Woodbridge Literary and Mechanics’ Institution, from designs by the Woodbridge surveyor and architect William Pattisson. More recently it had been used by the YMCA. The architect J. Arnold Crush of Birmingham drew up plans for the conversion of the building to a church. Crush was a Catholic convert and a pupil of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and Sir Edwin Lutyens; at that time he was working on (Gothic) designs for a new abbey church for the Benedictines at Douai, Berkshire. No doubt at the instigation of Fr Shebbeare, and perhaps influenced also by the character of the existing building, his £2,000 scheme for the conversion of the hall was firmly classical, and was dominated by a pedimented baldacchino in the sanctuary supported on four Corinthian columns, with lettering by Margaret Rope. At the other end, a small choir gallery was built over the entrance lobby (becoming an organ gallery in 1932). The old church in Crown Place was sold and converted into a residence, which it remains today.
On Monday 7 July 1930 a solemn High Mass was held in the church in the presence of the Bishop of Northampton, when the choir of Westminster Cathedral sang and Fr Ronald Knox preached. The Tablet reported:
“The opening of the new church of St. Thomas of Canterbury at Woodbridge, Suffolk, a building transformed for religious purposes from its former secular aspect as a lecture hall, marks a further stage in Catholic progress in that town, thanks to the zeal of Father E. R. Shebbeare, who on the opening day last week had the happiness of welcoming to Woodbridge his lordship the Bishop of Northampton, and his fellow-clergy from many parts of the diocese. High Mass, Coram Episcopo, was celebrated by the Right Rev. Mgr. Duchemin, rector of the Beda College, Rome. The Vicar-General, Mgr. Provost Freeland, was assistant priest; and Canons Marshall (Cambridge) and Peacock (Ipswich), deacons at the Throne. The sermon was preached by Father Ronald Knox.
At a subsequent luncheon in the Crown Assembly Hall, the Bishop congratulated Father Shebbeare on the fruition of his long hopes, and on the ceremony with which he had inaugurated the new church. Father Charles Rivers extolled the achievement of the architect, Mr. Arnold Crush, whose skill, he said, had turned a plain building into a fine and imposing Roman church. Mr. Crush briefly replied; and other speeches were made by Provost Freeland, Father Shebbeare, Father Knox, and Brigadier-General F. L. Lamotte, C.M.G. The luncheon was followed by a garden party at Bredfield House, given by Captain and Mrs. J. H. Lachlan White.”
In 1949 a legacy from Mrs Lachlan White enabled the purchase of a property at 97 New Street to serve as a presbytery. In 1953 the church was redecorated and repaired with the advice of the architect Eric Sandon, who was a parishioner. In the mid-1960s the church expanded into the house next door, with a chapel on the ground floor and a clubroom upstairs, and in 1968 a newly-built house at 21A St John’s Street was acquired to serve as a presbytery. In the 1970s under the Revd Francis Leeder the font was moved to the sanctuary area, the pulpit removed, and Sandon oversaw plans for the formation of an opening in the wall between the church and chapel to make an overspill seating space, with a sliding partition so that the space could double up as a hall. In 1984 a new forward altar of Ancaster stone was installed under the baldacchino. It may have been at this time that the curved altar rails were removed, but short sections remain in front of the side altars, which have timber reredoses with segmental pediments.
In 2018 the church was redecorated, with improved facilities and new glass screens between the main worship space and the former house next door. The latter now serves as the primary entrance to the building. The architect was Nicholas Jacob of Ipswich.
The building was constructed in 1850 as a lecture hall for the Woodbridge Literary and Mechanics’ Institution, from designs by the Woodbridge surveyor and architect William Pattisson (1805-78). It became a Catholic church in 1929-30, the conversion works undertaken by J. Arnold Crush. The front elevation to St John’s Street is of white Suffolk brick with stone or Roman cement dressings. It has three tall arched recesses with windows with marginal glazing bars and a central entrance with double doors approached by three steps (no longer the primary entrance). Above is a moulded stone cornice and a plain parapet with inset date AD MDCCCL. The main entrance to the church is now via the former house next door, the ground floor of which has been incorporated in the church. This is also of white Suffolk brick, with stone or rendered dressings, and has a deep plain entablature and parapet with coping. It has two double-height splayed bay windows with glazing bar sashes, the ground floor bays adapted and bridged by a fanlight over double doors (the original door to the house, with a moulded cement classical surround, remains in situ to the left, no longer in use). Entrance lettering is placed over the ground floor bays.
The entrance leads into a narthex area enclosed by glazed screens, with a side chapel/overspill seating area, sacristy, kitchen and stairs leading off. An octagonal stone Gothic font by the entrance serves as a holy water stoup; an inscription around the base reads ‘Pray for the soul of Anita Margaret Pole Edmunds 1918’; it may have come from the church in Crown Place.
The main body of the church is large enough to provide grandeur and small enough to retain intimacy. It is a broadly rectangular space, lit mainly by windows on the street elevation (original arched windows behind the altar are largely screened). The ceiling is flat with shallow coffered panels, and a high timber dado runs around the walls. The dominant feature is the baldacchino over the altar, pedimented and supported on four Corinthian columns. In the pediment, a cartouche bears the arms of Pope Pius XI. Lettering (originally by Margaret Rope, but renewed) reads ALTARE PRIVILEGIATUM (at privileged altars plenary indulgences for souls in purgatory could be granted; the granting of such privileges was suppressed in 1967). The soffit of the baldacchino over the altar is painted blue with gold stars. The curved communion rails have been mostly removed, but short sections remain in front of the two side altars/shrines, which have painted timber reredoses with moulded surrounds and segmental pediments.
Over an entrance lobby at the liturgical west (geographical east) end, the organ is placed in a small gallery. The parish priest suggests that this gallery was originally larger, extending in front of the windows and connecting to the first floor of the adjoining house. The lobby has classical detail and is probably of 1930, but the organ gallery has applied Gothic detailing, possibly incorporating recycled communion rails from the 1872 chapel.
Furnishings of note include a silver hanging sanctuary lamp by Carl Krall and an eighteenth century ivory crucifix in the sacristy (given by the Countess of Albemarle, info. ex parish priest).
The list entry for the church and parish rooms was revised and expanded in January 2023: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1199878?section=official-list-entry
Architect: William Pattisson; J. Arnold Crush
Original Date: 1850
Conservation Area: Yes
Listed Grade: Grade II