With so-called staycations and exploring a little closer to home the order of the day during the uncertainties of a global pandemic, it’s the perfect time to shine a light on some of the finest Catholic places of worship in England and Wales.
Visiting churches is a popular pastime for tourists and holidaymakers but it’s fair to say that many Catholic ‘gems’ are largely unknown outside their congregations.
This fact inspired journalist Elena Curti, who worked for The Tablet for many years, to chose 50 personal favourites for her beautifully illustrated new book ‘Fifty Catholic Churches to See Before You Die‘.
The date of publication is significant – 29 September – exactly 170 years after the papal bull of 1850 that re-established the Catholic hierarchy in England and paved the way for a revival of the Catholic faith and a major expansion in church building.
The Right Reverend George Stack, Archbishop of Cardiff and chair of the Bishops’ Conference’s Patrimony Committee, describes the book as ‘seminal’ in his foreword.
The fifty churches are listed alphabetically by location. Each entry details the church’s history, architecture and artistic highlights. Every one has a compelling story, peopled by courageous old Catholic families; visionary priests and religious orders; local patrons; and poor Irish migrants who contributed their pennies, and often their labour, to raise their places of worship.
Most are parish churches while some are part of Catholic heritage centres that welcome visitors eager to learn about their art, architecture and history.
At the end of each entry Elena lists many more churches in the vicinity that are “worth a detour”. Also included are biographical notes of the principal architects and artists and a glossary of architectural terms.
Today, there are close to 3,000 Catholic churches in England and Wales and more than a quarter of them are listed – 34 of them Grade I and deemed of exceptional interest.
Elena Curti says:
“I knew about the most famous Catholic churches but as I travelled the length and breadth of England and Wales for my book, I realised how many more fantastic ones are completely unknown. There are outstanding buildings to seek out in suburbs, in country lanes and in the heart of our towns and cities. To visit them is to appreciate the rich treasury of Catholic heritage that is waiting to be explored. I have arranged the book in such a way that readers will be able to plan some wonderful days out.
“Most of the 50 churches are well maintained but, for small congregations, especially in poor areas, the cost of caring for a listed building is often overwhelming. Several are struggling to raise money for urgent repairs and to win grants. At least one of my churches is on Historic England’s ‘At Risk’ register. The Covid-19 pandemic will make fund-raising even more difficult in the years to come.
“I want my book to raise awareness of the most beautiful Catholic churches and encourage support for their conservation. After visiting my favourites, I am hoping that readers will want to go out and discover some of their own.”
Elena’s selections include:
Our Lady and St Alphege
Modelled on an early Christian basilica, the architect, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott described it as his ‘little gem’.
Hassop, Derbyshire (1818)
In the guise of an Etruscan temple, this church stands amid rolling hills, grazing sheep and flowing streams in the heart of the Peak District National Park.
St Cuthbert’s Chapel
Ushaw, County Durham (1847 and 1884)
The main chapel of the former Catholic seminary of the north of England forms the centrepiece of an astonishing array of Gothic buildings.
Spanish Place, London (1890)
The description of a jewel-box was never more apt than it is for this masterpiece with its deep, dark vaulted interior setting off the brilliance of its furnishings and stained glass.
Gorseinon, Swansea, Wales (1967)
Completely round with multiple gables, this modernist church near Swansea has walls pierced by dozens of glorious crossed stained glass windows.
If you’d like to purchase a copy of Elena Curti’s ‘Fifty Catholic Churches to See Before You Die’, the book is published by Gracewing and retails at £14.99.
978 0 85244 962 2
Published 29 September 2020