Taking Stock

by Archbishop George Stack

The recent completion of the “Taking Stock” exercise by the Patrimony Committee of the Bishops Conference of England and Wales under my chairmanship. This momentous project has included every diocese in England and Wales and every Catholic church is illustrated and described in great detail. “Taking Stock” has revealed an architectural treasury of the 78 churches, which serve our own parishes in the Archdiocese of Cardiff and Herefordshire. These churches stand as silent witnesses to the courage, inventiveness and generosity of our predecessors in the faith. They chart the growth and development of the Catholic Church in this area over the last two hundred years. A number of them portray the missionary origins of their foundation, long before parishes were established. The influence of the Religious Orders in their service of the people in those far off days is reflected in the architectural gems they established. The Third Order Franciscans, members of the Order of St. Benedict, members of the Society of Jesus and members of the Institute of Charity have all given dedicated service to the Church in this part of the world. They have bequeathed many historic church buildings of which we are justly proud. These churches continue to give a powerful message in today’s world, so very different from the times during which they were built. The choice of architects, the various architectural styles and sacred artefacts all convey their own history are chronicled in “Taking Stock”.

The tiny church of St. Mary and St. Michael, Llanarth, is probably the oldest church used for Catholic  worship since the Reformation. It was built in 1790 by the long established Jones family of Treowen. Soon after, came the church of St. Mary’s, Monmouth, in 1793. Catholic churches built shortly after the Catholic Relief Act of 1791 are rare. This Act allowed Catholic Church buildings to be established for the first time since the Reformation. The church of St. Thomas of Hereford, Weobley, built in 1835, is similarly one of the earlies post Reformation place of Catholic worship. It was followed by the Greek Revival church of St. Francis Xavier in Hereford designed by Charles Day for the Jesuits and was built in 1837-39.  The fine church of St. Mary’s Newport, by J.J. Scoles in 1839 was described by St. John Henry Newman as “a confident and conspicuous effort just a decade after Emancipation”. The recently exciting discovery of excavations beneath this church point to an even earlier foundation. Then came the church of St. Francis Xavier in Usk, designed by the famous Thomas Hansom.  The 1840’s saw three further churches including St. Alban’s, Pontypool, completed in 1846. This became the study house for the Capuchin Franciscans. St. Illtyd’s, Dowlais, followed in 1847. Both of these churches were by the architect J.J. Scoles.  St. Francis Xavier and St. David Lewis Usk was built in 1847 by the architect Charles Hansom. Significant developments came in the 1850’s and 1860’s, not least with the formation of the Diocese of Newport and Menevia in 1850 with it’s Benedictine Archbishop. The Abbey of St. Michael in Belmont was designed by Edward Welby Pugin and is regarded are one of the most faithful examples of the ideal of an English monastic complex envisaged by his father, Augustus Welby Pugin. It served as the pro-Cathedral of the diocese from 1859 until the creation of the Archdiocese of Cardiff in 1916.Other churches of this period include St, Mary’s Abergavenny, Abergavenny in 1860, St. Joseph’s, Aberdare in 1868,  St. Peter’s Roath (also by Hansom) followed by St. David’s Cathedral by Pugin and Pugin in 1887. St. Mary’s in Merthyr Tydfil was built by J.S. Hansom in 1894.

Further growth and development took place in the 20th century with the building of St. Dyfrig’s Treforest built in the Byzantine style and opened in1920. Our Lady’s Newbridge, designed by Hepworth and opened just before the outbreak of war in 1939, is a treasure trove of the arts and crafts design. The expansion of the Catholic population necessitated a significant building program in the 1960’s is well chronicled. Many significant churches were erected, in the distinctive style of the architect Richard Price. The largest of these is the church of St. Helen, Caerphilly, the smallest being that of the Blessed Sacrament, Rumney. The latest church built in 1998 by the architect Kevyn Davies of Port Talbot is St. Mary’s Bridgend has received much critical acclaim.

Cardinal Basil Hume once wrote, “Churches are not just places in which we worship God, but with which we worship God.” Each of these churches tell it’s own story of the faith of the people who worshipped within them and the communities they served. Twenty churches in the diocese have received special architectural recognition in terms of their List status. A number of Listed churches have benefited enormously from grants from Heritage Lottery Fund made towards major repairs. The Cultural Recovery Fund has recently granted each of our twenty Listed churches over £1000 each for daily maintenance.

The fully illustrated list and history of each church may be found on the website of TAKING STOCK –ARCHDIOCESE OF CARDIFF. Another addition to the treasury which is Catholic church architecture is a book entitles “Fifty Churches To See Before You Die” by Elena Curti (Published by Gracewing, Hereford at £14.99)  I was honoured to contribute the Foreword to this fascinating book. Fully illustrated with coloured photographs of significant Catholic churches throughout the country, this book has proved a first rate reference for those interested in church art and architecture of recent years. Further information on the development of Catholic church architecture is beautifully contained in the book “A Glimpse of Heaven” – Catholic Churches in England and Wales published jointly by the Bishops Conference and English Heritage.