14 June 2010

Continuing travels in ‘Pugin-Land’

Saint Chad’s Cathedral, Birmingham ... built by Pugin at the same time as he was building his cathedrals in Enniscorthy and Killarney (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

After the Sung Eucharist in Lichfield Cathedral and a light lunch on Sunday afternoon I checked out of the George Hotel and headed into Birmingham on Sunday afternoon to continue my travels in “Pugin-Land.”

I planned to visit Oscott College in Sutton Coldfield, but the train from Lichfield was cancelled due to engineering works, and I headed into Birmingham on the bus.

Saint Chad’s Cathedral, Birmingham, stands on a sloping site on the edge of a roundabout on a ring road, overlooking the Salvation Army hostel, and the waste ground beside it is used by homeless men in the afternoon to sit drinking the cans of cheap beer they cannot take into the shelter.

Nevertheless, Saint Chad’s has lost none of the majestic impact it must have first had when the slope led down to the canal, and the East End projected above the slope, with the crypt beneath. At the time, this was the gunmakers’ quarter of Birmingham. Pugin then described it as “a foreign style of pointed architecture because it is both cheap and effective.”

It certainly was different from any other Anglican or Protestant building in the Birmingham area at the time. But it looks more German than English, in stark contrast to the many parish churches Pugin was building at the time, built, hoping they would look like mediaeval English parish churches.

When the cathedral was being built, a new Diocese of Birmingham was being formed, and the relics of Saint Chad, which had disappeared from Lichfield Cathedral about 200 years earlier, conveniently reappeared and ever since have been housed here.

When the cathedral was reordered in the late 1960s in line with liturgical reforms of Vatican II, Pugin’s rood screen and some of his furnishings were disposed of, his tiled floors were replaced by marble flooring. Some efforts have been made to reverse these mistaken changes, but many of Pugin’s fittings have been sold and dispersed, and his original rood screen has been reused in an Anglican church – Holy Trinity in Reading.

Saint Augustine’s Church, Solihull ... the first parish church built by Pugin in England (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

From Snow Hill station nearby, I caught a local train to Solihull to see Saint Augustine’s Church in Solihull. Appropriately, this church stands on Station Road, and when opened on 11 February 1839 it was the first Pugin church to be opened.

Pugin gave his architectural services free for the building of this church, for this was his dream come true ... it was said at the time that “even the very door hinges are] Catholic” – in other words, Gothic.

Some of Pugin’s original interior survives in Saint Augustine’s, Solihull, despite the major changes in 1977 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

However, the north wall of the nave was demolished in 1977, and in a clumsy marriage of the Gothic and the modern Pugin’s first church is now only the western annexe of a larger building, with his chancel forming a Blessed Sacrament chapel. His reredos and many of his stencils survive, however, along with the original West Window.

Saint Augustine’s, Solihull, was built according to plans that Pugin also used for a number of churches in Co Wexford too, perhaps including those in Barntown and Ramsgrane, and Saint Chad’s was built at the same time as he was designing and building Saint Aidan’s Cathedral in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, and Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Killarney, Co Kerry.

I missed seeing Saint Philip’s Church of England Cathedral in Birmingham. But the fading light was making photography difficult and the rain was pouring down as I got back into centra l Birmingham. I headed on the airport and my flight back to Dublin.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

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