19 February 2023

Saint Francis de Sales Church
in Wolverton: ‘the Mother
Church of Milton Keynes’

The Church of Saint Francis de Sales, on the corner of Radcliffe Street and Stratford Road in Wolverton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

The Catholic Parish of Saint Francis de Sales, Wolverton, and Saint Mary Magdalene, Stony Stratford, is one parish with two churches, two presbyteries, two parish gardens and a parish hall. It is part of the Diocese of Northampton, has an average Sunday attendance of 300, and Father Bernard Barrett has been the parish priest since 1995.

The Church of Saint Francis de Sales is tucked away in an almost-hidden corner of Wolverton, on the corner of Radcliffe Street and Stratford Road, but faces onto a narrow laneway behind Church Street.

The church describes itself as the ‘Mother Church of Milton Keynes’ and has its origins in a two-fold response of the Catholic Church to Catholic Emancipation in 1829, which enabled the Restoration of the Catholic Hierarchy, and to the Industrial Revolution, which give rise to the development of Wolverton as a thriving railway town.

The Church of Saint Francis de Sales describes itself as the ‘Mother Church of Milton Keynes’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

As early as 1836, Wolverton had been selected as mid-point between the London-Birmingham railway line. It was then a small village, and as the town developed, Catholics in Wolverton were served by a priest from Aylesbury or had to walk nine miles to Weston Underwood for Sunday Mass. Later, the church at Weedon provided pastoral care to ‘Wolverton Station’.

The London and Birmingham railway opened in 1838, with an engineering works at Wolverton. A permanent station was built, Stratford Road was laid out in 1840, and Radcliffe Street was laid out in 1860. By then, Wolverton was an important, thriving railway town, and a grid of streets was developed, with plots sold off by the railway company for private development, mainly for terraced housing.

The Catholic mission was established in 1864, serving the town, much of Buckinghamshire north of Aylesbury and parts of Bedfordshire. Father Francis Cambours arrived that year, and initially the priests used ‘the club-room of a public-house … to be annoyed by the stench of stale beer and tobacco, which its late occupants of the Saturday evenings left behind them.’

Within a short time, Father Francis Cambours had raised £1,000 for the ‘Mission’. A sizeable plot was bought on the corner of Stratford Road and Radcliffe Street to build a church built and presbytery.

He was succeeded by Father William Blackman, who built a church at the rear of the plot, giving onto a back alley. The church opened on Trinity Sunday 1867, and the presbytery was built in 1871.

Inside Saint Frances de Sales Church … designed by Gilbert Robert Blount (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The church was designed by the architect Gilbert Robert Blount (1819-1876). He began training as a civil engineer with Isambard Kingdom Brunel, working on the construction of the Thames Tunnel from Rotherhythe to Wapping. He was the Superintendent of Construction in 1841 and, narrowly escaped drowning during one of the many floods.

Blount changed from engineering to architecture in 1842, and was apprenticed to Anthony Salvin (1799-1881). With a resurgence of Catholic church building in England, he worked on new churches throughout England and was greatly influenced by Pugin. Blount worked independently for relatives and Catholic friends, including working as architect to Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman, Archbishop of Westminster.

One of his most notable churches is Saint Peter’s Church, Gloucester (1860-1867), designed in the Decorated Gothic style. Blount died in 1876 and was buried in the family vault at Saint James’s Church, Reading.

Blount’s church in Wolverton was built at a cost of £855. The red brick priest’s house at the front of the plot was built in 1871. The earlier plans to turn the church into a school and build a new and larger church never materialised. In time, this would become the largest parish in the Diocese of Northampton – although it is now said to be the smallest.

Saint Francis de Sales is the patron of writers and journalists, but it is not clear why he was chosen for the name of the church. Perhaps it was because of the first mission priest’s name; perhaps because 1867 was the tercentenary of the saint’s birth, and he was noted for his preaching and missionary work.

Saint Francis de Sales Church is orientated north-south (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

This is a small mission church and has been described as having attractive and somewhat ‘rogueish’ Gothic detail, and the interior has a remarkable recent scheme of mural decoration.

The church is orientated north-south, rather than the traditional east-west liturgical orientation. It is a small, typical ‘railway mission’ church, built of red brick laid in English bond with blue brick and stone detail and a slate roof. Its main elevation faces towards a back alley and has a boldly detailed Early Gothic central entrance that was bricked up in 1958, with a Gothic stone surround with trefoils in the spandrels and three finials in the stone hood.

Above this is a four-light (liturgical) west window with a central transom and ‘rogueish’ tracery details above. The polychromatic effect is given by the red-blue brick arch over the window, and blue brick kneelers in the gable and inset crosses on either side of the original entrance.

A modern garage building abuts the northern flank elevation, and there are no windows on this side. The (liturgical) south elevation gives onto the presbytery garden. A modern, flat-roofed entrance porch and slate-roofed polygonal baptistry extension was added in 1958. It is in contrasting brown brick giving off the church at the (liturgical) west end, and there are paired mullion and transom windows in the remaining bays. The baptistry is now used as a confessional.

The (liturgical) east elevation faces towards the presbytery and has a ground floor lean-to housing a sacristy, a central chimney breast rising to a stack, flanked by paired Gothic windows. The use of stone and red and blue brick gives a polychromatic effect.

The Gothic timber altar and antique oak reredos were installed in 1902 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Inside, the church has a single space of seven bays under an open timber roof, with a west gallery. The gallery is supported on timber posts and has a trefoil arcaded front and a projecting canted central bay. The nave seating consists of oak benches with panelled ends. There is a small timber pedestal font under the gallery. A 200-year-old organ was acquired from Northampton Cathedral.

Father Edmund Garnett, who was parish priest in 1900-1903, installed a Gothic timber altar and antique oak reredos in 1902, the gift of his brother. The reredos has statues of Saint Gregory the Great, Saint Peter, Saint Paul and Saint Thomas Becket. The lower statues depict Saint Francis de Sales, the patron of the church and Saint Edmund the Martyr, recalling Father Edmund Garnett.

Parish records during World War I speak of Father Thomas Walker tending Catholics who were among the Belgium refugees and the soldiers who attended Easter celebrations in 1915.

The windows above the altar and reredos are a memorial to three parishioners killed during World War II (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

New stained-glass windows were installed above the altar and reredos in 1948 as a memorial to three parishioners who were killed during World War II: Seaman Bernard Hobin, Sergeant-Navigator George Vincent Sigwart, and Flying Officer Francis Morris. The windows were made by Ernest R Twining of Joseph Bell & Son, and they depict Christ the King, Our Lady Queen of Peace, and three saints representing the three men: Saint George, Saint Francis and Saint Bernard.

Father Wilf Johnson, the post-war parish priest of Wolverton (1954-1967), began building Saint Mary Magdalene Church in Stony Stratford in 1954. It was completed in 1957 and blessed in 1958.

Father Patrick Connolly, who was parish priest of Wolverton from 1967, moved to Stony Stratford when it became a parish in its own right in 1973. Wolverton then came under the Canons Regular of the Immaculate Conception, who began their mission to the new city of Milton Keynes as it was being built.

The Church of Saint Francis de Sales was restored in 1980 and was consecrated by Bishop Charles Grant of Northampton on 23 September 1981.

Inside the church, viewed from the gallery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The most remarkable feature of the interior is, perhaps, the mural scheme on the sanctuary wall with trompe l’oeil Gothic decoration and biblical scenes. This was completed in 2000 by Peter Yourell, with Father Bernard Barrett advising on the iconography.

Later, Paul Gleeson, an art teacher at Saint Paul’s School, was commissioned to paint a Jubilee painting for the porch. New marble for the reconstruction of the altar from the reredos was completed and installed by Milo Molloy. Paul Gleeson was also commissioned to paint panels for the back of the altar.

The parishes of Saint Francis de Sales, Wolverton, and Saint Mary Magdalene, Stony Stratford, were amalgamated in 2002, returning to their pre-1976 status.

• Weekend Masses in Saint Francis de Sales are at 6:30 (Saturdays) and 11:30 (Sundays), with Mass at 7:30 on Holy Days. The church is open on weekdays from 9 am to 6 pm.

The ‘west’ door was blocked up during renovations and extensions in 1958 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Praying in Ordinary Time
with USPG: 19 February 2023

The Transfiguration (see Matthew 17: 1-9) … a window in a parish church in Lucan, Co Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Today [19 February 2023] is the Sunday Next Before Lent. In the some parishes, this Sunday is known as Transfiguration Sunday. In the past, this Sunday was known as Quinquagesima, one of those odd-sounding Latin names once used in the Book of Common Prayer for the Sundays in Ordinary Time between Candlemas and Lent: Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima.

These weeks, between the end of Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, are known as Ordinary Time. We are in a time of preparation for Lent, which in turn is a preparation for Holy Week and Easter.

Later today, I hope to be in Tamworth for a lunch celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Tamworth and District Civic Society. But, before catching the train to Tamworth later this morning, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection.

In these days of Ordinary Time before Ash Wednesday later this week (22 February), I am reflecting in these ways each morning:

1, reflecting on a saint or interesting person in the life of the Church;

2, one of the lectionary readings of the day;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

For my reflection this morning, I am reading John Keble’s poem, ‘Quinquagesima Sunday,’ recalling the traditional name once used for the Sunday before Lent.

John Keble (1792-1866) … his poems in ‘The Christian Year’ include ‘Quinquagesima Sunday’

John Keble (1792-1866) was an Anglican priest and poet, Professor of Poetry at Oxford, and one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement. He was born on Saint Mark’s Day, 25 April 1792, in Fairford, Gloucestershire, where his father, the Revd John Keble, a former Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, was Vicar of Coln St Aldwyn’s.

John Keble studied at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and in 1810, at the age of 18, he graduated with a double first in classics and mathematics. In 1811, He became a Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, in 1811 and was ordained deacon by the Bishop of Oxford on Trinity Sunday 1815, and priest in 1816.

He published The Christian Year in 1827. He wrote the poems to restore a deep feeling for the Church Year among Anglicans, and it received such great acclaim that its became the most popular volume of verse in the 19th century. One of the most popular poems in The Christian Year is the well-known hymn, ‘New every morning.’

The Christian Year went into 95 editions in his lifetime, and by the time the copyright expired in 1873, over 375,000 copies had been sold in Britain and 158 editions had been published.

The success of The Christian Year led to Keble being appointed Professor of Poetry in Oxford University (1831-1841).

His ‘Assize Sermon’ in Saint Mary’s University Church in 1833 was the spark that ignited the Oxford Movement. In 1835 he was appointed Vicar of Hursley, Hampshire, where he settled down to family life and remained for the rest of his life as a parish priest at All Saints’ Church.

He edited an edition of Richard Hooker’s works in 1836. The most important of his prose writings, however, was his treatise on Eucharistic Adoration.

John Keble died on 29 March 1866 at the age of 74. Within three years of his death, Keble College was established at Oxford ‘to give an education in strict fidelity to the Church of England.’

‘What but the gentle rainbow’s gleam, / Soothing the wearied sight, / That cannot bear the solar beam, / With soft undazzling light?’ (John Keble) … a rainbow in Callan, Co Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Quinquagesima Sunday by John Keble:

Sweet Dove! the softest, steadiest plume,
In all the sunbright sky,
Brightening in ever-changeful bloom
As breezes change on high; –

Sweet Leaf! the pledge of peace and mirth,
“Long sought, and lately won,”
Blessed increase of reviving Earth,
When first it felt the Sun; –

Sweet Rainbow! pride of summer days,
High set at Heaven’s command,
Though into drear and dusky haze
Thou melt on either hand; –

Dear tokens of a pardoning God,
We hail ye, one and all,
As when our fathers walked abroad,
Freed from their twelvemonth’s thrall.
How joyful from the imprisoning ark
On the green earth they spring!
Not blither, after showers, the lark
Mounts up with glistening wing.

So home-bound sailors spring to shore,
Two oceans safely past;
So happy souls, when life is o’er,
Plunge in this empyreal vast.

What wins their first and fondest gaze
In all the blissful field,
And keeps it through a thousand days?
Love face to face revealed:

Love imaged in that cordial look
Our Lord in Eden bends
On souls that sin and earth forsook
In time to die His friends.

And what most welcome and serene
Dawns on the Patriarch’s eye,
In all the emerging hills so green,
In all the brightening sky?

What but the gentle rainbow’s gleam,
Soothing the wearied sight,
That cannot bear the solar beam,
With soft undazzling light?

Lord, if our fathers turned to Thee
With such adoring gaze,
Wondering frail man Thy light should see
Without Thy scorching blaze;

Where is our love, and where our hearts,
We who have seen Thy Son,
Have tried Thy Spirit’s winning arts,
And yet we are not won?

The Son of God in radiance beamed
Too bright for us to scan,
But we may face the rays that streamed
From the mild Son of Man.

There, parted into rainbow hues,
In sweet harmonious strife
We see celestial love diffuse
Its light o’er Jesus’ life.

God, by His bow, vouchsafes to write
This truth in Heaven above:
As every lovely hue is Light,
So every grace is Love.

The Transfiguration (see Matthew 17: 1-9) … a window in Saint Nicholas Church, Galway (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 17: 1-9 (NRSVA):

1 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’

‘The Son of God in radiance beamed / Too bright for us to scan, / But we may face the rays that streamed / From the mild Son of Man’ (John Keble) … an icon of the Transfiguration in the church in Piskopiano in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

USPG Prayer Diary:

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is ‘Social Justice in Sierra Leone.’

The Anglican Diocese of Freetown and the North in Sierra Leone joins with its neighbours around the world to mark World Day of Social Justice. Around the globe, millions of people are prohibited from living a fair life. In Sierra Leone, a country that has seen civil war, many of its people are without homes, jobs, healthcare, nutrition and more. It must be the responsibility of the privileged to ensure that a just world is created where social justice is a norm for all. As God’s word teaches us, social justice is mandatory. We are called to love our neighbour as ourselves. (Matthew 22: 39) This means eliminating poverty and illiteracy, and any form of discrimination that violates human rights and prevents human flourishing.

The Church in Sierra Leone prays that its government and people will follow the teachings of the Bible and ‘give justice to the weak and the fatherless’ and ‘maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute’. (Psalm 82: 3) Its Livelihoods Recovery, Youth and Governance programme for young people in agriculture, aquaculture and food processing, sponsored by USPG, is underpinned by its determination to pursue justice for all. The Church prays that, being made in the image and likeness of God, Sierra Leoneans will learn to treat each other with love, that they will have equal access to justice and all will be able to share in the country’s resources.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (Sunday 19 February, the Sunday next before Lent) invites us to pray in these words:

God of Justice,
let justice roll down like water
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,
in the name of Jesus,
our guide and our peace.


Almighty Father,
whose Son was revealed in majesty
before he suffered death upon the cross:
give us grace to perceive his glory,
that we may be strengthened to suffer with him
and be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion:

Holy God,
we see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ:
may we who are partakers at his table
reflect his life in word and deed,
that all the world may know his power to change and save.
This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org