Thursday, 14 April 2022

Saint Mary Magdalene is
part of the Catholic ‘mother
parish’ of Milton Keynes

Saint Mary Magdalene Church, Stony Stratford, opened in 1958 and was consecrated in 1984 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

The Roman Catholic Church of Saint Mary Magdalene on High Street in Stony Stratford is one of two churches in a parish that also includes Saint Francis de Sales in Wolverton.

The parish is in the Diocese of Northampton and describes itself as the mother church of Milton Keynes. The parish boundaries extend to Aylesbury to the south, Buckingham to the west, Olney to the east and Pottersbury to the north.

The parish traces its origins to the Roman Catholic response to the Catholic Emancipation and the Industrial Revolution, which saw the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in England in 1850 and the growth of the railway town of Wolverton at the same time.

As early as 1836, the small village Wolverton had been selected as mid-point between the London-Birmingham railway line. By 1860, Wolverton had become an important, thriving railway town. As it developed, Catholics in Wolverton were served by a priest from Aylesbury or had to walk nine miles to Weston Underwood for Sunday Mass. As early as 1844 pastoral care was being extended by the church at Weedon to ‘Wolverton Station’.

Father Francis Cambours arrived in Wolverton in 1864 and within a short time had raised £1,000 towards establishing a ‘mission’. The church in Wolverton opened on Trinity Sunday 1867.

There is no clear reason why the church was named after Saint Francis de Sales, the patron of writers and journalists, although 1867 was the third centenary of his birth.

Father Wilf Johnson was the parish priest of Wolverton from 1954 to 1977, and in 1954 he began building of the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene in Stony Stratford. The new church was completed in 1957 and was blessed on 25 September 1958. He moved to Wellingborough in 1977, and later died there.

Father Paddy Connolly became parish priest of Wolverton, and in 1973 he moved to Stony Stratford which was now a parish in its own right.

Wolverton came under the CRIC Fathers or Canons Regular of the Immaculate Conception. As resident priests in Wolverton, they began their mission to the new city of Milton Keynes as it was being built.

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

Inside Saint Mary Magdalene Church, Stony Stratford, designed by Wilfred T Deacon and built by Laing (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Saint Mary Magdalene Church in Stony Stratford is a plain structure of the 1950s occupying a fairly prominent position in the local conservation area at the north-west end of the High Street. Although the church does not make a particularly positive contribution to the character of the area, it has some furnishings of note.

Stony Stratford had two mediaeval churches dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalen and to Saint Giles. Saint Mary’s was severely damaged by fire in 1742, but its tower survives across the street from the present Catholic church, which explains why it is dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene.

The church was built on the site of a large Georgian townhouse in the High Street known as Saint Oswald’s. The church was designed by Wilfred T Deacon and built by Laing. It opened on 25 September 1958 and was consecrated on 24 November 1984.

The church is more or less orientated north-south, instead of the liturgically conventional east-west orientation. It is an astylar modern design, built of light rustic brick laid in English bond, with a shallow pitched felt-covered roof with overhanging timber box eaves.

There is a projecting full-height forebuilding, the west elevation of which is mainly glazed, with a large carved crucifix of German Romanesque character over the main entrance.

Small later lean-to brick additions abut this forebuilding in the re-entrants on either side.

The main body of the church lies behind, and is wider. The side elevations have a long window with metal frame on either side at the liturgical west end of the nave and a wider five-light window with hardwood timber subdivisions on either side at the liturgical east end. There is a small and later canted sanctuary addition, contemporary with a link building connecting to the presbytery at the rear of the site.

The main entrance leads into a lobby beneath a gallery. The interior includes a wide nave with no aisles and with plastered walls and a plaster ceiling. At the (liturgical) west end, the internal walls are brick faced at gallery level.

The sanctuary is in a flat arched recess at the (liturgical) east end, indirectly lit from above, and carved wooden rood figures are fixed to the wall over the arch.

A dais projects forward from this, with a modern marble clad altar, and a tabernacle stand behind.

The altar rails were mentioned by Sir Niklaus Pevsner, the architectural historian, in his guide to Buckinghamshire, but have since been removed.

The church has a number of older hardwood furnishings, including a high-backed Gothic presidential chair, a table by the window on the left-hand side of the sanctuary and a carving of Saint George and the Dragon on the gallery front. The provenance for these has not been established. The nave has simple, original bench pews.

Father Bernard Barrett has been the parish priest of Saint Francis de Sales and Saint Mary Magdalene since 1995.

A baptismal banner near the baptismal font in Saint Mary Magdalene Church, Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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