19 February 2023
Saint Francis de Sales Church
in Wolverton: ‘the Mother
Church of Milton Keynes’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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