11 September 2023

Saint Aloysius Church,
Woodstock Road,
the former Jesuit
church in Oxford

Saint Aloysius Church on Woodstock Road, Oxford, is Oxford’s oldest surviving Roman Catholic church of modern times (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Aloysius Church on Woodstock Road, Oxford, is Oxford’s oldest surviving Catholic church of modern times. Now the Oxford Oratory, the parish is served by the Oratorians. But the church was built by the Jesuits in the 1870s, replacing a small chapel built in 1793.

After the Catholic Relief Act was passed in 1791, the Jesuit Father Charles Leslie (1748-1806) obtained permission for a public chapel in Oxford. Leslie was a younger son of Patrick Leslie Duguis, 10th Baron of Auchinhove and 21st Baron of Balquhain. He acquired a house in Saint Clement’s parish, and Mass was celebrated in 1793 for the first in the stone chapel of Saint Ignatius built behind the house.

That earlier chapel, which was demolished in the 1960s, was administered by the Jesuits until 1859, when responsibility for the mission in Oxford was handed over to the Diocese of Birmingham. By then, a larger church was urgently needed, and in 1864 the Bishop of Birmingham, William Edward Ullathorne, asked John Henry Newman whether the Oratorians would take over the Oxford mission.

Saint Aloysius Church was built on a site provided by Lord Bute (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Various sites were considered and the architect Henry Clutton (1819-1893) prepared plans for a new church in the Byzantine style. Rome gave permission for a Congregation of the Oratory in Oxford in 1866. But, faced with opposition, the project foundered in 1867, and the Jesuits returned to the mission in 1871.

A bequest of £7,000 from Jane Charlotte Winterbottom (1806-1871), Baroness Weld, and the gift of a site on Woodstock Road by John Patrick Crichton-Stuart (1847-1900), 3rd Marquess of Bute, made building a new church possible. Lord Bute was educated at Christ Church, Oxford. His conversion to Catholicism at the age of 21 scandalised Victorian society and led Benjamin Disraeli to use Bute as the basis for the hero in his novel Lothair (1870).

Bute married into one of Britain’s most illustrious Catholic families when he married Lady Gwendolen Fitzalan-Howard, granddaughter of the Duke of Norfolk. Later his son, John Crichton-Stuart (1881-1947), 4th Marquess of Bute, married Augusta Bellingham, daughter of Sir Henry Bellingham at Bellingham Castle in Castlebellingham, Co Louth, a wedding that is part of my story, ‘Four weddings and a Victorian funeral’, Chapter 47 in Marriage and the Irish: A miscellany, edited by Salvador Ryan (Wordwell: Dublin, 2019, pp 163-165).

Bute’s generous spending on churches, buildings and restoration made him a leading architectural patron in the late 19th century.

Inside Saint Aloysius Church, designed by Birmingham architect James Aloysius Hansom (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

James Aloysius Hansom (1803-1882), the Birmingham-based architect is known for his work for the Catholic Church. He worked principally in the Gothic Revival style, but was bankrupted by his project for Birmingham Town Hall. He is also known as the designer of the Hansom cab and as the founder of the architectural journal The Builder.

Hansom was commissioned to design a church in Oxford to seat 400 people, with potential to expand up to 800. His design was French Gothic in inspiration, and has been embellished over the years, mainly with furnishings by Farmer & Brindley, whose large reredos is of particular note. The builders were G Myers & Son of Lambeth, AWN Pugin’s builders.

Despite Baroness Weld’s bequest, funds were short and the church was built in brick instead of stone. The foundation stone was laid on 20 May 1873 by Bishop Ullathorne, who opened the church on 23 November 1875. The presbytery, listed at Grade II, was completed by the Oxford architect William Wilkinson in 1878.

Saint Aloysius Church is set on a west-east alignment (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Saint Aloysius is set on a west-east alignment, instead of the traditional east-west liturgical alignment. The church is entered from the east, and the High Altar is at the west end. The church is a listed at Grade II building. The listing refers to the prominent rose window and stair turret ‘creating a dramatic entrance elevation within the narrow plot,’ the church’s associations with Cardinal Newman and the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins; and, despite the loss of painted decoration, the lofty interior with its pointed tunnel vaulted roof and tall clerestory windows, as well as 19th and early 20th century furnishings, including works by Farmer & Brindley, Hardman of Birmingham, and Gabriel Pippet (1880-1962).

The furnishings included black marble the High Altar, given by Lord Bute in 1878; the choir stalls carved with ‘IHS’, and ‘ADMG’ (Ad maiorem Dei gloriam, the Jesuit motto ‘For the Greater Glory of God’); the pulpit (1888), and the traceried stone screens between the sanctuary and side chapels.

The reredos (1878) by Farmer & Brindley curves around the (liturgical) east end of the sanctuary, with 52 niches holding statues of saints in two registers on either side of the canopied monstrance throne. Above is a row of angels holding banners bearing the word ‘Sanctus’, and below the apse windows are 20 roundels, extending beyond the apse, with busts.

The World War I Memorial by Gabriel Pippet in Saint Aloysius Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Pippet painted the interior of the church with a decorative scheme that was later painted over. The Victorian Gothic style presbytery (1877-1878) is by William Wilkinson of Oxford. Yellow brick with Bath stone dressings and some red brick diapering.

The memorials in the church recall figures such as Gerard Manley Hopkins who was a curate in 1878, including an engraved marble holy water stoup given by the Paravicini family, and Cardinal Newman, who preached at Saint Aloysius in 1880 from the original wooden pulpit.

When Hartwell de la Garde Grissell died in 1907, he left his collection of relics and vestments to the mission, and the Baptistry was adapted to hold this collection.

The Lady Chapel includes glass by Hardman of Birmingham(Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Lady Chapel, to the (liturgical) south, recently restored, has a marble altar brought in 2007 from Saint Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and a statue of the Virgin Mary by Mayer & Co of Munich, given in 1876. The glass in the chapel is by Hardman of Birmingham.

The Stations of the Cross, designed by Basil Champneys, are carved in alabaster, and were brought from the Convent of the Holy Child Jesus, Cherwell Edge.

The south aisle has a war memorial and an alabaster memorial tablet to Philippa Fletcher (died 1914), both with relief carving by Pippet.

No 23 Woodstock Road, the house in front of the church, was demolished in 1925 and an arched screen was built (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

No 23 Woodstock Road, the house in front of the church, was demolished in 1925 and an arched screen was built.

The Jesuits simplified the interior in 1954, removing most statues and pictures and painting the walls with grey emulsion paint, including marble surfaces, the reredos and Pippet’s wall paintings.

In response to the liturgical reforms introduced by the Second Vatican Council, the High Altar was brought forward in 1966 and the church consecrated that year by Bishop Joseph Francis Cleary, the Dublin-born Auxiliary Bishop of Birmingham.

The Grissell collection of antiquities and relics was dispersed or destroyed in 1971, and the chapel returned to its former use as a Baptistry. Stations from the Holy Child Convent in Cherwell Edge were installed in 1973.

A 1977 mural by E Percival depicting the trial of the Jesuit martyr Saint Edmund Campion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

At the liturgical west end of the church, beneath the organ gallery, are two 1977 murals by E Percival, depicting Saint Edmund Campion and Saint Aloysius Gonzaga. The stone font is lavishly carved, with a canopy of ogival arches sheltering animated Biblical scenes in high relief.

The Jesuits withdrew from the parish in 1981, leaving responsibility for Saint Aloysius with the diocesan clergy until the Birmingham Oratorians took over running the parish in 1990.

In the south aisle, the east chapel was originally dedicated to Saint Joseph, but in 1992 it was redecorated in honour of Saint Philip Neri, the founder of the first Oratory in Rome. The small shrine to John Henry Newman at the west end of the south aisle was installed in 2010.

In recent years, parts of the church have been restored – including the Relic Chapel, which now contains relics from the Carmelite convent at Chichester – and plans are underway for further restorations.

The Oxford Oratory became an independent congregation in 1993, with the priests being involved in diverse ministries such as, at Oxford, school, hospital and prison chaplaincies, as well as the more traditional parish ministries.

The 52 statuettes in tfour rows in the reredos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The statuettes in the reredos are:

Upper Row, beginning on the left:

1, Saint David, 2, Saint Columba, 3, Saint Edmund of Abingdon, 4, Saint Edward, King Confessor; 5, Saint Frideswide; 6, Saint Dunstan; 7, Saint Michael; 8, Saint Bede; 9, Saint Hilda, 10, Saint Alban; 11, Saint Helen; 12, Saint Gregory; 13, Our Blessed Lady; 14, Saint Joseph; 15, Saint Augustine of Canterbury; 16, Saint Winfred; 17, Saint Chad; 18, Saint Edith; 19, Saint Cuthbert; 20, Saint Gabriel; 21, Saint Thomas of Canterbury; 22, Saint Bertha; 23, Saint Hugh of Lincoln; 24, Saint Simon Stock; 25, Saint Thomas of Hereford; 26, Saint George.

Lower Row, beginning on the left:

1, Saint Andrew; 2, Saint Charles; 3, Saint Stanislaus Kostka; 4, Saint Francis Xavier; 5, Saint Dominic; 6, Saint Henry, Emperor; 7, Saint Raphael; 8, Saint Augustine; 9, Saint Gertrude; 10, Saint Ambrose; 11, Saint Julia; 12, Saint Peter, Apostle; 13, Saint John Evangelist; 14, Saint Mary Magdalen; 15, Saint Paul; 16, Saint Cecilia; 17, Saint Sebastian; 18, Saint Hubert; 19, Saint Monica; 20, Saint Uriel; 21, Saint Ignatius Loyola; 22, Saint Aloysius Gonzaga; 23, Saint Teresa; 24, Saint Francis de Sales; 25, Saint de Paul; 26, Saint Patrick.

The heads in the roundels above the reredos, beginning on the left:

1 Blessed John Forest; 2, Blessed Margaret of Salisbury; 3, Sir Thomas More; 4, Cardinal John Fisher; 5, Saint Thomas Aquinas; 6, Saint Anselm; 7, Saint Jerome; 8, Saint Leo; 9, Saint Athanasius; 10, Saint Ephrem; 11, Saint Basil; 12, Saint John Chrysostom; 13, Saint Benedict; 14, Saint Bruno; 15, Saint Francis of Assisi; 16, Saint Bernard; 17, Saint Edmund Campion; 18, Saint John Houghton; 19, Saint Alexander Briant; 20, Blessed John Storey.

Looking out on Woodstock Road from the porch of Saint Aloysius Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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