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)

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (106) 11 September 2023

The Unitarian Church on Prince’s Street, Cork, is in the heart of the city (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and the week began with the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XIV, 10 September 2023).

Initially, I had been booked for a consultation today at John Radcliuffe Hospital, as a follow-up to my stroke last year. But this has now been put back to 10 Oct0ber. Meanwhile, before the day begins, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection.

This week, I have been reflecting each morning in these ways:

1, Looking at a Unitarian church I know;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The Unitarian Church claims it is the oldest place of continuous worship in Cork (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Unitarian Church, Cork:

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and the Sundays at this time are also counted as the Sundays after Trinity. In contrast to this way of counting the Sundays and the weeks at this time in the Church Year, my photographs in my Prayer Diary this week include a selection of Unitarian churches.

The Unitarian Church at 39 Prince’s Street, Cork, is in the heart of the city centre, beside one of the entrances to the English Market, but when it was built it was outside the crumbling mediaeval walls of the city.

The church opened as the ‘Old Presbyterian Church’ or meeting house in August 1717 and claims it is the oldest place of continuous worship in Cork: although Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral (Church of Ireland) stands on a much older site, the present building was completed in 1879; the Cathedral of Saint Mary and Saint Anne was built in 1808 and rebuilt in 1828; and Saint Anne’s Church (Church of Ireland), Shandon, was built on the present site in 1722-1726.

Building work on what became the Unitarian Church began around 1711 in an area then called Dunscombe’s Marsh, outside the city walls. It was built as a dissenting Presbyterian meeting house to replace a smaller church in Watergate Lane, now South Main Street, that the congregation had outgrown.

Hard rock and rubble had to be brought into the area to secure the foundations and reclaim the land, and so it took around five years to build the church.

Like all dissenting chapels or meeting houses, the interior design was simple, lacking the more ornate designs associated with Anglican and Roman Catholic churches at the time. The church was a plain meeting house, designed for the congregation to hear the minister. A balcony ran around three sides of the building, and it could seat up to 800 people. The buildings to either side were the minister’s manse and a school.

The new church opened on 4 August 1717, and the first service was led by its minister, the Revd Samuel Lowthian.

A document dated 8 January 1719, signed by James Weekes, asks the Bishop of Cork, Peter Browne, to approve the registration of the meeting house on Dumscomb’s Marsh, Cork, under the 1719 Act.

At the time, Presbyterians in Ireland were not organised into one single church body, and by the early 18th century divisions were emerging among Presbyterian ministers over subscribing at their ordination to the Westminster Confession, although the Synod of Munster never subscribed to it.

These divisions would lead to the formation of the Presbytery of Antrim in 1725 and the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster in 1830. These two bodies joined with the Synod of Munster in 1835 to form the Association of Irish Non-Subscribing Presbyterians. The Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland was consolidated in 1910 when the Presbytery of Antrim, the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster and those congregations that had formed the Free Congregational Union formed the General Synod.

By 1910, only three congregations of the original Synod of Munster remained in the south of Ireland, including the church in Cork. Although the Synod of Munster was and remained a member of the Association of Irish Non-Subscribing Presbyterians, it did not formally join the General Synod until 1935.

The Unitarian Church in Cork continues to have a formal association with the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church in Ireland to this day.

The church on Prince’s Street soon became known as the ‘New Meeting House’ but was also known as the ‘Old Presbyterian Church,’ and was one of the first buildings on reclaimed marsh to the east of the mediaeval walls of Cork.

A list of ministers in Prince’s Street from 1670 to 1961, notes that five were Unitarian ministers, but 13 were Trinitarian. The House of Lords was told that for many years there were two preachers in the chapel, one Trinitarian and one Unitarian.

The chapel in Prince’s Street was at the centre of debates and divisions within Irish Presbyterianism (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The divisions among Presbyterians become more difficult in Cork when the Revd Thomas Dix Hincks (1767-1857) was appointed to the church and came to be debated in the House of Lords. Hincks was a known Unitarian and was appointed an assistant to the Revd Samuel Perrott in Cork. However, the Presbytery of Munster refused to ordain him, and eventually he was ordained by the Presbytery of Dublin in 1792.

Hincks remained in Cork until 1814, and was the founder of the Royal Cork Institute. Two of his sons were Church of Ireland priests: the Revd Dr Edward Hincks (1792 -1866), who is commemorated in a plaque by the church gates, was the Rector of Killyleigh, Co Down, and a distinguished Oriental and Greek scholar; the Ven Thomas Hincks (1796-1882) was Archdeacon of Connor from 1865.

Two other sons were Unitarian ministers: the Revd William Hincks (1794-1871), was a minister in Cork, Exeter and Liverpool, and later became Professor of Natural History at Queen’s College, Cork (1849-1853); the Revd John Hincks (1804-1831) was a Unitarian minister in Liverpool (1827–31). The youngest son, Sir Francis Hincks (1807-1885), was a colonial governor.

Many of the members of the congregation left to join Trinity Presbyterian Church, a ‘subscribing’ Presbyterian congregation formed in 1830, and popular with Scottish immigrants at the time. The Prince’s Street congregation continued to meet, and to hear various clergy, including Unitarians and Trinitarians.

The Temperance campaigner, Father Theobald Mathew (1790-1856), signed his famous Temperance Agreement in the Unitarian Church in 1839, and six years later the American social reformer, abolitionist, author and statesman Frederick Douglass visited the church in 1845.

Members of the church in the mid-19th century include Richard Dowden (1794-1861), a Mayor of Cork and uncle of Charles Dowden, Episcopalian Bishop of Edinburgh, and the painter Daniel Maclise (1806-1870).

Numbers began to dwindle in the 20th century, and in 1958 Mrs Marjory Thompson of Blackrock Road was said to be the only remaining Unitarian in the city. There were plans to sell the building, and reports a grocery chain was planning to buy it and convert it into a supermarket. But the plan never went ahead because the building was listed.

The building saw little Unitarian activity until the 1990s, when a small group, including Fritz Spengeman and Dr Martin Pulbrook, resumed weekly services. The Rev Bridget Spain was the minister-in-charge from 2007 to 2017. Today the church has its own minister, my friend and colleague the Revd Mike O’Sullivan. He was ordained in 2017 and was the first Cork man to hold the position in almost 200 years.

The church celebrated its tercentenary in 2017. The celebrations included a visit from President Michael D Higgins, an anniversary service attended by civic and religious leaders, and staging a specially commissioned play to celebrate the visit Frederick Douglass in 1845.

In recent years, extensive cosmetic work was undertaken on the building, including opening the ‘South Chapel,’ where services are held every Sunday. The church received a gift of a pulpit from the Church of Ireland Diocese of Cork, Cloyne and Ross.

The features in the church include early 18th-century oval windows, and a semi-circular 300-year-old-gallery with its original staircase. The original pulpit was on the west wall facing east and a pillar, door and gate stood perfectly in line from there to the street outside. But the original pews, pulpit and organ were removed in the late 1990s.

The church remains one of Cork’s religious architectural gems, and is a growing, vibrant and inclusive community.

The building is used throughout the week by a variety of local groups and for hosting events from experimental rock concerts to craft fairs.

An innovative service was the ‘First Friday Jazz Vespers,’ an initiative of the Methodist and Unitarian churches at 6 p.m. on the first Friday of each month.

Prince’s Street is between Saint Patrick’s Street and Oliver Plunkett Street. Sunday services are at 11 am. The courtyard is open daily from 11 am to 4.30 pm.

A memorial at the church gates to the Revd Dr Edward Hincks a distinguished Oriental and Greek scholar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 6: 6-11 (NRSVA):

6 On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. 7 The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. 8 Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come and stand here.’ He got up and stood there. 9 Then Jesus said to them, ‘I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?’ 10 After looking around at all of them, he said to him, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He did so, and his hand was restored. 11 But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.

The church was threatened with closure in the late 20th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Holy Cross Day Reflection.’ This theme was introduced yesterday.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (11 September 2023) invites us to reflect on these words:

Yesterday was World Suicide Prevention Day so let us pray for God’s blessing and compassion on all who feel hopeless or vulnerable.

The pulpit in the Unitarian Church, Cork, is a gift from the Church of Ireland Diocese of Cork, Cloyne and Ross (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Collect:

Almighty God,
whose only Son has opened for us
a new and living way into your presence:
give us pure hearts and steadfast wills
to worship you in spirit and in truth;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Lord God, the source of truth and love,
keep us faithful to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship,
united in prayer and the breaking of bread,
and one in joy and simplicity of heart,
in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Prince’s Street, Cork, with the entrance to the English Market beside the Unitarian Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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

This reflection was prepared for a series of evening reflections in the Unitarian Church, Cork, and was posted on Facebook and YouTube on Friday 19 February 2021.