WELWYN GARDEN CITY – ST BONAVENTURE CHURCH
Parkway, Welwyn Garden City, Herts AL8
The first church to be built in the Garden City, and one of the best of the architect T. H. B. Scott’s many churches in the diocese. Built in 1926, its construction was paid for by Miss Frances Clemson. Externally, the design is loosely Romanesque, with a saddleback west tower. Inside, the church has a simple Italian Romanesque or Early Christian character. The quality of the detailing is high, and there are good stained glass windows by A. A. Orr, Hardman & Co and others. The church and contemporary presbytery lie on Parkway, the central spine of the Garden City, and these buildings, along with the adjoining former convent, make a positive contribution to the conservation area.
Welwyn Garden City was the second purpose-built garden city. It was founded by Sir Ebenezer Howard in 1919, following his previous ventures in Hampstead Garden Suburb and Letchworth Garden City. Howard (1850-1928) advocated the creation of new towns of limited size, planned in advance, and surrounded by a permanent belt of agricultural land. His vision was that these should be self-sufficient communities, with residential, employment, shopping and civic functions placed in close proximity, but clearly zoned and demarcated, within a healthy, planned environment. The architects of the masterplan were Louis de Soissons and A. W. Kenyon. The main north-south artery of the Garden City was Parkway, a broad boulevard with a central avenue of trees, where were located a number of civic buildings and churches. One of these was St Bonaventure, the first church to be built in the Garden City.
The Catholic presence began here in 1922, when three Canossian Daughters of Charity arrived from Milan, taking up residence in a house in Meadow Green. Here Mass was said by a priest coming from Potters Bar. The building of a church became possible through the generosity of a wealthy Londoner, Miss Frances Clemson, who had offered to finance the building of a church in the diocese. A central site was acquired, and plans drawn up by T. H. B. Scott for a church in Romanesque style. Construction began in early 1926, the builders being Messrs Ekins & Co. of Hertford. At the same time a canonical parish was erected, with Canon Arthur Pownall the first parish priest. The church and presbytery were built quickly, with the official opening of the church by Cardinal Bourne taking place on 14 September 1926.
In 1929-30 a new convent was built for the Canossian Sisters on land adjoining the church, from designs by Hugh Bankart. Convent school buildings (Mater Dei) followed in 1934, from designs by J. Arnold Crush (extended by Louis de Soissons in 1952). In 1978 Mater Dei School closed and the site was redeveloped for housing. The Canossian Sisters left, but the convent buildings survive as the Focolare Centre.
In 1963 new beech pews replaced the original chairs in the church. A marble altar (brought over from Ireland by the then parish priest, Canon Kelly) was installed, with a cross over it made by a Mr Bert Hammond. Consecration fittings and crosses were also obtained by Canon Kelly (consecration finally taking place in 1974). New Stations were installed, and new lighting in 1968. In February 1985 a parish centre alongside the church was opened by Cardinal Hume. The architect for this addition was John Crown of Southsea, Hants.
The church and attached presbytery were built in 1926, from designs by T. H. B. Scott (builders Messrs Ekins & Co. of Hereford). The benefactress was Miss Frances Clemson. The external design of the church is loosely Romanesque, while the interior is more Early Christian in character. A consistent motif throughout the building is Scott’s ‘wicket’ signature of three incised uprights; this may have Trinitarian symbolism, or may simply reflect the architect’s triple initials. The church is built of brown local brick, with red brick banding and sparing use of Portland stone dressings. The roofs are plain tiled. On plan the church consists of a nave and aisles, with a side chapel at the east end of the south aisle, and an apsidal sanctuary. There is a tower at the west end, with a baptistery giving off the north side. The attached presbytery is L-shaped on plan, its front door in the angle, with Arts and Crafts detailing. The house is of two storeys, the upper storey within an oversailing tiled gambrel roof. Its windows have been replaced in UPVC.
The west tower has gables and a saddleback roof. It has a central round-arched entrance with brick jambs of three orders, carved stone capitals, and alternating red brick and creased tile bands in the arch. On either side are stone corbels, without statues. Above the entrance is a stone statue of St Bonaventure by Philip Lindsey Clark, placed in a shallow brick niche with stone corbel and lead-covered canopy. There are two round-arched windows on either side of the statue. The tower gable has a stone coping and set within it are triple slits for the belfry. The tower westwerk is flanked to the south by a link to the presbytery (housing confessionals) with paired leaded window, and to the north by the projecting baptistery, with similar detail on the west face, and with a window in the form of a large cross on the northern gable end. The flank elevations of the main body of the church are plainly treated, with round arched windows in the clerestory (one per bay), the brickwork relieved by horizontal courses of red brick banding at sill and springing level. The tiled lean-to roof of the aisles on the north side now links to the tiled roof of the parish centre of 1985.
The church is entered either from the west door or (for step-free access) via the lobby of the parish centre. The main west door leads via a small timber and glass lobby into a narthex area in the tower. This appears to have been designed to accommodate a gallery, not built. The narthex is separated from the nave by a triple arch, with large Diocletian arch over. The capitals of the arcades here and in the nave have primitive carved stone detail of a free Romanesque kind (figure 1).
The interior is homely and characterful, with good quality detailing. The nave is of four bays, with one clerestory window per bay. The walls are plastered except in the clerestory window recesses, where the brick is left bare. Oversailing the nave is the open timber roof, of Early Christian or Italian Romanesque character, with the ubiquitous ‘wicket’ motif on the tie beams and raking struts rising to the collars. At the east end a plain unmoulded arch demarcates the sanctuary, which is apsidal in form, with a blind arcade running around at high level.
The furnishings are not of particular note, except for those of the baptistery and some of the stained glass windows. All of the aisle windows are triple lights, and all contain glass of varying date (and quality). Starting at the east end of the south aisle, by the Lady shrine, and working west in an anticlockwise direction, the most notable windows are:
- St Gregory flanked by angels bearing cartouches with arms, 1930. A Clemson window, probably by Arthur Anselm Orr (1869-1949);
- St Edmund flanked by angels bearing cartouches with arms, 1930, signed by A.A. Orr (photo lower left);
- St Francisca flanked by St Clara and St Bonaventure in roundels, 1949, by Hardman & Co. in memory of Frances Clemson, the benefactress (d. 1944);
- St Gregory the Great flanked by angular angelic roundels with St Francis and St Augustine, 1965 by Jasper and Molly Kettlewell, commemorating the Golden Wedding Anniversary of William and Mary Weadon;
- (at the west end) Two brightly-coloured abstract designs in the high level windows, by J. and M. Kettlewell, 1963;
- (in the baptistery), the Baptism of Our Lord, 1949, by Hardman & Co. in memory of Miss Frances Clemson.
- Another stained glass window was installed to mark the Millennium.
The baptistery is placed behind iron gates at the west end of the south aisle. The font has an octagonal bowl with swept sides, cylindrical stem and square base. There are incised carved panels on each face of the bowl, and a decorative copper cover.