By Brian Little
No large town in England has a Catholic church so centrally and conspicuously placed as Bristol has in St. Mary's-on-the-Quay (right). Sheffield, thanks to the Norfolk's manorial lordship, comes near Bristol in this respect, but there the body of Ste. Marie's is obscured from the main streets hy large shops and commercial buildings, so that only its tower and spire make it conspicuous.
Pastorally speaking, the Jesuits at Bristol are fortunate in the position of their nobly porticoed church. But along with its pastoral opportunities the site of St. Mary's (no longer, since the covering in of that part or Bristol's Floating Harbour, "oil the Quay") is such that it has a tempting potential value as real property. The project for, the ecclesiastical corn commercial redevelopment of the site is controversial and has wide implications for the whole question Of the value in our townscape of historic and beautiful churches.
St. Mary's was designed by the local architect R. S. Pope and was started for the Catholic Apostolic. or lrvingite, sect. The lrvingites ran out of money and sold their unfinished building to the Catholics, who fitted it up for worship and ' opened it in 1843. The possession, in the very heart of Bristol, of so fine a classical church must have much consoled Bishop Baines, then the Vicar Apostolic of the Western District and a strong advocate of classical as against Gothic architecture, for the recent failure to complete the great classical church of the Apostles which in a few years became the Pro-Cathedral of Clifton Diocese. The best features of St. Mary's is the six-columned Corinthian portico which contributes so much to the architecture of that part of central Bristol and, at one end of its rectangular, unimpeded interior, the fine composition of Corinthian columns and pilasters which adds dignity to the sanctuary end. The altar composition is a later, unattractive, and expendable feature.
Some changes are certainty needed at St. Mary's. Though the exterior, with help from the Historic Churches Preservation Trust, was recently cleaned and renovated. the roof structure needs much attention. The presbytery, some distance away, is due for demolition in a roadwidening scheme. A new one, next to the church, is therefore important. However adapted, the existing building would be awkward of access for such functions as weddings and funerals. Car-parking facilities, as with snany other churches unlikely to ae modified or rebuilt, would be far from ideal. It is also claimed that the present church is less suitable than a new one could be for the latest liturgical needs. One must, however, remember that plain', rectangular interiors, in the tradition of late Georgian Non-Conformity and like the recently reordered Regency Catholic church at Chipping Norton, are much easier to adapt than aisled, ecelesiological Gothic naves. Structural and liturgical considerations apart such a site as that of St. Mary's, centrally placed in a large. flourishing city, is an attractive redevelopment proposition. In its new form it could, perhaps, at once serve both religion and commerce. Not far away, on the site of their historic Broadmead Chapel, the Baptists are completing some buildings where worship can occur in one part of the new complex. with shops and offices in the rest.
What the Jesuits are putting up for planning approval is the destruction of the existing St. Mary's and its replacement by buildings which would include a church, a presbytery, shops, car-parking space, and streetlevel access. The designs, by the Bristol architects Ivor Day and O'Brien, include a section of a pedestrian walkway proposed, for this part of the Centre, by the Planning Committee. and linking up with a section under the main bulk of an eighteenstorey office block to arise on an adjacent bombed site. The somewhat squat, polygonal worshipping space would, if ap proved, be capped by a tali, concave-sided spire, of opaque fibreglass and over 180 feet high. Behind, a moderately high office block would come as a background to the steeple, and would, if actually let, help to finance the total scheme.
For some local critics this project might have been acceptable had it been planned for an empty site. But as it involves the loss of a church whose portico has, for 126 years, been the best adornment of a key part of Bristol it has caused much hostile comment. The parishioners, and the numerous other Catholics who use this central church on weekdays, have been asked for their views, The architects' model will be on public display and opinions are invited from Bristolians in general. National bodies like the Georgian Group and the Victorian Society, and more locally the Council for the Preservation of Ancient Bristol and the Bristol Civic Society, have strongly opposed the scheme, from the preservationist angle and because they are far from happy with the indications of the new buildings. Whatever may happen behind the portico it is strongly felt that this, with the consequent elimination of the fibreglass spire, should at all events be preserved.
These proposals for St.
Mary's emphasise, as other episodes have done, the need for bringing our historic and architecturally meritorious churches, of all denominations, under the full scope of the current planning regulations. As things stand a local planning authority has no say over the demolition of a "listed" church. In addition, there are some Catholic churches, not many in number but a real and valuable part of the country's architectural heritage, where ideal liturgical solutions, whether achieved by demolition or by tie more drastic forms of reordering, should give way to considerations of townscape seemliness and architectural merit.
In the particular case of St. Mary's-on-the-Quay at Bristol, and by contrast with the situation elsewhere in the same city where Clifton's new Catholic Cathedral does not involve the demolition of a fine existing church on its site, the Church's cause in the city may well be better served if any adverse local opinion is respected and if the present building, with internal reordering and a new, adjacent presbytery, is left essentially as it is.