FEATURES / Church restoration
St Walburge’s in Preston – Joseph Hansom’s Gothic Revival masterpiece – was almost derelict, but a group of traditionalist priests have brought it back from the brink / By ELENA CURTI
A miraculous resurrection
EVERY MORNING a priest in black cassock and white lace-edged surplice stands in the arch beneath the great steeple of St Walburge’s and tolls the bell summoning the faithful to Mass. There is a delay of several seconds between his pull on the rope and the first sonorous boom. It is an extraordinary sound in this part of Preston where few Catholics live today and where for years this magnificent Gothic Revival church was neglected and on the brink of closure.
St Walburge’s is now open every day. Outside a blackboard lists the liturgical sched- ule. Banners hang on the railings inviting people to come on guided tours. Inside, the 8.30 a.m. weekday Mass is celebrated by a young priest in the Tridentine Rite. Three
nuns wearing white veils and long blue satin cloaks sit in the front row. There is a sprinkling of other worshippers. Even on this sunny autumn day, there is a chill in the air and there are red tartan blankets on the pews for when it gets colder.
On the sanctuary, just beyond temporary altar rails, is a statue of the dead Christ on a bier, his wounds prominent on white flesh. The sanctuary is crowded with statuary and the church is festooned with processional banners. For the past five years St Walburge’s has been in the care of a traditionalist group, the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, which has made it a shrine church dedicated to the celebration of the Mass in Extraordinary Form.
As well as planning a full restoration of the
church, the institute wants to create a museum and an education centre in the historic build- ings close by. These include a disused convent and a building known as the Talbot Library, which they hope to acquire from the Diocese of Lancaster next year. They have appointed an architect who has prepared a schedule of works and they will apply for grants, as the church is Grade I listed.
The shrine’s youthful French rector, Canon Gwenaël Cristofoli, cannot begin to put a fig- ure on how much it will all cost, but adds cheerfully, “We are seeing miracles here every year.” Canon Cristofoli welcomes me into the gloomy, Victorian presbytery where “Salve” is picked out in mosaic in the hall. He moved to Preston three years ago, bringing with him his two black Labradors and a 2CV. The pres- bytery was empty and very damp when he and his confrères arrived. Well-wishers have given them furniture and they have made the place comfortable, though the roof still leaks and the house is freezing in winter.
CANON CRISTOFOLI evidently loves the church, and he shows me prints and old pho- tographs he hopes will one day guide the restorers. As we go round he highlights the scale of the builders’ ambition. The spire is the tallest of any parish church in England, rising to 309ft, and its largest bell weighs one and a half tons. The rose window at the west end is 22ft in diameter – bigger than York Minster’s.
St Walburge’s was built by the Jesuits between 1850 and 1854, in an area that had prospered from the textile industry. Eight thousand people, mostly Irish workers from the cotton mills, undertook to pay £1 a year for its construction. Bales of cotton were put under the foundations of the steeple to min- imise vibration. The architect, Joseph Aloysius Hansom, inventor of the Hansom cab, designed a medieval-style hammer-beam roof and experimented first with a prototype he built for a school and temporary church, now the Talbot Library. The Jesuits handed over the building to the diocese in 1955. An eccen- tric feature is the 25 life-sized statues of saints that stand high up at the ends of the hammer beams. Perhaps there was a miscalculation, because poor St David was sliced in half, so that he appears in profile fixed to either side of the east wall.
Canon Cristofoli hopes to add the name of each saint at the base of their beam. He refers often to “Mr Hansom” and shows me a face carved on a corbel he thinks may be a likeness. He is on surer ground with the bearded figure with architectural instruments depicted in the stained-glass window of the apse that was added in 1874. Apart from those on the roof, all the statues have been restored and repainted. Canon Cristofoli found the statue of the dead Christ in the crypt, where it was in poor condition. He has revived the custom of carrying it in Corpus Christi processions.
Plate and other items belonging to the church have long since disappeared. The insti- tute has been trying to get back as much as it can. One prized possession is the seal of the twelfth-century leper hospital that once stood on the site. Named after St Mary Magdalene, it gives its name to the district of Maudland. Canon Cristofoli recently found four banners from St Walburge’s on sale in an antique shop in York and bought them for £1,000. The institute is seeking marble altar rails and an organ from redundant churches.
ST WALBURGE’S has 80 to 90 regular wor- shippers, who come from a wide area to hear Mass in the Extraordinary Form. There is still a weekly Mass in the Ordinary Form for mem- bers of the former parish, but Canon Cristofoli says this is sparsely attended. He hopes more Catholics who admire the traditional liturgy will come when a heating system is installed (at the moment hot water bottles are provided, as well as blankets), along with toilets, disabled access and a “mother and baby” room. The guided tours attract a broad mix of people. Canon Cristofoli says most want to climb the tower, though this had to stop for a period in summer when the peregrine falcons that nest in the belfry were rearing their young.
Does he see the tours as a tool for evange- lisation? “Yes, it is why we decided to do them. It is first a reminder of our Christian culture. Of course all sorts of people come and I try to be general. I explain it through the statues. We can speak a little bit about our faith in telling the history of the church. People are amazed.”
One of the stories he tells is of how St Walburge’s got its name. He relates that the Jesuits’ housekeeper, who was seriously ill, was miraculously cured when one of the priests administered St Walburge’s oil. This oil is said to flow from the saint’s tomb in Eichstätt, Bavaria. There is a tiny phial of the oil on the altar in the church’s Lady Chapel. For those that remember the grim time when St Walburge’s faced closure, it does indeed seem that miracles are happening. A group whose vision of the Church is as bold and confident as that of Mr Hansom is bringing the church back to life.
Elena Curti is a former deputy editor of The Tablet. Her forthcoming book, 50 Catholic Churches To See Before You Die, will be published next year by Gracewing.