The text of the history section is from the Parish History, written by Des Keohane. The printed version is available from the Church for £3.50 and may be requested by post, at extra cost for postage. Any amendments or additions are welcomed – please send by email to Fr Andrew
Pictures of the opening of the Church – 11th February 1954
Bishop Parker blesses the church
The Procession to the church
The Mayor of Northampton entering the church
Parishioners wait to process into church
As has been seen, the church was designed in the Roman Basilica style, a style harking back to the churches of early Christian times. The main features derive from the basilica or hall of the Roman era, which encompasses a long central chamber with rows of pillars and two or more side aisles, a high roof to the central area with clearstory (high level) windows, and usually a semi-circular apse. In Roman times the apse was where an important personage would be seated, so in Christian churches it was the appropriate site for the altar. Most of the early churches adopting this style also had a baptistry near the entrance. Our baptistry has changed its function, but I think we can easily recognise all these main features in St. Gregory’s.
Comper believed that a church should always give focus to the altar, and the height and space of the chosen design enabled him to do this. The commissioned photograph, before seating was installed, best illustrates this.
Comper necessarily adapted to the difficult building conditions of the post-war Fifties and the financial restraints which were set. Stressed concrete beams, rather than steel, were used in the structure. The containing walls are brick and he chose rustic fletttons as they weather well, and he strengthened these walls with buttresses containing a concrete core. The internal pillars and architraves are reconstituted stone. The flat roof, a variation from the original design, carried the potential problems associated with such roofs. and in 1970 the roof was given a copper covering by the specialist firm of Braby’s: effective, but not without its critics at the time on grounds of cost. Comper intended the interior walls to be plastered, but economies in cost determined that he adopted his second choice, which was to use common fletton bricks, smooth pointed and limewashed. Comper was very particular about the composition of his limewash, which was not whitewash or distemper, but a permanent coating to be built up by further coatings year on year. Unfortunately, the cost factor in later re-decorations led it to being stripped off in the !970s. The floor is made of wood blocks. The architect disliked radiators, which he deemed intrusions on the spaciousness that he valued, and because they made dirty marks on the walls. He had installed, therefore, a “plenum” system by which the heat rises from a series of grilles in the floor. Bearing in mind the height of the church, this has not been without problems. Despite the optimism expressed at the time of the Opening, hopes of a second phase to fulfil Comper’s original plan soon faded. Our church today is essentially the church of Comper’s 1954 Phase 1.
Pevsner (1902-83), the renowned architectural historian, visiting St. Gregory’s around 1960, was rather unkind in saying the interior was “unsuccessfully eclectic”. If he meant that there were various styles of ornamentation, then he is probably right. But one might contend, of course, that “success” in relation to a church is not solely an artistic judgement but one relating to conduciveness to prayer and worship. A wooden side altar stood, until recent years, to the left of the High Altar, but was removed to provide space for the present shrine to Our Lady. The original seating was wooden chairs with kneelers, as is so often seen in continental Europe—and at Downside Abbey, two strong influences always guiding Father Phillips! In the 1980s, Father Harris replaced the chairs with the present benches to increase seating capacity, financed once more, in part, by an interest-free loan scheme. The lighting was modernised and made more efficient a few years ago, but the original lighting is interesting and is to be seen in the photograph above. The two front chandelier fittings, on either side of the Sanctuary, were particularly fine pieces, possibly designed by Comper himself. Father Phillips’s intention was to have the same fittings the full length of the church. The cost was too much, so the remaining lamps were plainer wrought iron fittings. For Father Phillips these were temporary expedients until his original plan could be fulfilled. It never was, and the new lighting necessitated the removal of all the original fittings. The wrought iron lamps were reworked to make the candle holders for the “consecration crosses”; the two chandeliers are at present awaiting a suitable relocation.
The wooden pulpit to be seen in the photograph, standing on the left side of the Sanctuary, was the gift of Mr Lawrie Forsyth and family. Lawrie was a very fine singer, who sang on occasions in St. Gregory’s choir, but was for 75 years a stalwart in the Cathedral choir. The pulpit was later moved to the right hand side and eventually replaced by the present one. Lawrie’s brother, Sam, donated the oak altar rails. The font stood originally, of course, in the baptistry in the south-west corner of the church, but in order to give it a more central position and thus facilitate the participation of the congregation in the Sacrament of Baptism and to make the rite more visible, it was moved in the 1970s to the left of the Sanctuary. It has subsequently been moved further left to give greater room on the sanctuary. The sunken floor of the old baptistry was raised, and when Canon Phillips retired in 1977 he donated the wrought iron gates which stand between it and the nave. There was, and unfortunately still is, a danger of vandalism in churches and it was intended that the area should become a secure area for private prayer, when the main church was untended. It did not prove to be sufficiently secure, and it has usefully become an information area.