Sacred Heart and Holy Souls church

This information is largely paraphrased from a booklet by Rev J. D. Crichton, commemorating the consecration of the completed church in 1945, with the approval of the Diocese and parish priest. Additional information has kindly been provided by Fr. David Tams. We would also like to thank Father Sharp of the Diocesan Archive for his kind help. We would welcome any memories local people may have of the church.
 

There was a school for young Catholic gentlemen at Acocks Green House in the early 1820s, mentioned in the Morning Post in November 1822, and called Acocks Green House Academy in the Laity's Directories of 1821 and 1822. It appears to have been in business from 1819 to 1822, with a Priest saying Mass there while travelling between Baddesley and Birmingham, according to the VCH:

 

"Acock's Green House Academy, near Birmingham. Young Gentlemen, under 13 years of age, are boarded and educated in writing, arithmetric, elocution, history, geography, the English, Latin and French languages, by Mr. Grant and proper Assistants. Terms twenty-five guineas per year; washing two guineas; entrance one guinea. Half a year's payment in advance is expected. Mr G. received his education at the Royal English College of St. Omers - was several years Assistant in some of the most respectable schools in and near London, as also in the North of England. Acocks's Green is a pleasant and salubrious situation, 5 miles from Birmingham, on the London road through Warwick and Leamington Spa.- Coaches pass daily.- Vacations, Midsummer and Christmas."

 

The few Catholics who lived in Acocks Green in the early nineteenth century had to go to Solihull to worship. When St. Bernard’s Seminary (Olton) opened later in the century, they were able to go there. By 1905, it was decided that a mission was needed in Acocks Green. At that time there were about one hundred and fifty Catholics in the area. Father John Gibbons arrived on 10 August 1905 in this country location, quite a change from St. Chad’s, where he had been until then. The Church had bought a large Victorian house on the Warwick Road, Wilton House, and it was occupied by French nuns from the Order of Our Lady of Compassion. They had fled to England from France, and had started locally at Olton. Father Gibbons had to live in the coachman’s house, which was to be his presbytery for thirty years. (Initially the house was occupied, and Father Gibbons could not move in until January 1906).

 

There was a need for a church, and Wilton House’s old greenhouse was initially used: it had a wooden extension and an iron roof. Despite not really being suitable, it had to be used until 1907. Father Gibbons also had to develop Catholic education, and a combined school and chapel was constructed, with the foundation stone being laid on 2 April 1907. It was blessed by Monsignor Ilsley, and laid by no less a person than the Earl of Denbigh. The ground floor was to be a school for one hundred and three pupils, and opened on 7 September. Upstairs was the chapel, already open since 28 July. At the time, the Warwick Road had not been widened, and there was more land in front of the buildings. Stones from the original boundary wall could still be seen in the central reservation until 2015, when it was taken out.

 

In 1913, the large house next door, “The Hollies” was bought with the intention of building a new church on the site and adding to the school playground, but in the end the nuns moved in there and Wilton House was used for the church site. The nuns moved into “The Hollies” in 1919. Later that year Malvern House next door was purchased and subsequently became the Convent school building.

 

The Parish had been dedicated to the Sacred heart of Jesus for the Deliverance of the Holy Souls in Purgatory. The First World War made Father Gibbons determined that the new church should be a memorial to and a shrine of prayer for the victims of the War. Plans were drawn up by Messrs. Harrison and Cox for a large church, and initially it was decided to build half of it: the sanctuary end, the Lady Chapel (to contain the Roll of Honour), and half the nave. Raising money proved difficult by the normal means of bazaars, whist drives, etc, but a businessman involved in the arms trade donated £2,000 in 1917! By 1922, enough money had been collected for building work to start. On 23 March 1923, Father Gibbons laid the first brick in the foundations, but the foundation stone itself was laid on 18 April by the Archbishop of Birmingham, Monsignor McIntyre. Army representatives were there including a Brigadier-General, W. R. Ludlow. The church itself opened on 26 March 1925, and once again the Armed Forces were represented.

 

Although the completion of the church in 1940 naturally made a good deal of difference to its general appearance, the building has remained substantially what the architect originally intended it to be and so this is a suitable place to attempt some description of it, freely borrowed from the architect's official description:

 

In 1925 the bold adaptation of Gothic to modern needs and the exigencies of modern processes, seemed almost revolutionary. “The style selected is an adaptation of early English Gothic Architecture developed to suit modern needs and conditions. The design is a new departure from the traditional nave-and-aisle type of church plan and the building presents a successful solution. of the problem of modern church design. It is so planned that every member of the congregation has a clear view of the High Altar and pulpit.” The usual arcade and aisles are done away with and “the roofing of the whole is in one span with a curved ceiling carried on moulded arches.” The monotony of the unbroken line of the exterior walls is relieved “by setting the nave walls alternately inside and outside the buttresses, providing thereby a series of lofty recesses greatly adding to the dignity of the interior.” The whole building is panelled in oak to a height of eight feet. The Lady Chapel which is on the Gospel side of the nave is entered through two lofty arches and is lighted by two traceried windows in which appear emblems of Our Lady in stained glass. Behind the chapel are the sacristies. Although the church cannot be said to be ornate, there is much unobtrusive decoration on paterae (on the cornices), finials, and in the windows. Most of these refer to the memorial character of the church. Thus in the windows of the sanctuary, the national emblems of the United Kingdom are portrayed and the same will be found carved on the roof. In the fourth bay, carved on the cornice is the heraldic emblem (a Lion Rampant on Shield) of St. Maurice, patron of soldiers and next to it those of St. Christopher (river, staff and lanterns) representing sailors. Lack of space forbids a complete record here.

 

A word must be spared for the statue of the Sacred Heart placed in the outside niche of the sanctuary apse. It was executed by Lockwood Boulton of Cheltenham who later became a Catholic, joined the Buckfast community and carved the capitals of the pillars in the abbey.

For many reasons, the sanctuary, though perhaps a little small, is one of the most striking features of the church. It is high up and very visible to the congregation. Its ceiling, of wood, is groined and the converging lines of the groining are caught in two central bosses, on the first of which is carved the national emblems of the United Kingdom and on the second the Dove in glory. Although it is, at first, something of a shock to see done in wood what traditionally was always regarded as the proper treatment for stone, the total effect is one of richness. The whole sanctuary is panelled in oak which relieves what otherwise would be an excessive austerity, heightened as it would have been, by the vast amount of light that comes through the four great windows. From the point of view of lighting, it is one of the minor misfortunes of the site, that the church had to be orientated wrongly with the sanctuary at the west end. Thus airiness and light are the keynotes of the sanctuary and in the midst of this elemental simplicity glows a knot of richness, the great Triptych which although not finished and erected in the church until May, 1926, formed part of the original scheme. This and the Stations of the Cross, by the same artist, may be dealt with here.

 

The interior decoration of our churches is often haphazard and left in the hands of repository hacks. Holy Souls Church was fortunate in being able to enlist the talent of Miss Angela Gibbons (a niece of the rector - her married name is Mrs. Peter Latham) who was then a rising painter and an artist of bold and original ideas.

 

Breaking away from the post-Reformation tradition of ecclesiastical painting she, with many another artist subsequently, returned to an older tradition of liturgical, and fundamentally more popular art. The Triptych and the Stations of the Cross make no easy appeal to superficial sentiment, nor are they merely subjective studies of an artist's reactions. They are the fruit of contemplation, showing a determination to express certain great Christian doctrines and events truthfully, objectively, and with an emotion not weaker for being controlled. The main subject of the Triptych is Christ in Glory, set against a golden background, byzantine in effect. At his feet, almost in miniature, is a priest offering the sacrifice of the Mass for the Holy Souls. This reveals the unity of Christ and his sacrifice and his eternal “victimhood” - in the words of St. Thomas, hostia illa perpetua est. To the right of the central panel, St. John, the apostle of love and of the Holy Eucharist, is pictured giving Holy Communion, and on the left, St. Margaret Mary is leading children to the altar for Holy Communion. In the central panel, on the fringe of the rays of glory are choirs of angels - arranged in a manner reminiscent of Dante's Paradiso - carrying the released souls right into the heart of the Godhead. The whole scheme is a unity, displaying the Mystical Body in action, in the continuance of the opus redemptionis, the work of redemption.

 

Clearly it is impossible to give any detailed account here of the Fourteen Stations… As they were painted at different times, perhaps the criticism that they do not form a unified series has some justification, but a careful and sympathetic study reveals something of their depth and lasting beauty. A church that possesses Stations of the Cross such as these, fresh, vivid and bold, is fortunate indeed.

These pictures aroused considerable interest in the artistic world at the time and there are frequent references to the progress of the work in the London and provincial newspapers. From one report, evidently by an art critic, we learn something of the special process used, which it is worth recording here. “Curiously enough, this piece (the Triptych) is executed in the same medium as the Flemish primitive triptych now in Burlington House, on gessoed panels, in egg Tempera, unvarnished. So there is no reason why it should not last for ever.” It is not the Qffice of a chronicler to indulge in art-criticism but both Triptych and  Stations have been the subject of much mis-directed criticism - one eminent priest said they were blasphemous and ought to be burnt - and it may be worth remarking that if they are regarded as coloured photographs - rather badly done - they will never be understood.

The Stations of the Cross were already erected before the official opening but the Triptych not until 2nd May, 1926, when it was unveiled and blessed by the Archbishop of Birmingham. Canon E. Godwin, Ph.D., preached at the Mass and Fr. Esdale, C.S.S.R., in the evening.

Before the church was ready for opening in 1924, a bell, made by Messrs. Charles Carr, of Smethwick, was presented by a member of the firm (Mr. J. W. Carr) and blessed by Bishop Glancey. Many will remember its first home in the gable of the unfinished end of the church. (In 1940 it was re-hung on a wheel so that it can be rung, in the new turret over the sacristy. The inscription on it is: DE PROFUNDIS CLAMAVI AD TE DOMINE. Shortly afterwards it was silenced during the war years but it was the one bell in the district officially selected to be used as a warning of invasion.)

 

By this time, Acocks Green was changing a great deal, as the population rose rapidly with the construction of large municipal estates. This changed the social makeup greatly away form Snobs’ Paradise or Debtors’ Retreat, two former nicknames for the area. With the opening of the new church, the upper floor of the school building could now be used for educational purposes as well. A rather unattractive extension containing four more classrooms was added in 1931, and teachers’ rooms followed in 1935. Next door was a flourishing convent school, run by the nuns. Father Gibbons acquired two assistants, and so a large presbytery was needed, and was built behind the church in 1936. Also, the Public Hall at the corner of Sherbourne Road was purchased in January 1937 as a parish hall.

 

In 1928 an organ had been installed in the Lady Chapel, but in 1939, after the rest of the church had been built, it was moved to the new organ chamber over the sacristy and improved. In 1937, Father Gibbons announced plans for a new High Altar and Lady Altar, and these were completed by Mr Gerald Hardman in 1938:

Even to his intimates, it was something of a surprise when in the autumn of 1937, Fr. Gibbons suddenly produced plans for a new High Altar and Lady Altar. After discussion and one or two small alterations, the plans were put into execution and Mr. Gerald Hardman had the whole scheme completed by the spring of 1938.

 

It was no easy task to design an altar which should harmonise with the existing sanctuary, and some would have preferred something more “Gothic” and perhaps others were disappointed at not seeing a lot of Italian marble. In fact, the altar is austere and very English. It is made of Corsham Down stone and a gleam of richness is given to it by a plinth of Swedish Green marble along the top of the reredos. The mensa, a beautiful creamy expanse of stone unbroken by shelves or extraneous ornament, is of polished Roman stone. The burglar-proof tabernacle, made by Messrs. James Gibbons and Co., was completed with a conical cap over which the tabernacle veils drape gracefully. The altar is “clothed”, in accordance with the rubrics, with frontals designed by Rev. J. D. Crichton and made by the late Mrs. M. S. Hughes. Over the altar hangs an oak tester, richly decorated with Eucharistic emblems. The altar crucifix was re-modelled to suit the new scheme and the beautiful carved figure (from Oberammergau) was set on magenta-painted cross mounted in beaten brass. This not only “bedded” the crucifix into the general scheme but formed a link between the Altar and the Triptych.

 

THE LADY ALTAR, a memorial to the late Miss Clare Gibbons, is again English in feeling. The reredos, which is in oak and decorated with painted medallions containing emblems inspired by the Litany of Our Lady, forms the background of a wooden altar carved and decorated in a similar manner. This altar, long used as the High Altar, was now given to the church by the Hardman family.

 

In answer to an appeal, many donations and gifts to complete the furnishing of the sanctuary were made. Nearly everything new was the gift of separate donors, the tabernacle, costing about £50, was the gift of one family and the carved oak sedilia were made and presented to the church by Mr. C. Hughes. A generous donation of £50 towards the High Altar from another parishioner should not go un-recorded. Other gifts both great and small are too numerous to be mentioned here but the donors are not forgotten.

 

Practically the last gift, in 1943, of a stone pulpit from the old church at Coleshill, completed the furnishing of the church before consecration.

In the same year, Father Gibbons declared his intention to have the other half of the church built. This would comprise the rest of the nave as planned, but with an additional bay, a narthex with baptistry and gallery, and the organ chamber over the sacristies. Building began in 1939, and was complete in June 1940: during another World War. The enlarged church was opened on 6 June 1940. The porch now contained memorial tablets and a stone from Rheims. The parish was now two thousand strong, and the church had a flourishing youth club. The completed church was consecrated on 24 October 1945.

 

The stained glass windows by John Hardman were given by Miss M. Moriarty.

 

In 1951 the church bought 43 Victoria Road in order to provide access for a new secondary school. The War intervened in the development of the parish hall, and in December 1957 Father Daly received permission from the Diocese to sell the site. (In the late 1960s it was demolished and replaced by flats). A new Holy Souls social club was then converted from a former classroom unit alongside the old school, much nearer than the Sherbourne Road premises. It hosts dances, dance classes (for example Irish set dancing), music and entertainment evenings, a senior citizen's leisure club, fund raising events, dominoes and football teams, and family events like Christenings. The club premises were extended in 2003 to enable a games room to be provided.

 

The Church purchased Wellesbourne House school’s land when it closed in 1966. The building itself is used commercially. Holy Souls primary classes moved to a new school at Mallard Close in 1968, and during the move the lower floor rooms in (closed) Crosby Hall were used. Afterwards Crosby Hall became a youth club for a while. On October 1969 the church was looking at options for selling off not only Crosby Hall, but also the former Wellesbourne school and 1907 Holy Souls sites. Money was needed in part to pay for extensions to Archbishop Ilsley school. In June 1972 the local newspaper New Compass reported on possibilities for a 'Cathedral-style' shopping precinct, with lawns, a new Red Lion, ground-level and above ground parking, and a supermarket. Wild ideas of building more stories onto the church and making the ground floor commercial were also floated, and the City put in its contribution by suggesting road widening towards the village centre! What actually happened was Safeway in 1981, a rather more prosaic outcome.

 

In 1969 the sanctuary remodelled in line with Second Vatican Council requirements. The present altar was installed and the pulpit was removed. More space was put in in 1973 when a new wooden gallery was made at the back of the church, replacing the small stone gallery that used to house the organ and choir.

 

Between 1997 and 2000 the Stations of the Cross and the statues were refurbished, and the church was redecorated. Alterations to help people with disabilities were made. The Parish meeting rooms completely renovated in 2002.

 

List of Clergy
Canon John A. Gibbons, 1905-1954 (Parish Priest)
Rev Basil F. Wrighton, 1932-1935
Rev James D. Crichton, 1935-1940
Rev Thomas Boland, 1936
Rev Thomas Power, 1936-1937
Rev Cyril V. Duck, 1937-1938 and 1940-1944
Rev Louis Moore, 1938-1945
Rev Cuthbert Brown, 1944-1950
Rev Hubert Mooney, 1945-1952
Rev Arthur McIver, 1950-1952
Rev John F. Garvey, 1952-1956
Canon Eugene O'Sullivan, 1953-1958
Rev Daniel A. Daly, 1955-1964 (Parish Priest)
Rev John A. Brisland, 1956-1961
Rev James McManus, 1958-1964
Rev Peter J Ryall, 1964-1968
Rev Thomas Foynes, 1964-1978 (Parish Priest)
Rev Gorden Banks, 1966-1968
Msr J. Daniel McHugh, 1968-1974
Rev C. M. Holahan, 1969-1971
Rev David J. Barry, 1971-1976
Rev John Bane, 1975-1978
Rev Christopher T. Handforth, 1976-1982
Rev William Lyons, 1978-1987, (Parish Priest)
Rev Benedict O'Gorman, 1978-1995
Rev Peter Rogers, 1987-1997, (Parish Priest)
Canon Pat Browne, 1997-2001 (Parish Priest)
Rev David Tams, 2001- (Parish Priest)
Rev Dan Oryema, 2005-

 
 

 

It is perhaps fitting to include his obituary, from the Diocesan Register of 1956, as he brought about the success of the first half-century of the parish. He died on 18 November 1954 at the age of 85. (Diocesan Archive)