Sunderland church which survived wartime bombings is in urgent need of repairs

The interior of St Ignatius - as depicted in an engraving published in the Victorian architectural journal Building News.
The interior of St Ignatius - as depicted in an engraving published in the Victorian architectural journal Building News.
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A leading architectural historian has thrown his support behind a campaign to fund urgent repairs at a Wearside church.

 Decades of North East gales and rain have led to leaks in the roof at St Ignatius the Martyr in Hendon – causing rotting of the underlying woodwork and loosening of roof slates.

An engraving of the outside of St Ignatius, taken from Building News.

An engraving of the outside of St Ignatius, taken from Building News.

 A fundraising campaign is now underway to make it watertight, and university lecturer Dr Michael Johnston is eager to help out by publicising the architectural importance of the building.

 “St Ignatius is one of the finest churches in Sunderland. Built as a gift from the Bishop of Durham, it provided an inspiring place of worship at the heart of the community,” he said.

 “However, this architectural treasure is now in need of further generosity to fund urgent repairs. It is vital that Bishop Lightfoot’s gift is preserved for future generations.”

 It was in 1889 that Joseph Barber Lightfoot decided to build a church in Sunderland at his own expense, to commemorate his tenth anniversary as Bishop of Durham.

“St Ignatius is one of the finest churches in Sunderland. It must be preserved”

Architectural historian Dr Michael Johnston

 Hendon was selected as the most “worthy” parish, with the building designed by Charles Hodgson Fowler – a leading ecclesiastical architect in the region.

“Fowler was the son of a Nottinghamshire rector. He trained with eminent Victorian architect Sir George Gilbert Scott and came to Durham in 1864,” said Michael.

 “He became clerk of works at Durham Cathedral and served the Chapter as architect from 1885. His practice was almost entirely based on the restoration and design of churches.

 “His designs, which were used across the North East, were based on a sound archaeological knowledge of medieval buildings and he was generally sensitive in his restoration work.”

Joseph Barber Lightfoot (1828-1829), biblical scholar and Bishop of Durham (1879-1889).

Joseph Barber Lightfoot (1828-1829), biblical scholar and Bishop of Durham (1879-1889).

 Fowler designed three churches in Sunderland and one at Southwick. His first, St Mary’s at South Hylton, was drawn up in 1879-80 – after fire destroyed the village’s chapel of ease.

 His next local project was St Columba’s in Southwick. Modelled on the church of Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio alle Tre Fontane in Rome, the imposing brick-built church rose impres-sively over the terraces of houses.

Finally, St Aidan’s Church in Ryhope Road was planned in 1908 to replace the mission room in Spelter Works Road. Fowler’s modest Gothic design was built of red brick and sandstone.

 “St Ignatius is a good example of inspiring Victorian Gothic architecture and is surprisingly grand for a working-class parish. The internal layout and fittings were planned by Bishop Lightfoot himself,” said Michael.

 “A tower rises at the south-west corner, enriched with moulded openings and a tall broach spire. The west face of the church is pierced with long lancet windows and an elliptical opening.”

 Outwardly, the building is very plain. Indeed Building News, a leading architectural journal of the day, described it as ‘very severe” – as the “smoke of a large town and the nearness of the sea would soon affect elaborate work.”

The elaborate interior, however, was reported to be a “remarkably good piece of work” by the journal – which published Fowler’s architectural plans of the church.

 “The tall windows hint at the impressive scale within: the soaring interior culminates in a high altar raised on a dais of marble and backed with an elaborate reredos – an arrangement that followed advice from Bishop Lightfoot,” said Michael.

 “Rich sculpture is framed by delicate tracery in the Perpendicular Gothic style. At the west end, the octagonal font is decorated with emblems of the Evangelists. The windows are dedicated to Bishop Lightfoot and feature superb stained glass depicting scenes from his life.” The total cost of construction was around £7500. Bishop Lightfoot consecrated the church on July 2, 1889, but sadly died two months later.

 “St Ignatius remains among the city’s best churches and an important work by one of the region’s finest ecclesiastical architects. It must be preserved for future generations,” said Michael.

l A service to mark the 126th anniversary of the dedication of St Ignatius will be held at the church on July 1, at 7.30pm, with refreshments served afterwards.