Roman Church of Our Lady, Help of Christians and St Denis
- Heritage Category:
- Listed Building
- List Entry Number:
- Date first listed:
- Date of most recent amendment:
- Statutory Address:
- Priory Road, Torquay, TQ1 4NY
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- Statutory Address:
- Priory Road, Torquay, TQ1 4NY
The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.
- Torbay (Unitary Authority)
- Non Civil Parish
- National Grid Reference:
A Roman Catholic parish church, by Joseph Hansom, begun in 1865, opened in 1869; tower completed in 1878. The attached presbytery and former convent buildings are separately listed.
Reasons for Designation
The Church of Our Lady, Help of Christians and St Denis in Torquay, a Roman Catholic church of 1865-9 by Joseph Hansom, is listed at Grade I, for the following principal reasons: * Architectural interest: the church is a tour de force of mid-Victorian Catholic church building, its C13 Gothic style handled with his customary deftness and precision by Joseph Hansom; * Intactness: the building has remained almost entirely unaltered since its completion; * Interior: the interior is of very high quality in its design and execution, and is richly decorated; * Fittings: the fittings are an extensive and remarkably complete suite, lavishly-appointed, all designed by the architect for their respective positions, and are of very high quality in design and craftsmanship; this makes them rare in the context of C19 churches; * Group value: the church forms part of a very good group with the attached presbytery (Grade II) and former Dominican convent buildings, now Margaret Clitheroe House (Grade II).
In 1864 the Bishop of Plymouth invited Dominican nuns to open an orphanage, to be called St Mary’s Priory, in the village of St Marychurch, on the outskirts of Torquay. A house, called Southampton Villa, was purchased as the temporary home of the nuns, and a new orphanage building constructed on the site. In 1867, William Potts-Chatto, local landowner of The Daison, an nearby country estate, offered to build the community a church, to Our Lady and St Denis, in thanksgiving for his infant son, Denis’s, recovery from a serious illness. He visited the site in the company of Joseph Hansom (1803-1882), the prolific and celebrated Catholic architect, who was to design the church, its attached presbytery, and the convent and school buildings which replaced Southampton Villa. The partially-completed church was opened by the Bishop in 1869, the same year in which the attached presbytery, which had been built at the expense of the Potts-Chatto family, was first occupied. The tower of the church was built on the site of the former Southampton Villa after the building was replaced by the new convent buildings; the tower was completed in 1878, though the spire was not finished until 1881. The patronage of the Potts-Chatto family continued, with Mr and Mrs Potts-Chatto contributing the carved Stations of the Cross and the organ, and a life-size Crucifixion carved personally by Mr Potts-Chatto from timber brought from the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Their son, Denis, carried on his parents’ involvement with the church, contributing stained glass. The remains of several members of the family are interred in the crypt beneath the Lady Chapel, which was also the family’s chapel, endowed and used by them for worship.
The church has been almost entirely unaltered since its completion. The presbytery is still in use as accommodation for the priest in charge. The convent buildings were vacated by the Dominican nuns in the C20, and later became a residential home for older people.
MATERIALS: rock-faced local grey limestone rubble with ashlar quoins and freestone dressings, under slate roofs.
PLAN: the church is aligned north-east (ritual east) to south-west. The east end is apsidal; the chancel is of three bays, and the nave of seven; at the west end is a square tower flanked by the baptistery and Lady Chapel.
EXTERIOR: the principal elevation is the north-west side. The chancel is partly concealed by the adjoining presbytery; it has three gables above three rounded clerestorey windows. The nave has 13 spherical, triangular-traceried clerestorey windows above a lean-to buttressed aisle with two-light, Decorated-traceried windows with hoodmoulds. The gabled priest's porch at the east end of aisle has diagonal buttresses. The principal porch is in the sixth bay; it has diagonal buttresses and a moulded-arched doorway with engaged columns. The tower is in three stages, with a spire; it has set-back buttresses with statue niches and tall belfry windows. The imposing west-end includes a richly-moulded gabled west end doorway with recessed door, and engaged Early English shafts with stiff-leaf capitals. There is a sexafoil window in the tympanum over door; there is statue niche in the gable. The five-light Geometric Decorated west window has four gabled statue niches below the sill.
INTERIOR: the nave arcades have piers which are quatrefoil on plan, with naturalistic foliage-carved capitals, all different, and double-chamfered arches. The arch-braced nave roof is carried on moulded corbels; the lean-to aisle roof has moulded ribs and plastered panels, and carved and moulded corbels. The south arcade is lower than the north, with a flat roof on timber brackets, windowed with paired lancets; above is the Early English style triforium, whose arcades of paired pointed-arched openings have pierced parapets with quatrefoil motifs. The sanctuary has a doorway to the south leading to the former nuns’ choir, and on the north side, the nuns’ altar, dedicated to St Dominic, with figurative altar front, gabled statue niche and crocketed pinnacles to the reredos. The sanctuary walls are articulated by three stages of blind Early English arcading, with crocketed gables and cornices. The sanctuary has a timber vaulted roof on stone shafts. At the eastern end of each aisle is an altar, that to the north to St Joseph, to the south, the Sacred Heart. Nave and aisles have original pews, not fixed. Off the south aisle is a series of confessionals, one with a fireplace, with original part-glazed timber doors. At the west end of the south aisle, separated from the nave by an arcade of two Early English columns and a stone screen, is the Lady Chapel, which rises through two storeys. Off the west end of the north aisle is the octagonal baptistery, full-height, with a vaulted ceiling with moulded ribs springing from foliate capitals on attached shafts. The base of the tower is supported on four columns, with two rows of three subsidiary columns between, supporting stone vaulting, with geometric foliate carved decoration to its flat surfaces, and a stone balustrade to the organ loft above. A doorway in the south aisle gives access to the stair to the triforium, and the organ lofts of the church and the nuns’ choir. The nuns’ choir retains its seating, and timber gallery with blind arcading and rails to the organ loft.
PRINCIPAL FITTINGS: the church retains a very complete set of lavish stone fittings, mostly designed by Joseph Hansom and contemporary with the building of the church. The sanctuary includes a richly-carved REREDOS with crocketed pinnacles, stepped gables and statue niches with images of Our Lady and St Denis; the High Altar is carved with the Last Supper. The subsidiary altars and the Lady Chapel also have carved reredoses and statuary. The PULPIT is a stone drum design, richly-carved with piercing and geometric details, and variously-coloured marble shafts. The ALTAR RAILS are brightly-coloured painted metal, with floral and foliate motifs and extensive scrolling. The FONT, 1881 by Joseph S Hansom, is sexafoil, of red marble on six stocky shafts with carved inscriptions. STAINED GLASS includes east and west windows by the Hardman Company.
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Books and journals
Pevsner, N, Cherry, B, The Buildings of England: Devon, (1989), 581-2
Woodhead, S , Illustrated Guide to the Catholic Churches of the Diocese of Plymouth, (1992)
'The Building News' in Church and Presbytery of Our Lady , Help of Christians and St Denis, St Marychurch, for Wm J P Chatto Esq together with St Mary's Priory : J A Hansom and Son, Architects, (11 July 1879)
Architectural History Practice: Churches in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Plymouth, An Architectural and Historical Review for English Heritage and the Diocese of Plymouth. Our Lady Help of Christians and St Denis, 2009,
Fr George Carrick, Our Lady Help of Christians and St Denis – A History , circa 2009,
This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.
End of official listing
Images of England
Images of England was a photographic record of every listed building in England, created as a snap shot of listed buildings at the turn of the millennium. These photographs of the exterior of listed buildings were taken by volunteers between 1999 and 2008. The project was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.