A couple of years ago I went to some lengths to involve myself in the debate about the future of the practically redundant church of St Cecilia, Parson Cross, Sheffield.
I’d seen the demise of a nearby parish church of the same period, St Hilda, Shiregreen, which slipped past the attention of members of the local community who would have wished to find a productive use for the building if they had been alert to the fact that it was threatened.
The latest development over St Cecilia’s is a draft pastoral scheme to appropriate the building for residential purposes and to dispose of its contents – a welcome alternative to the earlier proposal simply to demolish it, because it will, in the words of the Statutory Advisory Committee of the Church Buildings Council, “preserve the external envelope of the church and therefore preserve the townscape presence of the building”.
I researched the parish records held in Sheffield Archives to try to discover why this substantial building, completed in 1939, had presented such intractable problems of maintenance that its decreasing congregation abandoned it in favour of a smaller mission church, St Bernard of Clairvaux, elsewhere in the parish.
It seems that, in common with other buildings of its period, it was designed in the expectation that a large new parish on a vast housing estate could support regular, skilled maintenance. The architect, Kenneth Mackenzie, did no other church designs, as far as I know. He was the nephew of the Sheffield industrialist, Albert Reaney Heathcote, who contributed £13,000 towards its construction.
In fact, the Parochial Church Council minutes show that £600-worth of repairs were pending by 1953. By 1961 the vicar described the building as “jerry-built”, which is perhaps unfair – it’s actually a substantial structure – but mortar was disintegrating from the stonework and plaster regularly fell away from behind the altar.
When I visited the building in 2013 it was like the Marie Celeste. Although services had ceased three years before, there were vestments hanging in the vestry, hymn-books stacked in their cupboards, and music was still propped on the organ music-stand.
All the internal fittings must go, taking with them much of the history of seventy-seven years of parish life – the Stations of the Cross, given in memory of the Sheffield Coroner, J Kenyon Parker, the rood, the installation of which in 1949 caused a feline spat between the Vicar, Canon Roseveare, and the Chancellor of the Diocese, the reredos designed for Holy Trinity, Bolton (1923), and the huge Cousans organ, provided by the Church Burgesses in 1987 incorporating parts of earlier organs from the churches of St George, Sheffield, and St Luke’s, Crookes.
It’s a blessing that the small, cohesive congregation worshipping at St Bernard’s will be relieved of the responsibility for the much bigger building at St Cecilia’s. The residents of Chaucer Close, which is in places within yards of the church, won’t have the noise and pollution of a brick-by-brick demolition.
And a fine mid-twentieth century building can survive in a part of Sheffield that has all too few significant pieces of architectural to enliven the sea of houses.