As a result of last winter’s campaign to save St Hilda’s Church, Shiregreen, I became intrigued by the history of inter-war churches in north Sheffield, built at the instigation of the first Bishop of Sheffield, Rt Rev Leonard Hedley Burrows (1857-1940; bishop 1914-1939), in order to serve the housing-estates that mushroomed on what had previously been open countryside.
It seems that Bishop Burrows enlisted the Society of the Sacred Mission, the “Kelham Fathers”, to staff up to six churches as they were built. The Kelham Fathers made a point of recruiting non-graduates to the ministry, and their practice was highly Anglo-Catholic. The bishop and the director of the SSM must have thought this the most suitable approach for ministry to aspirant Sheffield working people transplanted from the slums to the splendid new council estates.
One of these new parishes was served by St Cecilia’s Church, Parson Cross, built in 1939 to the designs of a little-known architect, Kenneth B Mackenzie (1891-1977) of Bibury, Gloucestershire. How he came by the commission is a mystery: he built hardly any major buildings and no other churches.
Yet St Cecilia’s is an interestingly rectilinear take on the form of the traditional gothic parish church, built of stone and set in a tight close of council houses. It has a tower, and at the east end no window but a blank wall.
The congregation moved out of the church in 2011 because of “numerous issues with the building – failure of heating system, life-expired roofs and electrical installation to name but a few”, and the parishioners now worship in the practical but unlovely little mission church of St Bernard of Clairvaux, Southey Hill.
This move follows the direction indicated by a 2010 diocesan document, ‘Task & Tools: Bishop’s commission to review ministry and mission in the North Sheffield estates’, which wrote off St Cecilia’s in a stark paragraph:
We believe that the decision on redundancy is right and should stand. The Church building has reached the end of its life. We also believe that demolition is the right course of action. And we also believe that this should proceed swiftly – with the Church’s procedures for demolition being made to deliver that outcome. Delay neither serves the mission of the Church nor heals the hearts of the congregation and its priest.
So that’s that, then. Or is it? The building may have reached the end of its life as a church, but it appears to be physically secure, and could stand for years not doing anything, not earning its keep.
I wonder about this determined ditching of substantial buildings. All the mainstream Christian denominations are lumbered with expensive structures, many of which they cannot use. Yet in such churches as St Cecilia’s there is financial capital, quality material, environmental energy and community potential that once discarded can never be recovered.