Because of the discussions about the future of the redundant St Cecilia’s Church, Parson Cross, Sheffield, I’m looking at examples of successful conversions of redundant religious buildings which have preserved the architecture while enabling the building to earn its keep.
I’ve already written about the former St Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, Seel Street, Liverpool (now a restaurant) and the Wesleyan Reform Chapel, Attercliffe, Sheffield (now a mosque) and the spectacular revival of the Monastery of St Francis, Gorton.
One of the best examples I’ve come across is the former St Thomas’ Church, Brightside, Sheffield, a modest Victorian parish church of 1854 by the local architects Flockton & Son, built to serve the first growth of artisan housing as the steelworks crept across the Lower Don Valley after the arrival of the railway in 1839.
It’s a more modest building than Flockton & Son’s contemporaneous work in Sheffield – the General Cemetery Church and Christ Church, Pitsmoor (both 1850), and St Matthew’s, Carver Street (1855) – but it is, as the cliché goes, small and perfectly formed, with a nave and chancel, a south aisle but no north aisle, a bell-tower and spire. The architects’ plans are online at
http://www.churchplansonline.org/show_full_image.asp?resource_id=04465.tif and http://www.churchplansonline.org/show_full_image.asp?resource_id=04465a.tif
It was listed Grade II in 1973 and made redundant in 1979. At first it was converted as a gymnasium for the Sheffield School of Gymnastics but then fell into neglect.
It was rescued by Anneka Rice’s TV programme, Challenge Anneka, broadcast on August 27th 1995 [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9vZ1FI6Mwc and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2gGPhlmeY5s] as a circus school for Greentop Circus [http://www.greentop.org].
Apart from a shortage of storage-space, the interior is ideal for its present purpose. The trapeze rig sits comfortably on the load-bearing walls of the nave; there is ample height and floor-area and cramped but well-organised office-space in the west gallery, accessible by an intriguing spiral staircase in the tower.
Greentop is an arts education charity which provides, alongside training facilities for professional performers, school workshops and team-building for adults as part of its mission “to use contemporary circus skills to enhance people’s lives and inspire positive change”.
When I met a committee of the Church Commissioners to discuss the proposal to demolish St Cecilia’s, I was asked if there weren’t already enough community facilities on the Parson Cross estate. I replied that if the existing six buildings were sufficient support for the local community, the area would not figure so high on indices of deprivation.
Greentop’s value to the local Firvale community is incalculable. Some of the young people who have become involved are from the local Roma community, who have had a famously bad press recently:
And without Greentop, the consecrated churchyard of St Thomas would contain only graves and a wreck or an empty space.