The reredos (ornamental altar screen) in St Augustine’s is said to be one of the finest examples of its kind in any Catholic church in England. This claim is no idle boast. Many parishioners automatically accept our sanctuary as being very attractive without giving much attention to detail. A closer inspection reveals a high standard of craftsmanship which, while being a silent tribute to the honour and glory of God, does not intrude on the mental image of the worshipper. Indeed, the whole design, including the four pictorial scenes, blends perfectly.
It was during Canon Rooney’s reign that the reredos was installed in 1899. Made by Messrs. Robsons, of Newcastle, and carved in Austrian oak, it took two years to complete. The cost then was around £800, but in 1957 (when it was restored) it was valued at £4,000 and insured for that amount. Today its value is incapable of estimation, and being irreplaceable, the insurance companies refuse to accept any responsibility for loss or damage.
The screen is 25 feet in height. The central design is a throne in delicate tracery work, surmounted by a canopy and a spire which itself is crowned by the emblematic pelican. On each side of the throne there are panels containing paints in the decorative and architectural style of the medieval school of sacred art.
The upper panel on the left side depicts Pope Gregory the First sending St Augustine and his companions to preach the Faith in England. Below is an impression of Our Lady enthroned with the Infant Jesus and surrounded by English saints and martyrs (we note here that as a record of the devotion shown in Darlington to Our Lady in the days of long ago, the ancient municipal shield bore upon it the emblem of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her Divine Child).
The top right panel shows Our Lord after the Resurrection, surrounded by the Apostles. The lower right panel requires no description, as it is obviously the Last Supper Scene.
Casting an eye to the left of the screen, we behold a life-size carving of St Augustine, our patron. To the right is a matching statue of a great Northern saint, St Cuthbert, traditionally holding the head of his friend St Oswald.
On each side of the centre canopy are columns of smaller carvings of saints, some not easy to identify. To the left is St Teresa of Avilla, the lower ones being Blessed Thomas Percy, Blessed Richard Thirkell, and Blessed George Swallowell (all Northern martyrs). At the head of the right pillar is St Clare, then St Thomas of Canterbury, St Vincent de Paul an St Patrick.
The marble altar also blends with the carvings, thus completing a rich sanctuary yet one that does not distract the worshipper. The whole scene is worthy of a house of God which holds the proud status of Mother Church of Catholic Darlington and from which has stemmed the other town churches of St William, St Thomas, Holy Family, St Anne and St Teresa.
Two small altars, which grace the front of the sanctuary, continue the theme of the carved reredos. That on the left, dedicated to Our Lady, contains a wooden tabernacle. The frontispiece painting of the Annunciation. To the right, St Joseph’s altar has illustrations of the Child Jesus with Our Lady and St Joseph in the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth. The lower painting is of the deathbed of St Joseph (patron of the dying) in the presence of Our Lord and Our Lady.
The various stained-glass windows were redesigned so as to admit maximum light into the church. They look particularly beautiful when the sun streams through them. The glass nearest the sacristy door bears the maker’s name: Barnett, Newcastle. One of the windows is little seen by the congregation, yet it is perhaps the gem of all – from the extreme left of the altar rail we can glimpse this colourful glass situated at the right hand of the altar. It is dedicated to several people, including Father Henry Coll, with the date 1868.
As we climb the stairs to the gallery, we pass two windows asking prayers for the English and the Irish. The wording of the first is “Set. Augustine ora pro Anglis”, the next being “sct. Patricie ora pro Hibernis.” Opposite St Patrick’s window we observe the Witham coat-of arms-, dated 1826, and also an ancient holy water stoup.