A brief history about our church
The land for the building of the church was bought in June 1825. On the 17th of that month a plot of land which was part of Green Tree Field, 72ft by 45ft, was purchased by Thomas Penswick, John Yates and William Hogarth. The price was £55, and the joint vendors were Harry Vane, Earl of Darlington and Henry, Viscount Barnard. This plot was the first in a series of purchases which were clearly deliberate and part of a strategy designed to take over the whole of the corner of what is now Coniscliffe Road and Larchfield Street.
The original plans and subscription list are missing, the church building must have started early in 1826. The building, designed by Ignatius Bonomi, measured 70ft by 40 ft. It was built of limestone roofed with Westmoreland slates. Its design is described in most works of reference as ‘debased Gothic’. The building work progressed rapidly and by April 1827 William Hogarth wrote to Bishop Smith to tell him that he had decided to have his new chapel named ‘in the style and title of St Augustine’s and invited the bishop to perform the opening ceremony on 29 May 1827. The opening was heralded by a notice in the Catholic Press where it was mentioned that the dedication sermon would be preached by the Rev. Richard Gillow, professor of Elocution at Ushaw College, a young gentleman ‘of great attainments’. The event was carried off in great solemnity in front of a congregation of citizens of the town. A collection raised over £31 which went towards the building fund. Reference to the 1851 Ordnance Survey of Darlington shows that chapel as being capable of having 450 seats of which 150 were free. In the October the chapel was registered at the Durham Quarter Sessions as a place of worship for Catholics. A major landmark in the history of Darlington’s Catholics had been reached.
(‘The Darlington Catholics’ by Mr G Wild and published at Darlington’s Carmel Convent was written to commemorate the bicentenary of St Augustine’s Parish, Darlington, July 1983)
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.
The invitation to consider the renewing of the principal elements for the celebration of the liturgy in the re-ordering of the sanctuary paradoxically filled me with excitement and trepidation. In the journey I have made as a sculptor I have learned that in the making of a possible work of art there can be no guarantees of success. This task was all the more onerous because of the magnificence of the existing environment; the finely crafted reredos catching and holding the eye.
Against this background consider the mind of the Church expressed in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council. The altar, ambo and celebrant’s chair constitute the primary elements for the celebration of Mass. The altar is the primary image, the reason for being of the building, the natural focus of the assembly. It is the sign of Christ himself.
With these criteria in mind and in order to engage the eye with primacy of place and taking the theme ‘I am the vine’ for the altar I decided to enrich the ‘tree of life’ with a carved linear interpretation of the vine influenced by Celtic scroll work and interlacing thereby referencing the early church of Northumbria. This is further heightened by the image of a bird also in linear form taking a grape from the vine – a metaphor used by Saxon carvers for communion; wine, the blood of Christ.
In response to a point made by a parishioner at a preliminary meeting I have paid homage to the Victorian reredos by including in the visual structure a reference to the interlaced arches at ceiling level.
The visual dynamic of the polished metal plates is meant to further enrich, enhance and catch the eye. They also stand as a metaphor for the Trinity:- stainless steel – white light – Christ; brass – gold light – God the Father; copper – warm light – reflecting in both – the Holy Spirit. Architecturally they also stabilize the image of altar as table which from the beginning was the expressed wish of the Architect for the re-ordering. Complementary to the altar is the ambo. Again reflect on the mind of the Church.
‘The design and material of the ambo should be in keeping with the altar; it should be a substantial and permanent element in the liturgical setting and its form should suggest a place from which the word is proclaimed and expounded in the homily.’
This ambo is carved from the solid oak tree; the same tree as the altar. The lip on the front is designed to afford the possibility of displaying ‘the word’; the removal of the book then reveals the sign of the Holy Spirit. The monograms of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are carved in the quarters formed by a cross embellished with the vine scroll and the whole further enriched by the vine scroll on a diagonal line leading the eye to and thereby complementing the altar.
The celebrant’s chair takes the same journey back to the early Church in its reference to St. Wilfrid’s chair, sometimes known as Acca’s chair of the Frith stool which can be seen in Hexham Abbey. Hopefully, I have tried to endow this chair with the same dignity and authority. Again it is carved from the same tree as the altar and ambo.
The font is a continuation of the ‘tree of life’ opening out to receive, forming the cross, the sign of Christ – the stainless steel bowl representing the light of Christ as seen in the altar.
In my search for ways of expressing the significance and inner meanings of these principal elements although it has been a personal journey in faith I sincerely hope that acting on behalf of the community of St Augustine’s I have expressed a shared perception.