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News > PC Foundation Archive News > A Spacious Gothic Church In Which The Divine Office Might Be Fitly Celebrated

A Spacious Gothic Church In Which The Divine Office Might Be Fitly Celebrated

Our Lady of the Angels Chapel and the Tower are iconic parts of Princethorpe but as you will discover in this month's TBT post, they were amongst the last buildings to be built at St Mary's Priory.
St Mary's Priory, showing the Chapel and the Tower
St Mary's Priory, showing the Chapel and the Tower

Before 1901, the Nuns at St Mary’s Priory worshipped in a chapel in the heart of the Priory (now the Library and Theatre). For years prior to the election of Mere Marie Evangelista du Breuil O.S.B. in 1895, there had been discussions about how to improve the chapel. Problems included the Lay sisters having to kneel in the antechoir as there was no space for them in the body of the church and there being no way for bedridden or dying sisters to take part in Divine Office leaving them spiritually bereft. Mere Marie Evangelista realised that it would not be possible to adapt the original chapel so when a wealthy individual brought a large dowry upon joining the community, she saw a way to have her vision of a chapel that was both more practical and more awe inspiring realised. It is thanks to that vision that we now have Our Lady of the Angels Chapel here at Princethorpe.

Mere Evangelista’s choice of Peter Paul Pugin as the architect was an inspired one. Coming from a family renowned for their Roman Catholic buildings, he was heavily involved in the build from the start. When changes needed to be made, it was he that made them – most notably perhaps being the redesign of the Tower making it 16 feet shorter in order to save money and maintain the proportions. When builders or craftsmen were needed, he recommended and commissioned them. He made regular site visits to enable him to maintain close oversight on the project and there is extensive correspondence from him up until his death in 1904 in the archive at Douai Abbey.

After the site at the South West corner of the Quad had been chosen and existing buildings cleared, the foundation stone for the new chapel was laid on the 24 May 1898 by the Right Reverend Dr. Ilsley, Bishop of Birmingham. A ceremonial mallet was presented by the builders Foster and Dicksee for the occasion and it was a real delight to have this given to us on Permanent Loan by the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart recently.

     

Inscription on the bottom of the ceremonial mallet which was used to lay the chapel's foundation stone. Reference SMP.34.30

On the day, the Reverend B Vaughan S.J led a sermon and then a procession took place from the Guest House (now Front of House). Waiting at the site were local children and important guests, including Peter Paul Pugin and Lady Annette de Trafford whose daughter’s dowry helped to fund the project. After the laying of the Foundation stone, the Reverend Mother Marie Evangelista concluded the ceremony by placing objects including a glass bottle containing the Certificates, a Crucifix and other holy objects within the hole.

It appears that despite repeated changes to the initial designs, the external building works on the church and tower had largely been completed by November 1900 and shortly before leaving the site, the masons and workmen were given a feast within the vestibule to thank them for their workmanship and conduct during their time close to the Community. The details and decoration continued inside however. Many of the people who had been involved in the original chapel were also involved in the new one. The notable Victorian stained-glass company, Hardman & Co. of Birmingham, installed the windows which were not completed all at once but as donations were received by generous benefactors. Many of the stained-glass windows actually record the name of these donors within their design. Joseph Pippet, who had designed the mural depicting ‘The Death of St Benedict’ in the original chapel, also painted murals including the altar of the Sacred Heart within the new chapel and he was involved in the design of the elaborate baldacchino over the altar in collaboration with Peter Paul Pugin himself.

Image of the Altar in Our Lady of the Angels Chapel. Reference SMP.24.2.06

The build itself was not without problems and delays. Spiralling costs meant that the design was changed multiple times to try to bring the costs down and every tender was carefully scrutinised for savings. Measures such as moving the marble altar from the original chapel and adapting the old chapel’s wooden stalls to fit in the new space were taken in order to get the chapel finished. The boiler also exploded in November 1900 in which fortunately no one was seriously hurt and repeated issues with the septic tanks failing to work properly continued until the end of 1901; all of which added to the time and expense taken in the build.

Perhaps the biggest issue came after the build had finished and the church had been consecrated. As mentioned early, at least a third of the build’s costs were met through the dowry that Hilda de Trafford brought when she joined the order in 1896. Unfortunately, at some point in the early 1900s, she decided that she did not want to remain a member of the Benedictine order and requested her dowry back when she left. When she was told this was not possible, she took the Priory to court and (as the expectation was that dowries were invested and the interest used to cover any costs associated with living at the Priory), she won and the Priory was ordered to pay her back. This took them until at least the late 1940s to do and this may ultimately have contributed to the order not being able to afford to stay at Princethorpe.

Our Lady of the Angels Chapel was finally consecrated on the 8 May 1901. Bishop Ilsley returned to the Priory and between 8am-9am in the morning, he led a procession to the New Church and the High Altar was dedicated to Our Lady of the Angels and St. John the Evangelist, with the relics of St Fructousa V.M. placed beneath. The occasion was clearly a moving one, with Sister Frideswide’s recounting in her book ‘The History of Princethorpe Priory’:

“No one who was present on that day will ever forget the deep hush and unutterable gladness of the moment when the Blessed Sacrament was brought in and Our Divine Lord came to take possession of the temple raised to His honour with so much love.”[1]

Whilst not permitted entrance into the main body of the church, notable guests and the girls who attended the school at the time were able to witness the service from the galleries.

With the consecration of Our Lady of the Angels, the old chapel became a place where local Catholic parishioners and school girls could worship regularly without encroaching on the Benedictine’s enclosed community. The new chapel continued to be a central part of daily life for the Benedictine order until their departure in 1966. It continues to be a place of worship today with regular services, baptisms, marriages and funerals conducted here. Mere Maria Evangelista also ensured that her name lives on as a key figure in the Princethorpe history.

 

[1] Stapleton, F., 1930. The history of the Benedictines of St. Mary's Priory, Princethorpe. St. Mary's Priory, Princethorpe. (Reference SMP.27.1.06)

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