Friday, 7 August 2009

Franciscans of the Immaculate settle in Stoke on Trent

by Oliver Hayes

Great news has come in from Fr. Tim that the Franciscans of the Immaculate have just been given the church of St. Joseph in Burslem, a real architectural gem in the Potteries. They are coming to my diocese of Birmingham from Southwark. Having seen for myself the success they have had in reviving the historic convent at Lanherne, we can hope for much from them.

Let us hope that the initiative will be a success unlike the failed attempt to set up a traditionalist parish in St. Vincent de Paul, Liverpool. Stoke on Trent and North Staffordshire have been a bastion of Catholic traditionalism since the council, and let us hope the presence of the friars will bolster it. Make a special intention for the novena leading up to the Assumption!

The story of this church itself is well worth telling, as the following article from The Sentinel of Stoke on Trent demonstrates. There is also an audio file about its restoration here.

Fred Hughes reveals the intriguing story behind an artistic gem preserved in Burslem.

It's nearly 80 years since two artistic giants dazzled the fertile canvas of Stoke-on-Trent. Alas their names and reputation have faded over time. But their work and legacy are preserved in an extraordinary mural of Christ in Glory on the sanctuary ceiling of St Joseph's RC Church in Burslem.

"It is most certainly a stunning work," says freelance writer Carmel Dennison. "Obviously it has tremendous merit in its spiritual location, but as a stand-alone work of art it commands an important place in the social heritage of the Potteries."

Carmel's research into the background of this Christian representation has resulted in a booklet entitled The Forsyths At St Joseph's Church, Burslem. It tells the incredible story of father and daughter artists joining forces with a priest and the local Member of Parliament to produce one of the city's little-known treasures.

"The church itself was commissioned by the parish priest Reverend William Browne and designed by the distinguished 20th century architect JS Brocklesby," Carmel tells me. "The style is Italian and the colours of the bricks, which were locally made at Fenton, were chosen to reflect a herringbone pattern.

"The astonishing thing about it is that it was paid for by subscription and congregation collection, and it was constructed by the hands of the unemployed men of Burslem, brought together during a time of distress and mass unemployment in the 1920s.

"Father Browne recruited these men from around the town and paid them with a daily bowl of soup and a chunk of bread. It is a credit to Burslem's community that the church was built in such a short period of time."

St Joseph's rose from the ruins of an old pottery factory. Father Browne even got the men to demolish the potbank first as they daily got stuck-in with pick and shovel. And as the church building grew, the newly appointed Burslem School of Art principal, Gordon Forsyth (1879-1952), watched with interest, as did the newly-elected Burslem MP Andrew MacLaren.

"It was MacLaren who later suggested to Father Browne that because the church had been built by Burslem's unemployed men, they should be the ones to decorate it," Carmel continues. "He said they should be enrolled in the School of Art so they could be taught the skills to make the stained-glass windows. Naturally there was no money to fund this notion so MacLaren took his plan to Forsyth. Soon a free Saturday morning class at the Wedgwood Institute was up and running for 50 St Joseph's parishioners."

At the time the church was being built, Forsyth's daughter Moira (1905-1991) was a young art graduate. Her archived correspondence, at London's Victoria & Albert Museum, reveals how the windows were made as her father taught unemployed potters and miners in a year how to cut and set the specially-selected coloured glass to correspond with the windows at Chartres Cathedral in France.

"It was an amazing feat," says Carmel. "Imagine nowadays the unemployed returning to school to learn an artistic trade from one of the finest watercolour artists of the day. And nobody got paid for their services!"

And so a bond was forged between the community, a politician, a priest and two artists. In 1945, Scotsman MacLaren lost his seat and left Burslem. He died in 1975 at the age of 82.

Gordon Forsyth, himself a radically-driven socialist, designed the windows and altar panels for St Joseph's. He retired at the end of the war and died in 1952, aged 73. His public work can be seen in the hospital buildings at Hartshill and Haywood.

But it is Moira Forsyth who ultimately completed the work at St Joseph's. Taught pottery design by her father, Moira exhibited her ceramic figures at the White City Fair to worldwide acclaim in 1925. After graduating at the Royal College of Art, she moved from ceramics to glass. Her stained-glass work can be seen in Guildford Cathedral, Norwich Cathedral and Eton College Chapel.

"Moira was totally immersed in St Joseph's Church," declares Carmel. "By the early 1930s, the priest and the art teacher's daughter began planning the huge mural for the sanctuary ceiling. Once the idea was spun, Moira, although creatively prominent by this time, refused from the outset to accept a commission fee, settling for five guineas a week incidental expenses.

"Most of the preparation was done at the artist's studio in London and was completed in 1937. Father Browne was delighted with the result. In a letter to Moira he writes, 'The ceiling has surpassed all my expectations. I congratulate you with all my heart. It is a lasting memorial to your genius and places you side-by-side with the great masters of the past'.

"And this is not just the view of a parish priest. Bernard Rackham, former keeper of ceramics at the Victoria & Albert Museum, valued Moira's work among the best he'd seen. She later received the Queen's Award for lifelong services to the arts. But among her finest work surely is the mural at St Joseph's in Burslem."

(reproduced, with permission from The Expectation of Our Lady;
also see St Mary Magdalen)

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