A cathedral is born

The story of the Cathedral takes us back to the days of
Catholic Emancipation and the Vicars Apostolic. Public worship by Catholics had been legal in England since the Relief Act of 1790. The Emancipation Act of 1829 further encouraged the Catholic population to emerge from the time of persecution and political discrimination.

Cathedral Church of the Holy Apostles, sketch 1834

In 1830-31, the first attempt to build a larger church for the faithful in Bristol ended in disaster. Work was started on the site in 1834 but was abandoned in 1843. The chosen site in Park Place, Clifton above a steep quarry was not suitable and the foundations of the new church gave way under the weight. Bishop Peter Augustine Baines had planned a building with Corinthian columns and portico that would have been magnificent had it been finished according to its original design, indeed the building would have been the largest and most impressive Catholic Church in the country. But again, in common with other buildings in the area then – the construction of the Clifton Suspension Bridge being one such – the foundations and the underlying geological formation were inadequate. The ruin of the church and the land then came into the ownership of the bank, and the priest legally holding title to the mortgage fled to the continent to escape his debtors. Not an auspicious beginning you might say.

Cathedral Church of the Holy Apostles, sketch 1847

In 1846, Bishop Ullathorne was appointed Vicar Apostolic of the Western District. A Benedictine monk he had first as a young boy been to sea as a cabin boy, and later, after his ordination as a priest he was a leading Catholic figure in Australia where he worked among the convicts and those transported to the emerging colony. Coming to the West Country, he was determined to have a church for the growing congregation in Clifton. He employed as his architect, Charles Hansom, who it is said, was told to ‘put his reputation in his pocket’, and following Ullathorne’s instructions he covered the worshipping space with an ingenious, comparatively light aisled structure of timber uprights and arches which supported a timber roof, in the style of an upturned boat. The Church of the Holy Apostles was opened in the autumn of 1848. In another two years it became the Pro-Cathedral of the new Catholic Diocese of Clifton. The Pro-Cathedral’s provisional status was reflected in the fact that it was never consecrated.

Pro-Cathedral Church of the Holy Apostles 1972

In the 1870s, the exterior style of the church was changed and Charles Hansom, again, as the chosen architect designed a North Italian Romanesque style for the school (later the parish hall), the atrium with its porch and the pinnacled facade. The planned tower was never built. The temporary Pro-Cathedral Church served the growing Catholic community for many years, and in time saw immigration from Ireland and the influx of American and Polish troops during World War II. There was a rapid growth in the worshipping congregation.

Pro-Cathedral Church of the Apostles interior 1972

Succeeding to the See of Clifton in 1949, Bishop Rudderham decided during the 1960s that the Pro-Cathedral should be renovated, and consecrated with the intention of bringing to an end its provisional status as the mother church of the diocese. An architect produced a scheme under which repairs, redecoration and liturgical rearrangement could have been completed, but the cost would have been very high. In addition, although the roof supports of 1848 could have been strengthened, their lasting stability could not be assured. Indeed, glass tell-tales showed the site engineers that the foundations were still on the move. Though restoration was actively considered, a new situation was created when a group of businessmen came forward with a generous offer that resulted in the building of the new Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul on a new site in Clifton Park in 1972-73.

So after 125 years as mother church of the diocese and as parish church, the Pro-Cathedral bequeathed its title and its work to the new Cathedral, and a Cathedral was born in 1973.

Cathedral Church of the Holy Apostles, exterior sketch, H E Goodridge, Clifton 1834Cathedral Church of the Holy Apostles, exterior sketch, Charles Hansom, Clifton 1847 Pro-Cathedral Church of the Holy Apostles interior, Clifton 1972 Pro-Cathedral Church of the Apostles interior, Clifton 1972

Picture details, left to right, top to bottom:
1 Cathedral Church of the Holy Apostles, exterior sketch,
H E Goodridge, Clifton 1834
2 Cathedral Church of the Holy Apostles, exterior sketch,
Charles Hansom, Clifton 1847
3 Pro-Cathedral Church of the Holy Apostles interior, Clifton 1972
4 Pro-Cathedral Church of the Apostles interior, Clifton 1972

copyright Peter J Harrison

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