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2 September 2023

Heaven in Essex

Why a church in Harlow New Town has been recognised for its architectural importance.

By Michael Prodger

In 1972, the prog-rock band Genesis released the song “Get ’Em Out by Friday”. It tells of an elderly couple being forced out of their home with menaces and relocated to a flat in Harlow New Town in Essex. When they arrive, however, they find that the rent has been hiked and that the developers are determined to “fit twice as many in the same building site./They say it’s alright.” This very contemporary lament ends with the line: “With land in your hand, you’ll be happy on Earth/Then invest in the Church for your heaven.”

As it happened, Harlow New Town’s planners did not need the advice of the nicely brought-up Surrey boys of Genesis. When Harlow’s master planner Frederick Gibberd and his colleagues conceived of the town they did indeed have land in their hands and they invested in the Church, or at least churches, too.

Harlow was one of the towns created by the New Towns Act of 1946 to house some of the population of London – many from the East End – who had been bombed out during the war. The idea was enlightened: plenty of green spaces; good commuter links to London as well as locally based industries; a series of local communities comprising a greater whole; new schools, shopping centres and leisure facilities; and the inhabitants housed in good, modern buildings.

These pioneering citizens also needed churches – of every denomination – and these too had to reflect the aesthetic of the new Elizabethan age. The two most notable buildings are Harlow’s “mother church”, the Anglican St Paul’s of 1959 – the first church to be completed in any of the New Towns – and the Catholic Our Lady of Fatima. Both are Grade II-listed but now Harlow’s Catholics can raise an extra allelujah since their place of worship has just been elevated to Grade II* level, denoting a building of national importance.

The church was the work of Gerard Goalen, an architect initially hired by Gibberd to design industrial buildings for the town. Planning delays meant that although his scheme was complete by 1953, construction did not start until 1958 and the church was finally opened and blessed by the Bishop of Brentwood in 1960. What greeted parishioners was a radical building. Rather than the traditional cruciform shape, Goalen, in close collaboration with the parish priest Father Francis Burgess, came up with a T-shape design, with each arm of near equal length and width, each with its own entrance. The high altar was not hidden away at the far end of the choir but free-standing and situated at the crossing point of the T, almost in the midst of the congregation.

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[See also: The inventions of Norman Foster]

This configuration and close access for up to 500 worshippers conformed to the ideas of the Liturgical Movement, which promoted “noble simplicity” rather than “sumptuous display”. Our Lady of Fatima is one of the first churches in England to reflect this new ethos, one perfectly in keeping with the egalitarianism embodied in Harlow New Town itself. Father Burgess’s parents put up a large chunk of the £60,000 building cost and the radicalism of the design was recognised in 1956 when a model was exhibited at the Royal Academy.

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The church is built largely of reinforced concrete and Surrey stock bricks with a vertiginous needle spire clad in copper, which local folklore says was lowered by helicopter (it wasn’t, rather more prosaic cranes carried out the task). The limited range of building materials is, however, offset by the church’s glass. Not only do glass panels comprise fully 60 per cent of the building’s walls – turning the interior into a jewel box – but the colours are of an unusual intensity.

The designer, a Benedictine monk at Buckfast Abbey, Dom Charles Norris, used “dalle de verre” panels, in which the glass is faceted and particularly thick, deepening its hues. The windows depict the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary, the Tree of Jesse and the Apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Fatima in 1917, but their narratives are almost incidental. The effect inside the church on a sunny day is hallucinogenic – the windows acting as gigantic kaleidoscopes, filling the interior with shafts of pure colour.

Our Lady of Fatima marked a turning point in the career of Goalen, who went on to design several other Catholic churches. However, his own faith must have been tested when his mentor Gibberd beat him in the competition to design the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral. Gibberd had never designed a church before but came up with a startling and grand crowned cone, hence its nickname, “Paddy’s wigwam”. It was, by all accounts, Goalen’s Fatima that showed Gibberd what modern church building could be. To make matters even more galling, Goalen was born in Birkenhead.

Nevertheless, Our Lady of Fatima’s latest architectural recognition should mean that at least some of the shoppers who step out of Aldi, a mere 50 yards from the church across a busy roundabout, will know that the numinous is within reach.

Our Lady of Fatima Church
Harlow, Essex

[See also: How Christopher Wren built Britain]

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This article appears in the 06 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Crumbling Britain