At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Pancras, Ipswich

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Ipswich St Pancras

Ipswich St Pancras the crucifixion, Ipswich

Until its clearance in the post-war years, the area spreading eastwards of Ipswich town centre was a vast slum. The Rope Walk area was redeveloped and is now home to Suffolk New College and parts of the University. The housing in the Cox Lane area became a car park. I met a man a few years ago who always tries to park his car on the site of the house where he grew up.

Two grand red brick churches survive as islands. The Anglican St Michael is now a burnt out shell. It was declared redundant in the 1990s, and in truth it is hard to see how it can ever have been needed as more than a triumphalist gesture, with the parish church of St Helen only a hundred yards or so away. It was destroyed by fire in March 2011. Still standing tall is George Goldie's 1861 Catholic church of St Pancras. Seen from across the car park, the only clue that it was once tightly surrounded by poor people's houses is that there are no windows in the wall of the north aisle. As at Brighton's St Bartholomew, this great ship was designed to sail above roof tops.

St Pancras looks like a bit dropped off, and that is exactly what it is. Goldie's commission was for the huge, recently demolished School of Jesus and Mary on the campus of the Woodbridge Road church of St Mary, and this town centre church in the same style. St Pancras was intended to be the start of a church of cathedral scale, of which the surviving church was but the chancel. At the time, Ipswich was in the Diocese of Northampton. Today, it is in the Diocese of East Anglia, with a great stone Gothic cathedral at Norwich. But the Norwich cathedral, built as the church of St John the Baptist, and the equally grand Our Lady and the English Martyrs in Cambridge, were both begun a good thirty years after St Pancras. If it had ever been finished, St Pancras would have been one of the biggest red brick churches in England.

The north elevation is stark, that on the south side rather more comfy, with good modern glass in the south aisle windows. The most impressive view is from the west, where the vast rose window fills in what would have been the top of the chancel arch. Here, where the 1970s parish hall stands, would have been the crossing tower, with transepts either side. Looking further west, the nave would have stretched, and here is perhaps one of the reasons why St Pancras the great was never built. Immediately to the west of the church, across Cox lane, stands the fortress-like Christ Church. Although the present building post-dates St Pancras, there has been a Congregationalist church on the site for more than three hundred years, and the planned Catholic church would have stretched in front of it. Given the ecclesiastical politics of the late 19th century, one can't imagine them giving up the site very lightly.

The Catholic presence in Ipswich had been re-established in the 1790s, at the time of the French Revolution, by a refugee Priest, Louis Simon. He said Mass in the home of a rich local lady Margaret Wood, and then with her help established a mission church near the Woodbridge Road barracks. This church, St Anthony, formed the transepts of the building that still survives as the parish hall of the 1960 St Mary.

After the re-establishment of the Catholic hierarchy in England in 1850, which you can read about on the entry for St Mary, the plan was to create a town centre profile for the Church, and this was why Goldie was commissioned to build St Pancras. However, anti-Catholic feeling was rather stronger than it had been seventy years previously. On a night in November 1862, the protestant ministers of the town whipped up such a state of hysteria that angry mobs ran through Ipswich smashing windows of Catholic churches, homes and businesses.

Although the exterior of this building is rather severe, the inside is a delight, quite the loveliest Victorian interior in Ipswich. It doesn't have the gravitas of St Mary le Tower, or the mystery of St Bartholomew, but it is a cascade of red and white brick banding, cast-iron pillars and wall tiling. Along with the statues and the candles and the smell of incense, it is everything a 19th century town centre church should be.

The post-Vatican II re-ordering of the sanctuary has not destroyed its coherence (or, indeed, the traditionalist flavour of the liturgy here). Above the altar, Christ stands in majesty, flanked by the four evangelists. The tabernacle is set curiously off-centre to the south.

Exposed as St Pancras is in comparison with many town centre churches, it is always full of light, and this light takes on the resonances of some good glass. The west window was filled with a design depicting the descent of the Holy Spirit as recently as 2001, by the Danielle Hopkinson studio. As a point of interest, they also did the glass in my front door. This is unfortunately obscured by a massive organ (the west window, not my front door). Below the west gallery is the baptistery, one of Ipswich's busiest, and just some of the church's collection of devotional statues. In the south aisle are three sets of triple lancets. The older glass in the most easterly depicts St Thomas, St Andrew and St John. The splendid 1974 glass by John Lawson in the other two sets depicts St Martin de Porres and St Francis of Assisi.

Not many people live in the parish itself, but as the busiest town centre church in Ipswich St Pancras continues to have a major role to play. Its Masses attract people from far and wide, including many from the town's sizeable minority communities. Perhaps this is because it does have such a traditionalist flavour, but also perhaps because of the work of the tireless and charismatic Parish Priest, Father 'Sam' Leeder. 'He's been here for forty years, and is a familiar character in the town centre, wandering the streets and talking to local traders, as well as being the cornerstone of the town's scouts. Ipswich would be diminished without him.

Simon Knott, December 2018

Ipswich St Pancras

St Therese of Lisieux Blessed Virgin and Child Santo 'Padre' Pio
Our Lady of Czestechowa The Great War Dove Descending by Danielle Hopkinson, 2001
St Thomas, St Andrew, St John St Francis by John Lawson, 1974 St Martin de Porres by John Lawson, 1974
St Francis of Assisi by John Lawson, 1974 St Francis of Assisi's wolf, heron and duck (detail) by John Lawson, 1974 St Martin de Porres's monkey (detail) by John Lawson, 1974 St Martin de Porres by John Lawson, 1974

Blessed Virgin and child St Therese of Lisieux


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