For many years the absence of a Catholic church in the neighbourhood of Avonmouth Docks (opened 1887) meant that worshippers were faced with a long walk to the church of St Ursula's Convent in Westbury on Trym to attend mass. A mass centre was established at Shamrock Villa in the village of Shirehampton in 1901 and a site for a church was purchased a year later nearby on the corner of Pembroke Avenue and Station Road. By 1903 a church seating 65 people was opened, which is the present rather lengthy chancel. The architect was Edward Doran Webb, from Salisbury, who also designed the Birmingham Oratory. A small turret was planned at the south west corner but it seems that this was never built, or it was removed when the church was enlarged.
By the mid 1920s the church was proving too small with the congregation overflowing outside. Plans were drawn up by different architects. Unsuccessful was a design by John Bevan which would have reversed the church and provided a wide new chancel. The successful plan was that of Sir Frank Wills and is reproduced below. In 1928 construction of the nave was begun but funds ran out after five bays were built and a temporary wall and a wooden porch were erected at the west end in 1929. There were to have been a further three bays, the west bay over the entrance vestibule with organ gallery, an outer baptistry at the SW angle, and an outer porch at the NW angle, as well as low bays to the west end for two confessionals.
Bristol continued to extend into the surrounding countryside after the second world war and new churches were provided at Avonmouth (St Brendan) and Lawrence Weston (Our Lady of the Rosary) out of the parish of St Bernard. The final three bays of the nave and Wills's baptistry were never built and in 1973 a new permanent porch was provided at the west end. Sadly no window was opened in the "temporary" wall and gable above. Because of the new buildings in the parish, the debts of St Bernard were not finally cleared until 1982, and as is the custom of the Catholic church this meant at last the church could be consecrated, and this took place on 24th June 1982.
|Looking west from the
chancel in 2000, the need for something to break up the
expanse of the west wall is felt all the more. A pretty
organ case however stood to the south of the west door.
The chancel is left looking a little cluttered, although obviously well-looked-after. The stained glass in the east window dates from 1903.
In 2009 priest-in-charge Canon V J Ryan reported to me that it was hoped to complete the church at the west end to a new design. This would have involved demolition of the west wall, the building of a gallery for the organ over the west vestibule and creating a window in the new west wall. However the costs of this were to prove prohibitive, as accessibility laws in the UK would have meant having to install a lift to reach the gallery rather than the planned stairs. The parish embarked on a reordering and redecoration of the interior instead, employing Pippa Wrigley of Wrigley Associates, and this was completed in April 2010. Canon Ryan told me "the brief I personally gave to Pippa Wrigley was to respect the architecture of the original building in every move we made. Visitors have remarked on the fact that she did not set out to 'make a personal statement' but to quietly enliven the existing structure. This required considerable skill and discipline on her part." I too think this has been a real success. The chancel is simple, dignified and uncluttered, the former rood by Derek Weir of c1973 which was originally hung from the chancel arch is now placed on the west wall but sadly the pretty Bevington pipe organ has been sold and is now in Sweden.
These new photographs were taken in April 2010 (except for the exteriors) and clicking on any of them will take you to a page on flickr where the photograph can be enlarged still further. To stay on this page right click and select open in new tab or new window, otherwise use your browser's "back" button.
I would like to extend my thanks to Canon Ryan for his hospitality and for his research into the history of St Bernard's Church, freely offered to augment this page. Canon Ryan is due to leave this church he loves in September 2010, and will hopefully enjoy a long and happy retirement.
Page updated 14th July 2010
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