A Brief History of the
Catholic Church of
St Teresa of The Child Jesus
HISTORY AND EXTERIOR
The first Mass in Princes Risborough since the Reformation was celebrated on 11th February 1923 (the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes) in what is now the Walsingham Hall (next to the church). These early days of the Princes Risborough ‘Mission’ owed almost everything to a dedicated and astonishingly energetic young convert named Alan Turner, who for years prepared the hall for Mass and arranged for a priest to come to celebrate it. His efforts – including fundraising – meant that in 1928 the local Catholics could move into a temporary ‘tin hut’ church in Longwick Road, dedicated to the new saint, St Teresa of the Child Jesus (Thérèse of Lisieux), who had been canonised in 1925.
The first resident priest arrived in June 1936 – and, thanks to Alan Turner’s continuing efforts, he had a newly-built presbytery to live in, next to the temporary church. Fundraising for a permanent church had already begun, and the new priest, Fr Dreves, a Breton, stepped up the urgency, inserting dramatic pleas for help in newspapers, creating a ‘shrine’ to St Teresa in the church (with a recumbent statue of her, on her deathbed, from Lisieux), and declaring that she would miraculously provide. In fact, local Catholics – Eugène Randag, his wife Beatrice, and her brother Bernard Alexander – generously offered to provide the funds for the church. Not only did they see the project through, but they provided substantial gifts for the interior too.
The present, permanent, church was formally opened on Whit Monday 1938. It was designed by engineer/architect Giuseppe Rinvolucri, from Piedmont, North-West Italy, who had come to live in Conwy, Wales. He had already built four Catholic churches – in Amlwch, Port Madog, Abergele and Ludlow. Rinvolucri described the style of the new church as ‘Modern Byzantine’. Built in honour of St Teresa, the church was designed as a ‘shrine’ to her – a ‘santuario’ in Italian, and its appearance is more Italian than English, influenced by the Piedmontese 18th century baroque church architect Francesco Gallo. (Diocesan authorities were a little concerned that it didn’t look like an ‘ordinary parish church’!). The design was a challenge to English builders, and it has been a challenge ever since to take care of it, and especially to combat condensation and to try to stop the rain from coming in.
The central ‘footprint’ of the church is a triangle, with an apse on each side. There is a high central dome, and along the sides five other rounded roofs of varying shapes and two smaller flat roofs. All the rounded and domed roofs were constructed of steel-reinforced concrete, covered in tiles to lessen the likelihood of condensation inside. The original entrance was through two glass doors at the west end of the church – either side of the statue of St Teresa (where two stained glass roundels now hang). In 1938 there was no roundabout, and New Road was the small ‘Back Lane’. The Foundation Stone of the church is in the internal wall of the sacristy.
The interior of the church was re-ordered (turned round) in 1974, to fulfil the spirit of the Second Vatican Council by allowing the people to gather more nearly around the altar and providing a clear view of the Mass from every part of the church. From this point, the entrance has been at the eastern end. The present entrance was developed in 2003, creating a balcony and a narthex. This addition can be seen from the car park: the eastern rounded wall of the church was pierced at two levels and enclosed in a tall, angular, brick structure.
The stained glass windows can be seen from outside most clearly at night, when the church is lit from within. The main series was commissioned from Joseph Nuttgens to celebrate the millennium. They are dynamic depictions of scenes from the Old and New Testaments in which God allows his power to be seen. Half are on the theme of ‘Water’, and half on ‘Fire’ – themes taken up more abstractly in the windows high above the statue of St Teresa. Further along the sides are windows of elegant simplicity, made in the early 1950s by Pilgrim Wetton. On the north side are The Annunciation and Our Lady Queen of Heaven; on the south, St Teresa as a child with her parents, and as a saint in heaven, preparing to shower graces ‘like roses’ upon the earth.
In 1938, Fr Dreves hoped that the church would be a ‘Wayside Shrine’ for people as they passed by on their journey through life. The present parishioners hope so, too.
THE INTERIOR OF THE CHURCH
THE INTERIOR OF THE CHURCH
Originally, the interior was quite plain and austere, with daylight coming in from high up (there was no stained glass). After the re-orientation, the addition of the balcony and narthex, the introduction of more colour, carpet tiles covering the original oak floor and marble sanctuary, and the series of stained glass windows – the church has a richer, warmer, perhaps more ‘domesticated’, feel.
Interesting elements include:
A carved altar front (1937), and statue of Our Lady (1937) by Richard Guino, sculptural assistant to Pierre-Auguste Renoir. He also made the external statue of St Teresa (1938).
Oak benches, with integral kneelers, designed by Denis Tegetmeier, son-in-law of Eric Gill. The oak was provided by Eugène Randag.
Carved communion rails (erected 1955), with symbols of sacraments, commissioned from Catholic sculptor Rosamund Fletcher. She also sculpted the relief of the boy Jesus working with St Joseph (late 1950s).
Stations of the Cross, a relief carving of the Sacred Heart, the triptych behind the altar, and a painted wooden backdrop to the original recumbent statue of St Teresa, depicting her cell in the Lisieux Carmel – all these were made by local Catholic artist Stephen Foster, between 1988 and 2003. The golden triptych celebrates our salvation through the Blood of the Lamb, with God’s grace streaming out from heaven through Christ’s loving sacrifice into the world, and pouring over, and into, our church, our parish and our lives.
Over the years, the parish has re-used and adapted earlier furnishings. Thus:
The wooden communion rails bought for the temporary church in 1928 were used across the original sanctuary in the present church until the commissioned carved ones arrived. The wooden rails were then moved to the front of Our Lady’s Chapel, where they remain.
The original marble High Altar was moved, when the church was re-ordered, into St Teresa’s Chapel, where it remains – and the recumbent statue of St Teresa from the original shrine in the temporary church lies across it.
The carved communion rails were removed from the original sanctuary at the re-ordering, and were cut to fit across the front of St Teresa’s Chapel.