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Holy Family

A brick building of the 1920s by George Drysdale, built on a Greek cross plan, and significantly enlarged in the 1960s to accommodate a large influx of (mainly Irish) Catholics, attracted by jobs in local industry. The interior is a fine barrel vaulted space. An intended campanile was not built, the result being that the townscape contribution of the church is relatively minor.


The mission in Small Heath was founded by the Revd James Wright in 1901 from St Anne’s in Digbeth and Mass was said in a workshop in Green Lane until a school-chapel was built in 1903, then Mass was said in the upper floor of the new school (this was destroyed by enemy action in 1940.) Subsequently, the first Parish Primary School (Holy Family) opened its doors in Holy Family Church on 11 January 1904. The permanent church opened in 1928.


The church is orientated roughly north-south, but this description follows conventional liturgical orientation, as if the altar was to the east.

The church was built in two phases. The first, in the 1920s, was on a Greek cross plan, and was built of local purple brown bricks, with Green Westmorland slate roofs. The eastern arm of this was demolished and the nave extended to form a Latin cross, using complementary materials, in the 1960s. An intended northwest campanile was not built.


So the present church originated as a Greek cross design by George Drysdale, seating 400, and opened in August 1929 (builders William Sapcote & Sons). It was described in The Tablet as ‘a quiet design …unity of character has been sought in the architecture, in the treatment of furniture and fittings, and also in the arrangement of the forecourt’.


The 1920s church had open pediments on the north and south faces with moulded brick string courses and a row of arched clerestory windows. The east end was apsidal.

The interior was an impressive barrel vaulted space, with a groin vault at the crossing. Although externally expressed, there is no internal separation into ‘nave’ and ‘aisles’, the nave is one wide space, with the barrel vaulting springing from great steel joists spanning east to west. There is a gallery and narthex at the west end, with a mosaic roundel of the Holy Family fixed to the gallery front (figure 2), possibly from the 1929 church and possibly by Pippet. In the narthex are brass panels to Fr Wright, founder of the mission, and Fr J. P. Dowling, benefactor. At the east, arched openings are located at the corners of the Greek cross. The sanctuary is placed in the eastern arm, and is dominated by a large freestanding altar, with a crucifix and tabernacle in the apse. Side chapels were placed at either side. There is a large organ of 1903 by Steele & Keay of Burslem, acquired c.1993 from Pitts Hill Methodist Church, Stoke.

The forecourt was developed in the 1960s when, following a large influx of (mainly Irish) Catholics drawn by jobs in local industry: Birmingham Small Arms;the Chrysler Factory; JJ Gallagher the Builder. The local population used to say that they were either coming out the Blues ground or Holy Family Church. And so the priest, Father O'Keefe extended the church in 1966, and that's why it is so big now. The nave was extended to form a Latin cross plan, increasing the seating capacity to approximately 1,000. The architect for the additions was J. T. Lynch of Jennings, Homer & Lynch, and the extended church was blessed on 25 October, 1967. New sacristies, meeting rooms, a cry room and confessionals were also built, but an intended 100ft campanile was never realised. The total cost was for the built additions was about £120,000. In that period a second Parish Primary School was built on Hob Moor Road, (St Bernadette’s) which served the Irish community. Previously, St Benedict's Church of England School had been used for some of the children because of the enormous numbers.


The 1960s additions were a modern and simplified version of the original work. The west front had a brick pilaster/piers at the corners and an open pediment framing a large central ‘feature panel’ faced in Portland stone. A crucifix was placed against this. Below this, solid oak entrance doors were placed beneath a flat canopy, with windows on either side.


Flanking the entrance, low flat-roofed wings with recessed stone faced bays incorporating windows were presumably built as the baptistery and a side entrance. Above these, a round arched window on either side lit an internal gallery. Beyond this were raised (but not as high as the nave) and plain ‘aisle’ walls, the ‘aisles’ lit by one rectangular window per bay.

The present church was consecrated on 10 June 1976.

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