Grade-II* listed church St John the Baptist has been awarded funding for repairs
Date published: 19 September 2020
St John the Baptist Church
Grade-II* listed church St John the Baptist has been awarded a development phase grant by the National Lottery, to undertake much-needed repairs.
The unique design of the church has created many problems with water ingress within the 20m golden dome, constructed in the manner of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia. The mosaics located within the sanctuary wall are also threatened, as repairs can only be carried out as and when there is sufficient funding available.
Designed by Eric Newton, son of Ludwig Oppenheimer and Edith Newton, the sanctuary mosaic uses high quality tesserae made of stone, coloured marbles and coloured glass – set off by a shimmering background of gold tesserae.
The sanctuary mosaic cost £4,000 and was completed on 31 October 1933. The central figure being that of Christ the King, a feast day established by Pope Pius XI, his Papal Coat of Arms and the Coat of Arms of Bishop Henshaw are on the side walls.
Oppenheimer scholars believe the centrepiece mosaics are one of the best examples of his work.
The grant of £147,849 will allow repairs to be carried out before an application is made for round two funding. If successful, round two funding will allow the magnificent mosaics and dome of the Roman Catholic church to be restored and for a range of new activities to attract a wide audience from all backgrounds and cultures.
An update on the St John’s website reads: “Many people in Rochdale have lifelong links with the church. Being in an area which has long welcomed immigrants, St John's will welcome new visitors from all faiths and none to enjoy the unique heritage St John's has to offer.
“The heritage is important to those families who have had a link with St John's in any way over the past 200 years. It is also important to historians and those interested in mosaic artwork and the unique architecture.
“Our project will ensure the Heritage of St John the Baptist Church is preserved for generations to come. Along with the newly formed Rochdale Heritage Action Zone, St John's will become a place of greater interest to Rochdale residents and visitors from afar.”
The parish leadership team established a ‘working group’ and a ‘steering group’ from its leadership team, appointing accredited conservation architect Chloe Granger, of Crosby Granger Partnership, to assess implementing the repairs and improvements alongside a team of specialists.
The update continues, outlining plans: “The restored church building and new activities will be regularly accessible and promoted through our new interactive website which will also host our oral histories project. Heritage signage will welcome visitors.
“The 200-year history of the church community will be researched and celebrated through a project with the local community and Manchester University. Regular mosaic classes will help the community appreciate the beauty and skill within the church’s mosaics. Our nature outcome will be developed and maintained alongside our primary schools and local community, utilising the church and school grounds. Volunteers from a range of backgrounds will receive training to enable the new activities to be successful. Apprenticeships will be written into the procurement processes for the builders restoring the church.”
An integral part of the Rochdale Heritage Action Zone, the landmark church – placed on Historic England’s ‘Heritage at Risk’ register in 2018 – has been identified as the ‘gateway’ to the town’s Heritage Trail, which will lead from the adjoining railway station and Metrolink transport hub and continue on to the town hall.
Built between 1923-25, the current church of St John the Baptist is a Grade II* listed building, upgraded in 2015 due to the importance and quality of the mosaics. The first church on the Dowling Street site was opened in 1829, with the present church being completed in 1925.
The church was considered to be a notable Byzantine design which merited listing in its own right, but the quality of its mosaic decoration justified its upgrading to II*.
The update concludes: “While the impact of the renewed St John's will be dramatic, both externally and internally, the specific activities we are proposing will help the visitor more fully appreciate the richness of the heritage of the church.”
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