Dismay as Jesuits' gem is put up for sale

Cost of restoration threatens church in one of Britain's more beautiful streets, writes Richard D North
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The Independent Online
The glorious presence of the Roman Catholic church on Broad Street, Hereford, one of Britain's more beautiful thoroughfares, is now blighted by a large "For Sale" sign between its Doric columns. The Catholic hierarchy, fed up with the endless expense of renovating the neo-Classical gem, have commanded the estate agents DTZ to offer the church of St Francis Xavier, known to its parishioners as "SFX", to the world of Mammon.

SFX was built by the Jesuits between 1837 and 1839 within 50 yards of the city's cathedral, in the wave of Roman confidence following Catholic emancipation. The church's opening was celebrated by the whole city. It is now a Grade II* listed building, and its Sunday masses attract about 450 people, or half of the city's church-going Catholics. Its priests - schoolmaster Benedictines from Belmont Abbey on the outskirts of the city, which closed last year - have made its presence all the more visible by keeping its doors open from 9am until tea-time.

Visitors to the city's classiest street - which includes the main post office (high Victorian), the library (eccentric Gothic), the tax office (Sixties hideous) and various Georgian relics, including the Green Dragon Hotel - are now offered a glimpse down SFX's great aisle, to the altar.

"Boys can wait for their girlfriends and the buses outside, and people pop in for a prayer and to light a candle," the Rev Antony Tumelty said.

But the Archbishop of Cardiff, the Most Rev John Aloysius Ward, whose diocese extends to the English Marches, has decided that further restoration of St Francis Xavier is too expensive for what his spokesman called "a very poor church".

Instead of spending pounds 500,000 on a city-centre church, the hierarchy believes that a more convenient suburban centre with parking would better suit modern Catholics, and especially the young. It would be built partly from the proceeds of the sale of SFX.

John Malone, the moderator of Churches Together in Hereford, an ecumenical group, believes this is a mistaken policy. "This is the central Catholic presence for Hereford, and historically it's very important. It's also a refreshingly different sort of church to Puginesque neo-Gothic buildings which are gloomy mausoleums," he said.

Mr Malone, a supervisor of ancient building renovation contracts, also believes that the archbishop is being unnecessarily pessimistic about the expense of restoring SFX.

The Hereford secretary of the Civic Trust, David Whitehead, said: "There is a big bill to put the church in order, perhaps pounds 600,000, but English Heritage have indicated that they would substantially grant-aid that. They would probably pay at least 40 per cent, but there are examples of churches where English Heritage came in with 70 per cent grant."

Some of those loyal to the archbishop's plans put their support tentatively: Peter Horne, a member of the parish council said : "I'm very much on the fence. My position is that the church as a body of people is more important than the building. It's going to be our money: should that go to maintain a building which isn't going to bring the youth back to the church?"

Being listed, any changes to SFX would have to have the approval of the Secretary of State for the Environment, John Gummer, who has already worshipped there as a recent convert. He has also written a letter to the archbishop which is believed to declare his dismay at the sale. Mr Gummer was not available for comment, but his officials said that his taking a personal interest now disbarred him from taking a ministerial interest.

English Heritage has also written to the archbishop to say that there is no question of de-listing the building. According to John Yates, EH's regional historic buildings inspector: "SFX is a challenging building to convert because we would be very reluctant to see the interior divided. The altar is also important, and an important component in its special interest." SFX might make a good museum, he said, but he would rather see it remain as a church.

Should a miracle be required to save St Francis Xavier, help may be available. The church is home to the hand of St John Kemble, one of the 40 English martyrs. Often credited with intercessionary powers, last month it was taken to the bedside of SFX's senior priest, Fr Christopher Jenkins, 63, who had suffered a stroke and was extremely ill. He has since much recovered.

Disdaining talk of a "miracle", Fr Tumelty prefers to believe that the power of prayer was at work. It may well be needed to bring the "For Sale" sign down.