It’s amazing how a chat with a colleague over coffee can spark an idea. That is how I came to write my book, Fifty Catholic Churches to See Before You Die.
We were talking about the popularity of church tourism and about all the books and specialist holidays that are being developed for visitors. We thought that Catholic churches were missing out and wondered why. Then my colleague said: 'You know, someone ought to write a book, 'fifty Catholic churches to see before you die''.
And I thought ‘why not'? This could be my contribution to putting Catholic churches on the map! I took the idea to a publisher, Gracewing, who were very enthusiastic and now, at last, the book is out.
I had the time of my life doing the research with my husband, Andy, who did the driving and took photographs. We travelled the length and breadth of England and Wales looking at churches and meeting the people who look after them. We found outstanding places of worship in the hearts of towns and cities that no one seems to notice even though thousands pass by every day. There were more wonderful buildings in ordinary suburbs and others well off the beaten track.
There were some churches that I knew I had to include the moment I stepped inside. These presented a complete artistic vision from the design of the building, to the furnishings and stained glass, right down to the smallest detail. These and the rest of my choices reflect the very best in Catholic architecture. Taken together they give the backdrop to the story of Catholicism in England and Wales.
Of course, there are more than fifty Catholic churches to see before you die and I had difficulty deciding what to leave out. I omitted cathedrals on the grounds that they deserve a book of their own and listed only churches that are accessible to the public. I found a way of mentioning many more by listing, at the end of each entry, those that are 'worth a detour'. I am hoping this will help readers to plan a great day out.
I was fascinated by the history of the churches: the resilience of the old Catholic families; the stories of martyrdom and anti Catholic rioting; how the Church slowly emerged from the shadows and surged in confidence during the Victorian period; and how poor Irish migrants contributed their pennies, and often their labour, to raise their places of worship.
In normal times, priests and volunteers welcome visitors. Increasingly, they are producing excellent guidebooks as well as arranging exhibitions and open days. Some will, on request, provide guided tours.
Many parish churches are closed outside Mass times so it’s a good idea to check their website or, better still, make a phone call ahead of your visit. This has become even more important during the Covid19 pandemic.
I want my book to raise awareness of these beautiful places of worship and encourage support for their conservation. After visiting my favourites, I hope that you will want to go out and discover some of your own.
To get you started here are some hidden gems from Fifty Catholic Churches to See Before You Die.