Saturday, February 17, 2024

Future of historic church on hold while Plymouth awaits bishop

Plans for the future of a landmark church in Devon have stalled while Plymouth Diocese remains without a bishop.

The diocese spent nearly £1 million on a restoration of the former Church of the Immaculate Conception, Barnstaple, which had been derelict for more than 30 years. 

The intervention to save the Grade II listed building ending a long dispute over the parish’s plans to demolish the building.

The rescue was approved by the then Bishop of Plymouth, Mark O’Toole, who was appointed Archbishop of Cardiff in April 2022. There should have been a new Bishop of Plymouth in place later this month. 

However, the episcopal ordination of Canon Christopher Whitehead of Clifton Diocese, fixed for 22 February, has been cancelled. According to a diocesan statement, he has stepped back from ministry while an internal investigation takes place.

David Scott, the lead consultant and chartered surveyor who has overseen the restoration of the Barnstaple church believes it has the potential to be a wonderful asset for the parish and the community in what is a socially deprived part of Devon.

He said: “Subject to further diocesan review, the aim is that the old church will become a community hub used by the local residents of this part of Barnstaple in liaison with the Church which would also use the building in liaison with church services, function and outreach.”

Plymouth Diocese has contributed £857,000 to the project while Historic England has given grants of £196,000 and £86,000.

North Devon Council and heritage groups objected when the parish decided to demolish the 1844 church, one of the county’s oldest post-Reformation Catholic churches. It was shut in 1984 when the parish opened a larger, new church next door.

Located close to the bus station, the condition of the old building rapidly deteriorated and it was regularly broken into.

“The matter was heading for a public inquiry and there would have been awful ramifications for the Catholic Church if the diocese had not stepped in,” said Mr Scott.

He went on: “It is an iconic building, a good example of early Romanesque style, a real forerunner, and at last, we have been able to achieve something with it.”

Sir Bourchier Wrey of Tawstock Court built the church in memory of his wife, who was a member of the Weld family. 

For a time, the architect was thought to be AWN Pugin. However, in 1846, The Tablet named Gideon Boyce of Tiverton and this attribution has been widely accepted.

At present, the building is an empty shell. 

If a new bishop approves, planning and listed building consent can be sought to link the old and new churches in a way that will provide easy disabled access and independent pedestrian routes between both buildings ensuring they can operate independently or as one. 

A spokesperson for Plymouth Diocese said: “The future of the church cannot be decided until a new bishop is in place.”