Whilst on a series of site visits in North Wales, that also included Portmeirion, I had the pleasure of driving over the Menai Bridge and up to Awmlch, which lies on the North Coast of Anglesey, looking out over the Irish Sea. Just outside the town, which was once famed for the export of copper to the four corners of the globe, stands a church that has long been a case for the Society—The Church of our Lady Star of the Sea (c1930).
Approached via the snaking coast road, the first thing you see of Giuseppe Rinvolucri’s extraordinary church is the roof. Like the hull of an up-turned boat, with the ribs on the outside, the church appears as a piece of pure sculpture against the sky, one that references the town’s historical links with the sea. As one gets closer, the uniqueness of the building becomes increasingly apparent—this is a conspicuously unusual church that has few parallels in Catholic architecture of the inter-war period in Wales or, indeed, in Britain as a whole.
The structure of the building consists of reinforced concrete parabolic arches, six in number, sitting on a concrete ring beam cast on a solid masonry base. The arches stiffen the thin reinforced concrete that forms the walls and roof of the church. The parabolic arches are externally exposed, defining the character of the building. The ‘west’ front* of the building is constructed of dressed stone and incorporates stone steps giving access to the church with a door at ground level, flanked by small window openings, serving the hall. A stone staircase—recently earmarked for removal—forms a bridge which gives access to the sacristy at the ‘east’* end of the church. Above the door, a star is inset into a blue background made of crushed Milk of Magnesia bottles.
The interior of the church has a forceful drama derived from the frank expression of the concrete structure, internally plastered and painted. Placed between the concrete ribs, bands of star-patterned glazing illuminate the interior and recall the dedication of the church. A star shaped window is placed at the west end and five smaller windows light the sanctuary. The fittings are of modest quality and rather damaged. A reordering of the sanctuary was carried out in the post-Vatican II period, providing for celebration on a new altar facing the people. A painting of the Crucifixion by Colwyn Bay artist Gordon Wallace, dated 1963, adorns the wall behind the altar. The original altar was removed in 1995 when a new tabernacle set on a marble column was installed. The church has been out of use for some time but is listed II*.
We had previously been opposed to bits of an earlier scheme that sought some fundamental changes; after a failed Lottery bid, the scheme was scaled back to renovation and repair work, and the Society has been fully supportive of the new scheme.
According to Chris Thomas, Project Coordinator of the church’s impending resurrection: ‘Our project is all about the four R’s: the rescue, repair, restoration and rehabilitation of a unique Grade-II*-listed building. The people of the parish are the custodians of this much loved building and have done all that they can throughout the years to protect it and care for it.
‘Our Lady Star of the Sea is a 20th century building created for this place, making reference as it does to the heritage of Amlwch, its shipping past and position on the very edge of the Irish Sea. Our Lady Star of the Sea is a treasure, a significant and special church which is irreplaceable and there have been occasions, when despite the very best efforts of all those concerned there was a distinct possibility that it might fade into obscurity, damaged beyond use.
‘The parishioners have remained constant in their desire to raise awareness and save something precious, and we stand on the cusp of making that dream a reality. The timing of our appeal could not have been worse: a recession; low interest rates and poor returns; an Olympiad to fund; and a great deal of belt tightening. Even with the substantial investment of the OMI Trust (Cadw) and others, the work we are able to do is only the first phase; but we will see the church itself restored as a house of celebration, service and prayer, a ‘working’ building at the heart of this Catholic community. Words cannot describe what it will mean if we can open the doors once again and welcome the people back, for the living stones of any church are its people. It has been a very difficult time for the congregation, the struggle to save the church began some 10 years ago and the journey has been difficult and frustrating at times, but the people have been ever hopeful of a positive outcome that sees them able to use their parish church once again. We would like to record our grateful thanks for the support and encouragement of the 20th Century Society—a constant friend at a time of great need.’ At the time of going to press, the Historic Churches Committee had approved the repair and renovation works—the first step in bringing this extraordinary building back to life. We hope to include the church on our North Wales trip at the end of the summer.
*I have referred to the ‘west’ and ‘east’ fronts of the church due to liturgy—they are in fact the southern and northern ends respectively