The Roman Catholic Cathedral Church of St Mary and St Helen in the Diocese of Brentwood, Essex (UK). / Historic England Archive

Brentwood, England, Jul 14, 2022 / 02:11 am (CNA).

Brentwood Cathedral, the first classical cathedral to be built in England since London’s famous St. Paul’s, has achieved a coveted recognition that shows a changing attitude to “serious classical architecture,” according to its designer.

The Roman Catholic Cathedral Church of St. Mary and St. Helen in Brentwood, about 30 miles to the East of London in the county of Essex, was opened in 1991 and is now officially regarded as a “particularly important building of more than special interest” according to the accreditation of Historic England, the British government’s public body tasked with protecting historic buildings.   

Brentwood Cathedral was inspired by the designs of acclaimed architect Sir Christopher Wren. It is regarded as revolutionary in its radical use of classical architecture, and has now been listed as a Grade II* building, following an announcement on July 14.

The recognition is signficant: Heritage-listed buildings are accredited as Grade I, II, or II*, with 5.8% of listed buildings accredited as the latter. The listing is officially awarded by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

Interior view of Brentwood Cathedral, showing north-south axis with bishop’s chair in south, centrally positioned altar, and ambo in north. Historic England Archive

Brentwood Cathedral was the first classical cathedral to be built in the country since the famous Anglican cathedral of St. Paul’s London and is considered revolutionary due to its use of classical architecture to create a central worship space.

The cathedral retains a surviving section of a Gothic church, built 1860-61, based on the designs of the renowned Catholic architect, Gilbert R. Blount, while also boasting a dominant classical addition, which was added between built 1989 and 1991.

Its architect, Quinlan Terry, said: “I’m delighted that Brentwood Cathedral has been listed at Grade II*. When we consider the history of my design which was refused planning permission and only obtained approval following an appeal nearly 40 years ago, we begin to realise that the attitude towards serious classical architecture has now changed considerably.”

Father Martin Boland, Dean of the Cathedral and lead Priest for the Parish of St. Mary and St. Helen, also welcomed the announcement. In a statement on July 14, he said: “We are delighted that Brentwood Cathedral has received a Grade II* listing and that Quinlan Terry’s unique vision has been recognised. His design combines both tradition and modernity in a striking fashion. The listing also recognises the Catholic community’s role in the history of Essex and the Cathedral’s place as a sanctuary of hope and prayer for so many people.” 

The Roman Catholic Cathedral Church of St Mary and St Helen in the Diocese of Brentwood, Essex (UK). Historic England Archive

The cathedral site hosted its first Catholic Church from October 1837 but a growing congregation meant that a second church (dedicated to St. Helen) was built in 1861 and the original church then served as a school, parish hall, and Cathedral Hall.

In 1917, the church became the cathedral of the newly-established Diocese of Brentwood and was refurbished accordingly and by 1974 it was further developed to accommodate 1,000 worshippers, according to the designs of John Newton.

Thanks to the generosity of an anonymous benefactor in the late 1980s, plans to rebuild the cathedral were authorized by Bishop Thomas McMahon, who commissioned the architect Quinlan Terry to execute this new vision.

It was Bishop McMahon who requested the unique plan of a central altar to maximize congregational participation, while Terry combined classic Italian Renaissance architecture (the main space of the church resembles an Italian Renaissance Court) with the English Baroque of Sir Christopher Wren.

A recurring characteristic of the cathedral according to Terry’s designs is the number eight, which signifies the seven days of material creation and the “eighth day” of the new creation, the order of grace created through Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. 

The rebuilt cathedral was opened on May 31, 1991.

In a statement released on July 14, the Rt. Rev. Thomas McMahon, Bishop Emeritus of Brentwood, said: “My decision to choose a classical design for Brentwood Cathedral, one of the first cathedrals to be built after the Second Vatican Council, was influenced by a number of reasons. There was a long tradition of Church architecture across Europe in this style. I was much influenced by Cardinal Vaughan’s decision to build Westminster Cathedral in a different style from Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral so that each would be judged on its own merits. I was a great admirer of the Christopher Wren churches in London and how Wren had adapted each church for the site and space available. In the same way I felt such a style could be adapted for the renewed liturgy of Vatican II and offer a noble simplicity.”

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