Bright future for Brighton church

Published: Tuesday, October 31, 2017


In June 2016, the National Churches Trust awarded a £40,000 Cornerstone Grant for major repairs to St Mary’s church in Kemp Town, Brighton. The magnificent Victorian building, previously considered for closure by the Church of England, has now been given a new lease of life and is a vibrant centre for community.

Beautiful mix of styles

St Mary's is a Grade II* listed red brick building, construction of which started in 1877. The church took two years to complete and cost £15,231 (£1.27 million in 2017), about 25% more than expected. It replaced a church dating from the 1820s which had collapsed in 1876.

St Mary's was designed by Sir William Emerson who is perhaps best known as the architect of the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, India. The church reflects his love of the hybrid, being a mixture of the neo-Gothic with added Oriental and Classical features. The canopy over the main entrance shows a fairly conventional Gothic depiction of the Heavenly Jeruslem; inside, over the reredos, Emerson has incoporated Classical and Oriental features in the canopy - reflecting his personal vision of the City of God as the blending of the best of all peoples and cultures.  

Much-needed work

The National Churches Trust’s grant contributed to major repairs to the west elevation of the church, the first phase of a major scheme to transform St Mary's. A major problem was caused by earlier cement repairs to the masonry and brick pointing. Water still penetrated behind the cement, but it could not longer escape again, eroding the stone and the brickword underneath. Eventually there was nothing for the cement to 'hold onto' and it started to fall off, with disastrous results.

The already-stressful process of planning for a major repair project was made even more fraught by the discovery late in the stage of planning for the work that practically all mortar in the bricks above the north chancel window had eroded. The project had already been costed, and the discovery resulted in a funding gap of £40,000 which needed to be urgently filled before the original construction tenders ran out and prices rose by 10%. Luckily, the National Churches Trust was able to step in.

Fr Andrew Woodward, Priest-in-Charge, said: 

"We were delighted and grateful in equal measure to be awarded this Cornerstone Grant, which made our first round of major repairs financially viable. But it’s not just the money. The National Churches Trust’s endorsement of our vision to grow St Mary’s as a community resource was incredibly encouraging, especially to our volunteers who’ve worked for many years to give it a bright and purposeful future."

"We see our beautiful building as a gift from God. It works magnificently as a church but it also speaks and offers so much to people who are not practising Christians, and we want to share that appeal as widely as we can."


Centre for the community

St Mary’s is open practically every day for a huge range of activities and events. They include English conversation classes; knitting; meditation; Tea and Company – a friendship cafe run in partnership with Time to Talk Befriending and Brighton College; free choral concerts and organ recitals; gigs; a community market; and, just recently, it has become Brighton’s official Big Issue distributor. St Anne's, a charity for homeless and vulnerable adults, runs out of the church hall next door.

Saturdays see up to 60 visitors, many of them tourists. Local bed and breakfasts recommend the church as a place to visit, as well as for worship. The congregation has been growing too, with over 100 people attending throughout the week.

When the National Churches Trust visited recently, visitors and passers-by were welcomed with tea and coffee, information about events, and the opportunity to play the piano!

If you open the doors, people will come in

The project made a major contribution to the survival and development of St Mary’s both as a historically important building, and an accessible and valued community resource.

By far the greatest impact of the work on St Mary’s is to make it obvious that the church is open and ready to welcome visitors. The removal of dark polycarbonate sheeting on the windows means that light floods out into the street in the evenings, and, inside, sunlight moves across the chancel and altar throughout the day.

Katherine Prior, churchwarden and venue manager, also noted that the works and engagement activities that are needed for funding applications mean that the church simply has to be open more! She talks of an attitude change being needed, and making a concerted effort to be open whenever possible.

Thanks to leaflets posted to every house in the parish, many local people have been visiting for the first time – remarking that they had thought the church was closed because of its poor state of repair.

The future

The next phase of the St Mary's Development Project will see similar repairs on the south front of the church, the main entrance. With the church stable and watertight, St Mary’s will then move on to starting a major community project to create a new entrance with level access, an office, kitchen, bar and toilets on the west side of the church, and the creation of a publicly accessible garden. 

More information on St Mary's church website.

  • New guttering and window tracery

  • The west facade

  • The west window

  • The main entrance

  • The west window

  • The church in use

  • Childrens' play area

  • A warm welcome

  • Magnus, the church dog