Wednesday 1 April 2015

St John The Evangelist, Auckland Road

Fr. John Pritchard is passionate about music. An accomplished organist (just as well, since his church has 3 of them), and a French Horn player, he trained in music at the Royal Holloway College, and aged 18, was the Director of Music at the Garrison Church in Windsor. And music plays an important role in the life of the church; the first time I set foot inside, was for the memorable concert given by 80s soul diva, Jocelyn Brown. So good are the church's acoustics that it will shortly be used by a record company for the recording of an opera.
It was however, to be the priesthood and not the music world, that John turned to in his choice of career. Following theological college, he was ordained in 2007, and took up his first post in the genteel parish of Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire. From this comparatively conservative and undiverse setting just north of the capital, John then found himself slap bang in the centre of London, at the architecturally impressive All Saints, Margaret Street, just off Oxford Street. This proved an odd place to be a priest, in a parish with no community as such, to engage with. Congregations usually consisted of the transient: visitors and tourists. And so he eventually moved on to the architecturally no less impressive St. John's in Upper Norwood. In many ways the parish is the antithesis of Margaret Street, where the church is surrounded by shops, offices and hotels. The parish of St. John's is entirely residential, with virtually no commercial premises, the boundary stretching from just short of the Triangle on Church Road, to just short of the commercial centre of South Norwood. But what it lacks in commerce, is more than made up for in the diversity and vibrancy of the community. Father John has made it his mission to make the church as open and welcoming as possible, and a hub of activity for local people. In his words, the church should be "hospitable, generous, kind, but also, fun." Relationships with local groups are pivotal to the church's role and relevance in people's lives. Most visibly, a corner of the churchyard has been given over to growing fruit and vegetables, under the auspices of Crystal Palace Transition Town. One of several sites throughout the SE19 area, and run by volunteers lead by Lou Yates, the garden contributes to Patchwork Farm, which has a stall at the local food market on Haynes Lane every saturday.
The day I arrived to take pictures, the air in the cathedral sized interior was thick with fragrant incense, and the effect on the sunlight filtering through was quite beautiful. Adding to the senses was the powerful sound of one of the church organs going hell for leather, if that's not too inappropriate a metaphor. However, all is not well. This 130 year old edifice is in danger of falling down. The perfidious south London clay upon which the church sits, has allowed subsidence to take hold along the south side of the nave. Great cracks have opened up in the external brickwork, while inside, what looks like the result of an earthquake, snakes along the floor, and netting has been strung between the columns to catch any falling masonry. An application has been made to the Heritage Lottery Fund for some of the large sums of money required for underpinning the structure. And it hardly needs saying that this structure is well worth saving. Built in the 1880s, it replaced a temporary iron church erected to serve a population growing rapidly in the decades following the building of the Crystal Palace. The local priest, Father William La Trobe-Bateman, having cleared the parish's debts, raised the money for the new building, and appointed the ecclesiastical architect, John Loughborough Pearson. Pearson was in the process of designing the cathedral at Truro, and it's believed that St.John's was something of a test bed for designs later implemented in Cornwall's only cathedral. This may partially explain the huge scale of St.John's, although one only has to walk along Auckland Road to see the vastness of the neighbouring villas, to realise that its scale was entirely appropriate. During World War II, the church took a direct hit during a bombing raid, but the geological threat it faces today, is just as great.
Just as the fabric of the building faces great challenges, so too does the parish, and Crystal Palace in general. Father John is concerned about hardship and loneliness faced by many in our society. As he points out,  "40% of households in the parish are single parent families. Could we do more to help?" As London's huge wealth laps around Upper Norwood, bringing with it 'luxury apartments' and coffee chains, are we still investing and providing for local people, or will increased prosperity make us more selfish, and lead to certain groups being squeezed out? Crystal Palace has always had a rich mix, which makes it the wonderful and vibrant place that it is.

Altar sculptures by Nigel Boonham

The black Madonna & Child was acquired by Father John to reflect his diverse congregation.
Father William La Trobe-Bateman, founding priest of St.John's

The south aisle fitted with netting to catch falling masonry.

The "earthquake"

The Chancel Gates, damaged during the war, are stored on the balcony

External damage
The Transition Town garden

Father John Pritchard

Happy Easter everyone.

Auckland Road
020 8771 6686


  1. Elizabeth @ Beyond The Garden Window14 May 2015 at 17:24

    Fantastic photos of a truly stunning church.
    What a pity about the structural problems :-(

  2. That is not Father John Pritchard, as of April 2023.