Gift of St Bernard's can bring 'new community' to Toxteth

By Patrick Hart

The Archdiocese of Liverpool has renewed its successful partnership with award-winning local charity Housing People, Building Communities (HPBC) by making a gift of the disused St Bernard's RC Church in Toxteth for conversion into new homes.

The Archdiocese handed over the keys to the former church building ahead of the Liverpool-based housing charity's 15th anniversary, which HPBC promptly celebrated with the submission of a planning application to Liverpool City Council to convert St Bernard's primarily into eleven residential units.

St Bernard's is not the first gift gratefully received by the not-for-profit charitable organisation, not least because back in 2002 the Archdiocese donated 2.2 acres of land adjacent to the church – i.e. the site of the old school – for HPBC to transform into 32 low-cost, good-quality new homes using a combination of self-build, volunteering and corporate philanthropy.

The Most Rev Malcolm McMahon OP, Archbishop of Liverpool, said the latest transaction was a natural sequel to the 2002 deal that really kick-started HPBC, a charity launched in a spirit of harmony and conciliation on the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

'Having seen what an excellent job HPBC has made of redeveloping the old school site next door, the charity was the natural choice to take on this much-loved church,' said Archbishop Malcolm. 'The building has been falling into disrepair and we can think of nothing better than to see it permanently preserved and brought back into vibrant use as part of a community-led, low cost housing development.'

In light of the fruitful relationship between the Archdiocese and Housing People, Building Communities, it was fully appropriate that the charity should have picked up its latest award – the Judges' Special Award at the prestigious NWPAs on 19 October – in the Lutyens Crypt of the Metropolitan Cathedral.

HPBC's vision for St Bernard's includes four new-build two-bedroom apartments and a two/three-bedroom detached house within the curtilage of the church site. If the new scheme is approved, the charity will deploy the same self-build concept – known as 'sweat equity' – that helped to realise its original, 2003 plans for homes off Kingsley Road and Alt Street; home partners spent 500 hours helping to build their own homes in return for a £10,000 contribution to their deposit, and the entire project was facilitated by more than 12,000 volunteers from all walks of life.

Originally designed by Pugin & Pugin – sons of Augustus Pugin, the renowned Victorian architect famous for the interior of Westminster Palace in addition to countless churches of the age – the Gothic-style St Bernard's dates back to 1901. The Pugins also designed several other local places of worship, including St Vincent de Paul in St James Street, Our Lady Immaculate in Everton, and Our Lady of La Salette in Vauxhall.

While not listed, St Bernard's is nonetheless a genuine landmark – one of the few surviving Victorian buildings on the street – and has been duly noted by Historic England. Accordingly, Wirral-based architects Ainsley Gommon, who also devised the Granby-Toxteth site, have made very few external changes and have endeavoured to incorporate as much internal detail as they can, although many of the key interior features used in the building's ecclesiastical function have already been removed, including the altars.

With council conservation officers working closely with HPBC and Ainsley Gommon, it is hoped that remaining stained glass windows will be retained; the archways that formed the arcade of the nave will be expressed as features within the individual properties, and a stone turret in the front of the building creates an interesting spiral staircase in one of the planned townhouses.

The church hall annexe, which was a later addition to the church building, will be demolished to make way for a new detached house. However, the neighbouring presbytery will remain as home to Father Peter Morgan, who was the priest at St Bernard's until it closed in 2012 after the parish merged with St Anne's, Edge Hill – where he continues to minister.

Fr Peter said of the new proposal: 'What an extraordinary and imaginative design. This church building teemed with life for over 100 years. Now there will be new life, new energy – a new community.'

The addition of a new-build detached house and four cottage-style apartments in two blocks will bring the total number of properties to 16, serving to make the church conversion economically viable. The new properties will reflect the external designs of the 32 homes on Kingsley Road and Alt Street.

Rev Dr Shannon Ledbetter, founder and chair of Housing People, Building Communities, said: 'Since completing the last of our 32 homes on Alt Street we have been inundated with potential home partners wanting to know when we will have another project in the city. Subject to receiving planning consent from the City Council, we will now be able to expand our vision for a diverse community built by and for the community.

'We are so grateful to the Archdiocese and believe this project will be a lasting legacy to the common good for the people of Liverpool.'

Should the plan get approval, HPBC hopes that development can begin in spring 2018 with building works expected to take around 14 months. For more information about the charity, visit www.hpbc.org.uk.